Charles Francois Gounod

CHARLES FRANCOIS GOUNOD was born in Paris, June 17, 1818. His fame has been made world-wide by the extraordinary success of his opera “Faust,” and yet more than almost any other operatic composer of modern times he has devoted himself to sacred music. His earlier studies were pursued in Paris at the Conservatory, under the tuition of Paër and Lesueur, and in 1839 the receipt of the Grand Prix gave him the coveted opportunity to go to Italy. In the atmosphere of Rome religious influences made a strong impression upon him. He devoted himself assiduously to the study of Palestrina, and among his first important compositions were a mass performed at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in 1841, and a second, written without accompaniment, which was given in Vienna two years later. On his return to Paris, religious ideas still- retained their sway over him, and he became organist and conductor at the Missions étrangères.

He even contemplated taking orders, and attended a theological course for two years. In 1846 he became a pupil at the Séminaire ; but at last he gave up his priestly intentions and devoted him-self wholly to musical composition, though he has been, if not a devotee, a religious enthusiast all his life, and that too in the midst of a peculiarly worldly career. It was about this period that he wrote his ” Messe Solenelle ” in G, — the first of his compositions that was ever produced in England. It was cordially received, and he was universally recognized as a promising musician. For many years succeeding this event he devoted himself mainly to secular music, and opera after opera rapidly came from his pen,—”Sappho (1851); “Nonne Sanglante” (1854) ; “Le Médecin malgré lui” (1858) ; “Faust,” his greatest work, and one of the most successful-of modern operas (1859); “Philémon et Baucis ” (186o) ; ” Reine de Saba” (1862; “Mireille” (1864) ; “La Colombe (1866); “Roméo et Juliette (1867), ‘Gin(‘ Mars ” (1877), and ” Polyeucte ” (1878) Not-withstanding the attention he gave to opera and to much other secular music, he found ample time for the composition of sacred works. In 1852, while in Paris, he became conductor of the Orphéon, and for the pupils of that institution he composed two masses. He has also written a great number of pieces for choir use which are very popular, and deservedly so, particularly the beautiful song ” Nazareth.” Among his large works are a “Stabat Mater,” with orchestral accompaniment; the oratorio “Tobie,” a “De Profun dis ” and an ” Ave Verum ; ” and the two oratorios, ” The Redemption, performed at Birmingham in 1882, and “Mors et Vita,” brought out at the same place in 1885. The composer is now engaged upon the scheme of a new oratorio, the career of Joan of Arc being its subject. It may be said in closing this sketch, which has been mainly confined to a consideration of his sacred compositions, as his operatic career has been fully treated in ” Standard Operas,” that in 1873 he wrote the incidental music to Jules Barbier’s tragedy, “Jeanne d’Arc,” which may have inspired his determination to write an oratorio on the same subject.

The Redemption

“The Redemption, a Sacred Trilogy,” is the title which Gounod gave to this work, and on its opening page he wrote : ” The work of my life.” In a note appended to his description of its contents he says:

” It was during the autumn of the year 1867 that I first thought of composing a musical work on the Redemption. I wrote the words at Rome, where I passed two months of the winter 1867-68 with my friend Hé bert, the celebrated painter, at that time director of the Academy of France. Of the music I then composed only two fragments : first, ‘ The March to Cal-vary’ in its entirety ; second, the opening of the first division of the third part, The Pentecost.’ Twelve years afterwards I finished the work, which had so long been interrupted, with a view to its being per-formed at the festival at Birmingham in 1882.”

It was brought out, as he contemplated, in August of that year, and the production was a memorable one. It was first heard in this country in the winter of 1883–84 under Mr. Theodore Thomas’s direction, and was one of the prominent works in his series of festivals in the latter year.

Gounod himself has prefaced the music with an admirably concise description of the text and its various subjects. Of its general contents he says:

“This work is a lyrical setting forth of the three great facts on which depends the existence of the Christian Church. These facts are, — first, the passion and the death of the Saviour; second, his glorious life on earth from his resurrection to his ascension third, the spread of Christianity in the world through the mission of the Apostles. These three parts of the present trilogy are preceded by a prologue on the creation, the fall of our first parents, and the promise of a redeemer.”

PROLOGUE. – THE CREATION.

PART I. – CALVARY.

PART II. — FROM THE RESURRECTION TO THE ASCENSION.

PART III.-THE PENTECOST.

The prologue comprises the Mosaic account of the creation and fall of man, involving the necessity of divine mediation, the promise of redemption, and the annunciation of the mystery of the incarnation of the Holy Virgin. After a brief instrumental introduction, descriptive of chaos, the tenor Narra-tor announces the completion of creation in recitative, followed by a similar declamation from the bass Narrator announcing the fall of man, the tenor Narrator answering with the announcement of the Redeemer’s advent (” But of the Spotless Lamb “), in which we have for the first time a genuine Wagnerian leit motif, which runs through the music of the oratorio whenever allusion is made to the divine atonement. This typical melody is heard nine times,— three times in the prologue, twice in the scene of the crucifixion, once in our Saviour’s promise to the thieves on the cross, once in his appearance to the holy women, and twice in the ascension. It is first given out as a violin solo, and at the close of the tenor recitative is repeated by all the strings, leading to the mystic chorale, ” The Earth is my Possession,” to be sung by a celestial choir of twenty-eight voices. At its close the typical melody is introduced in responsive form between flute and clarinet. To the first, the angelic message of the annunciation, Gounod has affixed the title, “Ave, gratia plena;” and to the second, the reply of Mary, ” Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.”

The first part includes the march to Calvary, which is divided into six separate numbers, yet so connected as to make a single musical series, — the crucifixion, Mary at the foot of the cross, the dying thieves, the death of Jesus, and the confession of his divinity by the centurion. It opens with the story of the condemnation of the Man of Sorrows by Pilate, told by the bass Narrator, the words of Jesus himself, however, being used invariably in the first person, and sung by the baritone voice, as when he says, ” If my Deeds have been evil,” immediately . following the bass recitative. After another monologue by the Narrator, ensues the march to the cross, – an instrumental number which is brilliant in its color effects and somewhat barbaric in tone. Without any break, the sopranos enter with the words, “Forth the Royal Banners go,” set to a melody from the Roman Catholic liturgy ; after which the march is resumed. The bass Narrator tells the story of the women who followed lamenting, interrupted by a semi-chorus of sopranos singing the lament, and by the words of Jesus, “Ye Daughters of Israel, weep not for me.” Again the. march is heard, and the sopranos resume (” Forth the Royal Banners go “). The tenor Narrator recites the preparation for the crucifixion, accompanied by very descriptive music, and followed by a stormy chorus of the People (“Ha! thou that didst declare “), and the mocking cries of the priests (” Can he now save himself ? “), sung by a male chorus. In a pathetic monologue Jesus appeals for their pardon, which leads to an elaborate concerted number for. chorus or quartet, called ” The Reproaches.” A conversation ensues between Jesus and Mary, followed by the quartet, ” Beside the Cross remaining,” in canon form, preluding the chorale, ” While my Watch I am keeping,” at first sung by Mary, and then taken up by the full chorus, accompanied by organ, trombones, and trumpets. The next scene is that between Jesus and the two Thieves, which also leads to a chorale ( Lord Jesus, thou to all bringest Light and Salvation “). This number contains the last touch of brightness in the first part. Immediately the bass Narrator announces the approach of the awful tragedy. The gathering darkness is pictured by a vivid passage for strings and clarinet, succeeded by the agonizing cries of the Saviour. The bass Narrator declares the consummation of the tragedy, and then with the tenor Narrator describes the throes of Nature (” And then the Air was filled with a Murmur unwonted “), the rending of the veil of the Temple, the breaking of the rocks,- the earth-quake, and the visions of the saintly apparitions. The last number is the conviction of the centurion, followed by a short chorale (” For us the Christ is made a Victim availing “).

The second part includes the announcement of the doctrine of the resurrection by the mystic chorus, the appearance of the Angel to the Holy Women at the sepulchre, that of Jesus to them while on the way to Galilee, the consternation of the Sanhedrim when it is learned that the tomb is empty, the meeting of the Holy Women and the Apostles, the appearance of Jesus to the latter, and his final ascension. It opens with a chorus for the mystic choir (” Saviour of Alen “), followed by a short pastorale with muted strings and leading to a trio for the three Women (” How shall we by our-selves have Strength to roll away the Stone? “). Their apprehensions are removed by the tenor Narrator and the message of the Angel interwoven with the harp and conveyed in the beautiful aria, ” Why seek ye the Living among the Dead?” Jesus at last reveals himself to the Women with the words, ” All hail ? Blessed are ye Women,” accompanied by the typical melody, of which mention has already been made. The three Women disappear on the way to convey his message to the Disciples, and the scene changes to the Sanhedrim, where, in a tumultuous and agitated chorus for male voices (” Christ is risen again “), the story of the empty tomb is told by the Watchers. The bass Narrator relates the amazement of the priests and elders, and their plot to bribe the guard, leading to the chorus for male voices (” Say ye that in the Night his Disciples have come and stolen him away “), at the close of which ensues a full, massive chorus (” Now, behold ye the Guard, this, your Sleep-vanquished Guard “), closing with the denunciation in unison (” For Ages on your Heads shall Contempt be outpoured “). The tenor and bass Narrators in duet tell of the sorrow of the Disciples, which prepares the way for a lovely trio for first and second soprano and alto (” The Lord he has risen again “). The next number is one of the most effective in the whole work,- a soprano obligato solo, accompanied by the full strength of chorus and orchestra, to the words :

“From thy love as a Father, O Lord, teach us to gather That life will conquer death. They who seek things eternal Shall rise to light supernal On wings of lovely faith.”

In the close the effect is sublime, the climax reaching to C in alt with the full power of the accompanying forces. Then follows a dialogue between the Saviour and his Apostles, in which he gives them their mission to the world. The finale then begins with a massive chorus (” Unfold, ye Portals everlasting”). The celestial chorus above, accompanied by harps and trumpets, inquire, “But who is he, the King of Glory?” The answer comes in a stately unison by the terrestrial chorus, “He who Death overcame.” Again the question is asked, and again it is answered; whereupon the two choirs are massed in the jubilant chorus, “Unfold! for lo the King comes nigh ! ” the full orchestra and organ sounding the Redemption melody, and the whole closing with a fanfare of trumpets.

The third part includes the prophecy of the millennium, the descent of the Holy Ghost to the Apostles, the Pentecostal manifestations, and the Hymn of the Apostles. The latter is so important that the composer’s own analysis is appended:

” This division of the third part of the work, the last and one of the most highly developed of the trilogy, comprises seven numbers, and gives a summary of the Christian faith.

1. The Apostles first proclaim the three great doctrines of the Incarnation of the Word, his eternal generation, and his continual presence with his Church. This first number is written in a style which is intended to recall the form and rhythm of the chants called `Proses’ in the Catholic liturgy.

2. QUARTET AND CHORUS. ‘By faith salvation comes, and by peace consolation.’

3. CHORUS. His power manifested by miracles. ”

4. QUARTET. ‘ O come to me, all ye that are sad and that weep.’

5. SEMI-CHORUS. The Beatitudes.

6. Repetition of the theme of No. i, with the whole choir, the orchestra, and the great organ.

7. FINAL CODA. Glorification of the Most Holy Trinity throughout all ages.”

This part of the oratorio, after a short instrumental prelude, opens with a brief chorus (” Lovely appear over the Mountains “), followed by a soprano solo, the only distinct number of that kind in the work, set to the words, ” Over the barren Wastes shall Flowers have possession,” at its close the chorus resuming in unison, ” Lovely appear over the Mountains.” The next number is “The Apostles in Prayer,” an instrumental sketch, followed by the Narrators relating the descent of the Holy Spirit. Without break, the Apostles’ Hymn begins, tenors and basses in unison’(” The Word is Flesh become”) leading into the quartet of solo voices (” By Faith Salvation comes, and by Peace, Consolation “). The chorus responds antiphonally, and again the solo voices are heard in a lovely quartet (” He has said to all the Unhappy “), followed by a small choir of thirty voices (” Blessed are the poor in Spirit “), at the end of which all the voices are massed on the Apostles’ Hymn, which closes in fugal form on the words, ” He like the Holy Ghost is one with the Father, an everlasting Trinity,” the whole ending in massive chords.

Mors et Dita

The oratorio ” Mors et Vita” (” Death and Life “) is the continuation of ” The Redemption,” and, like that work also, is a trilogy. It was first performed at the Birmingham Festival, Aug. 26, 1885, under the direction of Herr Hans Richter, the principal parts being sung by Mesdames Albani and Patey and Messrs. Santley and Lloyd. Its companion oratorio, “The Redemption,” was dedicated to Queen Victoria, and itself to His Holiness Pope Leo XIII In his preface to the work, Gounod says:-

” It will perhaps be asked why, in the title, I have placed death before life, although in the order of temporal things life precedes death. Death is only the end of that existence which dies each day; it is only the end of a continual ‘ dying.’ But it is the first moment, and, as it were, the birth of that which dies no more. I cannot here enter into a detailed analysis of the different musical forms which express the meaning and idea of this work. I do not wish to expose my-self to the reproach either of pretension or subtlety. I shall therefore confine myself to pointing out the essential features of the ideas I have wished to ex-press, — that is to say, the tears which death causes us to shed here below ; the hope of a better life; the solemn dread of unerring justice ; the tender and filial trust in eternal love.”

The composer further calls attention in his preface to the use of representative themes, an illustration of which was also noted in “The Redemption.” The first one, consisting of four notes, presenting a sequence of three major seconds, is intended to express “the terror inspired by the sense of the in-flexibility of justice and, in consequence, by that of the anguish of punishment. Its sternness gives expression both to the sentences of divine justice and the sufferings of the condemned, and is found in combination throughout the whole work, with melodic forms which express sentiments altogether different, as in the ` Sanctus ‘ and the ` Pie Jesu ‘ in the Requiem,’ which forms the first part.” It is first heard in the opening chorus, and for the last time in the quartet of the third part. The second melodic form, expressive of sorrow and tears, by the change of a single note and the use of the major key is made to express consolation and joy.

“The third,” says Gounod, “by means of threefold superposition, results in the interval of an augmented fifth, and announces the awakening of the dead at the terrifying call of the angelic trumpets, of which Saint Paul speaks in one of his epistles to the Corinthians.”

The oratorio is divided into a prologue and three parts, the Latin text being used throughout, The first part is entitled ” Mors,” and opens with the prologue, which is brief, followed by the ” Requiem, interspersed with texts of a reflective character commenting upon the sentiment. The second part is entitled ” Judicium” (” Judgment “), and includes (r) The Sleep of the Dead; (2) The Trumpets at the Last Judgment ; (3) The Resurrection of the Dead ; (4) The Judge ; (5) The Judgment of the Elect; (6) The Judgment of the Rejected. The third part is entitled “Vita,” and includes the vision of Saint John, the text being taken from the Apocalypse ; the work closing with an ” Hosanna in Excelsis,” exulting in the glorious vision of the heavenly Jerusalem.

The prologue, which is sustained by the chorus and baritone solo, declares the terrors of death and the judgment. The chorus intones the words, ” It is a Fearful Thing to fall into the Hands of the Living God,” and in this phrase is heard the chief motive, heavily accented by the percussion instruments. – the motive which typifies death both of the body and of the unredeemed soul. Immediately after follows the baritone voice, that of Jesus, in the familiar words, ” I am the Resurrection and the Life.” The chorus repeats the declaration, and the Requiem Mass then begins, divided into various sections, of which the “Dies Irae ” is the most important ; this in turn subdivided in the conventional form. After an adagio prelude and the intonation of the ” Requiem aeternam,” an interpolated text occurs (” From the Morning Watch till the Evening “), set as a double chorus without accompaniment, in the genuine Church style of the old masters. It leads directly to the Dies in which the death motive already referred to frequently occurs. It is laid out in duets, quartets, and arias, with and without chorus, very much in the same tempo and of the same character of melody. The verse, ” Ah ! what shall we then be pleading?” for quartet and chorus, is remarkable for its at-tractive melody. It is followed by a soprano solo and chorus (” Happy are we, with such a Saviour of a reflective character, which gives out still an-other very tuneful melody. The hymn is then resumed with the verse, “Faint and worn,thou yet hast sought us,” for duet and chorus, which is of the same general character. The next verse, “Lord, for Anguish hear us moaning,” for quartet and chorus, is very effective and elaborate in its construction, particularly as compared with that immediately following (” With the Faithful deign to place us”), a tenor solo of a quaint and pastoral characacter. The next number for chorus (” While the wicked are confounded “) affords still another striking contrast, being in the grandiose style and very dramatic, closing with phrases for the solo voices expressive of submission and contrition. Up to this point the ” Dies Irae ” has been monotonous in its sameness of general style ; but the next verse (” Day of Weeping, Day of Mourning “) is a beautiful and thoroughly original number of very striking effect. It leads directly to the offertory (” O Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory “), which is composed of a chorus for eight parts, a soprano solo (” But, Lord, do thou bring them evermore “), a chorus (” Which once to Abraham “), and a second chorus (” Sacrifice of Prayer and Praise “). The soprano solo is a delightful melody, sung to a delicate accompaniment of the strings, with occasional chords on the harp, and based upon the beautiful second typical motive, which the composer styles ” The Motive of Happiness.” The chorus, ” Which once to Abraham,” is set in fugue form, which is the conventional style among composers with this number ; but, as in ” The Redemption,” whenever Gounod employs the fugue form, he drops it as soon as the four voices have fairly launched themselves.

The next number is the ” Sanctus,” — a beautiful tenor ana with chorus, full of that sweetness which is so characteristic of Gounod. It is followed by the quartet, “Mighty Saviour, Jesus blest,” which is deeply religious in character; the lovely soprano solo and chorus, “Agnus Dei ; and the chorus, ” Lord, forever let Light Eternal.” The first part is rounded off with an epilogue, an interlude for full orchestra and organ, based upon the first and second typical melodies, forming a consistent and stately finale to this part of the work.

The second part is peculiar for the prominence which the composer assigns to the orchestra. It opens with a well-sustained, gentle adagio movement, entitled ” The Sleep of the Dead,” which at times is somewhat harshly interrupted by the third typical melody, announcing the awakening of the dead at the terrifying call of the angelic trumpets. This is specially noticeable in that part of the prelude called “The Trumpet of the Last Judgment,” in which the trombones, trumpets, and tubas are employed with extraordinary effect. Still a third phrase of the prelude occurs, — ” The Resurrection of the Dead,” — which is smooth and flowing in its style, and peculiarly rich in harmony. A brief recitative by baritone (“But when the Son of Man “) intervenes, immediately followed by another instrumental number, entitled ” Judex ” (” The judge “), – one of the most effective pieces of orchestration in the oratorio, based upon the motive which indicates the tempering of justice with mercy, given out by the strings in unison. It preludes a short chorus (” Sitting upon the Throne “), the previous melody still continuing in the orchestra. The ” Judgment of the Elect” follows, pronounced by the baritone voice in -recitative, and leading directly to the soprano solo, ” The Righteous shall enter into Glory eternal,” the most exquisite solo number in the work, — fol-lowed by an effective chorale (” In Remembrance everlasting “). Then follows ” The Judgment of the Rejected,” consisting of baritone solos and chorus, closing the second part.

The third part celebrates the delights of the celestial city as pictured in the apocalyptic vision of Saint John, and is in marked contrast to the gloom and sombreness of the Requiem music, as well as the terrors of the Judgment. It is bright, jubilant, and exultant throughout. The title of the prelude is ” New Heaven, New Earth.” The baritone intones the recitative (” And I saw the New Heaven “), which is followed by another delightful sketch for the orchestra (” Celestial Jerusalem “), — a most vivid and graphic picture of the subject it describes. The remaining prominent numbers are the ” Sanctus chorus, the celestial chorus (” I am Alpha and Omega “), and the final chorus (” Hosanna in Excelsis “), which closes this remarkable work.

The weakest part of the oratorio is the ” Requiern,” which suffers from the monotony of its divisions, especially when compared with the treatment of requiems by the great composers who have made them a special study. As compared with the ” Redemption,” however, it is more interesting, because it is more melodious and less cumbered with recitative. It is also peculiarly noticeable for the free manner in which the composer uses the orchestra, and the skill with which the typical melodies are employed, as compared with which the solitary ” Redemption ” motive seems weak and thin. Both works are full of genuine religious sentiment, and taken together cover almost the entire scope of human -aspiration so far as it relates to the other world. No composer has conceived a broader scheme for oratorio. Though Gounod does not always reach the sublime and majestic heights of the old masters in sacred music, yet the feeling manifested in these works is never anything but religious ; the hearer is always surrounded by an atmosphere of devotion.