Conference pronounced by Jean-Pierre Gounod in October I983,
in Geneva in front of friends of the "Meetings of Monday" of "international Friendships".



Around Gounod

Awakening of the
musical vocation

The religious


and the heart

and sincerity

and friendship

and Lalo



Gounod and his
taste for effort

The melody

History of
Ave Maria

and Bach

Gounod, bard
of love


land silence

and genius


Why Gounod is
still appreciated

The influence
of critics




To write about Charles Gounod when so many eminent persons have already spoken about him, written on his life and his work, is not simple, even less when it's up to his great-grandson to do it. However, the lasting success of Gounod's work, in spite of the criticisms which he endured, justifies that one asks question: Why this success? Why the favour of the public, even today?

In my childhood, I heard my father evoking the day that Gounod " would fall in the public domain". This end which I considered tragic, was for me synonym of accident, desolation, decay, not perceiving that it was simply about copyrights, only the limit of financial consequences inherited from the creative capacity of the ancestor!

Gounod is today " fallen " as one says, into " public domain ", this" garbage dump " where objects of art do no longer pay dues to the descendants of those that produced them. But this public domain welcomed him with open arms and still discovers the numerous and various aspects of his so rich nature, and the quality of a genius that is " so French "!

Evoking quickly Gounod one could say and say only what Vincent d' Indy himself wrote: " Gounod is the inventor of the delay of the quinte in the agreement of seventh dominant "! It would already be probably a sufficient title of glory, but it would be as if one restricted Einstein to e=mc2.

"A lot of unbiaised people, that is who are not musicians", notes Claude Debussy, "wonder why the Opera House persists in playing Faust? There are several reasons of which the best is that Gounod's art represents a moment of French sensitivity. Wether one likes it or not, that's something not to forget..."







Around Gounod

Somebody suggested the subject: around Gounod. I think that it is useful to spare a minute on some events of the last century, and to become aware of the "contemporaneousness" of four composers who marked that century: Verdi, Wagner, Gounod and Offenbach, as well as of the exceptional musical wealth of the twenty years which go from I850 to I870. Were those who lived then conscious of it?


Rigoletto 185I
Traviata 1853
The forces of fate 1862
Don Carlos 1867


Tristan 1865
The Choirmasters 1868
The Rhine Gold 1869
Walkyrie 1870


Faust 1859
Mireille 1864
Roméo and Juliette 1867


Orphée in Hell 1858
Beautiful Hélène 1864
Parisian Life 1866
The Arch-Duchess of Gerolstein 1867

Yes, we wanted to associate Offenbach to this reminder, because the maliciously nicknamed " Mozart of the boulevards ", marked his time with his eloquence, his gaiety and his carefree attitude. Does one know that "La Belle Hélène" was created the same year as "Mireille"? Paris which thought only of enjoying itself did not want Mireille, even with the happy end compulsory for Gounod! Also, "Roméo and Juliette" was created the same year as "La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein". So, in those times when carefreeness and let us say , sometimes bad taste, helped to forget big actual problems, Gounod did not please, was rejected. One could read:" Gounod is not French but Belgian; his composition does not bear the character of modern French or Italian Schools, but that of the German School in which he was brought up and developed his art. The music of this Flemish man is Germanic, and really he is more German than the Berliner Meyerbeer or the Frankfurter Offenbach "! Gounod naturalized Flemish, his music did nevertheless conquer Europe and he went himself to conduct "Faust" in Hamburg and in Hanover where he was acclaimed. But, what was happening then in Europe? Here's a short reminder:

England builds its empire under the administration of Queen Victoria, I837-I90I. On the musical front, with Purcell disappearing in I695 and Britten only born in I9I3, it's a desert. The consequence of the religious fanaticism of Cromwell that brought him to forbid music in churches, which explains the enthusiastic reception J. Haydn received in London at the end of theI8th century.

Italy works on its unity, to become reality between I859 and I870, through people like King Victor Emmanuel II, Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi. It is the" Italia fara da se" of I860. All the work of Verdi will be marked by the fight against the oppression and by the ecstasy of freedom: Sicilian Vespers, Don Carlos, Nabucco.

Prussia, in I866, beats the Austrians in Sadowa, and founds the Confederacy of Northern Germany , before the creation of the German Empire five years later including all the states.

During this time, Richard Wagner,(cf. Gounod), "realizes his theatrical dream with the dramatization of the allegory. His characters are much less real individuals than embodied symbols . So, they strike more than they rouse, so much one feels that they belong to the world of symbols more than to that of beings."

In the North, near us, Belgium, in I830, becomes independent. A representation of "La Muette de Portici " of Auber, started a mayhem that ended up in a revolt and the eviction of the Dutch.

Finally, in France, after the July monarchy ( I830-I848) and the 2nd Republic (I848-I852), it is the Second Empire until I870.







Awakening of the musical vocation.

Let us return now to Charles Gounod, and while trying to avoid repeating what many bibliographer has already written, it is advisable however to recall, in a few words, what was his awakening to music.

Gounod was five years old when his father died in I823 at the age of 65 years. His father was a painter of talent, but casual. His mother, talented for drawing as for music kept up the drawing classes of her husband and began teaching music to bring up her two sons. She however had to sell paintings, drawings, prints of the cabinet of her husband: Raphaël, Poussin, Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt, of whom a Christ's head for 15 Louis!

" If I've been able to exist, say or do something with my life, I owe it to my mother. It is she who fed me, who brought me up, who formed me, not in her image regrettably! It would have been too much; and what lacked is not her fault, but mine ".

She did not want to make a musician of him, dreading the uncertainties of an artistic career. But she'll take him at the age of six and a half to a performance of "Freischutz", at I2 years and half, to discover Rossini's "Otello" with the Malibran, finally , at I3 it will be the revelation of "Don Giovanni".

" Hardly were we in the concert hall that I felt wrapped into a sort of sacred terror, as in the approach of some impressive and redoubtable mystery; I felt all together, in a confused emotion and up to then unknown, the desire and fear of what was going to happen before my eyes. I give up describing what I felt from the first accents of this sublime and terrible prologue. All that I remember is that God spoke to me, I fell in a sort of painfully delicious prostation, and half choked by emotion: " Oh Mother!" I exclaimed, "that it is Music ". Later he will say: " Mozart is for Palestrina and for Bach what the New Will is for the Ancient in the spirit of the one and only Bible ". And finally: " When I shall arrive in the Sky, immediately after having bowed to God the Father, I shall ask to see Mozart! "

At the age of ten, Gounod could play most of Mozart's sonatas by heart. His mother, although musician, did not wish to see her son become an artist. She said that she preferred to see him soldier than to lead the life of a bohemian. And nevertheless, at the age of 13 , Charles wrote to his mother a letter of four pages in which, under reserve of the duty of obedience, he begged her to let him be a musician:

" In my eyes, a man who does not feel the charm of music, loses in regard of feelings and heart; not that for it he won't be good; Undoubtedly, one doesn't lead the other ; but a man who is touched by a beautiful melody which speaks to him in the bottom of his soul, does not win little in my eyes. Because I do not know anything more mattering or more touching than a beautiful musical creation. For me music is such sweet company, that I would be deprived of a very big happiness if I was prevented from feeling it! Oh how happy you can be to understand this divine language! It is the treasure that I would not give for many others; it is an enjoyment which, I hope, will fill all the moments of my life ".

We know the rest, the visit to the Principal of his school, the probation and the verdict: " They will say what they want, go my child, make music! ".

It is in 1831, at the age of twelve that Gounod heard Rossini's "Otello". He will write in his memories that he went out from there " completely at odds with the prose of real life, and absolutely settled into a dream of an ideal which had become my atmosphere and my obsession ".

" I don't know how the taste of the music came to me, I always had it... My mother who fed me had certainly gulled me as much music as milk. Never did she breast-feed me without singing, and I can say that I took my first lessons without suspecting it, and without having to pay them this attention so painful in the first ages and so difficult to obtain from children ".










The Religious temptation.

Gounod had not only the taste of the music. This dream of ideal almost took him to choose a religious path. It was a close call, and it is probably to his mother that we owe his final orientation. When he turned twenty, having obtained the Grand Prix de Rome, he stayed at the Villa Medicis, where his mother wrote to him regularly, worried to see the birth of mystic outbursts in a son she knew well:

" Beware and declare yourself openly an artist with religious feelings, but not a religious man of multiple practices who wants to be an artist! Should that be the case an absolute power would bear on you that would stop your career, and, by preparing you for regrets, would maybe totally destroy the thinking I am happy to see your heart filled with ".

Obeying his true nature, which united divine love with the cult of earthly beauty and human tenderness, he will be all his life a Christian artist, and speaking about Mozart, he will tell not to be able to listen to his music without feeling "my spirit on it's knees".

His work of religious inspiration will be considerable, and Saint-Saëns judged this as best to survive the test of time! It will never be said enough what place faith, catholic religion, occupied in Gounod's life. It is he who will say:" God speaks in C major"!

One blamed his religious music for more often having the accents of profane love than those of religious worship. It's just that he sings both with the same sincerity, that of a simple human being, in front of the mysteries of love.

The beauties of nature did not leave him indifferent and he will find strong formulae to express these emotions. During a stay in Provence, he will write: " The hawthorn is now in such an exuberance of bloom that the countryside looks like it's preparing for its first communion. One could think that all the angels in the Sky and the young earthly souls, have turned into bushes decorated with flowers to wish God to the passers - by ".

In Rome, the profound beauty of the Sixtine Chapel, the modulations of palestrinian music, will impress deeply: " This music, austere, ascetic, horizontal and quiet as the line of the ocean, monotonous by means of serenity, anti-sensual and nevertheless of an intensity of pondering which sometimes goes to ecstasy. It could be said that what is heard is the echo of what is seen."

Gounod had also a talent for painting, and his friend Ingres would have wanted to see him return to the Villa Medicis with a Prix de Rome in that category, he will satisfy himself by dropping his pencils for the violin and play with Gounod sonatas of Haydn and Mozart!.













To speak about Gounod without risking to repeat what's already known, is to try to evoke some more intimate aspects of his person, his life. His qualities of heart, sincerity,his sense of friendship, his taste for effort, his love of truth and beauty, and his suffering in front of intellectual dishonesty.















Gounod and the heart

He was sometimes mocked for his qualities of heart. Certainly he was a great enthusiast, and sometimes excessively, but how not to forgive him when he proclaims:
" art is life and is love, to be in love it is everything ".

It was said of Gounod that he was not part of any School, if not of the one that Bossuets speaks about, the internal school which holds in the heart of the heart. He was not of those that interiorize their feelings, and he will say of art that it is a telephone who goes from the heart to the heart, and also: " music arises from the feeling. I do not admit a musician of calculation because one does not calculate feeling, one is subject to it ".

His enthusiasm engendered sometimes acts so spontaneous as to be laughable! A friend will write to his wife: " Do not wonder if he kisses you. He kisses like the bishop of Tulle and everybody gets one. On the platform, earlier today, he kissed the father, the mother, the children, the schoolteacher, friends, he was about to get to the stationmaster when the train left!... "

What memories did he leave of his person right after his death? Somebody will write: " Of all his person, his words, his glances, his gestures, radiates amiability, as a tenderness always looking to be employed "

Paul Dukas, finally, will say:
" The faculties of admiration were overdeveloped with Gounod, and it was always a surprise for those who approached him, to notice how strong they remained even in his late years. It is a rarity with professionals and worth noting. We heard Gounod talk about Bach and Mozart with the tones of a real lyric. Years brought snow on his head, but did not freeze his heart, and it is with the gestures of a youngster that Gounod, at the top of his glory, would speak on " The enchanted Flute " or on " Passion according to Saint Mathieu ".








Gounod and sincerity.

Sincerity brought him to refuse self-indulgence. Speaking about " La Nonne Sanglante" which was a failure, he will say: " Of all my partitions, it is the least good. It is insincere, that's why it could not touch the" naïve ".

About the quartets, Saint-Saëns says: " I wrote quartets, tells me Gounod, they are here, and he showed me a drawer within reach of his hand. I would indeed like to see them, says I. And Gounod answered : I'll tell you. They're bad and I shall not show them to you!."











Gounod and friendship

His sense of friendship will make him agree to help a young novice poet, without hurting his pride. And so he asked Delpit for a poem and put it in music and gave it to him. It was worth 500 Francs. It became the melody "Je ne puis espérer " written in I870.














Gounod and Lalo

His friendship for Edouard Lalo, fallen ill, will bring him to finish the ballet "Namouna" in order to deliver it on time.














Gounod and Verdi

Finally, in April I893, shortly before his death, he will answer a journalist asking him what he thought of the project of Verdi to write a " Roméo and Juliette " : " I don't know how to really answer your questions regarding the composition of a "Roméo and Juliette" by Verdi, except that I wish with all my heart that the current boss of the Italian School writes another success ".















Gounod and Wagner

It is advisable also to underline that he gave evidence of true sincerity in his relationship with Richard Wagner. It is false to claim that Gounod did not love Wagner. He did not love the man, especially for his statements in I870, but he admired his work:

" I met Wagner when he came to France, in I860. His first visit was for me. I have just ended my Tannhauser, he says to me, do you believe that I can show it to the Paris Opera? No, don't do that, Mr. Wagner. I know too much the inclinations of the french audience when it comes to music. Here is my advice: Have your works played in concert. I spoke with the sincerity of my soul. Wagner followed my advice and his works enjoyed a deserved success. The Emperor, on the advices of the princess of Metternich, decided to give the order to represent all the same "Tannhauser" at the Opera. These were three epic evenings. I attended the three representations, and what I saw saddened me more than I care to say. Music may displease, it's true. But to bring down a work, with such prejudice, to the point it cannot be played, is obnoxious and narrow-minded ".

In front of a real hail of whistles, he would say: " Forgive me, Gentlemen, there's no confusion. You call it a fall; I call it a revolt; it's very different. Allow me to call it up and meet you in ten years, in front of the same work and the same man; you will raise them your hat. A cause should not be judged in one evening. Goodbye, see you in ten years! ".

What is there to think, on the other hand, of Wagner's opinion on Gounod's Faust: " Oh! Let us speak about it; I saw this theatrical parody of our German Faust. Faust and his accomplice Mephisto absolutely made me think two pranky Latin Quarter students tracking down a girl. As for the music, it's superficial sentimentality, on the surface of the skin, like kidgloves, without forgetting the rice powder. I hope for Gounod whose talent is real, but whose temperament lacks scale to handle tragic subjects, that he will in the future make a better choice of librettists! ".

Camille Saint-Saëns had understood well when he wrote:
" Goethe's Marguerite is not an ideal, a statue of the middle-ages come down from her niche; her name is Gretchen, that is Margot. Honest but vulgar, she answers Faust abruptly, more shocked than flattered by his tribute which surprises her. Presented in that manner, the French audience would have not understood it, and when Germany adopted Gounod's Faust, it was retitled " Marguerite " to mark the difference with the Gretchen so well known by the German public".










Gounod and his taste for effort.

Finally, his liking for effort, the necessity of the effort, quickly appeared to him as being inextricable of inspiration. He would say: " I do not make anything without application". In his childhood, in school, having badly made an exercise under the excuse that it annoyed him, his teacher told him: " If you'd done it well, it would not have annoyed you ". That day, adds Gounod, he killed carelessness in me.

Let us return some moments on these notions of effort and inspiration, and let's see what Gounod has to say:

" One often confuses originality with the strangeness or the oddity, they are nevertheless absolutely dissimilar things. Oddity is a sick abnormal state; it is a reserved shape of insanity and is in the category of pathological cases. It is, as expressed very well by the synonym: eccentricity, an abnormality by the tangent. Originality, quite the reverse, is the different spokes connecting the individual with the common centre of spirits. Also, inspiration is the highlight of the normal state, the summit of reason, the satisfaction which results from the perfect balance, the bliss of the intelligence. Yes, inspiration is doubtless the bliss of the intelligence. But never imagine it similar to a docile handmaid who runs up at first sign to her employer. When I compose, there are sentences which I sweat note to note; these are sometimes the best. Such as: " Ne permettez vous pas... " of Faust, and the sequence: " Non Monsieur "a complete reflection of Marguerite. The duet of the lark ( Roméo) cost me incredible pains of birth. I heard it as through a main wall for several days; then through a thinner and thinner partition-wall; finally it all came out, in the ruins of Fréjus, and all the rest came easily, I wrote abundantly on my exercise book, as if under dictation, ; there are things like that, which just come to me without any hardship."

Speaking about the andante of his concerto, Ravel said: " The sentence which flows! I wrote it bar after bar, helping myself with the andante of Mozart's clarinet quintette and I almost died of it... "

Gounod did not agree that art should be encouraged. " It would on the contrary be necessary to discourage art. Then only true artists who would win ".

To end it with this brief evocation of the personality of Gounod, a sentence of him summarizes well his sense of ethic:

" There are three big priesthoods, that of Good, that of Truth, and that of Beauty. The saints, the scholars, and the artists are as three distinct forms of this substantial unity called Ideal ".












The melody

When one pronounces Gounod's name, one thinks at once of Faust, to such a point that a French tourist in Germany shown Goethe's statue , the author of Faust, said : "Strange! we pronounce it Gounod ". But it is necessary as well to say that to his name is also associated the birth of melody in France. This major fact, is important and deserves some explanations.

Since the age of seventeen Gounod composed every year five or six melodies and motets for one voice. It was for him an usual shape of thought. The melody, the song, which he put in the foreground in his musical creation sprang at him quite naturally with a surprising fertility. In January I840, in Rome, the separation with his mother provoked a big sadness, and on Lamartine's poems he composed " The Evening " and " The Valley " anticipating already Fauré and Duparc.

As we know, Gounod sang himself. I don't know any more which contemporary said: "When you hear Gounod singing, you'll always remember the emotion you felt, the composer has an admirable voice, of a charming tone and sings artistically his music and sometimes that of others ".

Saint-Saëns on his part notes: " Those that had the divine pleasure to hear him, were all of the same opinion: the music lost half of its charm when it passed in other hands. Why? Because the thousand nuances of feeling which he knew how to put in an execution, in apparence very simple, were a part of the idea, and because idea without them seemed only distant and as half erased ".

For Gounod, his pupil Henri Busser, the infallible secret of the music comes only of the melody: " Try to write eight measures which one may play without any accompaniment! ". He had in himself the gift of melody. It is the essential feature of this great musical figure. The melody springs from the imagination. For a musician, this gift corresponds exactly to that of poetry for writer in verse. And nevertheless, he had to fight hard to overcome resistances!. It is in I853, for a first melody: " My dress ", on Béranger's poetry, that he was paid a hundred francs. The publisher told him: " It is charming, but not easy to sing well ; it is a piece especially made for the delicate, won't be easy to sell! ". On his part, the sadly famous critic Scudo wrote: " Mr Gounod's music is too learned and complicated. It's a symphonist's music where skill sparks all the time, but inspiration is lacking. Mr Gounod has no melodic gift. The music does not move because it does not sing ".

But Reynaldo Hahn will know how to return justice to Gounod: "The" lied " strictly speaking did not exist, it's a melody built on a poem and intertwined in it's sense, while restoring the prosodic rhythm . What raged then, was a sort of poor romance. Finally Charles Gounod came. He became, in a sense, Schubert or the french Schumann. He knew in his melodies how to ally grace and feeling, without abandoning his style without which there's no art. To render well his melodies, sing simply, and articulate well by indicating nuances without exaggerating ".

On his part Maurice Ravel does not hesitate to say: " Gounod found the secret of a harmonious sensualism, lost since the French harpsichordists of I7th and I8th centuries. In fact, the musical flourish which occurred in France, towards I880, has no more real precursor than Gounod ".

Finally, it is Dutilleux who will make this confession: " Gounod is not all in his Faust; certain melodies or "mors et vita", have for me more price still ".

The importance which Gounod gives to the melody, even in his operatic works, expresses directly his ideas on the lyricart: " In Tristan and Yseult, Tétralogie, Parsifal, everything rests on the orchestra exposing subjects, developing them, molding them in a sense according to the various situations of the musical drama. The voices of the singers juxtapose on this orchestral thread, at the same moment generous and clear. As for myself, I put in the foreground the song, the melody, thus the vocal part. The orchestra supports it, enriches it, colors it, without ever dominating it. If I have sometimes, in Faust, Roméo, and Mireille, used the reminder of melodic sentences, never haveI introduced them into the orchestral comment which I put in the background ".

For Gounod, melodic creation did not require the support of verse, of poetry. Here is what he says: " verse is a sort of dada which brings the musicians to pitiful carelessness. A beautiful prose is better that inferior verse, and it's certainly not in poetry written for musicians that you will find a superiority over prose. The advantages, which musical composition can take from the use of prose, are immense and unlimited. "

Debussy, by writing Pélléas's partition on Maeterlinck's prose so poetic proved that songs could do well without verse.

Gounod's work offers examples of prose put in music: "l'Ave Marie de l'Enfant", composed in the last years of his life, and notably, the "Georges Dandin" on Molière's prose. On this last example, Paul Dukas will write: " You see that the idea to write music on prose, that one tries today to present us as a major boldness, has already received an illustrious application ".











History of Ave Maria

One can not leave the domain of the melody without saying a word of one of Charles Gounod's most famous melodies, " Ave Maria ".

Let us tell you " the history " of the Ave Maria, the origin of which, one could say the adversities, are little known.

Gounod, betrothed to Miss Anna Zimmermann, daughter of the general inspector of studies at the Imperial Conservatoire of Paris, often went to have dinner at a friend's place with his fiancée and her parents. Regularly he would wait in the living-room, and improvise on the piano. One day, his future father-in-law, renowned pianist who was Bizet's teacher, heard Charles Gounod improvising on J-S Bach's first prelude in C major, a melody which he considered charming. Gounod having played it a second time, Zimmermann hurried to note it, then some days later, had Gounod listen to it played with a violin, a quinte above, and supported with a small choir. And so was born " Consideration on Bach's prelude " which later, one will see how, became the famous Ave Maria, which Gounod never wrote, and did so much for his popularity! Let us add that Zimmermann, who had signed up with a publisher, handed back to Gounod a sum two hundred francs for the purchase of the work...

I've had the opportunity to hear the "Consideration" in its original composition, played on a piano-forte of I868, by the pianist Roger Aubert. It was an enlightment on the true value of this pure melodic improvisation.

But the story is not finished! We are in I852, Gounod, seduced by the soft melancholy of a Lamartine poem, and maybe carried to believe the sense of it went to a certain Rosalie, for whom he felt a deep and discreet admiration, had the idea to adapt to the famous melody the following verses of Lamartine:

" The book of the life is the supreme book. Which one cannot either close, or open to his choice. Loved pages are read only once. The book of the life is the supreme book. One would like to leave open the pagesone loves. But the fateful pages turn by themselves. And the page where you die is already under your fingers. "

The first adaptation, where music expressed so well the words, was brought to Rosalie to whom they were dedicated.

However Rosalie's mother-in-law, Aurélie, whose devotion was frightened by Gounod's increasing tenderness, felt that a feeling so contagious could affect her daughter, whose divine voice Gounod never grew tired of hearing.

Heavily embarrassed, and not daring to hint at her fears either with Gounod, or with her daughter-in-law, Aurélie had the ingenious idea of using Gounod religiosity to ask him to substitute to these profane words, a less compromising text. She chose the Ave Maria and wrote below the poet verse, the Latin words. I saw this document, it was not easy. Except for the first words, which she couldn't get into the musical subject, the rest was rather satisfactory. She showed it to Gounod who picked up the hint, being clever enough to understand the secret intentions that pushed Aurélie for this change. He retouched the new version and that's how Lamartine's delicious stanzas, so harmoniously adapted to Bach's prelude, gave way to the prayer of Ave Maria, doubtlessely amazed to be coupled up to this sentimental melody!

Totally ungrateful, Gounod finally dedicated this melody, in it's final shape, neither to Rosalie nor to Aurélie, but to Mrs. Miolan-Carvalho, the famous opera singer!

Forget the anecdote, because after all, it is indeed to him that we owe the melody, and this story illustrates well how much Gounod could write profane and sacred love.

Saint-Saëns said: " The famous Bach prelude, these few bars to which I don't believe the author lent so much importance when he wrote them, made more for his glory than all that he'd written until then. " Saint-Saëns was probably right , the genesis of the work confirms it, but nevertheless, as one would say today, Ave Maria was a hit! It was modish for women to faint during the second crescendo! Ave Maria toured the world obscuring forever the pure, simple and beautiful consideration of the beginning. Mashed, adapted, transposed, it's this orchestrated version given by Pasdeloup, on April 10 I853, of which Saint-Saëns writes: " It was a Bach prelude, arranged by Gounod, with violin, then with choirs, then with harmonium; one multiplied the number of violins, changing ecstasy into hysteria, then instrumental sentences became vocal and out came an even more convulsionary Ave Maria still, then they went several steps further, multiplying the performers, adding an orchestra with a bass drum and cymbals. This divine frog swelled but did not die, and the audiences went delirious in front of this monster . However," adds Saint-Saëns" it had the advantage to break forever the ice between the author and the largest public, up to then suspicious.






Gounod and Bach

To finish, let us say that it would'nt be right to accuse Gounod of having, in a sense "diverted J-S Bach's prelude. Gounod was very respectful of Bach. He used to call him:"Our holy father in Bach!". He had a striking formula to speak about it:

" If the works of great masters like Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart were suddenly annihilated by an unforeseen cataclysm, as paintings could be by a fire, it would be easy to reconstitute Bach's music. In the sky of arts, Bach is a mist which has not yet condensed! ".










Gounod, bard of love

An opera libretto is mostly the history of a meeting between two beings, meeting full of promises which ends generally sadly: Marguerite and Faust, Juliette and Roméo, Mireille and Vincent. Between the first meeting and the tragic end there is place for alternately chaste, daring, desperate duets of love. In Gounod's times it was necessary to be very bold, writes Alfred Bruneau, to dare then to speak sincerely about love to " people of wit who formed the majority of his audiences, and even artists. Gounod had this boldness and met in the early years of his career only with disdain and incomprehension.

The accents that he gave to Faust, to Marguerite, to Juliette, to Roméo, remain definitive for those who look above all in music, more for the echo of their own feelings, than for the exact expression of a definite person's nature, will write Paul Dukas.

Love, Gounod left a lot in his three major works: Faust, Roméo and Juliette and Mireille, magnificent analyses of musical psychology. He knew only love but he knew everything about it: Nuances, half-tones, lights and shadows, he perceived every quivering, every renouncement, every modesty, and sensual confusion as much as daring. He listened and tells us, under the dark light of stars, the incredible music of sighs and kisses. And it is Jules Massenet who will say: " His lovers always give the impression they sing only for themselves, giving the public listening to them, the feeling they are being indiscreet whilst overhearing a lyric effusion which is none of their business."










Gounod's marriage

In life there are fortunately meetings which end well , and Madame Zimmermann, if we believe certain accounts, knew how to make it happen.

What can you do when you have four girls to marry, intelligent and of good education, not necessarily beautiful, and furthermore without dowry?

Here is how , would say Madame Zimmermann who did'nt lack wit nor pertinence, and who, furthermore, was very beautiful:
For the first one make amiabilities,
For the second, advances,
For the third, cowardices,
For the fourth, one commits a crime!

Gounod married the third. Was there cowardice? It's said that she was pushed into his arms, when he came to visit, and announced that, after all, he felt neither ready nor deserving enough to marry any of the four!

" I'm giving her to you " said the mother when she opened the door, without leaving him time to speak. And so it was done! This scene was never used by Gounod in any of his works! We didn't get " The bridegroom in spite of himself! ".

And so, Gounod got married in I852, at the age of thirty four, had two children, met with celebrity in his lifetime, affluent enough to settle down at the same time in a Paris town-house, drawn-up by his architect brother-in-law, there was his organ hall, and his house in Saint-Cloud, near Paris.








Ceation and silence

Then a question often brought up: How is a work born, and in which conditions is it composed? I was struck to notice that most of Gounod's major works were written away from his usual surroundings. To compose, he needed calm and peace, he'd like to say that peace was life and noise was death.

To be able to work, create, it was necessary for him to leave Paris and find peace far from the turbulences of town.

" It is not any more our house which is in the street, it is the street which crosses our house. This invaluable and delicate chastity of consciousness, which can live only through meditation, discolors and fades every day more and more at the touch of this perpetual bustle, from which one only brings back a superficial, panting, feverish activity, which stirs convulsively on the ruins of a balance for ever worn-out. Goodbye the hours of peace, of brilliant serenity, only allowance to see and listen in the depth of the heart itself; bit by bit, abandoned for the excitement of the outside, the august sanctuary of emotions and thought is soon only a dark and deaf prison in which one dies from boredom for lack of being able to live there silently ".

" Peace is a paradise by itself. Oh! The happiness of the peace and the peace of the happiness!. I can do everything when not surrounded by noise or movement, wether it is excitement of body or spirit. In the hubbub, the turmoils of Paris, whatever you do, the detail grates and pulverizes you, whereas, in the middle of silence, it seems to me that I hear voices inside, something very big, very clear, very simple and very innocent at the same time ".

Stendhal said: " music is an art of rest and meditation ".

It is in Saint Remy de Provence that Gounod will compose Mireille. It was necessary for him to meet Frederic Mistral , to smell and understand Provence:

" I would like to ask the music of your country for the advice of her colours. "

It is in Saint Raphaël that he will compose Roméo and Juliette. He writes to his wife:
" I settled down in a small cabin and here I work with love. You have no idea how much the peace of this existence lets you think and helps you think; here is what I call working conditions, and it's impossible, at least for me, in the middle of Paris; however hard you try, there is no silence for the spirit " . "... It's impossible for me to represent to you in words, what happens then to me. In the middle of this silence, it seems to me that I'm into my own childhood but amounted to a quite particular power; it is the complete and simultaneous ownership of all my existence; it is the state of dilation which was always the essence of my biggest impressions, and my most beautiful recollections. It is then that I hear the music of Roméo and Juliette; as much as agitation is darkness for me, solitude and meditation give me light; I hear my characters singing with as much clarity, as I see with my eyes the objects which surround me and this clarity puts me in a sort of bliss.

In another letter he writes still :
" Finally, my darling, I've got this boisterous duet of the 4-th act together. Oh! How would I like to be sure that's it! But I think I have it. I see them both; I hear them; but did I see well , hear them well, these two lovers? If they could say it to me themselves and signal me: yes. I read this duet over, I read it again, I listen with all my attention; I try to find it bad; I'm afraid to see it good and make a mistake!.. And nevertheless it burnt me! It burns me! It's a sincere birth... Finally I believe in it! Voice, orchestra, everything plays its role; violins are passionate; the hugging of Juliette, Roméo's concern, their intoxicating embraces, sudden accents of 4 or 8 bars in the middle of all this fight between love and foolishness, it seems to me that all is there! We shall see ".

In one of his writings, one can read this:
" Today the artist does not belong to himself any more; everybody owns him; he's more than a target, he's a prey. Just imagine what can come out of a mind stretched out between mundane evenings, dinners in town, non-stop summons to various meetings, and an assault of a importuning correspondence that does not leave him a moment of respite. And the visitors, this crowd of idle and nosy people who besiege your door from morning till night.

-When can I see you without disturbing?
-Sir, I'm always disturbed when I am in.
-Really? Are you always that busy?
-Always when I'm not disturbed!

That's the reason a famous composer nailed on his door this significant message: " Those who come honour me, those who don't please me "! In other words, I am never there.

Strawinsky will say later: " Clever people meet in salons, souls in nature ".

This is why Mireille was written in a small room of a hotel that would qualify today as "2 stars "! As for the final act of Roméo, it was rewritten completely, poem and music in a hotel room in Versailles!

In our time when silence more than noise appears to be an embarrassment for some, it is good to remind that Gounod, often, showed himself the inspired inventor of musical silence, which persuasive's emotion speaks more to the soul than so many useless outbursts of orchestra. Gounod practised usually this modesty of language strangely particular to Debussy who knew, in turn, how to drive the end of a scene or an act till the last note fades out. Gounod was against easy effects. " The forte asked is obnoxious. A forte to lower a canvas! Why not bring in the artillery on stage each time you lower the curtain "? Simplicity, purity, even silence is not an easy thing. Gounod said that before writing for the orchestra it was important indeed to write for the quartet, that is with the only resource of strings. " Simplification, to better show the idea! ".



Talent and genius.

One says of such or such artist that he is, or was, a brilliant artist. Gounod had a conception of the genius which deserves to be reminded:

" There is great man; there are men in whom were deposited a concept of genius, were spread in more or less profusion, divine gifts. Nothing of what is great in man comes from him or belongs to him proper; that is why vanity can met in talent, never in genius. Genius is an innocence, genius is a faith, it always has the age of a child because it has it's candor. You will never find real greatness in people from whom the child has completely disappeared... It is what teaches the Gospel when it says: Celestial kingdom belongs to the children, and to those akin ".

" I am not a genius, I am an innocent; my works came to me as to a child, I have never known how ".

Gounod also said:
" The artists are people to whom God gave a bigger visual power... They see more infinity than the others ".

Baudelaire also said:
" Genius? It is sharply formulated childhood ".












The moment has come to conclude and try to answer this question: Why does Gounod still please over and over? I tried to show some aspects of his personality through recollections and documents little known from the general public. I think they allow an appreciation the profound humanity, the simplicity and the sincerity of the man. His true nature can only show through his musical creations.













Why Gounod is still appreciated ?

To defend Gounod's works against a breed of effervescent aesthetes and mundane defamators, it was necessary, notes Georges Lecomte, to have a certain courage or a profound, serene knowledge of music. More sincere and more simple, the crowds never stopped admiring and loving him. With Gounod, it's altogether the soul, the science, and the charm which has to be understood. He, himself, tried to analyze Faust's success: " The success of this work was not brilliant, -( it is necessary to remember that his music was by some considered unintelligible!) It is nevertheless up to now my biggest success in opera. Does this mean that it is my best work? I absolutely ignore it. At least I see here confirmation of what I think, that is to say it is rather the result of happy elements and favorable conditions, than proof and measure of the intrinsic value of the work itself. It is on the surface that you conquer, at first, the favour of the audience; it is in depth that it remains and becomes stronger ".

Faust, as we know, was welcomed with hostility by the critics, except by Berlioz. "Gounod has little melody, he is incomprehensible!. Think about it, an act which lasts more than one hour and is a love scene in the moonlight. The audience will sleep before the end! ".

And nevertheless Faust was appreciated at once in Belgium, in Germany, in Italy where it was given in Rome, with the help of Verdi, paying back Gounod for his intervention, with Hugo and Dumas, so that Rigoletto, Hernani and Traviata, could be played in Paris! It played in New York in I862, in England in I863 , where a three day delay in registering the work brought into public domain from its creation! Faust was sung in italian in Saint Petersburg and in Barcelona in I864. Later, in I886, when his daughter got married, Liszt will say to Gounod " I had no time to buy flowers for Jeanne, but here is another bouquet "; and he sat down at the piano and played his "Fantasie sur Faust"!











The influence of critics.

Finally, Gounod knew well how to analyze the influence of critics, and the relationship established between an author and his public through his work. This analysis shows to what point Gounod respected the public, and knew how how to stand up to it's expectations: " A critic is going to settle down in a good orchestra seat. The next day he will write, to the sixty thousand subscribers of the newspaper for which he works, that this opera of which it didn't know a note, and which he heard yesterday for the first time, is a masterpiece or just garbage. We, artists, would not dare express a public, printed, irrevocable judgment, on a work from which we would have received only a fleeting impression. However sincere the judgment, you can remain captive of your own point of view, not take the pain to move to a new point of view from where it would be necessary to contemplate the subject... The immense majority of the people persist in looking through the eyes of others, and in hearing by ears other than theirs".

And Gounod wonders about the mission of the critics, about their competence in front of unknown works. Their frustration as soon as the contribution " comes in a new way to explain things which are not ".

" I need to hear it again, to be able to speak about it freely " Berlioz will write about Faust.

Gounod adds: " The audience of a theater does not have to know of the value of a work from a point of view of taste; it measures only it's passionate power and degree of emotion, expression of what happens in the personal or collective human soul. The result is that public and author are mutually called to artistically educate one another, the public being for the author the penalty of Truth, the author introducing the public to the elements and conditions of Beauty. aside from this distinction, it seems to me impossible to explain this strange phenomenon of the ceaseless mobility of the public, getting rid the day after of what fascinated it the day before, and crucifying today what he will adore tomorrow ".

Gounod was an affable and attractive man. All those who had the opportunity to approach him, knew to what point he was friendly and full of fatherly indulgence. " He leaves the memory, not only, of an artist full of faith and enthusiasm in the art, but also that of a straightforward and fundamentally good heart. And maybe it is it the most beautiful part of his glory, and the purest "! Here is how Paul Dukas expressed himself at Gounod's death.

But today, Gounod is still very much alive, as he sang:
The love of God as a prophet,
The love of women as a poet,
The love of the homeland as an enthused citizen,
The love of nature as a creature moved by the beauties of the Creation.

If Doctor Faust signed a pact with the Devil, Gounod signed one with Love. And, he, got in exchange, eternal youth.

Gounod inventor of the delay of the quinte in the chord of dominant seventh, it's possible but it's certainly not the main thing!

Vauvenargues said:
" Those born eloquent speak sometimes with so much clarity and brevity of important things, that most of the people do not imagine that they speak about it in depth. They call superficial and frivolous this magnificence of expression which entails proof of deep thoughts ".

This observation applies to the eloquence of Gounod, as well as to the insensitivity of those who couldn't understand his music.

When one asked Gounod what were his preferences in life:
" God created three beautiful things: music, flowers and women. That's what I always sang ".

Few know that his last melody, composed in I893 shortly before his death, is entitled:
" All the Universe obeys to Love"!




Jean-Pierre Gounod

Crassy March 17th I984

Got to top


To write: