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Charles Gounod and Ballet Music from Faust

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Charles-François Gounod (June 17, 1818–October 17or 18 October, 1893) was a French composer, best known for his operas such as Faust and Roméo et Juliette. Gounod was born in on June 17, 1818, in Paris, the second son of a pianist mother, Lemachois Victoire who weas the daughter of a former lawyer at the Parliament of Normandy, and an artist father, Louis Francois Gounod who was a painter and engraver. His mother was his first piano teacher. Under her tutelage, Gounod first showed his musical talents. In 1829 Charles entered the Lycee Saint-Louis and graduated as a Bachelor in 1835. He then entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied under Fromental Halévy and Pierre Zimmermann. He later married Zimmermann’s daughter. In 1839, he won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand. He was following his father; François-Louis Gounod (d. 1823) had won the second Prix de Rome in painting in 1783. During his stay of four years in Italy, Gounod studied the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and other sacred works of the sixteenth century.

Returning to France in November 1843, Gounod was appointed choirmaster of Foreign Missions. He composed a Messe Breve for male voices, a chant du depart des missionnaires, and several cantatas. Around 1846-47 he gave serious consideration to joining the priesthood, but he changed his mind before actually taking holy orders, and went back to composition. Gounod wrote his first opera, Sapho, in 1851, at the urging of a friend of his, the singer Pauline Viardot. On April 20, 1852, he married Anna Zimmerman, and from that date, lived in Saint-Cloud on the property of his in-laws where built a cottage. In May of that year, he was appointed Director General for the teaching of singing in schools of Paris, and director of the Brass band. In 1854, Gounod completed a Messe Solennelle, also known as the Saint Cecilia Mass. This work was first performed in its entirety in the church of St Eustache in Paris on Saint Cecilia’s Day, November 22, 1855.

During 1855 Gounod wrote two symphonies. His Symphony No. 1 in D major was the inspiration for the Symphony in C, composed later that year by Georges Bizet, who was then Gounod’s 17-year-old student. He also composed a Petite Symphonie pour instruments à vent or Little Symphony for Wind Instruments, sometimes known as his Symphony No. 3 in B flat major. Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix Mendelssohn, had introduced the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach to Gounod, who came to revere Bach. It inspired Gounod to devise an improvisation of a melody over the C major Prelude (BWV 846) from the first book of Bach’s work The Well-Tempered Clavier. To this melody, in 1859, after the deaths of both Mendelssohn siblings, Gounod fitted the words of the Ave Maria. Gounod’s next opera was Faust (1859), derived from Goethe. This remains the composition for which he is best known. Mireille, first performed in 1864, has been admired by connoisseurs. The romantic and melodious Roméo et Juliette, based on the Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, premiered in 1867. Other Gounod operas have fallen into oblivion.

Later in his life, Gounod returned to his early religious impulses, writing much sacred music such as His Pontifical Anthem (Marche Pontificale, 1869). He also devoted himself to chamber music, composing four string quartets. From 1870 to 1874 Gounod lived in England and became the first conductor of what is now the Royal Choral Society. Much of his music from this time is vocal, although he also composed the Funeral March of a Marionette in 1872. He expressed a desire to compose his Messe à la mémoire de Jeanne d’Arc (1887) while kneeling on the stone on which Joan of Arc knelt at the coronation of Charles VII of France. A devout Catholic, he had on his piano a music-rack in which was carved an image of the face of Jesus. His last opera, Le tribut de Zamora, was completed in 1881. He was made a Grand Officer of the Légion d’honneur in July 1888. In 1893, shortly after he had put the finishing touches to a requiem written for his grandson, he died of a stroke in Saint-Cloud, France.

My collection includes the following works by Gounod.

Faust (1869): Ballet Music (Walpurgis Night) and Concert Waltz.
Symphony No. 1 in DM (1855).
Symphony No. 2 in EbM (1855).

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