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ClassicsOnline Home » GOUNOD: Tobie / Gallia
Charles Gounod (1818 - 1893)
Tobie (Petit oratorio)
With a painter father and a pianist mother, the family into which
Charles Gounod was born on 18th June, 1818, could only strengthen his natural leaning towards
the arts and contribute to the precocious development of his musical gifts. It
was, in fact, his mother who first introduced him to music. This interest in
music, however, had no adverse effect on his general cultural formation and his
parents saw to it that he continued his general studies, while having private lessons
from Anton Reicha, one of the leading figures at the Paris Conservatoire. At
the age of eighteen, his general studies now completed, Gounod officially
became a student at the Conservatoire, taking courses in counterpoint under
Halevy and composition with Le Sueur, while studying the piano with Zimmermann.
A proof of Gounod's exceptional attainments at his entry to the Conservatoire
may be seen in the fact that he entered for the Prix de Rome in 1837, taking
second prize. He won the first prize two years later, enthusiastically taking
up residence at the Villa Medici in Rome, in contrast to the reluctance that had been displayed by
Berlioz some years before. He stayed in Rome until 1842, occupied in the wider
development of his cultural interests. Here he eagerly studied scores of
sixteenth century vocal music, principally of Palestrina, but also of Lully,
Mozart and the composers that he heard at the opera, Rossini, Bellini and
Donizetti. Apart from music, Italy also offered scope for his interest in painting, allowing
him to study drawing with Ingres, director of the Villa Medici. He was able to
occupy his free time with reading, notably of Lacordaire, whose mysticism is
reflected in a number of religious works, the Te Deum, two short Masses,
Hymne and the Requiem.
In 1842, instead of returning at once to France, Gounod went to Vienna. Here he met Otto
Nicolai and had some of his own music performed, before moving on to Leipzig with Mendelssohn's
sister Fanny, whom he had met in Rome. The encounter with Mendelssohn was a revelation to Gounod
when the former played to him various organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach and
gave him some scores of Bach's sacred music.
Returning to France, Gounod was again seized by a bout of mysticism, signing his letters
the Abbe Gounod. This delayed a little the development of his career. His
vocation, however, remained sufficiently uncertain and under the influence of
friends such as Pauline Viardot, he gave up the religious life in favour of
creative activity dominated by sacred and secular vocal music.
Gounod's first opera, Sapho, on 1st April 1851, with Pauline
Viardot in the title role, marks the beginning of a brilliant career that made
the composer one of the central figures in French opera in the second half of
the nineteenth century. He was still preoccupied to some extent with sacred
subjects and in 1854 and 1855 he wrote two masterpieces, the little oratorio Tobie
and the Messe de Sainte-Cecile. At the height of his career, during the
following ten years, except in 1857 when he suffered a psychological crisis and
doubts, his inspiration expressed itself in such works as Faust (first
version, 1859), La Reine de Sabat (1862), Mireille (1864) and Romeo
et Juliette (1867), before the second version of Faust, with which
the composer's name is so closely associated, eventually staged at the Paris
Opera in 1869.
Married since 1852 to the daughter of his former piano teacher, Zimmermann,
Gounod was known for his frequent extra-marital adventures. The war of 1870
gave further opportunity for this. Hostilities made him to settle in England for some time with a
singer, Georgina Weldon, who several times sang the soprano solo part in the
cantata Gallia. He later described this
liaison as the greatest mistake in his life.
A cerebral attack induced Gounod to return to France in 1874. Here he quickly recovered
and continued his creative career in which opera now generally gave way to
oratorios such as La Redemption (1882) or Mors et Vita, the performance
of which in London in 1885 in the presence of Queen Victoria was a triumphant
success. During the last years of his life, he wrote less, although this was
the period of the Symphony for ten wind instruments (1886).
In 1891 Gounod suffered a stroke but survived a further two years, dying
of apoplexy on 16th October 1893.
An Interview with Jacques Grimbert
Why did you decide to record these two scores by Charles
Gounod, works that ad not been recorded before?
Grimbert: Some years before I had discovered the score of Gallia and had kept it in my
library. When Marco Polo suggested that I should continue on the course we had
embarked on with the unrecorded cantatas of Debussy, Caplet and Ravel, I
immediately thought of Gallia. It was necessary to offer with this a work sufficiently
short but I did not want to record any works already known and well served on
record (for example the Messe de Sainte-Cecile) or others, less well
known, but with undeniable weaknesses (for example La Redemption). My researches
then led me to Tobie, described by Gounod as a "little
oratorio". I was immediately attracted by a work in which the dramatic
instinct of the operatic composer is present and which offers very dense vocal
writing, influenced by composers of earlier periods.
Let us deal with each work separately. Tobie first.
Grimbert: In its structure Tobie reminds us of the type of sacred
history written by Carissimi, with characters that intervene in the form of
recitatives, duets, quartets. Gounod achieves a perfect balance of these
episodes. First performed in Lyon at the end of April 1854, Tobie uses a text by
Hippolyte Lefevre that relates the principal events in the life of Tobias,
whose absence is lamented by his parents, after the young man has been sent by
his blind father to Media to recover a sum of silver lent to a friend. Guided
by the Archangel Raphael, Tobias ends by returning to his people, when his
father is miraculously cured of his blindness. The text of Tobie is more
than a short story full of miracles. It is first a moral tale, based on the
great religious themes of the Old Testament, taken up again by Christianity.
Father and son are just men put to the test, examples for Anna, wife and
mother, whose faith remains weak. The tale illustrates the effectiveness of
prayer and of Divine Providence and exalts family and social virtues.
The score of Tobie is divided into nine numbers. It begins with
an introduction for the chorus: a lament in the ancient manner, a little like
the first chorus in Gluck's Orphee. Here Anna laments the absence of a
son that she thinks she has lost for ever.
In No.2 Air and Chorus the old Tobias answers his wife and
expresses his faith in the Lord in a magnificent chorale, before being joined
first by Anna and then by the chorus.
No.3 Recitative and Chorus depicts the return of the young Tobias. First there is
a recitative by Anna and then a fugal chorus. In No.4 Recitative and Air
the opera composer is evident, particularly in the beautiful air for Tobias,
Pressez moi bien entre vos bras (Embrace me in your arms), characterized by
very light orchestration with muted strings and very expressive woodwind
No.6 Recitative and Quartet is attractive in the beauty of its orchestration, evidence
of remarkable dramatic understanding. It leads to a superb vocal quartet. The Invocation
offers a meditation that accompanies the prayer of the young Tobias for the
restoration of his father's sight. It is fulfilled in No.7 Melodrama,
Recitative and Quartet, where chromatic writing and tremolos provide a
mysterious accompaniment to the miracle by which old Tobias recovers his sight.
Je recommence a vivre (I start to live again), he sings, and soon all
the participants welcome the miracle. There is a coda in the form of a chorale.
No.8 is the aria of Raphael, based on the alternation of the chords of C
minor and E flat, ending with an Andante in G major, where the angelic nature
of the character is revealed. No.9 completes the work with a hymn to the
glory of God for divisi chorus and the four soloists.
Was Gallia written in a different spirit?
Grimbert: Gallia, subtitled Lamentation, is equally striking for its unity and the
quality of its orchestration, but it only calls for a four-part chorus and a soprano
soloist. Later, in 1871, Gounod described the composition in the following
I had the idea of representing France as she was, not only
conquered, crushed, but outraged, insulted, violated by the
insolence and brutality of her enemy. I remembered Jerusalem, in ruins, the
complaints of the prophet Jeremiah, and on the first lines of these
lamentations I wrote a biblical elegy called Gallia. The text, realistic in
feeling, provided this universal, infallible, Catholic note of the
misfortune of conquered nations and the burning rage with which victims
invoke the God of war, the vengeance of the Lord. The composition came to me complete,
in one whole; it burst into my head like a bombshell; I may say that it imposed
me rather than that I composed it.
Shorter than Tobie, Gallia is in four episodes. No.1 Introduction is
entrusted entirely to the chorus, while the continuous semiquavers of the
violins and violas reinforce the oppressive character of the episode. In No.2
Cantilena the soprano melody alternates with the chorus or is superimposed
on the choral part and accentuates in this way the expressive effect of the
lament, all this accompanied by very light orchestration. No.3 Solo and
Chorus moves in its first bars into a chorale until the more dramatic final
section with its clashing rhythms. Jerusalem, reviens vers le Seigneur
(Jerusalem, return to the Lord) is the exhortation of the final section, No.4
Finale, which moves forward over obsessive triplet chords to a final crescendo
in which the chorus joins the soloist.
(English translation by Keith Anderson)
"I do not know what you will want to do when you come back. Will
you turn to the religious life or to the opera?" In a letter of 17th April
1842 addressed to her son, Victoire Gounod, with a sure maternal instinct,
presented the double career of the young Charles Gounod, while, barely 24 years
old, he was living in Rome as a prize-winner of the Academie des Beaux Arts.
Twelve years later Gounod seemed to have chosen his path. Thanks to the support
of Pauline Viardot, his Sapho, first staged on 18th Apri11851, had
opened for him the doors of the Grand Opera. He had completed La nonne
sanglante (The Sighing Nun} and the five-act work was to be given at the
Salle Le Peletier on 18th October 1854. In spite of the undoubted failure of
this dark work of fantasy that Berlioz himself had turned down, Gounod
established himself in the theatre. He became none the less a composer of
religious music, a genre in which he excelled, when he remembered that the
lyrical also has its place in church. It was in these circumstances that the
little oratorio Tobie (Tobias) was performed for the first time in Lyon at the end of Apri11854,
at the annual concert organized by Georges Haini, then conductor at the Lyon
Grand Theatre. Drawn from the Apocrypha, the text was by H. Lefevre, doubtless Hippolyte
Lefevre, the regular collaborator with Dennery. The work, therefore, has a
didactic element, as did later La Redemption and Mors et Vita. While not wearing the habit
of a religious, Gounod used his art for the education and strengthening of
faith of his contemporaries.
The oratorio opens with an Introduction  in which, over a
continuing orchestral part, the song of comfort of the chorus rises by
successive fifths in a way familiar in Gounod's style. A second, polyphonic
section, more imitative, leads to the intervention of Anna, who echoes the
first bars of the chorus, unbelieving and thinking that she has lost her son
for ever. This is followed by a recitative  in which old Tobias expresses
his faith in God. The melody grows livelier with modulations and a legato
accompaniment contrasted with the plucked notes of the double basses. Anna and
the chorus join in this declaration of faith. In the following recitative and
chorus  Anna thanks God for the return of her son, with elements of the
first chorus returning. There is a fugal chorus, leading to a chorale.
In the next recitative and aria  Tobias returns, accompanied by the Archangel
Raphael. He offers a tripartite aria of particular charm and delicacy ,
recalling, in its simplicity, the style of operatic romance. The angel announces
the cure of old Tobias  and there is a vocal quartet , criticized
by the contemporary press for its less interesting moments. The strings
offer a chorale worthy of the organ in Invocation , while Tobias
prays for a cure for his father, an episode that has something of the
atmosphere of the love-theme of Romeo et Juliette. This leads to the
cure of old Tobias , with chromaticism, diminished seventh chords and
tremolo, as in every scene of fantasy in opera. There is a vocal quartet
leading to a coda in chorale style. The angel finally reveals his identity
, after which the divided chorus and vocal quartet praise the glory of God,
doubled by the orchestra, which lengthens the last note of each phrase before
breaking out into rapider jubilation .
Critics were unanimous in their praise of the merits of the work. Apart
from the fact that, according to La France Musicale of 30th April 1854, this
was a work of "decentralisation”, there was general appreciation of a
composition in which skill seemed no less brilliant than religious inspiration,
as the Revue et Gazette Musical de Paris declared. In 1866, when Gounod, at the
height of his fame, was elected a member of the Academie des Beaux Arts,
replacing Clapisson, La France Musicale awarded its annual prize to Tobie,
which had not yet been published. A vocal score of the oratorio was offered to
all subscribers and the writer declared that Tobie allied Gounod's
modern technique with the severity of style that distinguished the great
Rameau, Gluck and Handel, the whole marked by the serene and grandiose beauty
that moves all artistic hearts. In this article of 18th February 1866, D. Stern
commented on the way that the modern lyrical and expressive style borrowed from
opera could serve religious art, readily contrapuntal and reputedly severe. The
successful synthesis of Tobie shows the double nature of the composer.
When the Second Empire was overturned by the defeat of Sedan, Gounod, not finding the
courage to live under enemy colours, on 13th September 1870 took refuge in England. There, some months
later, he met Georgina Weldon, a singer and adventuress, with whom for three
years he carried on a liaison of disturbing ambiguity .It was then that the
English government asked him for a work for the opening of the London international
exhibition. This was Gallia, a representation of France defeated, reflecting the
fate of Jerusalem lamented by the Prophet
Jeremiah. The work was first performed at the Albert Hall on 1st May
1871 before an audience of ten thousand. Given in Paris on 29th October at the
Conservatoire Societe des Concerts, the work was repeated in a staged version
on 8th November at the Opera-Comique and for the feast of St Cecilia at the Church of Saint-Eustache. Gounod insisted on
Georgina Weldon as the soloist.
While the English press bestowed high praise on the composer, whom they compared
somewhat ineptly to Handel, the Paris newspapers attacked Gounod, whom they considered no longer
a true Frenchman. To have the part of France, outraged, taken by an Englishwoman of doubtful
reputation could only further embitter the situation, in spite of the composer's
Gallia opens with a chorale based on a descending melodic line, as in traditional
laments .The central section is lyrical, while the third brings back the
chromaticism of the opening, now with richer harmony. The whole is unified by
the writing for violins and violas . In a Cantilena  the soprano
soloist sings a melodic line, interwoven with the chorus, in chromatic writing,
with the strings offering an accompaniment that suggests piano writing, this coloured
by the intervention of wind instruments. The soloist and chorus offer a choral
lament  of throbbing intensity and this leads to the final section ,
with its concluding crescendo.
Without reaching the level of a masterpiece, Gallia is worthy of its composer and of the
subject treated. In the idiom of his day Gounod depicts with nobility and
feeling the desolation of a nation that has been deeply injured. It is this
that gives the cantata its value for our own time.
(English version by Keith Anderson)
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GOUNOD: Tobie / Gallia