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ClassicsOnline Home » GOUNOD: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2
It is a little known fact that Bizet’s Symphony No. 1 (Naxos 8.553027), now regarded as a minor masterpiece, was closely modelled on his teacher Gounod’s Symphony No. 1, only rediscovered in the 1950s and still unaccountably neglected. Anyone familiar with Bizet’s Symphony will recognize the melodic and rhythmic similarities of the delightfully vivacious outer movements, the wistful slow movements, and the drone-bass effect of the third movements. Gounod’s Symphony No. 2, a more ambitious and elaborate work, particularly in its wind instrumentation, is more in the style of Beethoven or Mendelssohn.
By Andrew Fraser
By Giv Cornfield, Ph.D.
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2
The French composer Charles Gounod stemmed from a formidable cultural family tradition going back to the seventeenth century. His father François-Louis, who died when his son was five, was a painter, a friend of Ingres, and had won the second Prix de Rome in 1783. His mother, to whom he owed his early musical training, was a pianist, a pupil of Louis Adam, father of the composer Adolphe Adam. Born in Paris in 1818, Gounod had his schooling at the Lycée Saint-Louis, taking lessons in harmony and counterpoint from Anton Reicha. In 1836 he entered the Conservatoire, studying counterpoint with Halévy, composition first with Berton and then with Le Sueur and finally with Paer, and taking piano lessons with Zimmermann, whose daughter he later married. His early ability is witnessed by the fact that he won the second Prix de Rome in 1837 with the cantata Marie Stuart et Rizzio. He failed to win a prize in 1838, but the following year took the first Prix de Rome with his cantata Fernand.
Ten years earlier Berlioz had taken up the same prize with some reluctance. Gounod, however, made excellent use of his time at the Villa Medici in Rome, where, according to the terms of the prize, he spent two years, followed by travel in Germany. In Rome he found support from Ingres, director of the Villa Medici, impressing him with his own sketches. In the church music he heard, notably that of Palestrina in the Sistine Chapel, he discovered a repertoire that he greatly admired. He was influenced too by Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny Hensel, wife of the painter Wilhelm Hensel and a gifted composer herself, who introduced Gounod to the music of Bach and Beethoven, and to the writings of Goethe. Further influences were found in Pauline Viardot-García, sister of the singer Malibran and wife of Louis Viardot, director of the Théâtre-Italien, herself a pupil of Reicha and a singer of distinction, and in the sermons of the French Dominican Jean Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, a pupil of Lamennais, who saw art as a weapon against the materialism of the day. In Vienna Gounod met Otto Nicolai, and in Germany was able to see the Hensels in Berlin and meet Mendelssohn in Leipzig. He therefore returned to Paris with an unusually wide experience of musical traditions other than the French, to the discomfort of his congregation at the Paris Missions Etrangères, where he became organist. Momentarily drawn towards the church, he finally decided to make a career in music.
Gounod's first operas, in which he had the encouragement of Pauline Viardot, were largely unsuccessful, but it was with Faust, first staged at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1859 and revised and expanded in 1869 to meet the requirements of the Paris Opéra, that he won a definitive position for himself, supported by the church music that he had continued to write since his days as a student in Rome. A change came in the course of his life when, in 1870, after the outbreak of war with Prussia, he moved to England. There he was able to provide music to suit the prevailing tastes of the time, to compose music for the flourishing English choral societies, and to appear as a choral conductor. Matters were complicated by his association with the amateur singer Georgina Weldon and her musical enterprises, which did little for his health or his reputation. By 1874 he was back once more in France. For English audiences he wrote oratorios of one kind and another, works that have generally not lasted well, and in Paris composed further settings of the Mass in which he eventually recaptured something of the spirit of his earlier compositions in this form. He exercised a strong influence over the following generation of French composers, including Bizet, and, still more, Massenet. His operas for the Théâtre-Lyrique, in particular Faust and Roméo et Juliette, retain their place in major repertoire, and while some of his church music may now seem overtinged with sentimentality, his songs form a significant element in the body of French vocal music. His unexpected death in 1893 was the occasion for widespread mourning in France at the passing of one of the leading composers of the Second Empire.
Gounod's skill as a composer is seen particularly in his two symphonies, written in 1855. The first of these, the Symphony in D major, shows a masterly treatment of traditional form and deft handling of instrumentation. The exposition of the first movement, which is repeated, opens brightly with a principal theme chiefly entrusted to the first violins. A lucid transition leads to a secondary theme in which the wind instruments assume some prominence. The development makes due exploration of the thematic material before the expected recapitulation. Muted strings start the D minor Allegretto moderato, a sinister march that has at its heart a B flat major passage of less menace, followed by a contrapuntal section, the fugal subject stated by the cellos, answered by the second violins, followed, in turn, by the violas and then the first violins. The original march returns, now with contrapuntal accompanying figuration from the second violins. The Scherzo, an elegant minuet in F major, has a contrasting Trio in B flat major, its melody given to oboes and bassoons, accompanied principally by the lower strings, much of it over a tonic or dominant pedal. The D major Finale has a slow introduction of almost Mozartian suggestion. This is followed by a sonata-form Allegro, the two subjects handled with the greatest dexterity in the repeated exposition. Here the trumpets come into their own in a movement that continues to demonstrate Gounod's skill and facility in orchestral writing and in the deployment, in particular, of wind instruments.
The Symphony in E flat major starts with an Adagio introduction, followed by a cheerful sonata-form Allegro agitato, the classical form presented with French clarity and precision. There is something initially ominous about the central development before the themes of the exposition emerge, to be heard in fuller form in the final recapitulation. The hymn-like B flat major Larghetto slowly unfolds, leading to a central passage of jauntier, dotted rhythms, after which the first theme returns, with an accompanying first violin counterpoint, later taken up by violas and cellos, as the violins take charge of the melody. There is something of Beethoven about the G minor Scherzo, and the contrasting G major Trio duly finds a place for woodwind instruments. There is a light-opera elegance about the Finale, with its delicate first subject entrusted to the first violins and the second to the woodwind. The traditional form leads to a triumphantly emphatic conclusion.
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GOUNOD: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2