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ClassicsOnline Home » GODARD: Violin Concerto No. 2 / Concerto romantique / Scenes poetiques
As a boy Benjamin Godard was a celebrated violin prodigy, but later turned to composition as his life's work. With the notable exception of the ever-popular Berceuse from the opera Jocelyn, the most of Godard's works have fallen out of the repertoire. A thorough romantic in the Schumann-Mendelssohn mould, Godard was best known for his short atmospheric pieces and stave works, while his short piano pieces have recently garnered new respect. Two of his most successful longer works are the Concerto Romantique and the Violin Concerto No. 2, both featuring deft virtuoso writing for the violin and the romantic sensibility of the mid-19th century.
By Roderick Dunnett
By Duncan Druce
By Julian Haylock
By David Denton
Benjamin Godard (1849–1895)
Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 131
Concerto Romantique for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35
Scènes Poétiques for Orchestra, Op. 46
Benjamin Louis Paul Godard, the son of a businessman, was born in Paris on 18th August, 1849. A child prodigy on the violin, Godard studied with Richard Hammer and later Henri Vieuxtemps. At the age of fourteen (some sources say when he was ten) Godard was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire and studied composition under Henri Reber. His first published work was a violin sonata written when he was sixteen. In the mid-1860s he twice competed unsuccessfully for the Prix de Rome. From this time forward Godard dedicated himself to composition, first writing chamber music (he played viola in several chamber music societies), and numerous piano pieces. He was especially inspired by the music of Robert Schumann, and orchestrated Schumann’s Kinderscenen in 1876. In 1878 his Le Tasse was a joint winner of the prize for musical composition given by the city of Paris. Le Tasse is a three-part dramatic symphony with soli and chorus based on a poem of Charles Grandmougins, which was in turn based on The Damnation of Faust. In succeeding years Godard composed an enormous amount of music, including three programme symphonies (Symphonie Gothique, Symphonie Orientale, and Symphonie Légendaire), three string quartets, four violin sonatas, a cello sonata, two piano trios, numerous piano pieces, violin and piano concertos, various orchestral works, and over a hundred songs. Godard is chiefly remembered for his operas. His first opera, Les bijoux de Jeanette, was produced in 1878; Pedro de Zalamea followed in 1884. His next opera, Jocelyn, based on a poem of Lamartine, appeared in 1888. Its fame rests mainly on the well-known Berceuse, which has been arranged for numerous combinations of instruments and/or voices and remains Godard’s most familiar work. It has been performed by Jussi Björling, John McCormack (in English translation as “Angels Guard Thee” and with the violin accompaniment of Fritz Kreisler), Alma Gluck, Pablo Casals, the Eroica Trio, and many others. Godard’s operatic output also included Dante et Béatrice (1890), Jeanne d’Arc (1891), and La Vivandière (1895; unfinished at his death and completed by Paul Vidal). The conductor Jules Étienne Pasdeloup admired Godard’s music and allowed Godard to conduct many of his own premières. After Pasdeloup’s retirement, Godard created theConcerts Modernes in an attempt to continue Pasdeloup’s Concerts Populaires , but this lasted only one season (October 1885 – April 1886). In 1887 he was appointed a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, and in 1889 was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. Godard died of tuberculosis at Cannes on 10th January, 1895.
Godard’s was unquestionably a romantic temperament, though more closely aligned with the romanticism of the mid-nineteenth century than with Wagner and Tchaikovsky; his talent has been compared with the facility and manner of Saint-Saëns. His respect and admiration for Robert Schumann has already been noted, as has his tutelage under Henri Vieuxtemps, one of the great romantic violinist-composers of the nineteenth century. Godard’s music has sometimes been criticized for superficiality and “over-hastiness”, and truly he composed at a prodigious pace, reaching Opus 100 in 1886 while still in his thirties. In romantic fashion his symphonies are “named”, and his operas contain the soaring melody and romantic sensibility expected of romantic opera, though his stage works quickly fell out of favour. Among his operas, the unfinished opéra comique La Vivandière had the greatest success. Godard’s music follows the traditions of Mendelssohn and Schumann, and he had little sympathy for the overblown rhetoric of Wagner, especially since, being of Jewish extraction, he disliked Wagner’s anti- Semitism. Like the early romantics Godard excelled in small forms. The nineteenth-century scholar Hervey wrote that “Godard is perhaps greater in small things than he is in large. There is an exquisite charm in some of his songs … whilst many of his piano pieces have a savour all their own.” A new appreciation for Godard’s achievement in small pieces, once dismissed as salon music, has grown in recent years. Godard’s achievement is best summed up as “traditional romantic”.
While focusing much of his compositional career on other forms and instruments such as opera, songs, and piano pieces, Godard did not neglect the instrument on which he had excelled as a youth. His violin concertos are among his very best works and display both inventiveness and élan. The Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 131, is in the traditional three movements. The opening Allegro moderato features alternating chords by soloist and orchestra from the first measure; this gesture is fleshed out with scale runs by the soloist and snatches of a motif consisting of a half note and triplets. The main lyric theme enters after a ritardando; this is worked to a climax and repeated forte. After a brief orchestral statement, the soloist launches into a cadenza featuring double, triple, and quadruple stops as well as a glissando run. The thematic materials are reworked and the movement ends with the usual flourish. The following Adagio quasi andante features a steady triplet orchestral accompaniment underneath the main lyric melody, at first alluded to by solo horn, and then taken up fully by solo violinist. The contrasting midsection, in 6/8 time rather than the 4/4 of the movement’s beginning, contains double-stopping and short runs, then slowly returns to the 4/4 main lyric material and the steady triplet accompaniment, which accompaniment is finally discarded in the coda. The final Allegro non troppo is a bouncy movement in 2/4 time, a delightful rondo romp from beginning to end.
The Concerto Romantique, Op. 35, is a much earlier work and in some ways more experimental. Hervey wrote that in the Concerto Romantique Godard’s talent found “its true expression. The composer of these works is in the full force of his powers, and it is not too much to state the belief that he has yet much to say”. Unfortunately Hervey’s book was published in 1894, just months before Godard’s untimely death. The first unorthodox feature of this concerto is that it has four movements instead of the usual three. The first movement, marked Allegro moderato, while of a more dramatic character than the other movements, is relatively brief for an opening movement, which tend to be the “heaviest” and longest movement. After a sixteen-measure orchestral introduction, the soloist enters fortissimo with a highly accented martial theme in double stops. After an orchestral interlude, the violin sings a lyric theme; these materials eventually lead to a section marked Recitativo, which is in the nature of an accompanied cadenza. A coda brings the movement to a close. The graceful Adagio non troppo is connected to the following Canzonetta, marked Allegro moderato, by a short improvisatory section. This is Godard’s most famous concerto movement, and until the mid-twentieth-century was often published by itself or in collections in violin and piano arrangement. It is a delicate and highly accented song, only briefly discarding its gossamer character for more sustained lyricism. The final Allegro molto opens with a dramatic statement in the orchestra; the soloist enters with a theme marked Agitato ed appassionato molto. This theme is interspersed with passage-work, some of scherzo-like character. The soloist’s final peroration features double-stops and the movement ends with appropriate high spirits.
The atmospheric Scènes Poétiques for Orchestra, Op. 46, contains four short bucolic pieces depicting various outdoor scenes: Dans les bois (In the woods), Dans les champs (In the fields), Sur la montagne (On the mountain), and the bustling Au village (In the village).
Bruce R. Schueneman
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GODARD: Violin Concerto No. 2 / Concerto romantiqu...