in Geneva in front of friends of the "Meetings of Monday" of "international Friendships".
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..."
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
Orphée in Hell 1858
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
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
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.
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
" 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
" 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
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 ".
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
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
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
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:
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!."
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.
His friendship for Edouard Lalo, fallen ill, will bring
him to finish the ballet "Namouna" in order to deliver it on
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 ".
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 ".
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
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
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
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
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.
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
" 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! ".
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
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
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
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
To be able to work, create, it was necessary for him to
leave Paris and find peace far from the turbulences of
" 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:
In another letter he writes still :
In one of his writings, one can read this:
-When can I see you without disturbing?
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! ".
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:
Baudelaire also said:
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.
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
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"!
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
If Doctor Faust signed a pact with the Devil, Gounod
signed one with Love. And, he, got in exchange, eternal
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!
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
Crassy March 17th I984