Sunday 21 January 2018

Classical - Gounod: The French master of melody

Devil in the detail: Charles Gounod wrote a dozen operas including Faust.
Devil in the detail: Charles Gounod wrote a dozen operas including Faust.

As the Euros continue, and football percolates into the collective consciousness, this week's Letter from France keeps music centre stage and focuses on a man we should be celebrating around now. Not only was he a master of melody, which is a good excuse any time, but yesterday was the 198th anniversary of his birth. The subject here is Charles Gounod.

Music was always going to be central to his life - his mother was a decent pianist and got him started. He had a successful spell at the Paris Conservatoire where he won the Prix de Rome - a French government scholarship that paid for three years study in Italy.

From there he broadened his musical horizons with visits to Vienna and Leipzig, where he met Mendelssohn. But back in Paris, Gounod took to wearing a cassock and studying theology, and in 1846 began to train for the priesthood.

His vocation lasted only a year, though he did continue writing religious music, a highlight to which is his St Cecilia Mass, written in honour of the patron saint of music. But there was also a sharp change of direction. He started composing operas.

The first couple weren't particularly successful, but he found a formula with Faust, the tale of the hero's pact with the devil given its most fundamental literary expression in the play by the great German man of letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Gounod, somewhat surprisingly, concentrated on the love interest, to the exclusion of a lot else, so much so that when his Faust is performed in Germany, it goes under the title of the female lead Marguerite, lest there be any confusion with the real thing.

Despite a reception that was less than wholeheartedly enthusiastic when it was first presented in Paris in 1859 - it was at first refused by the Paris Opera who regarded it as underwhelming and it had to be staged elsewhere - its reputation grew with time to the extent that at one point it was vying to be most performed opera anywhere. Now, it's easy to understand why. It's full of good tunes, and the devil doesn't get them all!

There's the gorgeous waltz from Act II, Ainsi Que la Brise Légère, comparing the swaying of the dance to a gentle breeze.

In Act III, there's Marguerite's Jewel Song (Je Ris de me Voir si Belle!) telling how she laughs when she sees how beautiful she looks wearing the earrings and the necklace that have won her over. And there's the Soldiers' Chorus in Act IV, an addition for the London première which has become a staple for choral societies everywhere.

Gounod had a particular fondness for choral music. In London, where the composer was spending time to escape the Franco-Prussian war, he set up a choir for the newly commissioned Royal Albert Hall. That choir is now the Royal Choral Society.

Gounod wrote 12 operas in all, with varying degrees of success, but another that has certainly stood the test of time is his take on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

With ballet music, two symphonies, and a sizable collection of songs to his name, he devoted himself later in life almost entirely to religious music. His oratorios La Rédemption and Mors et Vita (Life and Death) date from this period. The Judex section of the latter, compassionate and evocative, is one of his greatest achievements.

One of the absolute delights from the Gounod canon is the Ave Maria, a Romantic reworking of Bach's Prelude No 1 from his Well-Tempered Clavier collection, with an improvisation from the composer on top, which he called a Meditation. It's one of classical music's most popular, and most recorded pieces.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday from 10am.

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