Good in Small Doses

You probably missed the centenary of French composer Charles Gounod’s death in 1993. Not much attention was paid to this once phenomenally popular composer, who lived from 1818 to 1893. He is supposed to be completely passé, a relic of Victorian times; his saccharine tunes would send us moderns into insulin shock. Yet, even those who do not recognize his name are still likely to recognize his music, if only the Ave Maria or the Sanctus, which not even the liturgical Luddites of the post–Vatican II era could erase from use.

The French have not completely forgotten Gounod, and several centenary issues in his honor have only now reached our shores. A Claves CD features his last composition, a Requiem, and one of his first, an early Mass in G major. A Ligia Digital CD offers “Harmonies Celestes,” which includes the famous Ave Maria and Sanctus, as well as a number of completely neglected works.

By presenting the forgotten Gounod, these two releases respectively help us to understand why Gounod was forgotten as well as raise the intriguing question as to whether he should have been. The “Harmonies Celestes,” with the exception of a few items, offers a strong prima facie case that Gounod was guilty of what one critic has archly called Catholicism “sucré.” The dripping melodies, the melodrama, the swooning, the sentimentality are cloying. Yet, listen to the purity of the early Mass and then to the Requiem written for Gounod’s grandson. It is a child’s Requiem in its gentle sweetness, emotional directness and lightness of texture. Here was a composer with a major melodic gift, the quality of whose work seems to have depended on his keeping his precarious balance between sentiment and sentimentality.

That he did not always succeed is evident not only from his music, but from the periodic nervous breakdowns he suffered throughout his adult life. These emotional struggles were also played out in respect to his Catholic faith, of which so much of his music is an expression.

A 19th-century writer in the Journal des Debats once pronounced, almost with a tone of annoyed surprise, that, “Gounod has a feeling for things liturgical, indeed I might go further and say that he is convinced, he believes.” However, Gounod was also subject to religious enthusiasms. During his stay in Rome after winning the Prix de Rome at age 21, he fell under the spell of the famous Dominican preacher Lacordaire and joined his Brotherhood of St. John the Evangelist. His widowed and saintly mother, distressed at what she diagnosed as emotional excess, finally enticed him home with the promise that, in exchange, she would allow him to “convert” her to more rigorous religious devotions. She counseled him to be “religious” but not “Religious,” a distinction he was not always able to make. He sometimes confused religiosity for religion, as he did sentimentality for sentiment. Late in life he took the affectation, rather unusual for a layman, of signing himself “Abbé Gounod.”

However, Gounod’s life, despite its many eccentricities, proved that his faith was real. After spending the first five years of his compositional career as music director and organist at the Église des Missions étrangères, exclusively writing liturgical music, Gounod donned a cassock for his studies at the Carmelite Seminary of Saint-Sulpice. He was convinced that he had a vocation. However, five months later he had a change of heart and left for the opera. “The theater tempted me,” he later wrote.

The world greeted him with all its honors and bounty, but also its travails. One came in the form of his wife, Anna Zimmermann, whom Gounod acquired by accident. He arrived one day at the Zimmermann household, where he had been a frequent visitor, to inform Mrs. Zimmermann that he had no intention of asking for her daughter’s hand, an offer Mrs. Zimmermann had energetically encouraged. When she greeted him at the door as her future son-in-law and instructed him to embrace his “betrothed,” he simply went along so as not to disappoint anyone. He later exclaimed: “What a subject for a comic opera: le Fiancé malgré lui!” He was to rue the day. He left Anna once for a period of three years and was a subject of gossip concerning various affairs. Yet he returned to his wife, and always to the Church.

In fact, Gounod never lost his evangelical zeal. During a revival of a play, “Jeanne d’Arc,” for which Gounod had written incidental music, he was brought into touch with Sarah Bernhardt. Dismayed by the actress’s loose moral life, he exhorted her to adopt the virtues of the character she so convincingly portrayed on stage. Weeks of evangelization followed, the reports of which provided sophisticated Paris with much entertainment. Gounod’s efforts were finally rewarded when, not Sarah Bernhardt, but another actress, who overheard his pleading, renounced her sinful life and converted to Catholicism.

The once-wild popularity of Gounod’s operas, such as Faust—the most frequently performed opera of the nineteenth century—Romeo and Juliet, and Mireille, has obscured the fact that he was first and last a composer of religious music. Not only the beginning but the end of his compositional career was devoted to religious music. He composed sixteen Masses, eight oratorios and large-scale cantatas, and many other sacred choral works and songs. This body of work, almost as large as everything he wrote for the stage, makes it easier to understand Camille Saint-Saëns’s famous remark that “in the dim distant future when inexorable time has done its work and the operas of Gounod are forever at rest in the dusty sanctuary of libraries, the Messe de Sainte Cecilé, the Rédemption, and the oratorio Mors et Vita will still have life in them. They will show coming generations what a splendid musician lent lustre and renown to France in the 19th century.”

Saint-Saens’s prophecy has yet to come true, and may never. If it does, it will be on the foundation of Gounod’s magnificent St. Cecilia Mass. Written in 1855, the St. Cecilia Mass has to be one of the supreme expressions of affirmative faith and the Church triumphant. It is gloriously melodic and operatic. Of his effort, Gounod wrote, “There is only one difficulty. It is to match in music the demands of this incomparable and inexhaustible subject: the Mass!… In music!… by a paltry man!… My God, take pity on me!”

Today, this majestic, thrilling work is often condescended to by critics. One British writer notes its “jolly and vulgar tunes” and “sugar-sweet choral writing.” Hector Berlioz, perhaps a better critic, thought otherwise and was deeply impressed at its premiere at Saint Eustache. So was Saint-Saens, who wrote: “The appearance of the Saint Cecilia Mass caused a sort of stupor. This simplicity, this grandeur, this serene light which rose upon the musi cal world like a dawn troubled people greatly: one felt the approach of genius…. The luminous rays streamed forth from this Mass … at first one was dazzled, then charmed, then conquered.” If the Mass produced this effect on Saint-Saens, an atheist, one can only imagine its impact on the faithful. Happily, there is an excellent recording of it on EMI with Georges Pretre and the Chorus and Orchestra of the New Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France. It remains an overwhelming experience.

Gounod spent his last years, like his early ones, at daily Mass. He served as organist at his parish church in Saint-Cloud, where he could be somewhat of a taskmaster. If Mass proceeded at a pace Gounod considered disrespectfully hasty, he would hold the organ pedal on a prolonged Amen until the poor priest got the point and adopted a more solemn measure.

His last composition was the lovely Requiem for his grandson Maurice. The quality of this piece proves that, at the very end, Gounod had not only retained his creative gift but had achieved an emotional equilibrium grounded in a profound faith. As he was reading through the score on 15 October, 1893, he slumped over and fell into a coma. Two days later, still clutching a crucifix, he died. As he had requested, plainchant was sung at his funeral.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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