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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 8458

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The year of his triumph had at last arrived. He had waited and toiled for years over "Faust," and it was now ready to flash on the world with an electric brightness that was to make his name instantly famous. One day saw him an obscure, third-rate composer, the next one of the brilliant names in art. "Faust," first performed March 19, 1859, fairly took the world by storm. Gounod's warmest friends were amazed by the beauty of the masterpiece, in which exquisite melody, great orchestration, and a dramatic passion never surpassed in operatic art, were combined with a scientific skill and precision which would vie with that of the great masters of harmony. Carvalho, the manager of the Theatre Lyrique, had predicted that the work would have a magnificent reception by the art world, and lavished on it every stage resource. Madame Miolan-Carvalho, his brilliant wife, one of the leading sopranos of the day, sang the r?le of the heroine, though five years afterward she was succeeded by Nilsson, who invested the part with a poetry and tenderness which have never been quite equaled.

"Faust" was received at Berlin, Vienna, Milan, St. Petersburg, and London, with an enthusiasm not less than that which greeted its Parisian début. The clamor of dispute between the different schools was for the moment hushed in the delight with which the musical critics and public of universal Europe listened to the magical measures of an opera which to classical chasteness and severity of form and elevation of motive united such dramatic passion, richness of melody, and warmth of orchestral color. From that day to the present "Faust" has retained its place as not only the greatest but the most popular of modern operas. The proof of the composer's skill and sense of symmetry in the composition of "Faust" is shown in the fact that each part is so nearly necessary to the work, that but few "cuts" can be made in presentation without essentially marring the beauty of the work; and it is therefore given with close faithfulness to the author's score.

After the immense success of "Faust," the doors of the Academy were opened wide to Gounod. On February 28, 1862, the "Reine de Saba" was produced, but was only a succès d'estime, the libretto by Gérard de Nerval not being fitted for a lyric tragedy.*

* It has been a matter of frequent comment by the ablest

musical critics that many noble operas, now never heard,

would have retained their place in the repertoires of modern

dramatic music, had it not been for the utter rubbish to

which the music has been set.

Many numbers of this fine work, however, are still favorites on concert programmes, and it has been given in English under the name of "Irene." Gounod's love of romantic themes, and the interest in France which Lamartine's glowing eulogies had excited about "Mireio," the beautiful national poem of the Proven?al, M. Frederic Mistral, led the former to compose an opera on a libretto from this work, which was given at the Théatre Lyrique, March 19, 1864, under the name of "Mireille." The music, however, was rather descriptive and lyric than dramatic, as befitted this lovely ideal of early French provincial life; and in spite of its containing some of the most captivating airs ever written, and the fine interpretation of the heroine by Miolan-Carvalho, it was accepted with reservations. It has since become more popular in its three-act form to which it was abridged. It is a tribute to the essential beauty of Gounod's music that, however unsuccessful as operas certain of his works have been, they have all contributed charming morceaux for the enjoyment of concert audiences. Not only did the airs of "Mireille" become public favorites, but its overture is frequently given as a distinct orchestral work.

The opera of "La Colombe," known in English as "The Pet Dove," followed in 1866; and the next year was produced the five-act opera of "Roméo et Juliette," of which the principal part was again taken by Madame Miolan-Carvalho. The favorite pieces in this work, which is a highly poetic rendering of Shakespeare's romantic tragedy, are the song of Queen Mab, the garden duet, a short chorus in the second act, and the duel scene

in the third act. For some occult reason, "Roméo et Juliette," though recognized as a work of exceptional beauty and merit, and still occasionally performed, has no permanent hold on the operatic public of to-day.

The evils that fell on France from the German war and the horrors of the Commune drove Gounod to reside in London, unlike Auber, who resolutely refused to forsake the city of his love, in spite of the suffering and privation which he foresaw, and which were the indirect cause of the veteran composer's death. Gounod remained several years in England, and lived a retired life, seemingly as if he shrank from public notice and disdained public applause. His principal appearances were at the Philharmonic, the Crystal Palace, and at Mrs. Weldon's concerts, where he directed the performances of his own compositions. The circumstances of his London residence seem to have cast a cloud over Gounod's life and to have strangely unsettled his mind. Patriotic grief probably had something to do with this at the outset. But even more than this as a source of permanent irritation may be reckoned the spell cast over Gounod's mind by a beautiful adventuress, who was ambitious to attain social and musical recognition through the éclat of the great composer's friendship. Though newspaper report may be credited with swelling and distorting the naked facts, enough appears to be known to make it sure that the evil genius of Gounod's London life was a woman, who traded recklessly with her own reputation and the French composer's fame.

However untoward the surroundings of Gounod, his genius did not lie altogether dormant during this period of friction and fretfulness, conditions so repressive to the best imaginative work. He composed several masses and other church music; a "Stabat Mater" with orchestra; the oratorio of "Tobie"; "Gallia," a lamentation for France; incidental music for Legouvé's tragedy of "Les Deux Reines," and for Jules Barbier's "Jeanne d'Arc"; a large number of songs and romances, both sacred and secular, such as "Nazareth," and "There is a Green Hill"; and orchestral works, a "Salterello in A," and the "Funeral March of a Marionette."

At last he broke loose from the bonds of Delilah, and, remembering that he had been elected to fill the place of Clapisson in the Institute, he returned to Paris in 1876 to resume the position which his genius so richly deserved. On the 5th of March of the following year his "Cinq-Mars" was brought out at the Theatre de l'Opéra Comique; but it showed the traces of the haste and carelessness with which it was written, and therefore commanded little more than a respectful hearing. His last opera, "Polyeucte," produced at the Grand Opera, October 7, 1878, though credited with much beautiful music, and nobly orchestrated, is not regarded by the French critics as likely to add anything to the reputation of the composer of "Faust." Gounod, now at the age of sixty, if we judge him by the prolonged fertility of so many of the great composers, may be regarded as not having largely passed the prime of his powers. The world still has a right to expect much from his genius. Conceded even by his opponents to be a great musician and a thorough master of the orchestra, more generous critics in the main agree to rank Gounod as the most remarkable contemporary composer, with the possible exception of Richard Wagner. The distinctive trait of his dramatic conceptions seems to be an imagination hovering between sensuous images and mystic dreams. Originally inspired by the severe Greek sculpture of Gluck's music, he has applied that master's laws in the creation of tone-pictures full of voluptuous color, but yet solemnized at times by an exaltation which recalls the time when as a youth he thought of the spiritual dignity of the priesthood. The use he makes of his religious reminiscences is familiarly illustrated in "Faust." The contrast between two opposing principles is marked in all of Gounod's dramatic works, and in "Faust" this struggle of "a soul which invades mysticism and which still seeks to express voluptuousness" not only colors the music with a novel fascination, but amounts to an interesting psychological problem.

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