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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 8367

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Gounod's genius fills too large a space in contemporary music to be passed over without a brief special study. In pursuit of this no better method suggests itself than an examination of the opera of "Faust," into which the composer poured the finest inspirations of his life, even as Goethe embodied the sum and flower of his long career, which had garnered so many experiences, in his poetic masterpiece.

The story of "Faust" has tempted many composers. Prince Radziwill tried it, and then Spohr set a version of the theme at once coarse and cruel, full of vulgar witchwork and love-making only fit for a chambermaid. Since then Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz have treated the story orchestrally with more or less success. Gounod's treatment of the poem is by far the most intelligible, poetic, and dramatic ever attempted, and there is no opera since the days of Gluck with so little weak music, except Beethoven's "Fidelio."

In the introduction the restless gloom of the old philospher and the contrasted joys of youth engaged in rustic revelry outside are expressed with graphic force; and the Kirmes music in the next act is so quaint and original, as well as melodious, as to give the sense of delightful comedy. When Marguerite enters on the scene, we have a waltz and chorus of such beauty and piquancy as would have done honor to Mozart. Indeed, in the dramatic use of dance music Gounod hardly yields in skill and originality to Meyerbeer himself, though the latter composer specially distinguished himself in this direction. The third and fourth acts develop all the tenderness and passion of Marguerite's character, all the tragedy of her doom.

After Faust's beautiful monologue in the garden come the song of the "King of Thule" and Marguerites delight at finding the jewels, which conjoined express the artless vanity of the child in a manner alike full of grace and pathos. The quartet that follows is one of great beauty, the music of each character being thoroughly in keeping, while the admirable science of the composer blends all into thorough artistic unity. It is hardly too much to assert that the love scene which closes this act has nothing to surpass it for fire, passion, and tenderness, seizing the mind of the hearer with absorbing force by its suggestion and imagery, while the almost cloying sweetness of the melody is such as Rossini and Schubert only could equal. The full confession of the enamored pair contained in the brief adagio throbs with such rapture as to find its most suggestive parallel in the ardent words commencing "Gallop apace, ye fiery-looted steeds," placed by Shakespeare in the mouth of the expectant Juliet.

Beauties succeed each other in swift and picturesque succession, fitting the dramatic order with a nicety which forces the highest praise of the critic. The march and chorus marking the return of Valentine's regiment beat with a fire and enthusiasm to which the tramp of victorious squadrons might well keep step. The wicked music of Mephistopheles in the sarcastic serenade, the powerful duel trio, and Valentine's curse are of the highest order of expression; while the church scene, where the fiend whispers his taunts in the ear of the disgraced Marguerite, as the gloomy musical hymn and peals of the organ menace her with an irreversible doom, is a weird and thrilling picture of despair, agony, and devilish exultation.

Gounod has been blamed for violating the reverence due to sacred things, employing portions of the church service in this scene, instead of writing music for it. But this is the last resort of critical hostility, seeking a peg on which to hang objection. Meyerbeer's splendid introduction of Luther's great hymn, "Ein' feste Burg," in "Les Huguenots," called forth a similar criticism from his German assailants. Some of the most dramatic effects in music have been created by this species of musical quotation, so rich in its appeal to memory and association. Who that has once heard can forget the thrilling power of "La Marseillaise" in Schumann's setting of Heinrich Heine's poem of "The Two Grenadiers"? The two French soldiers, weary and broken-hearted after the Rus

sian campaign, approach the German frontier. The veterans are moved to tears as they think of their humiliated Emperor. Up speaks one suffering with a deadly hurt to the other: "Friend, when I am dead, bury me in my native France, with my cross of honor on my breast, and my musket in my hand, and lay my good sword by my side." Until this time the melody has been a slow and dirge-like stave in the minor key. The old soldier declares his belief that he will rise again from the clods when he hears the victorious tramp of his Emperor's squadrons passing over his grave, and the minor breaks into a weird setting of the "Marseillaise" in the major key. Suddenly it closes with a few solemn chords, and, instead of the smoke of battle and the march of the phantom host, the imagination sees the lonely plain with its green mounds and moldering crosses.

Readers will pardon this digression illustrating an artistic law, of which Gounod has made such effective use in the church scene of his "Faust" in heightening its tragic solemnity. The wild goblin symphony in the fifth act has added some new effects to the gamut of deviltry in music, and shows that Weber in the "Wolf's Glen" and Meyerbeer in the "Cloisters of St. Rosalie" did not exhaust the somewhat limited field. The whole of this part of the act, sadly mutilated and abridged often in representation, is singularly picturesque and striking as a musical conception, and is a fitting companion to the tragic prison scene. The despair of the poor crazed Marguerite; her delirious joy in recognizing Faust; the temptation to fly; the final outburst of faith and hope, as the sense of Divine pardon sinks into her soul-all these are touched with the fire of genius, and the passion sweeps with an unfaltering force to its climax. These references to the details of a work so familiar as "Faust," conveying of course no fresh information to the reader, have been made to illustrate the peculiarities of Gounod's musical temperament, which sways in such fascinating contrast between the voluptuous and the spiritual. But whether his accents belong to the one or the other, they bespeak a mood flushed with earnestness and fervor, and a mind which recoils from the frivolous, however graceful it may be.

In the Franco-German school, of which Gounod is so high an exponent, the orchestra is busy throughout developing the history of the emotions, and in "Faust" especially it is as busy a factor in expressing the passions of the characters as the vocal parts. Not even in the "garden scene" does the singing reduce the instruments to a secondary importance. The difference between Gounod and Wagner, who professes to elaborate the importance of the orchestra in dramatic music, is that the former has a skill in writing for the voice which the other lacks. The one lifts the voice by the orchestration, the other submerges it. Gounod's affluence of lovely melody can only be compared with that of Mozart and Rossini, and his skill and ingenuity in treating the orchestra have wrung reluctant praise from his bitterest opponents.

The special power which makes Gounod unique in his art, aside from those elements before alluded to as derived from temperament, is his unerring sense of dramatic fitness, which weds such highly suggestive music to each varying phase of character and action. To this perhaps one exception may be made. While he possesses a certain airy playfulness, he fails in rich broad humor utterly, and situations of comedy are by no means so well handled as the more serious scenes.

A good illustration of this may be found in "Le Médecin malgré lui," in the couplets given to the drunken Sganarelle. They are beautiful music, but utterly unflavored with the vis comica.

Had Gounod written only "Faust," it should stamp him as one of the most highly gifted composers of his age. Noticeably in his other works, preeminently in this, he has shown a melodic freshness and fertility, a mastery of musical form, a power of orchestration, and a dramatic energy, which are combined to the same degree in no one of his rivals. Therefore it is just to place him in the first rank of contemporary composers.

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