Charles Gounod

Charles Gounod was a French composer in the 19th century, born in 1818. When he was about five years old, his father died and to support the family Gounod’s mother started her own piano studio. This early experience with music fostered great interest, education and skill in Gounod. 

In 1836, Gounod began attending the Paris Conservatoire and studied composition with Halévy and others. In 1839 he won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand. He wrote thirteen operas, twenty-one masses, and a large amount of French melodie, as well as instrumental and other works. French composer, Maurice Ravel, claimed that Gounod really was the first founder of French melodie, while Wagner detested his Faust (1859) and thought it was a shame to the great German literature/legacy. 

Throughout his life and also shown in his music, Gounod had a constant pull between secular and sacred. In 1843 he became the choirmaster at Séminaire des Missions Etrangères church and he used this office as an opportunity to compose many sacred works, both instrumental and choral/vocal. He often spoke about becoming a priest, and in 1847 he began his education in priesthood only to leave the seminary one year later. Even after leaving this pursuit, Gounod continued to be very religious and his Catholic faith seemed to be a strong cornerstone in his life. 

**This reminds me of Juliette – her life was pretty chaotic, but she seemed sure of her faith. Example: Act III marriage scene, wedding vows**

Gounod met singer Pauline Viardot and her impresario husband, Louis Viardot, whose connections led to the commission for his first opera, Sapho (1851). Although his first opera was not hugely successful, the years after proved very fruitful.  By 1855, he was composing works for all kinds of occasions/venues including state, church, salon, concert hall and theatre. Again, Gounod was blurring the boundaries between sacred and secular as he was composing in both styles/genres simultaneously.

Gounod’s interest in the sacred also lent itself to Gounod’s music influences. He had a high preference for the choral and vocal works of Palestrina and Mendelssohn, as well as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. He was a 19th-century opera composer, so his style also contains chromaticism and expressive language of the Romantic era. The composer-critic Alfred Bruneau said that Gounod perfectly balanced the ‘pure simplicity of Mozart’ with the ‘troubling poetry of Schumann.’

Gounod must have had a preference for sacred medieval chant as well, as he thought it was “the best training possible for singers – even opera singers – not only because of its intrinsic musical quality but also because, studied in context, it would cure any young performer from the pernicious influence of that ‘daughter of vanity’, the quest for effect.” 

**I think this is definitely a huge aspect to consider when preparing Juliette’s music. Her role is quite dramatic and expressive, but I feel like Gounod would have imagined some restraint and unaffected sound. **

Gounod was also highly inspired and guided by the poetry and literature that he chose to set. He had a high interest in the classics, such as Goethe and Shakespeare, as well as local/important French poets, such as Lamartine. His opera Mireille (1864) is based on an epic poem in the Provençal language by Frédéric Mistral and he considered the language so important that he spent time in the local area in Southern France to understand the language and culture to properly set the text to music. 

This careful consideration of the language and text setting is so clearly represented in Gounod’s music. His ability to set the language so well and match the tone of the poet makes his music influential for both French opera and French melodie. He elevated French opera to a style that was closely connected and responsive to the poetry of its subjects. Not only was Gounod praised for his connection to the poetry, but he was also praised for his effective and elegant prosody. Prosody is essentially the music of language: the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry.

**Gounod’s efficient and elegant prosody is very present in Romeo and Juliet. Adding in the French language with the music has been so easy because the language and the  music just fit together so well, with inflection, melody, rhythm, everything. I also believe that the music beautifully mirrors the tone and feel of the Shakespeare poetry so well.**

Top focus/goal: Some overview of Gounod’s life/history/style

Challenges: There’s so much to cover here; more posts to come on the specifics of his style and works. I need to do more research and listening!

Further topics to explore:

  • Gounod’s musical style – look at other operas, his melodies, instrumental works, etc.
  • Gounod’s connection to the sacred and how this can inform my characterization of Juliette.
  • The librettists he worked with often and who adapted Shakespeare’s work – Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.

Characterization of Juliette: As mentioned above, I would like to find a balance between the dramatic, expressive side of Juliette and her young, innocent and gentle disposition. I will take into consideration what Gounod said about how the medieval chant is the best way to approach singing. (Maybe even practicing straight-tone/no vibrato will help clarify the sound and make the melodies really carry the voice instead of a labored/heavy sound).

I want to explore more of this connection to the sacred but I’m already wondering if Gounod viewed Romeo and Juliette as sacred beings. They were both pure and innocent and gave their lives to reconcile the hatred between families and bring peace. (Of course their ending was born of their love for one another and a tragic misunderstanding, but I think there is a connection there.) The sacrifice of their lives reminds me of how Christ sacrificed his life.

Another idea that has been swirling around in my head for some time now: Does Juliette know she is going to die? – There are SO many references to death, and other symbols of death all over the place. Even her very first moment in Act I concludes with the phrase “Comme l’oiseau s’envole aux cieux!/As the bird flies to the heavens!” Maybe this is reading too much into the text but I think it’s an interesting aspect to consider. Does she know her fate? And how does she chose to continue moving forward with each action knowing how it will end?

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