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Charles Gounod: Charles Gounod (b. Paris, 18 June 1818; d. Saint-Cloud, 18 Oct 1893).
Charles Gounod was born in Paris, where his father was a painter of some talent, having won a second Grand Prix de Rome in 1783. Early piano lessons from his mother, who was a daughter of a Conservatoire professor of the piano, Pierre Zimmermann, were followed by a full classical education at the Lycee Saint Louis, so that when Charles Gounod entered the Conservatoire in 1836 he was already a Bachelor of Arts. His further musical education had begun privately some time before, so that he won a second Prix de Rome in 1837 and the Grand Prix de Rome itself in 1839. His masters were Paer and Lesueur (who also taught Berlioz) for composition and Halevy for counterpoint. Unlike Berlioz, he found in Rome itself musical experiences that were to influence his whole life and development. These were the performances of Palestrina in the Sistine Chapel, which prompted the young composer to try his own hand at the austere polyphonic style of church music then totally out of fashion. In May 18,41 his three-part Mass with orchestra was performed at the French church in Rome, San Luigi ai Francesi, and a Requiem and unaccompanied three-part Mass composed shortly afterwards were performed in Vienna, where Charles Gounod stayed some time on his way home from Rome to Paris. In Rome he had met Fanny Henselt, Mendelssohn's sister, and he now met Mendelssohn, heard the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, then the best in Europe, and made the acquaintance of Schumann's music. In fact, on his return to Paris Charles Gounod was almost unique among French composers of the day in his knowledge of the latest contemporary music and the standards of perform- ance outside France.
His friendships in Rome and the influence of the Dominican preacher Pere Lacordaire, as well as temperamental inclination, determined the course of Charles Gounod's career on his return to Paris. He accepted the post of organist and choirmaster in the church of the Missions Etrangeres in the Rue du Bac, where he attempted to introduce music, including that of Palestrina, very different from the existing repertory of sentimental and operatic works common in Catholic churches at this time. But his religious enthusiasm went further and led him eventually (1846) to become an external student at the seminary of Saint Sulpice. Between 1845 and 1850 there were no performances of new works by him except two Masses for men's voices only, but in 1851 numbers from his Messe Solennelle a Sainte Cecile were given in one of Hullah's concerts at St Martin's Hall, London and won glowing notices.
Charles Gounod's vocation to the priesthood, however, proved no more than a passing phase in the life of a man whose subsequent career proved him to be wholly dominated by his emotions. A friendship with the singer Pauline Viardot (who was for many years the mistress of the Russian novelist Turgeniev) led not only to an engagement to one of her daughters, but also to an interest in the opera, the most common and certainly the most lucrative field for French composers at this time. The engagement fell through, but Pauline Viardot sang the title role in Charles Gounod's first opera, Sapho (Paris Opera, 1851), which was praised by Berlioz and became the foundation of Charles Gounod's reputation in the theatre. His life-long interest in choral singing found expression in the choruses written for Ponsard's play Vlysse (1852), and in the same year he was appointed conductor of the Paris 'Orpheon', a men's choral society for which he was to write his second Mass for men's voices only (1870). His second opera, based on Lewis's Monk, and entitled La Nonne Sanglante was a failure in 1854, but the much more modest Le Medecin malgre lui, based on Moliere (1857), showed him at the height of his powers as a craftsman and lyricist and untouched by the grandiosity and theatrical pretentiousness of the current operatic style popularised by Meyerbeer.
With Faust (1859), written in a comparable style with spoken dialogue and no ballet, he achieved his first resounding success which also proved in many ways his undoing. Asked to write sung recitatives for a performance in Strasbourg, he complied and ten years later, with ballet added, the present familiar version of the work was given at the Paris Opera. During those ten years Charles Gounod also wrote the modest and delightful Philemon et Baucis and La Colombe, both of which had their first performance in 1860, and a year later the much more pretentious and Meyerbeerian La Reine de Saba (Opera, 1862). A Provencal opera based on Mistral's Mireio (Mireille, 1864) proved over-long and was cut from five acts to three, but again shows Charles Gounod's charming if limited melodic gift and a nice sense of atmosphere. This was given at the Theatre Lyrique, where Faust was first presented, and so was his next opera, Romeo et Juliette. The two librettists, Barbier and Carre, who were already responsible for the texts of Le Medecin malgre lui, Faust, Philemon et Baucis, La Colombe and La Reine de Saba, constructed on this occasion a skilful and on the whole remarkably faithful version of Shakespeare's play, and Romeo et Juliette is arguably Charles Gounod's finest work for the stage. The prevalence of the love interest gave the composer almost unlimited opportunity to exploit his lyrical vein, but Juliet's waltz-song, the Queen Mab music and the page Stephano's provocative 'Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle?' are also in the very finest French operatic tradition. Although much admired by Sir Thomas Beecham Romeo et Juliette has not won favour comparable to that of Faust in this country, but it is still regularly given in France.
The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 found Charles Gounod holidaying by the seaside with his wife, whom he had married in 1864. With a number of other French artists, including Pauline Viardot, he fled to London and this change of scene brought about a great change in his musical interests as well as in his private life. The fact that his stay in England was prolonged until 1875, long after the end of the war, was due to his close relationship with a gifted, influential but eccentric and psychologically unstable woman, Mrs Augusta Weldon, separated from her husband and wholly devoted to the cause of musical education and to furthering her own career as a singer. He returned to Paris in 1871 for the first performance of his patriotic cantata Gallia, but his chief musical concerns during these years in London were conducting the Philharmonic, the Crystal Palace and other concerts and the formation of a choir named first after himself, then the Albert Hall Choral Society and eventually the Royal Choral Society. Abandoning the opera, he turned his attention again to choral music often with liturgical texts (Missa brevis, Messe des anges gardiens, Messe breve pour les morts) but also indulged to the full that vein of saccharine piosity already familiar from Jesus de Nazareth and Bethleem, both written during the 1850s, and exploited in England with only a minimal variation to suit the Protestant rather than the Catholic ethos. Most important of all was his experience of large English choirs, whose performances were a revelation to him as they had been to Handel and Haydn; and it was this experience that prompted him to compose the two 'sacred trilogies' which were his most important works of the 1880s - La Redemption (1881) and Mors et vita (1884).
Charles Gounod's affair with Mrs Weldon, who was rapidly moving towards the state of mental disintegration which made the last years of her life a nightmare of litigation and even involved her in a prison sentence, dragged on interminably with quarrels,, reconciliations and even a lawsuit, which naturally caused havoc in his family circle. Of the three operas that he wrote after his return from England only Polyeucte (Opera, 1878) had at least a succesd'estime. In this he tried to apply to dramatic music the principles which had for long guided him in composing for the church - a minimum of modulation, a maximum of rhythmic simplicity and a recitative not far removed from liturgical monotone. The suavely platitudinous result failed to interest the public. Charles Gounod called it 'la fresque musicale' - musical fresco-work - and there are many examples of it in La Redemption and Mors el vita, as well as in the nine Masses that he wrote between 1882 and his death in 1893.
Many years earlier, while he was engaged in writing Romeo et Juliette, he had written to a friend, 'In the midst of this silence I seem to hear an interior voice speaking to me of something very great, very clear, very simple and very childlike.' His detractors might well suggest that this was no more than flatulence, and there is no doubt that Charles Gounod was unable to distinguish the sublimely simple from the simply banal in his own music. He is among the composers who is at his best when he does not aim too high, as is shown not only by the less pretentious of his operas but by a number of charming drawing-room songs and the Petite Symphonie for wind instruments written five years before his death. His bland, suave lyrical line had a deep influence on French opera composers of the next generation after his own, most notably Bizet (Micaela's music in Carmen is almost pure Charles Gounod) and Massenet, who was nicknamed 'la fille de Gounod'; and also on English composers of church music, among whom he suc- ceeded to the position earlier held by Mendelssohn.
Charles Gounod's music has a great purity of line and an immaculately transparent texture. What he lacked was the ability to sustain a melody without frequent cadences, and any deep reserves of either thought or imagination. It is essentially an art of the surface, a fact suggested by Wagner who spoke of Charles Gounod's as 'face-powder music', which is unjust as a general judgment but an apt image of its weakness.
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