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Le Symphonique Abbé

Le Père et La Mère

Things might have been different for the son, Charles Francois of the Parisian Gounod family, born June 17, 1818, if the father had insisted that the lad would follow in his studio art footsteps. Fortunately for the music world, the mother started teaching the young boy on the pianoforte early until he entered school, the Lycée Saint Louis.

La Étude Haut

By 1836 Charles was studying harmony under Reica, and counterpoint and fugue from Halevy while composition was taught to him by Lesueur (Was this before the family went into the tiny pea business?) and Paer at the Conservatory of Paris. All this paid off when he won the Prix de Rome the next year with his submission of a cantata, Marie Stuart et Rizzio, followed in two years with the Grand Prix de Rome with another cantata, Fernanda. (Probably not the one sung by Abba, but L'Abbé.)

When in Rome

While in Rome, Italy in the beginning of the eighteen forties, he was absorbing ecclesiastical music, and by 1841 he had his orchestral mass put on in the Eternal City, and the next year he had brought Requiem -- with him conducting --to favorable acceptance in Vienna, Austria.

Get Thee to a Nunnery Monastery

He returned to Paris and worked for the Missions Étrangères as organist and precentor, and then took two years of theological training in hopes of becoming a priest. One publisher began calling him l'Abbé Gounod in 1846, but he really was almost hermetic for five years. It was during this sabbatical that he wrote the successful Messe Solonelle that debuted in London.

Overly Tragic Operas

Around this time he wrote a decent symphony, but his Greek opera, Sappho was a failure in its premiere in 1851, (and his rewrite later in 1884 fared no better). In 1852 he started conducting in Paris including the "Orpheum," which he did until 1860. He then tried to push in vain a grand opera in 1854, La Nonne Sanglante (The Bloody Nun), and a comic opera in 1858, which perhaps got laughed at in London for malpractice, Le Medécin Malgre Lui (The Mock Doctor).

Let's Make a Deal

During these late 1850's he composed several choruses and a couple of masses, but his opera Faust played at the Lyrique Theatre, got accolades continued to this day -- hopefully not obtained like the protagonist of the story.

One Out of Five

In the 1860's only his final attempt in 1867 with Romeo et Juliette was a hit, still performed, unlike these weaker endeavors, the first started in 1860: Philemon et Baucis, and 1862's La Reine de Saba, {bombing even as Irene in London), then two years later his La Columbe, and followed by a couple of more turns of the sun, with Mireille. Also in this decade in he became a member of the Institut de France in 1866 and was promoted to commander of the Legion of Honour.

Leaving that Killing Floor

The War in Europe caused Charles to vacate to London for five years during which time he led the Gounod's Choir, in 1870 composed the cantata for the Greek opera, A la Frontière, and in 1871 produced a cantata derived from "Lamentations" titled, Gallia.

Trying Times

Finally safe back in Paris, in 1877 he produced, with unintentional melancholy results, Cinq Mars for the Opera Comique, followed the next year by the equally disappointing Greek opera, Polyeucte. A year into the next decade did him no better with Le Tribute de Zamora. Fortunately by 1882 he created a good three piece suit with his religious La Redemption showing it off in Birmingham, and the masses: Messe Solennelle a Sainte Cecile. Three years later with Latin text he penned in Birmingham, Mars et Vita, and another two annual cycles done, he finished Jeanne d'Arc. Other works done in his mature period: a orchestral Stabat Mater, the oratorios, Tobie, Les Sept Paroles de Jésus, Jésus sur le Lac de Tiberiade, the French and English song cantatas, Le Vin des Gaulois and La Eppé. He drafted many essays, and Methode de cor a pistons. He never did finish the opera Maître Pierre, but before he died on October 17, 1893, he left one of the first comic operas in prose, Georges Dandin. A compilation, Memoires was published in Paris in 1895. Gounod's The Funeral; March of a Marionette provided decades later his most prominent exposure, albeit unknown to most viewers, when it was used as the unforgettable theme music for the excellent 1950-60's television anthology, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Source: The Music Lover's Encyclopedia, compiled R. Hughes, Gramercy: NY, 1903, 2002.
Thanks also to signmoan for the tip on Gounod's "The Funeral; March of a Marionette" as Alfred Hitchcock's opening music.

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