Charles Gounod (1818 - 1893)
Tobie (Petit oratorio)
With a painter father and a pianist mother, the family into which Charles Gounod was born on 18th June, 1818, could only strengthen his natural leaning towards the arts and contribute to the precocious development of his musical gifts. It was, in fact, his mother who first introduced him to music. This interest in music, however, had no adverse effect on his general cultural formation and his parents saw to it that he continued his general studies, while having private lessons from Anton Reicha, one of the leading figures at the Paris Conservatoire. At the age of eighteen, his general studies now completed, Gounod officially became a student at the Conservatoire, taking courses in counterpoint under Halevy and composition with Le Sueur, while studying the piano with Zimmermann.
A proof of Gounod"s exceptional attainments at his entry to the Conservatoire may be seen in the fact that he entered for the Prix de Rome in 1837, taking second prize. He won the first prize two years later, enthusiastically taking up residence at the Villa Medici in Rome, in contrast to the reluctance that had been displayed by Berlioz some years before. He stayed in Rome until 1842, occupied in the wider development of his cultural interests. Here he eagerly studied scores of sixteenth century vocal music, principally of Palestrina, but also of Lully, Mozart and the composers that he heard at the opera, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Apart from music, Italy also offered scope for his interest in painting, allowing him to study drawing with Ingres, director of the Villa Medici. He was able to occupy his free time with reading, notably of Lacordaire, whose mysticism is reflected in a number of religious works, the Te Deum, two short Masses, Hymne and the Requiem.
In 1842, instead of returning at once to France, Gounod went to Vienna. Here he met Otto Nicolai and had some of his own music performed, before moving on to Leipzig with Mendelssohn"s sister Fanny, whom he had met in Rome. The encounter with Mendelssohn was a revelation to Gounod when the former played to him various organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach and gave him some scores of Bach"s sacred music.
Returning to France, Gounod was again seized by a bout of mysticism, signing his letters the Abbe Gounod. This delayed a little the development of his career. His vocation, however, remained sufficiently uncertain and under the influence of friends such as Pauline Viardot, he gave up the religious life in favour of creative activity dominated by sacred and secular vocal music.
Gounod"s first opera, Sapho, on 1st April 1851, with Pauline Viardot in the title role, marks the beginning of a brilliant career that made the composer one of the central figures in French opera in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was still preoccupied to some extent with sacred subjects and in 1854 and 1855 he wrote two masterpieces, the little oratorio Tobie and the Messe de Sainte-Cecile. At the height of his career, during the following ten years, except in 1857 when he suffered a psychological crisis and doubts, his inspiration expressed itself in such works as Faust (first version, 1859), La Reine de Sabat (1862), Mireille (1864) and Romeo et Juliette (1867), before the second version of Faust, with which the composer"s name is so closely associated, eventually staged at the Paris Opera in 1869.
Married since 1852 to the daughter of his former piano teacher, Zimmermann, Gounod was known for his frequent extra-marital adventures. The war of 1870 gave further opportunity for this. Hostilities made him to settle in England for some time with a singer, Georgina Weldon, who several times sang the soprano solo part in the cantata Gallia. He later described this liaison as the greatest mistake in his life.
A cerebral attack induced Gounod to return to France in 1874. Here he quickly recovered and continued his creative career in which opera now generally gave way to oratorios such as La Redemption (1882) or Mors et Vita, the performance of which in London in 1885 in the presence of Queen Victoria was a triumphant success. During the last years of his life, he wrote less, although this was the period of the Symphony for ten wind instruments (1886).
In 1891 Gounod suffered a stroke but survived a further two years, dying of apoplexy on 16th October 1893.
An Interview with Jacques Grimbert
Why did you decide to record these two scores by Charles Gounod, works that ad not been recorded before?
Grimbert: Some years before I had discovered the score of Gallia and had kept it in my library. When Marco Polo suggested that I should continue on the course we had embarked on with the unrecorded cantatas of Debussy, Caplet and Ravel, I immediately thought of Gallia. It was necessary to offer with this a work sufficiently short but I did not want to record any works already known and well served on record (for example the Messe de Sainte-Cecile) or others, less well known, but with undeniable weaknesses (for example La Redemption). My researches then led me to Tobie, described by Gounod as a "little oratorio". I was immediately attracted by a work in which the dramatic instinct of the operatic composer is present and which offers very dense vocal writing, influenced by composers of earlier periods.
Let us deal with each work separately. Tobie first.
Grimbert: In its structure Tobie reminds us of the type of sacred history written by Carissimi, with characters that intervene in the form of recitatives, duets, quartets. Gounod achieves a perfect balance of these episodes. First performed in Lyon at the end of April 1854, Tobie uses a text by Hippolyte Lefevre that relates the principal events in the life of Tobias, whose absence is lamented by his parents, after the young man has been sent by his blind father to Media to recover a sum of silver lent to a friend. Guided by the Archangel Raphael, Tobias ends by returning to his people, when his father is miraculously cured of his blindness. The text of Tobie is more than a short story full of miracles. It is first a moral tale, based on the great religious themes of the Old Testament, taken up again by Christianity. Father and son are just men put to the test, examples for Anna, wife and mother, whose faith remains weak. The tale illustrates the effectiveness of prayer and of Divine Providence and exalts family and social virtues.
The score of Tobie is divided into nine numbers. It begins with an introduction for the chorus: a lament in the ancient manner, a little like the first chorus in Gluck"s Orphee. Here Anna laments the absence of a son that she thinks she has lost for ever.
In No.2 Air and Chorus the old Tobias answers his wife and expresses his faith in the Lord in a magnificent chorale, before being joined first by Anna and then by the chorus.
No.3 Recitative and Chorus depicts the return of the young Tobias. First there is a recitative by Anna and then a fugal chorus. In No.4 Recitative and Air the opera composer is evident, particularly in the beautiful air for Tobias, Pressez moi bien entre vos bras (Embrace me in your arms), characterized by very light orchestration with muted strings and very expressive woodwind writing.
No.6 Recitative and Quartet is attractive in the beauty of its orchestration, evidence of remarkable dramatic understanding. It leads to a superb vocal quartet. The Invocation offers a meditation that accompanies the prayer of the young Tobias for the restoration of his father"s sight. It is fulfilled in No.7 Melodrama, Recitative and Quartet, where chromatic writing and tremolos provide a mysterious accompaniment to the miracle by which old Tobias recovers his sight. Je recommence a vivre (I start to live again), he sings, and soon all the participants welcome the miracle. There is a coda in the form of a chorale. No.8 is the aria of Raphael, based on the alternation of the chords of C minor and E flat, ending with an Andante in G major, where the angelic nature of the character is revealed. No.9 completes the work with a hymn to the glory of God for divisi chorus and the four soloists.
Was Gallia written in a different spirit?
Grimbert: Gallia, subtitled Lamentation, is equally striking for its unity and the quality of its orchestration, but it only calls for a four-part chorus and a soprano soloist. Later, in 1871, Gounod described the composition in the following terms:
I had the idea of representing France as she was, not only conquered, crushed, but outraged, insulted, violated by the insolence and brutality of her enemy. I remembered Jerusalem, in ruins, the complaints of the prophet Jeremiah, and on the first lines of these lamentations I wrote a biblical elegy called Gallia. The text, realistic in feeling, provided this universal, infallible, Catholic note of the misfortune of conquered nations and the burning rage with which victims invoke the God of war, the vengeance of the Lord. The composition came to me complete, in one whole; it burst into my head like a bombshell; I may say that it imposed itself on me rather than that I composed it.
Shorter than Tobie, Gallia is in four episodes. No.1 Introduction is entrusted entirely to the chorus, while the continuous semiquavers of the violins and violas reinforce the oppressive character of the episode. In No.2 Cantilena the soprano melody alternates with the chorus or is superimposed on the choral part and accentuates in this way the expressive effect of the lament, all this accompanied by very light orchestration. No.3 Solo and Chorus moves in its first bars into a chorale until the more dramatic final section with its clashing rhythms. Jerusalem, reviens vers le Seigneur (Jerusalem, return to the Lord) is the exhortation of the final section, No.4 Finale, which moves forward over obsessive triplet chords to a final crescendo in which the chorus joins the soloist.
(English translation by Keith Anderson)
"I do not know what you will want to do when you come back. Will you turn to the religious life or to the opera?" In a letter of 17th April 1842 addressed to her son, Victoire Gounod, with a sure maternal instinct, presented the double career of the young Charles Gounod, while, barely 24 years old, he was living in Rome as a prize-winner of the Academie des Beaux Arts. Twelve years later Gounod seemed to have chosen his path. Thanks to the support of Pauline Viardot, his Sapho, first staged on 18th Apri11851, had opened for him the doors of the Grand Opera. He had completed La nonne sanglante (The Sighing Nun} and the five-act work was to be given at the Salle Le Peletier on 18th October 1854. In spite of the undoubted failure of this dark work of fantasy that Berlioz himself had turned down, Gounod established himself in the theatre. He became none the less a composer of religious music, a genre in which he excelled, when he remembered that the lyrical also has its place in church. It was in these circumstances that the little oratorio Tobie (Tobias) was performed for the first time in Lyon at the end of Apri11854, at the annual concert organized by Georges Haini, then conductor at the Lyon Grand Theatre. Drawn from the Apocrypha, the text was by H. Lefevre, doubtless Hippolyte Lefevre, the regular collaborator with Dennery. The work, therefore, has a didactic element, as did later La Redemption and Mors et Vita. While not wearing the habit of a religious, Gounod used his art for the education and strengthening of faith of his contemporaries.
The oratorio opens with an Introduction  in which, over a continuing orchestral part, the song of comfort of the chorus rises by successive fifths in a way familiar in Gounod"s style. A second, polyphonic section, more imitative, leads to the intervention of Anna, who echoes the first bars of the chorus, unbelieving and thinking that she has lost her son for ever. This is followed by a recitative  in which old Tobias expresses his faith in God. The melody grows livelier with modulations and a legato accompaniment contrasted with the plucked notes of the double basses. Anna and the chorus join in this declaration of faith. In the following recitative and chorus  Anna thanks God for the return of her son, with elements of the first chorus returning. There is a fugal chorus, leading to a chorale.
In the next recitative and aria  Tobias returns, accompanied by the Archangel Raphael. He offers a tripartite aria of particular charm and delicacy , recalling, in its simplicity, the style of operatic romance. The angel announces the cure of old Tobias  and there is a vocal quartet , criticized
by the contemporary press for its less interesting moments. The strings offer a chorale worthy of the organ in Invocation , while Tobias prays for a cure for his father, an episode that has something of the atmosphere of the love-theme of Romeo et Juliette. This leads to the cure of old Tobias , with chromaticism, diminished seventh chords and tremolo, as in every scene of fantasy in opera. There is a vocal quartet leading to a coda in chorale style. The angel finally reveals his identity , after which the divided chorus and vocal quartet praise the glory of God, doubled by the orchestra, which lengthens the last note of each phrase before breaking out into rapider jubilation .
Critics were unanimous in their praise of the merits of the work. Apart from the fact that, according to La France Musicale of 30th April 1854, this was a work of "decentralisation?, there was general appreciation of a composition in which skill seemed no less brilliant than religious inspiration, as the Revue et Gazette Musical de Paris declared. In 1866, when Gounod, at the height of his fame, was elected a member of the Academie des Beaux Arts, replacing Clapisson, La France Musicale awarded its annual prize to Tobie, which had not yet been published. A vocal score of the oratorio was offered to all subscribers and the writer declared that Tobie allied Gounod"s modern technique with the severity of style that distinguished the great Rameau, Gluck and Handel, the whole marked by the serene and grandiose beauty that moves all artistic hearts. In this article of 18th February 1866, D. Stern commented on the way that the modern lyrical and expressive style borrowed from opera could serve religious art, readily contrapuntal and reputedly severe. The successful synthesis of Tobie shows the double nature of the composer.
When the Second Empire was overturned by the defeat of Sedan, Gounod, not finding the courage to live under enemy colours, on 13th September 1870 took refuge in England. There, some months later, he met Georgina Weldon, a singer and adventuress, with whom for three years he carried on a liaison of disturbing ambiguity .It was then that the English government asked him for a work for the opening of the London international exhibition. This was Gallia, a representation of France defeated, reflecting the fate of Jerusalem lamented by the Prophet Jeremiah. The work was first performed at the Albert Hall on 1st May 1871 before an audience of ten thousand. Given in Paris on 29th October at the Conservatoire Societe des Concerts, the work was repeated in a staged version on 8th November at the Opera-Comique and for the feast of St Cecilia at the Church of Saint-Eustache. Gounod insisted on Georgina Weldon as the soloist.
While the English press bestowed high praise on the composer, whom they compared somewhat ineptly to Handel, the Paris newspapers attacked Gounod, whom they considered no longer a true Frenchman. To have the part of France, outraged, taken by an Englishwoman of doubtful reputation could only further embitter the situation, in spite of the composer"s sincerity.
Gallia opens with a chorale based on a descending melodic line, as in traditional laments .The central section is lyrical, while the third brings back the chromaticism of the opening, now with richer harmony. The whole is unified by the writing for violins and violas . In a Cantilena  the soprano soloist sings a melodic line, interwoven with the chorus, in chromatic writing, with the strings offering an accompaniment that suggests piano writing, this coloured by the intervention of wind instruments. The soloist and chorus offer a choral lament  of throbbing intensity and this leads to the final section , with its concluding crescendo.
Without reaching the level of a masterpiece, Gallia is worthy of its composer and of the subject treated. In the idiom of his day Gounod depicts with nobility and feeling the desolation of a nation that has been deeply injured. It is this that gives the cantata its value for our own time.
(English version by Keith Anderson)