Charles Gounod: Symphony no. 2 in E-flat

performed by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under Oleg Caetani, or below by the Orchestra of St. John’s under John Lubbock

(cover image by Chris Barbalis)

Charles-François Gounod was born on 17 June, 1818 in Paris. His mother was a pianist, from whom he received his first piano lessons, and his father was an artist. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire with two people whose names I don’t recognize.

In 1839 he won the prestigious Prix de Rome for a cantata, Fernand. His father had won the coveted award for painting in 1783. Gounod spent some time in Italy, where he studied the music of Palestrina and music of the 16th century. He would almost join the priesthood, in 1847, and even though he didn’t, he always had a special love of sacred music. This was perhaps strengthened by a great failure, and a success. Gounod’s first opera, Sapho, in 1851 was an enormous failure, but his Mass Solennelle (a.k.a. the St. Cecilia Mass) was completed in 1854, and premiered on 22 November, 1855 (St. Cecilia Day) in Paris, and this was apparently the beginning of his rise to fame.

This was also the year he wrote his first two symphonies, the first of which inspired Bizet to write his first (and only completed, if I remember correctly) symphony at the ripe young age of 17.

Gounod was introduced to the music of J.S. Bach by Fanny Mendelssohn, and came to adore his music, ultimately resulting in one of the man’s most famous compositions, his Ave Maria, based on one of Bach’s works. In 1859, his Faust hit the stage and later became his most famous work.

Gounod lived in England from 1870 to 1874, and was the first conductor of the Royal Choral Society. He wrote lots of sacred music, and was a devout Catholic. He finished a requiem for his grandson in 1893, and died shortly thereafter of a stroke.

In total, Gounod would write 12 operas, two symphonies (and an incomplete third), 6 oratorios, 3 ballets, and just gobs of masses, motets, and other vocal music, but today, we’re going back to 1855, when the composer was coming up on 40 years old, to his second symphony.

The work is in four movements, as below, with a playing time of about 35 minutes:

  1. Adagio- allegro agitato
  2. Larghetto (non troppo)
  3. Scherzo- allegro molto
  4. Finale: Allegro, leggiero assai

The adagio of the first movement is an introduction with an operatic opening gesture, like a beautiful hallway that leads to the main part of the house, where things will begin to happen. The hallway, or foyer, isn’t a feature or focal point of the house itself, but serves the all-important purpose of giving a good first impression.

It’s easy to spot where we leave this ‘entryway’ and move into the exposition itself, the ‘allegro agitato.’ That’s a fitting label, but also perhaps a bit misleading, because it’s not ‘agitated’ in the sense of being nervous or troubled, just energetic. In fact, most things in this symphony are rather lightweight. This exposition, with repeat, is an example. We’re not experiencing anything groundbreaking here, really, nothing that’s going to change your life, but it’s fresh, vibrant. The first movement, while not heavy-handed like, say, Berlioz, has its share of theatrics and drama.

The second movement is soft and supple. The delicate use of woodwinds to afford additional color and texture to the orchestra sound strikes me as French, and gives the whole thing a transparent, diaphanous feel. There are moments when it seems like it wouldn’t be at all out of place for an aria to begin, or for some recitative in a new scene in a story we haven’t been informed of. Throughout this entire work, really, but especially here, I feel, we can see the influence from people like Mendelssohn and Schumann, that early Romantic-era sound is very noticeable.

To have a boisterous, heavy-hitting scherzo after these two movements would seem out of character, and while this movement does have a satisfying punch, it continues the overall trajectory of the piece, with its melodious character. That being said, it’s certainly a high point of the symphony.

The finale is far lighter than the scherzo, but exhibits excitement of a different kind. It’s optimistic, jovial, not as heavy, but more breathtaking in exactly the kind of inspiring way you want a finale to be. We haven’t moved from a minor key, through tragedy and despair, or experienced loss in a mournful second movement, so the playfulness and feel-good nature of this finale is in keeping with the proportions and overall aesthetic of the work.

Again, this isn’t an epic poem, not really a journey through hardship or loss and redemption. It’s just tasteful. There’s some reserve, as it’s understated, but it’s polished and high-quality. I won’t go so far as to call it, like, easy-listening or anything, but it is a delightful piece.

It is, after all, only the (exact) mid-19th century, and the symphony has a lot more growing to do, especially in France, so please do stay tuned to see how that goes, and thanks so much for reading.

 

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