Louis Théodore Gouvy: Piano Quintet in A, op. 24

performed by the Denis Clavier Quartet with Dimitris Saroglou, piano

(cover image by Gaetano Cessati)

Louis Théodore Gouvy was born on July 3, 1819 into a “into a French-speaking family in the village of Goffontaine, in the Sarre, a region on the France-Prussia border (now Saarbrücken-Schafbrücke, Germany).” Since this region was under Prussian control, Gouvy wasn’t able to get French citizenship until he was 32.

He studied in France, but was also interested in Classical Greek culture. He spoke French, German, English and Italian. He began studying law in Paris in 1837, but continued his piano lessons. He couldn’t study at the Paris Conservatoire for some reason, so he continued his studies privately.

He found himself rather stuck between the French and German cultures, and was also drawn more to symphonic music rather than opera, of which he wrote only two. Wikipedia says of this inclination that Gouvy:

set himself the unenviable task of becoming a French symphonist. It was unenviable because the French, and especially the Parisians, throughout most of the 19th century were opera-mad and not particularly interested in pure instrumental music. It was this disdain for instrumental music in general which led to Gouvy living the last third of his life almost entirely in Germany where he was much appreciated.

Aside from his nine symphonies, he also became much appreciated for his chamber music. He wrote five piano trios, 11 string quartets (only five of which were numbered) seven string quintets, only one of which is numbered, and lots of piano work.

He was admired by the likes of Mendelssohn and Schumann, respected by Brahms, Reinecke, and Joachim, and despite his output of over 200 compositions, with only 90-some-odd published in his lifetime, he is “still mostly ignored.”

Today’s work dates from 1850 and is in three movements, with a playing time of about 29 minutes, as follows:

  1. Allegro giocoso
  2. Larghetto mosso
  3. Allegro con brio

The ‘giocoso’ that marks the first movement should be easily identified as associated with the English ‘jocose’, or humorous, merry, and that it is. Both themes express joy, but not without some degree of theatrics to keep things interesting. After one high point, the culmination of the first subject, we get a surprisingly tranquil contrasting subject with a beautiful statement from the cello. This subject also builds, bringing us to a false exposition repeat, instead leading to the development. There’s nothing terribly special here, save for just being a very pristine, tastefully-written movement.

In the above recording, at least, this is (just barely) the shortest movement of the work, giving us two joyful movements that bookend a central, subdued, broad slow movement, which as a result feels like the real heart of the piece. It is in no hurry to go anywhere, but it doesn’t ever lose its momentum or purpose. This 13-minute movement makes up almost half the playing time of the entire work, putting the jocose first movement into perspective. Some passages here are intimate and delicate, while others are full-bodied and passionate. There’s a sense about this movement, and the whole work in general that is at once youthful and mature. Overall, the music is still warm and inviting, never somber.

The ‘con brio’ of the finale tells us that it is to be played ‘with vigor,’ and it too is playful, lively, again in contrast with the central movement, which itself didn’t really come close to any serious subject matter. For the most part, Gouvy gives us light conversation. While not cyclical in nature, this finale, returning to much the same atmosphere as the first movement, gives a kind of ABA structure to the work, returning to the lighter, feel-good mood of the opening.

This music may resemble Mendelssohn, or Schubert, as it seems much music from this period does. We don’t have much indication (of the works I’ve happened to pick out, at least) of the influence of people like Liszt. Instead, for now at least, the French are showing us their panache at that particular early Romantic polish, an exquisite refinement and feel for color.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to listen to a single Gouvy symphony, of his nine, but I’m certainly not opposed to giving them a listen. It just so happens his quintet is quite a nice work and fits in rather well right here in our schedule. Maybe he will earn more attention in the coming years, although I don’t know what it would take to make that happen. Certainly not this article.

We will obviously move past the 1850s, actually jumping ahead a few decades just in the next post alone, and will see more of the full-blooded, fully developed Romantic sound from people whose names you’re far more likely to recognize, so do please stay tuned for that and thank you so much for reading.

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