To get a sense of French composer Charles Gounod’s fame in the 19th century, consider that Camille Saint-Saëns played the organ at his funeral and Gabriel Fauré served as conductor. While the names of his two loyal friends remain bright stars in music history, Gounod has fallen into semi-obscurity. He is best known today for his “Ave Maria” and his operas Faust and Romeo and Juliet.
Audiences will get a rare taste of his musical mastery when guest conductor Alain Altinoglu, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Chorus present Gounod’s St. Cecilia Mass on Oct. 5-7, with soprano Sandrine Piau, tenor Michael Schade and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams as soloists. Written as a tribute to the patron saint of music, the work had its debut on St. Cecilia’s Day — Nov. 22, 1855 — in the venerable Church of St. Eustache in the heart of Paris. After its premiere, Saint-Saëns wrote: “The appearance of the Messe Saint-Cécile [its title in French] caused a kind of shock. This simplicity, this grandeur, this serene light which rose before the musical world like a breaking dawn, troubled people enormously . . . at first one was dazzled, then charmed, then conquered.”
Meanwhile, here are five things you might not know about Gounod:
1. His “Pontifical Anthem and March,” which Gounod wrote in 1869 to mark the 50th anniversary of Pope Pius IX’s ordination, was declared the papal anthem in 1949. It is performed to mark the presence of the pope or one of his representatives and serves as the national anthem for Vatican City.
2. The composer wrote 12 operas, most of which have been forgotten. Of Gounod’s two operas still in standard repertory, Lyric Opera of Chicago will present Faust in March and last staged Romeo and Juliet in 2016.
3. “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” a mystery anthology series that ran from 1955 through 1965, opens with one of the most famous title sequences in television history, scored to Gounod’s spookily rhythmic “Funeral March of a Marionette.” A caricature of Hitchcock’s profile appears first and then Hitchcock walks to center screen and appears to step into the drawing that fades into his actual visage. “Funeral March of a Marionette” reportedly was recommended by Hitchcock’s longtime musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, though other accounts have Hitchcock remembering the music from its use in F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” (1927).
4. In 1858, the composer was commissioned to write an operatic adaptation of Moliere’s play “Le médecin malgré lui.” It turned out to be a flop but nonetheless it found an admirer in his student Georges Bizet, who wrote in a letter to his mother: “If you can’t make a hit with music like that, then to hell and damnation with everything.” Seventeen years later, Gounod was among several major composers in the audience for the premiere of Bizet’s Carmen.
5. From 1870 through 1874, Gounod lived in Blackheath, a southeast district of London, and served as the first conductor of the Royal Choral Society. One of the blue historical plaques, so familiar to any tourist who has visited England, marks a house where he resided. While in London, Gounod had an affair with the singer Georgina Weldon. After the composer broke off the relationship to return to his wife in Paris, Weldon refused to send on his belongings, as he requested. She extracted her revenge by writing her name in crayon on every page of the manuscript score for his opera Polyeucte.
TOP: Portrait of a Man, presumed to be Charles Gounod (1818-93) by Louis Leopold Boilly (1761-1845). | Photo: Bibliotheque de l’Opera Garnier, Paris