CHARLES GOUNOD (1818-1893) Petite Symphonie, Op 216 (1885)

  1. Adagio et Allegretto
  2. Andante Cantabile
  3. Scherzo
  4. Finale

Gounod was born in Paris, and studied piano from an early age with his mother, who was only too pleased to support his talent. He was to study at the Paris Conservatoire and in 1839 won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand, some half-a-century after his artist father had won in the Painting category, and nine years after Berlioz had won it at his fourth attempt.

Study of the classic Italian composers such as Palestrina resulted in a lifelong passion for sacred music and a deep faith, which at one point almost resulted in his taking holy orders.

His first great success was the St Cecilia Mass, performed in Paris on the Patron Saint of Music’s Day, 22 November 1855, but his interests were not just sacred, and during that year he also wrote two symphonies, the first providing a model for the Symphony in C written by one of his most promising students, the 17-year-old Georges Bizet. These days, following its rediscovery in 1933 after being lost since its composition, Bizet’s is far more popular than his mentor’s symphonies!

First forays into opera were less than successful, but in 1859 he wrote what would become recognised as his masterpiece, Faust, an opera based on Goethe’s play, telling in trenchant terms of the consequences of Faust selling his soul to Satan in the form of Méphistophélés. His opera Roméo et Juliette also remains in the repertoire. Apart from Faust, Gounod is perhaps best known for his Ave Maria, in which he took the keyboard Prelude No 1 in C by JS Bach and constructed above it the heartfelt melody which Bach’s harmony seems to imply.

The Petite Symphonie was written in 1885 for the flautist Paul Taffanel, and is scored for wind ensemble including two horns but only one flute part, for Taffanel himself. It is in four short movements, all attractive and beautifully written. The first movement has a slow introduction which leads into a crisp Allegretto, then the Andante cantabile was obviously designed to showcase Taffanel himself. The Scherzo is wonderfully cheerful, then the Finale brings the work to a sparkling close.

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