French composer (b. 17 June 1818 in Paris; d. 18 October 1893 in Saint-Cloud), born Charles-François Gounod.
In the Foreword to his 1898 edition of Tchaikovsky's music review articles, Herman Laroche noted that, unlike most Russian theatre-goers, his late friend had not shared in the craze for Gounod's Faust when it was first staged in Saint Petersburg in 1864. Tchaikovsky had even quipped that the music of Césare Pugni's 1854 ballet Faust was much better than Gounod's opera. We can only speculate as to why this fresh and spirited work left Tchaikovsky cold at the time, but it is worth noting that Faust had not been an overwhelming success in Paris when it was premièred at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1859, partly because audiences there were "disconcerted by the unusual harmonies, simple diction, and new forms of melodic phrasing" . Tchaikovsky may also have been put off by the liberties which the French librettists Barbier and Carré had taken with Goethe's great drama, especially as Goethe was one of his favourite poets. (Not for nothing is the opera referred to as Margarethe in Germany, since Gounod's librettists had concentrated on the love story of Faust and Gretchen, her downfall and final redemption, leaving out so much else in Goethe's play). It is also worth bearing in mind that when Tchaikovsky first heard Faust in Saint Petersburg in 1864 it was performed in Italian, which may have made him suspicious of it as just another bel canto opera of the kind which flooded the repertoire in the Imperial theatres at the time.
In the years immediately after its 1859 première Faust was mounted at several European opera-houses, including Brussels (1861), Stockholm (1862), London and New York (1863), Saint Petersburg (1864), and Moscow (1866). This made a staging at the Grand-Opéra in Paris imperative, and when Faust was first performed there in 1869, with the Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson as Marguerite, it was a tremendous success. (For this definitive version Gounod added several numbers, including the Walpurgis Night ballet music in Act IV, as well as turning the spoken dialogues into recitatives with orchestral accompaniment). Tchaikovsky would hear Christine Nilsson in this role on several occasions in Moscow between 1872 and 1874, but it was not she who first won him over to the beauty and dramatic intensity of Gounod's opera. As Laroche recalled, it was Désirée Artôt's interpretation of Marguerite during her first tours to Russia (1868–70 and 1871–72) which radically changed Tchaikovsky's opinion of the opera.
Faust was so popular with Russian audiences and was staged so often by the Italian Opera Company in Moscow that in one music review article in 1874 Tchaikovsky even complained of this "force-feeding" of the public with Gounod's music (TH 297). However, this did not cause him to reject its merits. On the contrary, as we may see from the quarrel which ensued between Tchaikovsky and Vladimir Stasov when the latter spoke disparagingly of Gounod in 1877. The background to this quarrel was as follows: in February 1877, Tchaikovsky had lost interest in a projected opera Othello, for which Stasov had provided him with a detailed scenario a few months earlier. He now asked Stasov to propose a new subject, and the latter suggested Alfred de Vigny's historical novel Cinq-Mars (1826), with The Cardinal as the title for the opera (de Vigny's novel deals with the intrigues of Cardinal Richelieu). However, Tchaikovsky rejected this subject outright, explaining that he wanted something more modest and intimate. He also added that it would be awkward to tackle the same subject as in Gounod's opera Cinq-Mars (1876), which had been premièred in Paris on 1 March 1877 [N.S.] and was soon also staged in Saint Petersburg: "Gounod is a master of the first rank, even if he is not a first-rate creative genius. In the field of opera I do not know of any other living composer—with the exception of Wagner—who could compete with Gounod" . Stasov, not mincing his words as usual, wrote back saying that Gounod's music was banal, and this so infuriated Tchaikovsky that he ceased all collaboration with the mentor of the "Mighty Handful" for a while .
Tchaikovsky did not think so highly of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (1867)—at least until he heard it in Paris again in 1883 (see the quotation from letter 2253 to Sergey Taneyev below)—and that is why he did not hesitate to attempt an opera based on the same subject himself in the summer of 1878. Although he eventually only sketched out one scene of this projected opera Romeo and Juliet, he had been very enthusiastic about the idea and was not afraid of comparisons with Gounod's opera (or Bellini's for that matter) because in his view the latter had "corrupted and distorted Shakespeare beyond recognition" .
On 18 February/1 March 1888, when he was in Paris as part of his first concert tour of Western Europe, Tchaikovsky met Gounod for the first time during a chamber music matinée concert at the house of the flautist Claude Paul Taffanel . Significantly, in May 1892, in order to help the co-operative opera company which the baritone Ippolit Pryanishnikov had recently set up in Kiev and which was on tour in Moscow, Tchaikovsky agreed to conduct three operas for them without any remuneration. One of these operas was Faust —yet another sign of his appreciation of Gounod's masterpiece . In November 1892 Gounod was one of the French composers who supported Tchaikovsky's election as a corresponding member to the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
It is interesting that Laroche, in one of his tributes to the composer after his death, observed that Tchaikovsky in his works had traced "a middle path between Gounod and Schumann", combining the crowd-pleasing "outward brilliance" of the former with the "inner warmth" of the latter . However, Laroche was somewhat biased against Gounod's music, and Tchaikovsky certainly found more than just "outward brilliance" in Faust, as is clear from his discussion of Christine Nilsson's first appearance as Marguerite in Moscow (references are listed below).
Tchaikovsky's general reflections on Charles Gounod:
In Tchaikovsky's music review articles:
In Tchaikovsky's letters:
Tchaikovsky's views on specific works by Charles Gounod:
In Tchaikovsky's music review articles:
This page was last updated on 14 February 2013