Rorate Caeli

GOUNOD 200 Years: Truth and Love in Music
-On the 200 years of the Birth of Catholic composer Charles Gounod

Charles Gounod was born exactly 200 years ago, in the month of June 1818. A Catholic who held his faith deeply throughout his life, he seriously considered becoming a priest before deciding to remain dedicated exclusively to his music. Catholic worship (the Traditional Roman Mass) remained a decisive influence for him throughout his life.

In his explanation of the title of his 1885 oratorio Mors et Vita, that he dedicated to the great Pope Leo XIII, Gounod presented his deep Faith:

"Death is placed before life because, in the eternal order of things, death precedes life, even if, in the temporal order, life precedes death. Death is the end of an existence that ends each day. But it is the first moment of a birth that will become eternal."

Not long after his death, in 1893, one of the oldest French magazines, the Revue des Deux Mondes, published a long essay in his honor. We quote the following remarkable excerpt:

The words of Saint Bernard [and motto of the Cistercians], ardere et lucere, could also have been Gounod's motto. His work is luminous, and it is also warm. If we pick randomly any melody from his work, ... in each of these burns a fire, a fire of love. A love that we are made to notice. The love that Gounod sings is not violent, but tender; it has nothing of bitter or frenetic; we never feel it, as in Wagner, as related to destruction and death. It is not a love loved for itself, and therefore lonely; it is an intimate, familial love, that French music did not know before Gounod. ... All of Gounod's melodies are clear. The ear and the spirit understand immediately their order and architecture: the repetition, first, and, in a way, the continuous rapport to different pitches, of the motif or of the sound. This symmetry characterized Gounod as a pure Classic, a son not only of Mozart but also of Bach.

Regarding this last kinship, the famous Ave Maria of the master would itself witness. It is a perfect model of the form or melodic formula of Gounod, and, because this formula is so highly naturally adapted to the harmonies of Bach, it is as if it had beforehand been present and implied in them. ... This return to consonance, which is what is True in music, because it is itself the end of music, while all else falls away; this return to consonance no musician after Mozart loved more than Gounod, and none made its supreme sweetness more loved. All melodies of the master seem to accomplish or at least imitate human destiny. After rising, living in ardor and in passion, it ends and dies in calm, and in serenity. It is thus beautiful twice; it accomplishes a double ideal and causes within us a double longing: for emotion and for Truth.

May this greatest of Catholic composers of the 19th century rest in peace.