St Celcilia Mass
Charles-Francois Gounod was born in Paris in 1818 to a talented, but financially unsuccessful, painter and his pianist wife. Charles’ father died before he was five years old, and his mother maintained her husband’s painting classes as well as her own piano teaching. Charles showed early talent in both areas, but gave up art at the age of 13 to concentrate on music. He was twelve at the time of his first composition, entering the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 18. There, one of his teachers was Pierre Joseph Zimmerman, a pianist of note and a teacher of eminent stature, numbering among his students George Bizet and Cesar Franck. He recognized Gounod’s talent quickly, and Charles later taught some of Zimmerman’s students himself. Gounod benefited from Zimmerman’s mentorship in two other ways: First, in 1852 he married Zimmerman’s daughter Anna; and at about the same time Zimmerman helped him get assigned Superintendent of Instruction in Singing for the Paris school system—a job which allowed him to continue his composing. It is no accident that tonight’s Mass is dedicated to Zimmerman’s memory; in fact Gounod identified Zimmerman in that dedication as ‘pere’, that is, father, rather than father-in-law. However, the name which this Mass now bears stems from its first performance at a festival for St. Cecilia’s day (November 22, 1855) at St. Eustache’s church in Paris. (It is rather fitting that St. Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians!) And that premiere firmly established Gounod as a notable composer.
Gounod’s church connection, as mentioned above, was substantial. At least twice during his lifetime he considered reverting to a sacred vocation; indeed, in the middle 1840’s, he entered a Carmelite monastery as a novice. Apparently this did not go well, and he left to again concentrate on music. Although there were snide remarks in public about his demeanor in the monastery—and late in his life, rumors about an English hostess with whom he boarded for a time—there is no evidence that he was other than a faithful husband to Anna, who survived him.
Gounod’s output was very large, including two symphonies, more than two dozen masses—in fact, if one considers various rearrangements of these works, there are nearly fifty–, as many as 200 cantatas and motets, a handful of oratorios, and thirteen operas. One of the early motets, Fernand, won Gounod the prestigious Prix de Rome (Gounod’s father actually was the second winner of the Prix de Rome in painting!) Yet his reputation today rests almost entirely on two works: The opera Faust, which sets the legend chronicled by Goethe; and the harmonization of J. S. Bach’s C Major Prelude (from The Well-Tempered Clavier) with an improvised melody for Ave Maria. Faust was the fourth of his operas, and it is not inaccurate to say that he never succeeded in duplicating its success. Most of his other works have seen little performance in recent years, though Faust was the most-performed opera of the entire nineteenth century; and Ave Maria was discouraged by the Church for ceremonial performance because of overuse. That popularity notwithstanding, many of us have also had frequent contact with one section of this Mass—the Sanctus, which is often performed as a solo or as a free-standing anthem.
And one of Gounod’s short instrumental pieces achieved a certain cachet with the public during the twentieth century: Funeral March for a Marionette became the theme music for Alfred Hitchcock’s television programs.