Friday, April 4, 2008

Gounod: Petite Symphonie in Bb

The French composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was one of two sons born into an artistic family, his father an accomplished painter and draftsman, and his mother a talented pianist.  He showed natural musical talent as a child, but it was at the age of thirteen when a peformance of Mozart's Don Giovanni first truly awakened his interest in composition.  By age 21, he had won the Grand Prix de Rome and moved to Italy where he concentrated on the renaissance works of Palestrina, and began a period of rather intense devotion to sacred music and theology.  

By 1850, a thirty year-old Gounod decides to seek more career satisfaction by composing for the theatre and the concert hall, writing the first of the twelve operas for which he will later be best remembered.  Gounod also writes his only two orchestral symphonies in 1855, perhaps following the personal advice of Felix Mendelssohn whom he had met in Leipzig years before, and whose music he considered a "precious model."  That same year, a young Georges Bizet writes his first and only symphony as a student (and later friend) of Gounod, and while their compositional similarities do not go unnoticed, it is Bizet's work that is the more widely performed.

Gounod's operatic output reaches its climax in 1867 with Romeo and Juliet, and for the next few years the composer seeks respite in Rome — and finds trouble in England — a period when his deep religious conviction and artistic gifts eventually come together in the makings of an overlooked Christian opera based on the story of the martyred saint, Polyeucte.

Among the works of Gounod's later years is the Petite Symphonie in Bb (1885), in four movements for wind instruments.  The piece was composed for a noted wind ensemble called "La Trompette," and features passages written specifically for its conductor, flautist Paul Taffanel (1844-1908).  The work is a charming tribute to the French wind instrument tradition, while exhibiting the classical formal structure that Gounod so admired in the craft of Mozart, his most important compositional influence.

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