Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > The Music of Faust (Gounod)
The Music of Faust
The Opera by Charles François Gounod
Shakespeares is no more the only possible "Hamlet" than Gounods is the only possible "Faust." Every artist has his crowning chef-doeuvre -- Mozart his "Don Giovanni," Handel his "Messiah," Weber his "Freischutz," Meyerbeer his "Huguenots," Bizet his "Carmen," Tchaikovsky his "Pathetic Symphony." Gounods chef-doeuvre is "Faust." Before its production he was merely, as a contemporary critic put it, "a distinguished musician, a clever artist, who gave promise of a great composer to France." In "Faust," whatever may be said for his other works, he most assuredly fulfilled the promise.
Marguerite praying in the cathedral (Act 4, scene 3) in the opera Faust by Gounod. Set design by Charles-Antoine Cambon (possibly for the 1869 production at the Paris Opera).
In a work of this kind it would obviously be out of place to discuss the music in any but the most general terms. What strikes one chiefly is that Gounod has here constructed a pleasant half-way house between the classical and the popular styles. He is not too classical, and he is not too popular. In "Faust" he found himself in his element, and his music appeals with equal force to the trained and the untrained. Even the untrained cannot help remarking his delicate feeling and emotion, his exquisite musical representation of sentiment. The ineffable beauty of many of the scenes is quite enough by way of answer to those who object that "Faust" is in some degree a set of scenes rather than a coherent drama. The scene in the cathedral and the death of Valentine, as even a fastidious American critic has allowed, are not equalled in beauty by anything in the works of any other French composer, and have been excelled perhaps only by Mozart, Wagner, and Verdi. The Kermesse and the garden scene make two musical pictures of the first rank. The exorcising of Mephistopheles may be rather "cheap sentiment," but it never fails of its effect. The Soldiers Chorus, again, though lacking the dignity of that in "Aïda," is always sure of a warm reception. The vision of Margaret is set with admirable delicacy; Siebels well-known air, "Paratello dAmor," is always charming; and if they are somewhat thin, the "King of Thule" and the Jewel Song are touching enough. Variety is obtained by the ecclesiastical style of the impressive church scene. The last Act is short, but the grand trio for Faust, Margaret, and Mephistopheles is one of the truly great numbers of the work.
All through, one sees the composers dramatic sincerity, his earnest search after "the correct and convincing musical embodiment of the emotions of his personages." Note, for example, how the music of Mephistopheles accords with the character of the demon as set forth by the librettists. Gounod was no musical Titan, but neither was he a composer who would write clap-trap for empty display. Every page of "Faust" discovers the lofty ideal which he kept before himself. Commonplace and conventional much of the music may be; but the great majority of us are creatures of the commonplace. The musical pedant may sneer at the love music in the third Act, but the dreamy langour which pervades the scene, the cloying sweetness of the harmonies, the melting beauty of the orchestration, all combine to produce an effect which to the average listener is irresistible. Gounod was above all things a lyrist, a melodist. He had a happy faculty of saying lovely things in a tongue which is intelligible the world over. The human element, the purely romantic, perhaps voluptuous side of love he knew how to picture admirably. He sings of love, and our sympathetic human nature vibrates as he sings. The sweet, sensuous charm of his music appeals to us all, and listening to him we are, for the moment at least, impatient of the objectors who complain that he was not cast in the heroic mould of Beethoven and Wagner.
"Faust" is in reality one of the purest and most beautiful lyric dramas now on the stage, one of the best romantic operas of modern times. As Scudo said, when writing of the first performance in 1859, it is marked by "unfailing distinction of style, perfect tact in details, happy colouring, supreme elegance, discreet sobriety in the instrumentation, revealing the hand of a master who has slaked his thirst at pure and sacred springs." Gounod may not have been among the very great of the composers; but how many of the very great could have given us a "Faust" like his?