Charles Gounod

Tchaikovsky Research
Charles Gounod (1818-1893)

French composer (b. 17 June 1818 [N.S.] in Paris; d. 18 October 1893 [N.S.] in Saint-Cloud), born Charles-François Gounod.

Tchaikovsky and 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 premiered at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1859, partly because audiences there were "disconcerted by the unusual harmonies, simple diction, and new forms of melodic phrasing" [1]. 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 premiere, 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 premiered 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" [2]. 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 [3].

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" [4].

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 flutist Claude Paul Taffanel [5]. 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 [6]. 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 [7]. 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).

General Reflections on Gounod

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • TH 271 — Tchaikovsky discusses Christine Nilsson's début in Moscow as Marguerite in Faust (30 November/12 December 1872), and although he concentrates mainly on her interpretation of the role, he does refer to Faust admiringly as "a magnificent opera".
  • TH 309 — praises the "elegance, softness, and feminine gracefulness" of Gounod's melodies in Roméo et Juliette, but laments that most of them had been "stolen" from his earlier opera Faust!

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

Quite unexpectedly, I greatly enjoyed a performance of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, which I stumbled on by chance. I knew this work before, having studied the vocal-piano reduction, and also from a performance I saw in Moscow a long time ago, and I did not have a high opinion of it by any means, but there, suddenly — o wonder! I was moved to tears. I don't know: maybe it was Shakespeare, who, in spite of all the librettists' cuts, still makes himself felt, or perhaps Gounod's music really is particularly good, or of course it may have been my mood at the time, thanks to which all these factors combined acquired a fortuitously magic effect. Anyway, what I wanted to say is that for a long time I had not enjoyed myself so much at the opera as on this occasion. It is also worth pointing out that Gounod is one of the few composers in our times who write not in compliance with preconceived theories, but as their feeling suggests to them. Besides, he is an inveterate admirer of Mozart, and that demonstrates the integrity and innocence of his musical nature.

Views on Specific Works by Gounod

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles


External Links


  1. See Музыкальные фельетоны и заметки Петра Ильича Чайковского, 1868-1876 (1898).
  2. John Humbley, "Faust in Paris", notes for a Marston Records disc, available online.
  3. Letter 548 to Vladimir Stasov, 8/20 April 1877. This quarrel is discussed by Marek Bobéth in Čajkovskij und das Mächtige Häuflein (1995), p. 80–81, who also points out that after Bizet (who had died in 1875), Gounod was the French composer whom Tchaikovsky rated most highly. Tchaikovsky's rejection of grand historical subjects in favour of something "more modest and intimate" would lead him to take up enthusiastically Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya's suggestion of Yevgeny Onegin later that year (in May 1877).
  4. Letter 840 to Nadezhda von Meck, 23 May/4 June 1878.
  5. See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 202.
  6. See Ippolit Pryanishnikov's reminiscences in Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 254-257; English translation by David Brown in Tchaikovsky remembered (1993), p. 128–129. The other two operas were Anton Rubinstein's The Demon and his own Yevgeny Onegin.
  7. Laroche's obituary is quoted here from Tchaikovsky remembered (1993), p. 239.