Masters of French Music
Masters of French Music
TO BE THE COMPOSER OF "Faust" is in itself sufficient to establish a claim upon the sympathy and gratitude of many thousands, as well as to enjoy the indisputable right of occupying a niche by the side of the greatest and most original composers of the century.
There are but few creative musicians whose individuality is so striking that it leaves its impress, not only upon their own productions, but upon those of their contemporaries. Their genius is reflected, their mode of thought copied, and even their mannerisms are reproduced by numberless admirers and conscious or unconscious imitators.
As it was with Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Wagner, so it has been with Gounod. A higher tribute of praise it is indeed impossible to offer.
The French master has himself defined in a few words the indebtedness of every composer to his predecessors, and the difference existing between that which is communicable and that which is individual.
"The individuality of genius consists," he says, "according to the beautiful and profound expression of an ancient writer, in saying in a new way things that are not new: 'Nove non nova.' The influence of the masters is a veritable paternity: wishing to do without them is as foolish as to expect to become a father without ever having been a son. Thus the life which is transmitted from father to son, leaves absolutely intact all that in the son constitutes personality. In this way is it with regard to the tradition of the masters, which is the transmission of life in its impersonal sense: it is this which constitutes the doctrine which the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas admirably defines as the science of life."
With some masters the personality above alluded to shows itself earlier than usual, as in the case both of Mendelssohn and Gounod.
There exists a point of contact between these two composers, so entirely dissimilar one from another in every way, which it may be well to point out. This is in respect to the nature of the influence they have exercised over other composers, which consists not so much in the adoption of any special mode of thought or art principle, but is exemplified by the servile imitation of specific mannerisms. Less far-reaching and wide-spread than that of Wagner, the influence of the above masters has also been less beneficial, for the reason that it has been more objective than subjective, and has shown itself rather in the outward details of many a composition than through its inward conception. The likeness has been more in the cut of the garment than in the material thereof. This may be accounted for by the fact that both Mendelssohn and Gounod are mannerists in the highest sense of the word, and their favourite methods of expression being easy to imitate, have been repeated by others ad nauseam, until they have begun to pall; whereas Wagner has opened a vast expanse, beyond which stretches an illimitable horizon, whither the composer of the future will be able to seek fresh sources of inspiration. His art, which has been described by some as typically Teutonic, is in reality universal, because it reposes upon the immutable principles of truth and logic, and is applicable to all nations, amongst which it has imperceptibly struck root and become acclimatised, perhaps nowhere more so than in the country of the composer with whom I am now dealing.
Two elements have in their turn exercised their sway over Gounod, and both have helped to impart, either separately or jointly, to his music certain of those characteristics familiar to all who have studied his works-religion and love. The mysticism and sensuous tenderness that pervade his compositions, whether sacred or secular, are evidently the reflex of a mind imbued with lofty aspirations, swayed at one moment by worldly tendencies, but returning with renewed intensity towards the pursuit of the ideal. Som