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Gounod’s Little Symphony for winds

MSO Winds in rehearsal May 12, 2021

MSO flute player, Jacqueline Kent, writes about Gounod and his Petite Symphonie for winds. The MSO winds will be performing this charming work on May 29 & 30 at Mosman Art Gallery.

Petite Symphonie by Charles Gounod (1818-1893)

Charles Gounod was born to a family of musicians and artists in Paris, and from his earliest years was determined to be a composer. His father, a painter,  died when Charles was five, and his mother taught piano to support the family. At the age of twenty Charles was awarded a Prix de Rome, France’s most prestigious prize for composition; other winners include Berlioz, Massenet and Debussy. Charles studied in Rome for three years, well as elsewhere in northern Europe. In Prussia he met Felix Mendelssohn, whose music had a lasting effect on him; Mendelssohn’s advocacy of Bach’s music was also an important influence.

Having become a fervent Catholic in Rome, Gounod briefly considered becoming a priest when he returned to France; from then onwards he began composing a great deal of church music (including his now-popular ‘Ave Maria’, an elaboration of a Bach prelude) and composed a large quantity of church and vocal music, including operas and songs.

He enjoyed great popular success as a composer until 1870. In that year he, his wife Anna Zimmerman and their children moved to England as refugees from the Prussian advance on Paris. After peace was restored the following year, his family returned to Paris. Charles remained in London for three years, living in the house of amateur singer Georgina Weldon. One biography describes Weldon as ‘the controlling figure in his life’, which leaves plenty of room for speculation. However, he left her after three years and returned to his family in France.

Unfortunately, his absence and the appearance of younger composers, including Debussy, meant that Charles Gounod had forfeited his place at the forefront of French musical life. Though he continued to be respected, he was increasingly considered old-fashioned during his later years, and his earlier success eluded him. He died at his house near Paris aged seventy-five.

The Little Symphonie for Winds was first performed at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1885. The highly influential flutist Paul Taffanel – whose work is still well known to today’s flute players – founded the Chamber Music Society for Wind Instruments in 1879 to commission and promote music for the wind instruments newly redesigned and perfected by Theobald Boehm. Gounod responded with the four-movement that the wind section of the Mosman Symphony Orchestra is playing in this concert. It was originally scored for the standard Mozart serenade instrumentation of two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns, and Gounod also included a single flute part for Taffanel. The music displays Gounod’s hallmark clarity of form and phrase structure with Romantic harmony and expressivity.

Though  Gounod is probably best known for his operas Faust (1859) and Romeo et Juliette (1867) as well as his short orchestral piece ‘Funeral March of a Marionette’ which was the theme tune for the popular 1960s TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, his Petite Symphonie for winds remains an enduringly popular addition to the international repertoire. J.K.