Gounod, or What the Words Mean
Charles-François Gounod, Faust, act 3,
"Quel trouble inconnu . . . Salut! Demeure chaste et pure"
(written before I learned what the words mean)
I have never had the good fortune of attending Gounod's opera Faust—but I want to, and for this song from act 3, "Quel trouble inconnu . . . Salut! Demeure chaste et pure." I defy you to hear it and not want to go with me—of course you will: there must be a performance somewhere! But in the meantime, and if we must content ourselves by hearing it only in recording—who better to sing it for us than Luciano Pavarotti? Here is a link to this song, from the album Pavarotti's Greatest Hits:
Unfortunately, the short preview available on Amazon.com does not feature the beautiful melody of this song, but, rather, part of the bridge. I encourage you to trust me on this: hear the full song. [NOTE 1: You should do that now before you read what I write later.]
[NOTE 2: I left the gushy first paragraph only because it provides an ever-timely contrast between ignorance and knowledge.]
Charles-François Gounod (1818 - 93) was born today, 198 years ago. He composed a prodigious number of works—over 600. Faust was first performed in 1859. It was wildly popular. By 1888, Gounod conducted the 500th performance of his opera. It continues to be widely performed today.
How Hearing This again Affected Me
(written after I learned what the words mean)
Foolish tears, and in the middle of a sunny afternoon. Then I read a summary of the plot of Faust, and, worse, a translation of the song I chose for today. Allow me to report, with great understatement, that things do not go well for Marguerite, the love interest of Faust in this opera. Naturally, Faust is to blame for her misfortunes. He feels really bad about all of them, including that he has driven Marguerite mad, that in her madness she has murdered her child,—and, in the final scene, that she is hanged for that murder. Could we expect better from a man who sold his soul to the Devil? I shall forbear discussing the insincere words Faust sings to Marguerite in today's song (well, I'll be brief: he goes on and on about how he admires Marguerite's chastity, when what he really wants is to have his way with her). How can something as depraved as this be so staggeringly beautiful?
Of course I own, and nearly wore out, the LP Pavarotti's Greatest Hits, which was released before CDs existed, and which includes today's song. My plan this year is to purchase a turntable—and to hear my old records again. On the day I unpack that new turntable, the only question will be which LP to start with. Before learning what I did today, I had thought it might be this one.
Ignorance is not always best in opera. Sometimes it is safe to know what the words mean. Consider, as contrast to Faust, Beethoven's opera Fidelio. Beethoven's music is nobel and gorgeous: but adding to its timelessness is the fact that it is based on a thrilling and uplifting true story—which includes cross-dressing (I'm not kidding). We will consider Fidelio in another post, and discuss then how dressing as the opposite sex once saved not just many lives, but an entire country.
Gounod's first opera Sapho [sic, again] was performed only nine times in its day, and it is rarely performed now. It is "based" on the life of Sappho, the ancient Greek poetess. In actual history (not the opera) Sappho's poetry was so admired and beloved that, after her death, she was named the eleventh muse. Perhaps her status as goddess allowed her to intervene in the success (or lack thereof) of Gounod's opera in her name. The libretto has her falling in love with a man! He treats her badly, but she forgives him—then kills herself. The actual life of Sappho, on the sun-kissed isle of Lesbos, was vastly different from this.
Barbara Streisand recorded Gounod's "Ave Maria" in Barbara Streisand: A Christmas Album. Here is a link:
And here is a link to Fright Night: Classic Halloween Music, which includes Alfred Hitchcock's theme song, Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette." Eric Hammerstein conducts the London Promenade Orchestra:
I created "Healing of Nations," the image above, on my computer in 2006. It is based on Mandelbrot fractals. The title is from Revelation 22:2 (KJV): "and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."