Saint-Saens on Gounod’s Faust

Music of Yesterday

Specially selected and translated from “Portraits et Souvenirs” by Camille Saint-Saens

Faust! culminating point in the work of its composer. The characterisitcs of the music are too well known to need discussion, but perhaps some memories of its first appearance and subsequent brilliant career are not without interest…Then, after three weeks of supplementary work came the unforgettable “premiere”. As you are probably aware, the success of the work was at first doubtful. Not so, however, with the interpreter of the principal role, whose seductive voice, diction and personality conquered all resistance. The work was railed against in the lobbies. “It will not be played fifteen times”, announced two leading publishers with a shrug of the shoulders – both ardent champions of the Italian school. “There is no melody in it” declared the skeptics – “only souvenirs reassembled by a musical scholar.” It was tiresome, it was long, it was cold. The Garden Scene ought to be cut out as it retarded the action….Oh that Garden of Marguerite, who can do it justice?

Gounod’s Triumph

Ten years afterwards, the work definitely accepted, acclaimed abroad, entered triumphantly at the Opera. Would you believe that even yet it had to conquer some resistance? Many believed that the work was too intimate for the great auditorium in the rue Le Peletier; others hoped, if the truth must be told, that it would be overwhelmed, that the instrumentation of Gounod would not “hold” by the side of Meyerbeer’s. The contrary was the case; the sweet toned orchestra filled the hall without covering the voices, and the instrumentation of Meyerbeer seems a little strident in the comparison. The success of the evening was the ballet. This ballet, a masterpiece of its kind, Gounod almost failed to write. Some months before the production of Faust at the Opera, he sent to me an ambassador in the person of our mutual friend the painter, Emmanual Jadin, charged with a delicate mission. When about to enter upon the work he was seized with scruples. He was then plunged deep in religious sentiments which did not permit him to undertake a work so essentially profane; he desired me to visit him an discuss the undertaking of the work. My embarrassment may easily be imagined! I found the master devoutly occupied in a game of cards with an abbe. I placed myself entirely at his disposal, at the same time objecting that introducing the work of another composer into what was essentially his own would not produce a good effect. If I accepted the task he offered me, it would be on the express condition that he should be free at any time to substitute his own music for mine. I never wrote a note, and never heard any more about it. — Specially selected and translated from “Portraits et Souvenirs” by Camille Saint-Saens.

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