The St Cecilia Mass was composed by Charles Gounod in 1855. This beautiful mass is scored for three soloists (soprano, tenor and bass), a mixed choir of four parts, an organ, and a large orchestra including six harps. The six movements of the mass are: Kyrie; Gloria; Credo; Sanctus; Benedictus; and Agnus Dei.
It was Gounod’s first major work, and its premiere was performed on St Cecilia’s day (the patron saint of music) on 22 November 1855 in Saint-Eustache, Paris.
Charles Gounod was born on 17 June 1818 in the Latin quarter of Paris. Although he came from an artistic and musical family, his mother wanted him to be a lawyer. However, his talents lay in the arts, and in 1836 he was admitted to the Conservatoire de Paris where he won France’s most prestigious musical prize – the Prix de Rome. Hector Berlioz was one of his teachers, and Gounod later described Berlioz and his music as being among the greatest emotional influences of his youth. His studies took him to Italy, Austria and then Prussia, where he met Felix Mendelssohn, whose advocacy of the music of Bach was another early influence on him.
Gounod became a prolific composer, writing church music, songs, orchestral music and operas. His career was disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War, and in 1870 he moved to England with his family to escape the Prussian advance on Paris. After peace was restored in 1871, his family returned to Paris, but Gounod remained in London where he lived with an amateur soprano, Mrs Georgina Weldon, and her husband. Rumours of an affair between Gounod and Mrs Weldon saw him return to his (very forgiving) family nearly three years later.
His absence, and the appearance of younger French composers, meant that he was no longer at the forefront of French musical life. Although he remained a respected figure, he was regarded as old-fashioned during his later years and operatic success eluded him. He died at his house in Saint-Cloud, near Paris, at the age of 75.
Gounod is best known for his operas – in particular Faust. He wrote two symphonies (in D major and E-flat major) and started a third symphony late in life which he did not finish. Like many other composers of the mid-19th-century, composing a symphony in the shadow of Beethoven was a daunting prospect, and there was a feeling among the French musical public that composers could write operas or symphonies but not both.
Gounod’s musical output was prolific. In addition to his 12 operas and orchestral work, he also composed:
- 23 masses,
- more than 40 other Latin liturgical settings,
- 7 cantatas or oratorios,
- more than 50 religious songs and part-songs,
- 100 French secular songs, and
- 30 English and Italian secular songs.
His best works are generally considered to be from his earlier years. Although few of Gounod’s works remain in the regular international repertoire, his influence on later French composers such as Jules Massenet, Georges Bizet, and Gabriel Fauré was considerable.