St Cecilia Mass

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

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.

His Music

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.

One thought on “St Cecilia Mass

  1. Hello — Thank you for the email about the St Cecilia Mass (Gounod) — I’m away for a few days and will be back in Wellington on Tuesday afternoon, so I hope to come to the rehearsal that evening if that’s OK …

    I don’t think I received a message about an earlier one (4 May), so I realise that I’m already 1 rehearsal behind and you don’t even know me! I’m a female tenor (hope that’s acceptable) and have sung in the Golden Bay Choir for over 10 years. I returned to Wellington in January and took part in the recent NZCF workshop (Faure and Bernstein) and am keen to participate in a classical choir.

    If you receive this email before Tuesday it would be helpful if you can confirm that I can just turn up … thanks!

    Kind regards Penny Griffith. P.S. There is another Penny Griffith who has been singing in Wellington choirs for a few years, but she sings alto!)

    ******** Phone or text me on (+64) 021-02333-770 (mobile); postal address: PO Box 6190, Marion Square, Wellington 6141, New Zealand

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