Petite Symphonie

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            Popular acclaim in the arts is often a cruel mistress—those at the acme of public approbation, with the passage of time, can sink into “benign neglect.”  For example, during the first half of the 1930s, there were perhaps few Hollywood stars to equal Kay Francis.  She was the highest paid actor with Warner Brothers, making more than six times the salary of Bette Davis.  Today, who remembers her except those devotees of Turner Classic Movies?  And in a somewhat like situation, Charles Gounod.  Of course, he is the composer of Faust, perhaps the most performed opera of the nineteenth century, and the ubiquitous Funeral March for a Marionette.   But for all his great acclaim in France during the middle of the century, in this country one doesn’t hear that much of his many operas, church music, and songs these days.  His song, O Divine Redeemer, until recently was an evergreen vocal solo in church, as well as the ubiquitous Ave Maria.  Conservative Catholics still enjoy his St. Cecilia mass, but in general, his oeuvre has fallen upon hard times.

            During his heyday he was hailed for his great gift for melody, his clear, lucid musical structures, and his great respect for the tenets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven—not to mention Palestrina.  In general, he was not that active in instrumental composition, but was committed to and gifted in opera and sacred music.  As he grew older, he was greatly respected, and influential upon a later generation of significant French composers such as Ravel and Massenet, but his music gradually was seen as somewhat old fashioned.  With all that in mind, the composition of the little masterpiece, Petite Symphonie, is much-treasured gift of his old age.

            The most acclaimed flautist of the latter nineteenth century in France—or perhaps, anywhere—was Paul Taffanel, professor of flute and virtuoso member of the best orchestras.  Among his many accomplishments was the founding in 1879 of the Société de Musique de la Chambre pour Instruments à Vent (Chamber Music Society for Wind Instruments), a group whose aim was to promulgate the burgeoning interest in music and performance of wind music in France.  Coincidently, the great nineteenth-century instrument designer Theodore Boehm had made significant improvements to woodwind instruments, encouraging players and composers alike to support this increased attention.  The result was a significant growth in important compositions for the woodwinds, in various combinations.  One of the respected composers from whom Taffanel requested compositions was Gounod. 

            The result was the 1885 Petite Symphonie for woodwind nonet (a pair of horns traditionally had been a standard part of the small wind band).  The addition of a flute to the conventional wind octet was not only a felicitous musical stroke, but, no doubt, was also recognition for Taffanel’s talent and leadership in the society. While, of course, Gounod was renowned for vocal music, we should remember that his early musical training included study with the esteemed Czech composer, Anton Reicha, professor at the Paris conservatory.  A prolific composer for many genres, Reicha is known particularly for his twenty-five highly praised works for woodwind quintet.  Performed widely in Europe, they set new standards of technical challenge and musical integrity for that genre, and it can be assumed that they had some influence on the pupil Gounod.

            While characteristic of the romantic musical style of the day in France, the Petite Symphonie is nevertheless founded in the transparent, straightforward elements of the musical Classicism of, say, a symphony by Haydn or Mozart.  Accordingly, Gounod provides four movements that mirror the structure of a prototypical Classic symphony.

The first movement begins with a slow introduction—like so many of Haydn’s—followed by a cheerful, bustling allegro in the expected sonata form. The second movement features a ravishingly lyrical solo for flute—its beauty is equaled by few in the literature.  A rollicking scherzo follows, evoking a bucolic hunting scene.  The finale is a jaunty rondo, whose melodic invention just never seems to falter, and is a perfect example of the composer’s innate gifts.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2021 William E. Runyan