Guest Post by Dr. Carol Kimball
Songs of Gouvy, edited by MeeAe Cecilia Nam. In two volumes. Vol. 1: 40 Poèmes de Pierre de Ronsard, 12 Poèmes de La Pléiade; Vol. 2: 18 Sonnets et Chansons de Desportes; 18 Poésies de Moritz Hartmann. Published by E. C. Schirmer Music Company.
Explorers of French mélodie have an interesting journey ahead. Have you heard of the songs of Théodore Gouvy? Neither had I, but thanks to the research and study of Dr. MeeAe Cecilia Nam, there are eighty-eight songs by this nineteenth-century composer now available for perusal and performance. E. C. Schirmer Music Company has recently released a two-volume critical edition titled Songs of Gouvy, containing the song catalog of composer Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819-1898), edited by Dr. Nam, Professor of Voice at Eastern Michigan University, who has devoted the last number of years to Gouvy’s song output. These publications are the fruits of that labor.
This sizeable collection of 88 French songs has been virtually unknown and forgotten until recently. In order to preserve Gouvy’s legacy and perpetuate research and performance of his music, L’Institut de Théodore Gouvy was founded in 1995 in Hombourg-Haut, France and began to lure scholars and performers to work with and perform his music in concerts. A small number of CDs have been produced, and little by little, Gouvy’s name is surfacing as more than a petit maître.
Gouvy was a prolific composer; his catalog includes more than 200 compositions, including works for large orchestra (including 8 symphonies), a huge repertoire of chamber music, large vocal religious works, two operas, and over 100 songs.
His catalog of compositions has been slow to surface, quite possibly due to his birthplace in Alsace, which at the time straddled two countries and cultures, Germany and France. In 1815 the border between France and Germany fluctuated, and Gouvy was the only family member designated as German instead of French. He was denied French citizenship until he was thirty-two.
Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819-1898) was born into a wealthy French industrial family. He studied law in Paris, but gave it up to pursue a career in music. Always drawn to music, art, and languages, he began to compose, working privately with teachers at the Paris Conservatoire, since the circumstances of his birth precluded admitting him to study there. His compositions drew inspiration from both German and French cultures.
Gouvy produced a sizeable listing of symphonies, chamber music, and other instrumental forms, waiting until the mid-century mark to really concentrate on composing songs. He led a diverse cultural life, interacting with contemporaries who admired his work and whom Gouvy knew well: Liszt, Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Gounod among others. Though he knew and was admired by many fellow composers, his career never really took off as he’d hoped, and his musical legacy remained largely obscure as well. At his death in 1898, his music was largely forgotten. Today his name is slowly being revived.
It is not surprising that Gouvy’s love for art, and languages manifested itself in his composing a large body of French song, and that he chose poetry almost exclusively from sixteenth-century French poet Pierre de Ronsard, and the group of his compatriots known as the Pléiade poets. Gouvy was a lover of nature and as such, would naturally be drawn to the poems of Ronsard and this group. Gouvy only deviated from Ronsard and the Pléiades to set the verses of his good friend, poet Moritz Hartmann (1821-1872), whom he met around 1845. Hartmann’s verses tend toward the political, championing the freedom of the individual. The French poet, Adolph Larmande, translated eighteen of Hartmann’s poems from German to French and when these songs were published, they were published in both languages. His cultural duality was very much a part of Gouvy’s compositional persona even then.
Gouvy’s settings of Hartmann appear in Larmande’s French translation in volume 2. The songs that make up Opus 21 and Opus 26 are Gouvy’s settings of Hartmann’s poetry and are designated for baritone and tenor, respectively.
E. C. Schirmer’s two anthologies are handsomely designed and sturdily packaged. Each large volume is spiral-bound for ease in handling and performing. In addition to the musical scores, both volumes contain complete texts and translations, with critical notes on the texts. The original texts in sixteenth-century French spellings—and in the case of Hartmann’s poems, the poems in their original German—are given as well. All the texts in the musical score appear in modern French used today.
Finally, both volumes end with an extensive article dealing with French versification written by Catherine Bessone, Professor of French Language and Literature. For singers, collaborative pianists, teachers, and any other musicians who want to understand more about the French texts with which they’re working, it is full of information. Some may find it most useful to start by looking up the French poetic forms and using those as guides for exploring the complexities of sixteenth-century French verse.
Although the two volumes contain works for voice and piano, there are several instances of additional performance combinations: “Avril,” Rémy Belleau’s paean to nature’s bountiful gifts is set as a duet; and “A Cassandre, ” perhaps Ronsard’s best-known ode (“Mignonne, allons voir si la rose”) features a cello obbligato, as does another of the poet’s most celebrated verses, “A sa maîtresse,” which contains a favorite sixteenth century poetic theme—carpe diem—an exhortation to seize and enjoy the moment since youth and love are fleeting. As Ronsard spins his web of seduction, the cello echoes its own tempting subtext.
Gouvy produced his large body of songs in the compressed time of several years; they were not well known in his life time, and they remain so today, yet here is a composer who had an extraordinary warmth of feeling for the human voice and produced not only songs, but larger vocal works and two operas as well. In the notes that accompany her CD of Gouvy songs, MeeAe Cecilia Nam writes that the songs have both a French and German character, which might well have caused some confusion in classifying them as French mélodies or German Lieder. We might conclude that his songs were too German for the French, and too French for the Germans.
Gouvy’s musical style has been likened to Mendelssohn or Gounod. It may be that like Gounod, Gouvy intended his songs for the consumption of the bourgeoisie, interested in in taking French song into their parlors along with Schubert’s Lieder. Gouvy’s beautifully crafted songs helped establish that French song could blend lovely melodies, expressive accompaniments, and fine poetry with the same results as the German composers did with Lieder. There is a fluid lyricism in the piano accompaniments, and an adherence to classical French style, which combines lyricism and precision. The songs are notable for their French sense of proportion—graceful and well crafted. Gouvy was himself a pianist, and in his songs, the piano writing often collaborates with the voice, most especially in creating the emotional mood and overall poetic atmosphere.
Rather than languishing in obscurity, these songs definitely deserve careful consideration as both teaching and performing material. We applaud Dr. Nam’s passion and research for bringing them to light so that teachers and singers may give them careful examination. They have their own unique voice that deserves to be heard, full of melodious vocal phrases rather than subtle details, underpinned with undulating accompaniments encased in colorful rhythmic figures which sustain overall emotional mood. They are inventive, engaging, quite approachable musically, and pose few vocal difficulties. They deserve a place in the body of standard French song repertoire.
We are fortunate to live in a time in which the rediscovery of musical treasures long forgotten is more possible than it has ever been. Many thanks to Dr. MeeAe Cecilia Nam for her dedicated efforts in bringing this fascinating and substantial catalog of songs to light. In doing so, she has further enriched the art song catalog for singers, scholars, and the many artists for whom discovering new repertoire is always an important part of the vocal experience. Chapeau!
Dr. Carol Kimball is Emerita Professor of Voice, and Barrick Distinguished Scholar at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is the author of Song: A Guide to Art Song Style and Literature; Art Song: Linking Poetry and Music