2013-11-17 Notes from the Bench

“O salutaris Hostia” by Charles-François Gounod

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate

O salutaris Hostia,
Quae caeli pandis ostium:
Bella premunt hostilia,
Da robur, fer auxilium.

English Translation:

O, salutary Victim,
Who expandest the door of heaven,
Hostile wars press,
Give strength; bear aid.

The nineteenth-century French composer, Charles-François Gounod (1818-1893) was born in Paris, the son of artistic parents, his father a painter and his mother a pianist. As a child, Charles Gounod demonstrated musical talents, briefly studied piano with his mother, and then entered the Paris Conservatoire for formal musical training. Today, Gounod’s best known compositions are his opera, Faust, which was a theatrical success and performed with great frequency in Paris. His setting of Ave Maria, which developed as an improvisation of a melody over Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Prelude No. 1 in C Major” from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier; and the Funeral March of a Marionette, which was used as the theme for the television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Additionally, Vatical City chose his “Marche Potificale” as their national anthem in 1949. Gounod was awarded the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand  in 1839, during a four year stay in Italy. While in Italy, he had the opportunity to study sixteenth-century sacred vocal music, including the works of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, which he cherished for the rest of his life. Gounod greatly admired Bach and considered his keyboard music to be the foundation of compositional study. Gounod gained fame as a noteworthy composer in 1855, following a performance of Messe Solennelle, better known today as the Saint Cecilia Mass, which was performed on Saint Cecilia’s Day (November 22) in the Church of Saint-Eustache in Paris. From 1870-1874, Gounod lived in England and became the first conductor of the Royal Choral Society in London.

Throughout his life, Gounod was a devout Roman Catholic and he wrote a considerable amount of sacred music, especially later in his life. “O salutaris Hostia” is one of multiple settings he wrote of this Eucharistic hymn text. At one time, he seriously considered joining the priesthood. On the music-rack of his piano was carved an image of the face of Jesus.

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