Gounod – Messe solennelle de Sainte Cécile

by Max Derrickson

Charles-François Gounod   (b in Paris, June 17, 1818; d in Saint-Cloud, October 18, 1893)

Messe solennelle de Sainte Cécile

  1. Kyrie
  2. Gloria
  3. Credo
  4. Offertory
  5. Sanctus
  6. Benedictus
  7. Agnus Dei


There have been hundreds of masses written both before and after Gounod’s Solemn Mass for St. Cecilia of 1855.  And yet in terms of lyrical beauty, St. Cecilia should rank as one the great accomplishments in Western music.  It seems near perfect in its sincerity and in its joy and awe for divine mysteries and promises.


During his lifetime Gounod was one of the leading composers in France, although known mainly for his operas.  His reputation was so renowned that the Khedive (King) of Egyptconsidered Gounod along with Wagner and Verdi to write Aïda for his new Grand Opera House in Cairo during the opening of the Suez Canal.  Nevertheless, it was his Solemn Mass for St. Cecilia, premiered in 1855, that solidified his reputation as a composer, and in truth, Gounod’s expertise with opera clearly lent St. Cecilia some wonderfully dramatic effects.


Gounod’s devotion to Catholicism began in Rome   [. . .]      These two muses of faith and romanticism created an enchanting juxtaposition in much of Gounod’s music; his works possess a sensuous beauty expressed in a simple and forthright way with the St. Cecilia Mass as its exemplar.


The hagiography behind this Mass is an even grimmer tale than many saints’ lives: A Christian in Rome in the year 177, Cecilia was persecuted to face a death by suffocation, then by decapitation, neither of which was immediately successful, but which quickly secured her name in the Book of Saints.  In a quirk of fate Cecilia became the patron saint of music somewhat by mistake because a Latin inscription of “organis” under a portrait of her was misinterpreted to mean that Cecilia herself played the organ.  And thus when the Academy of Music inRome was opened in 1584, Cecilia was made its patron saint, with a painting of her playing the organ, and thereafter continued to be associated with music.


Gounod’s pious expression in his Mass for Cecilia was no mere posturing, and in fact, he even wrote his own spoken prayers into the Mass’ proper moments.  It was meant for the church and stage alike.  As befits Cecilia’s somber martyrdom, the Kyrie begins somberly with a plaintive 7-note motif that grows out of the silence, gradually adding more instruments and a counter-line, and finally, the choir.  This reflective reverence soon transforms into a sweetly tender plea to the Heavens with a lolling arpeggiated accompaniment.  The musical tension builds for a time over a sustained pedal note and then releases in a colossal, liberating cadence – one of Gounod’s most effectively dramatic and signature techniques.


From quietude, through a buildup of joy and passion, and then concluding with an inspired tranquility, Gounod’s Mass journeys through some extraordinary musical episodes.  The next two movements for example, the Gloria and Credo, are the cornerstones of the Mass and among the most stunning pieces of religious music ever written.     [. . .]       The middle section (Et incarnatus and Et resurexit) is a remarkable moment where the chorus parts are splintered into extra layers with the passages suggesting fantastical and mysterious wonderment.


The Offertory is a lush and gentle orchestral interlude   [. . .]


The Benedictus continues with a lovely hymn, simple and forthright, and the Agnus Dei then finishes the Mass with a feathery lightness and a smiling lyricism.


Upon its premiere, Saint-Saëns was in the audience and very aptly exclaimed: “The appearance of the Messe Saint-Cécile caused a kind of shock.  This simplicity, this grandeur, this serene light which rose before the musical world like a breaking dawn, troubled people enormously… at first one was dazzled, then charmed, then conquered.”