Charles Gounod’s Saint Cecilia Mass

Messe Solennelle en l’honneur de Sainte Cécile in G Major (Solemn Mass in honor of Saint Cecilia), CG 56 (1855)

Composer Charles François Gounod (b.Paris1818; d.Saint-Cloud1893) was a practicing Catholic and as a youth contemplated becoming a priest. He eventually decided he was unsuited for the priesthood but expressed his devotion in numerous works of sacred music. After winning the Grand Prix de Rome in 1839, Gounod spent much of his time at the Sistine Chapel listening to and studying the works of sixteenth century masters. During the summer of 1855, while at work on the St. Cecilia Mass, he wrote to his mother, “During the afternoons I usually go to the woods and read selections of my beloved Saint Augustine. I have translated them; that is my time of reflection. Following that, I contemplate my Mass.” After the premier of the Messe Solennelle de Sainte Cécile, in the Church of St. Eustache in Paris on Saint Cecilia’s Day, November 22, 1855, a French publication’s reviewer noted, “He has the sense of liturgical things; and I shall say more, he is convinced; he believes!” This rendition established Gounod’s fame as a noteworthy composer. Gounod contemporary, composer Camille Saint-Saens (b.Paris1835; d.Algiers1921) commented after the premiere: “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.” Saint-Saens ranked the Mass among the best works by Gounod: “In the faint distant future when inexorable time has completed its work and the operas of Gounod are forever in repose in the dusty sanctuary of libraries, the Messe de Sainte Cécile, the Rédemption, and the oratorio Mors et Vita will still retain life.” The original version of the composition was somewhat troubling not only because of its grandeur, but also because of unauthorized additions to the text of the Mass made by the composer. In the original Gloria the final miserere nobis (have mercy on us) is intensified by an added Domine Jesu (Lord Jesus). The original Credo is followed by a threefold supplication, repeating the same text, Domine, salvum fac Imperatorem nostrum Napoleonem, et exaudi nos in die qua invocaverimus te (Lord, save our Emperor Napoleon and hear us when we call upon you), sung the first time as the Prière de l’Eglise (Prayer of the Church) by the choir a cappella after a short instrumental introduction, the second time as the Prière de l’Armée (Prayer of the Army) by the men’s voices and brass, and the third time as the Prière de la Nation (Prayer of the Nation) by the choir with orchestra. The original Mass also has an added instrumental Offertorium, between the Domine salvum and the Sanctus. In the original Agnus Dei, the soloists sing between the three invocations the text Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea (Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say a word and I shall be healed), sung first by the tenor and again by the soprano. The movement ends with an added Amen. The changes have been criticized as being not liturgically correct and, except for the added Domine Jesu in the Gloria and the instrumental Offertorium; have been omitted in the score the Chorale & Orchestra uses. The Hartmann recording listed below, utilizes the original version of the score. The Messe Solennelle was dedicated by the composer to Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of church musicians, who like Saint Agnes, was martyred for her faith in Rome and is memorialized in both the Roman Canon (Para. 96) and the Roman Martyrology (September 16 and November 22). Gounod also composed this Mass in memory of his music teacher and father-in-law, Pierre Joseph Zimmerman, who died in 1853. Gounod’s ability to compose dramatic music for the opera is also evident in this great Mass. The Gloria and Credo are famous for their drama, power and memorable melodies. The Sanctus with the enormous and beautiful tenor solo reaches a full musical climax at “Hosanna in excelsis” near the end of the Benedictus. The Saint Cecelia Mass is a traditional favorite of the Chorale & Orchestra. It is presented annually on the Patronal Feast of Saint Agnes, January 21.  (39:41)

(Adapted from a note by Erik Eriksson in the “All Music Guide to Classical Music”, published in 2005 by Backbeat Books)

Gounod’s Saint Cecilia Mass is conducted by Chorale music director Dr. Marc Jaros. Mary E. LeVoir is the organist. Soloists are Patricia Kent, soprano; Jocelyn Kalajian, contralto; John deCausmeaker, tenor; and Jon Nordstrom, bass. The Schola Cantorum is directed by Paul W. LeVoir. The Saint Cecilia Mass was first presented by the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale & Orchestra as part of its 1985-1986 Orchestra Mass season.

Recommended Listening:

  • Gounod at Saint Agnes / Schuler: Twin Cities Catholic Chorale & Orchestra / 1986 / Leaflet Missal 06733
  • Gounod: Messe Solennelle / Hartmann: Société des Concerts du Conservatoire / 2001 / EMI 74730
  • Gounod: Messe Solennelle de Ste. Cécile / Robertson: The Holy Ghost Choir & Orchestra / 2000 / Penguin 71408



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