In the Franco-German school, of which Gounod is so high an exponent, the orchestra is busy throughout developing the history of the emotions, and in “Faust” especially it is as busy a factor in expressing the passions of the characters as the vocal parts. Not even in the “garden scene” does the singing reduce the instruments to a secondary importance. The difference between Gounod and Wagner, who professes to elaborate the importance of the orchestra in dramatic music, is that the former has a skill in writing for the voice which the other lacks. The one lifts the voice by the orchestration, the other submerges it. Gounod’s affluence of lovely melody can only be compared with that of Mozart and Rossini, and his skill and ingenuity in treating the orchestra have wrung reluctant praise from his bitterest opponents.
The special power which makes Gounod unique in his art, aside from those elements before alluded to as derived from temperament, is his unerring sense of dramatic fitness, which weds such highly suggestive music to each varying phase of character and action. To this perhaps one exception may be made. While he possesses a certain airy playfulness, he fails in rich broad humor utterly, and situations of comedy are by no means so well handled as the more serious scenes.
A good illustration of this may be found in “Le Medecin malgre lui,” in the couplets given to the drunken Sganarelle. They are beautiful music, but utterly unflavored with the vis comica.
Had Gounod written only “Faust,” it should stamp him as one of the most highly gifted composers of his age. Noticeably in his other works, preeminently in this, he has shown a melodic freshness and fertility, a mastery of musical form, a power of orchestration, and a dramatic energy, which are combined to the same degree in no one of his rivals. Therefore it is just to place him in the first rank of contemporary composers.
Among contemporary French composers there is no name which suggests itself in comparison with that of Gounod so worthily as that of Ambroise Thomas, famous in every country where the opera is a favorite form of public amusement, as the author of “Mignon” and “Hamlet.” Lacking the depth and passion of Gounod, he is distinguished by a peculiar sparkle, grace, and Gallic lightness of touch; and if we do not find in him the earnestness and spiritual significance of his rival’s conceptions, there is, on the other hand, in the works of Thomas, a glow of poetic sentiment which invests them with a charming atmosphere, peculiarly their own. Perhaps in his own country Thomas enjoys a repute still higher than that of Gounod, for his genius is more peculiarly French, while the composer of “Faust” shows the radical influence of the German school, not only in the cast of his thoughts and temperament, but in his technical musical methods. Still, as all artists are profoundly moved by the tendencies of their age, it would not be difficult to find in the later works of Thomas, on which his celebrity is based, some unconscious modeling of form wrought by that musical school of which Richard Wagner is the most advanced type.