Monday, August 26, 2013

A Gem and "Opol" - Théodore Gouvy and his Puzzling Nephew

Nationalism is a fickle beast, especially when opera is involved.  The musical climate of post-revolutionary France was, much like Italy, dominated by opera, and substantial instrumental music wasn't given the press or acceptance it deserved (leaving good composers like Louise Farrenc in the proverbial dust).  The symphony especially suffered, as no scene took off from Napoleon's favorite composer son, Étienne Nicolas Méhul, who was called France's Beethoven in his lifetime, apparently in vain.  Berlioz didn't even get them to budge, which is a bit shocking now considering how popular his work is today.  That being said, you'd think a nationalistic crossover artist wouldn't get any support among the birth of Empire.  Well, you'd be partly right.

That jaunty number closed off the Fantaisie Symphonique by Théodore Gouvy (1819-1898), born in what is now Saarbrücken-Schafbrücke on the Franco-Prussian border and eternally split between the French and German cultures he shared.  He wasn't able to get French citizenship until he was 32, and in the meantime studied privately.  Becoming a master of chamber and symphonic forms, he gained much recognition behind the Instro Curtain (Germany, Austria, Scandinavia and Russia), but never held water in France.  Which is odd, because those other countries seem to enjoy opera just fine, but France and Italy couldn't care less for lyric-less tunes.  This would change with César Franck, but his change would be so big, coupled with the vast stormcloud that was Wagner, that Gouvy once again didn't stand a chance.  With as much invention, charm, and formal command as he possessed, his work was still firmly planted in previous generations.  But for those in the mood, it's all there - mastery of orchestration, astonishing harmonic depth, infectious subjects, and genuine, revelatory surprise.  Check out the section at 3:16 for an ass-flattening pastorale.  I was introduced to Gouvy via his third Symphonie, which I'd be more than happy to show you here if it would ever show up on YouTube, and contains all those traits and more.  But then maybe I'd run out of room to show off his chamber work.

That'll change your socks for ya.  Recording his considerable oeuvre has only been in swing since the 90's, with 23 CDs to his name listed on Amazon.  Aside from scattered labels such as Sony Classical and Lorraine, the big mover/shaker is CPO, who have made a name for themselves reviewing the grand and unknown among Romantic and early-20th century composers and don't make any false moves with their five-disc broadside (including that Symponie nr. 3 I was talking about).  They've focused on pieces involving orchestras, so the works he's (arguably) most known for - piano duet - had to be taken care of by others, namely the Duo Tal & Groethuysen.

The resurrection of his work is inspiring, but even that may not uncover the second entry here.  A useful technique for uncovering artists in a search engine is to search for the publisher and browse their authors.  Editions Maurice Senart is a goldmine for impressionism, so while trundling their stuff in the Sibley Music Library at Eastman School of Music I found this:

Notice anything?

Beg your pardon?

No, this isn't a practical joke on the part of the good ship Sibley.  A quick search on Worldcat, a database for university libraries that will pretty much turn up every score and recording in existence, shows six works under that name (plus duplicate listings).  Wikipedia had nothing, and Grove Music Online came up cold.  However, the answer was in store for me on another, less informative site: YouTube.

Phillip Sear is one of those blessed individuals whose adoration for obscure (mostly mid-to-late 19th century) composers is only matched by his persistence.  He'll soon have 2,000 videos of himself playing from the nearly endless solo piano rep, mining the vast quarries of IMSLP, Sibley and CosandScores.  This recording, taken from the set Tableaux du Caucase, comes with the best information I've yet uncovered on M. Ygouw.  Opol Ygouw is a pseudonym, taken from the letters of the composer's real name: Léopold Gouvy.  Léopold (1871-1968) was a nephew of Théodore's, and lived in the same big house as him, but certainly didn't write the same music.  The three works I was able to see are dripping with impressionist technique, and reveal a curious voice with a flair for drama.  Check out the boffo opening to his cello sonata:

His six works were published from 1921 to 1924, putting him ahead of Abel Decaux in terms of oeuvre but still behind Paul Dukas.  I know of the French tradition of composers who wrote fewer, more perfect works rather than a lot of crap, but this may be pushing it.  I still have no idea why he wrote so little music, but what he did leave is at least pretty interesting.  I also haven't the foggiest why he didn't use his real name; perhaps the backlash against his uncle was so strong in his lifetime that it was dead to the industry.  If anybody who's reading this knows more I for one would like to hear it, because he seems just eccentric enough to shine through the sands of time.  At any rate, his uncle's music is out there to find, and if you see any opols at Sotheby's I'd say they're a good investment.



  1. Wow, good detective work! You need to meet Phillip Sear and exchange notes on everything.

  2. Hi, if you read 'French Cello Sonatas' by Stephen Sensbach (Lilliput Press) you'll find loads of biographical info on Ygouw and his cello sonata, which is heavily influenced by Debussy and is recommended by the author. As a cellist myself I'd like to perform and possibly record this piece for youtube

    1. Thanks for the info! I'll keep an eye out for your recording.