A truly unique composer in the history of music

I am continually amazed that Théodore Gouvy escaped the notice of everyone after he passed away in 1898. He was certainly one of the greatest composers of melody during the nineteenth century, and I honestly believe that he is in good company with such creators of melody as Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Puccini. Make no mistake about it, Théodore Gouvy certainly had his own voice, but the opening of his Piano Sonata in D minor, Opus 36, has always reminded me a little of Schubert. Of course when any of us hear a composer that we have never heard before, we instinctively compare the new composer to those with whom we are most familiar. The more we listen to Gouvy’s music, the more apparent it becomes that it is unique in the history of music.


One thing that we must say about Gouvy was that he found his true path in music, and, he was incredibly dedicated to it. Understand that when he made the decision to enter the Paris Conservatory, Luigi Cherubini would not admit him because Cherubini considered Gouvy to be German, and not French (Cherubini had also refused Franz Liszt admittance to the Conservatory, because Liszt was Hungarian). Gouvy’s status as a French citizen, or as a German citizen, was a little more clouded. There is no question that he considered himself to be French, because almost all of his letters were written in French. His three older brothers, Henri, Charles, and Alexander, were all considered French, but when Théodore was born, the border had moved just past his house, so he was considered German. However, in spite of the fact that he was refused official admittance to the Paris Conservatory, his family was so wealthy, that he moved to Paris and paid the faculty surreptitiously, in order to receive a good education. There, he studied with Édouard Billard, Pierre Joseph Zimmerman, and Karl Eckert.


After completing his studies, he traveled to Berlin through Leipzig, where he heard Mendelssohn conduct a concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and also heard him give a lecture on four-hand piano sonatas. This must have had quite an impact upon him because most of his keyboard compositions, and his three piano sonatas, were written for four hands at one piano. He also wrote a sonata for two pianos. In Berlin, his friend Eckert introduced him to Friedrich Förster, and through Förster, he meets Franz Liszt on a social level, and they become friends. He is also introduced to Meyerbeer.


Gouvy, the Danish composer, Niles Gade, Eckert, and Eduard Franck, form a kind of artistic team to inspire each other. It is with these friends that Gouvy goes on his “Italian journey” where he meets Rossini who tells him that since opera is so popular at this time, that he must write only operas. Gouvy disagreed with this, and he began to write symphonies and string quartets. It is not too much of an oversimplification to say that in France operas and operettas were very popular. In England oratorios were widespread, while in Germany, the symphonic form was the most admired. As a matter of fact, he wrote a letter explaining his stay in Germany, particularly Leipzig, by writing: “Why I live here: 1) because my room is heated; 2) because I get something to listen to, while there is nothing to hear there [meaning Paris]; 3) because here I mix with real artists (including Ferdinand Hiller, Carl Reinicke, Ignaz Moscheles, Franz Liszt, Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Joseph Joachim) and there, there is no one; 4) because here, I still find publishers.” It is almost as if he is concealing the real reason for living in Leipzig, and that was that in Germany, he could write symphonies and chamber music with which he had great success. In addition, there were no resources in Paris to have his works performed, so he went to Leipzig where he spent his winters, and his choral works were performed all over Germany: Frankfurt, Berlin, Dresden, Halle, Wiesbaden, and Duisbourg.


At the World Exposition in Paris in 1878, the Gouvy family and Théodore were both honored. The family won a Gold Medal for steel. Théodore Gouvy’s Symphony, Opus 20, was performed, and composer/critic C. M. Widor praised it very highly.


Hector Berlioz said of Théodore Gouvy’s work: “I found such beauty in the most serious meaning of this term in one of Gouvy’s symphonies. There should be more space that I have here to pay even half enough homage to a remarkable composition, whose adagio, conceived in a newly written form and on a huge stage, bought as much astonishment as admiration to me. When thinking of such a talented musician as Gouvy being so little known in Paris [he was known – but ‘little-known’ because of his refusal to write operettas], and when listening to those bees who keep disturbing the audience with their continuous and obstinate humming, one can only wonder at, and be indignant with, simpleminded people who still believe the logic and justice of our musical habits.”


In 1896, Gouvy was asked to become the director of the Paris Conservatory. He was unable to do so because of his failing health. Gouvy had a heart attack in Leipzig, and died in April of 1898. His body was taken to Hombourg-Haut, and he is buried there.


In the June 1, 1898, issue of The Musical Times, an obituary announced his death:

“The distinguished composer, Théodore Gouvy, died on April 27 at Leipzig, where he had resided for many years past, at the advanced age of seventy-nine. Born at a village near Saarbrücken in 1819, he was originally destined for a legal career, but subsequently devoted himself entirely to music, studying at the Paris Conservatoire and at Berlin, under Eckert, and soon making himself favorably known in Germany as a composer. Purity of style and delicacy of sentiment are the characteristic qualities of his many compositions, which met with equal appreciation in France and in Germany. Indeed, so highly was he esteemed in Paris, that on the death of Ambroise Thomas, he was offered the post of Director of the Conservatoire, which, however, failing health did not permit him to accept.”

  • 1 Jan, 2014
  • Posted by NCFO1312x
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