Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Benjamin Godard

Several works by Godard are included in my piano channel - for the very good reason that he was an excellent composer.  I thought I would reproduce this interesting 1899 biography by Charles Leonard-Stuart (editor of 'Everybody's Cyclopaedia') that appears at the head of a Schirmer collection of 18 of his piano works:

"GODARD, BENJAMIN-LOUIS-PAUL, one of the most prolific of modern French composers, and a brilliant violinist, was born in Paris on the eighteenth of August, 1849. His father, a well-known and successful business man of Paris, possessed strong musical tastes, and his mother also was a talented musician. Irish blood flowed in Godard's veins, his great-grandmother having been an Irish lady.  From an early age he commenced the study of the violin under the direction of Richard Hammer, and at the age of nine he played in public. In 1863 he entered the Paris Conservatory as a pupil in Reber's harmony class, and also continued his violin studies under Vieuxtemps. One of his youthful ambitions was to become laureate of the Grand Prix de Rome, and he took part in the annual competitions of 1866 and 1867, but was unsuccessful. In the latter year he quitted the Conservatory, and thenceforward devoted himself to composition. An incentive to this course had been given him during two concert-tours he made through Germany with Vieuxtemps, while still a pupil of that eminent virtuoso. At sixteen he had published his first work, a Sonata for violin and piano. This was followed by a number of mélodies set to words of ancient classical poems, a  Berceuse, Je ne veux pas d'autres choses. Chanson de Florian, Ni- non, Viens, Automne, Chanson du Berger, Fille à la blonde chevelure, Suis-je belle?, Printemps, Menuet, Vaudeville, Chanson de Malherbe, J'ai perdu ma tourterelle, etc. Compositions for the pianoforte succeeded. Première Mazurka, Première Valse, and he became better known by a Violin Concerto and a.Concerto romantique, Op. 35 with orchestral accompaniment, performed at the Concerts Populaires by Mademoiselle Marie Tayau. The Prix Chartier for merit in the department of chamber-music was bestowed upon him by the Institut de France for a series of chamber works, violin sonatas, a trio for pianoforte, violin and violoncello, and quartets for stringed instruments. These compositions exhibited qualities of a more serious and highly develeloped character, which were further exemplified in his symphonies.  Amongst these may be mentioned Le Tasse (Tasso), Op. 39, a dramatic symphony with soli and chorus which was awarded the prize of the city of Paris in 1878, and the Symphonic orientale, Op. 84, performed under the personal conductorship of the composer at a Pasdeloup concert on the twenty-fourth of February, 1884. This consisted of five parts, Les Éléphants, Chinoiseries, Sarah la baigneuse, Le Rêve de la Nikia, et Marche turque, having for themes poems of Leconte de Lisle, Victor Hugo, and verses by the composer himself.

With his dramatic taste and symphonic aptitude, Godard subsequently turned to the theatre, and encount- ered the usual difficulties which beset most young composers. For years he essayed in vain to find a theatre in Paris to accept his principal works. He had already produced the one-act opera Les Bijoux de Jeannette at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in 1878, but he was compelled to seek a foreign stage for the production of his first important dramatic work. This was Pedro de Zalamea, an opera in four acts, to the libretto of Detroyat and P. A. Silvestre, produced at the Théâtre Royal, Antwerp, on the thirty-first of January, 1884.   For Jocelyn, an opera in four acts, to a libretto by P. A. Silvestre and Capoul, founded on a poem of Lamartine's, he again found a fatherland in Belgium, where it appeared on the twenty-fifth of February, 1888, at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels. It was transferred to the Théâtre du Château d'Eau, Paris, on the eighteenth of October following. Later, on May 28th, 1890, the French Institut awarded Godard the Prix Monbine of 3000 francs for this opera. He also received the decoration of Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur. The first representation of Le Dante, a lyrical drama in four acts and six scenes, libretto by Edouard Blau, he succeeded in bringing out at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, on the twelfth of May, 1890, "mais il a tenu peu de temps l'affiche" (it figured but a short time on the notice board).

The future promised the brilliant harvest of a matured and ripened experience, but while in the plenitude of his powers, he contracted a serious malady of the lungs by passing suddenly from a heated atmosphere to a cold. Excessive bicycling, of which sport he was inordinately fond, aggravated the disease, which was accompanied by an irritating cough. Lingering consumption supervened, and in 1894, kv the advice of his physicians, he went to Cannes to seek the benefits of a southern climate. He was unmarried, and at the end of the year, his sister, who was nursing him, wrote: "No one can have any idea of the strength of will put forth by the sick man to finish his work. He says that in all his life he never had such a facility of musical writing. His Christmas effort was an additional solo, for which Eugère had expressed a wish." Although in failing health, he had worked indefatigably at his new opera La Vivandière. He completed the three acts, and had already sent in the orchestration of the first act, when, on the ninth of January, 1895, he died. 

Godard exhibited decided individuality in his works. At the same time, among native contemporaneous composers he was one of the most distinguished exponents of the high ideals and revolutionary orchestral methods of the modern French School, founded by Berlioz. Endowed with extraordinary facility of production, his talents were spread over a large area. He achieved great success in his choral writings, which were effective and brilliant. His dramatic poem Le Tasse, a work of considerable importance, reveals an undoubted personality. He was perhaps greater in small things than in large. There is an exquisite charm in his graceful songs, such as Ninon, and Te souviens-tu ?, while many of his pianoforte pieces possess a peculiar and distinctive fascination. His operas were less successful, but in his extremely clever chamber-music, such as the Concerto romantique for violin, the Symphonie legendaire, the piano trio among others, his talent found its highest expression. Besides the works already mentioned may be enumerated Les Guelfes (in MS.), Paris, 1888; Diane et Actéon, lyric scene; Symphonie gothique, op. 23; Symphonie legendaire (Le Châtelet, Paris, 1886-87), Scènes poétiques, suite for orchestra, op. 46; Solitude, for orchestra ; two valses for orchestra; pianoforte concerto with orchestra, op. 31 ; Introduction and Allegro, for orchestra, op. 49; two string-quartets, op. 33 and 37, two trios for pianoforte and strings, op. 72 ; four sonatas for pianoforte and violin, op. 1, 2, 9, 12; Légende et Scherzo for ditto, op, 3; 6 duettini for two violins with pianoforte, op. 18; Deux morceaux for violoncello with pianoforte, op. 36; Suite de trois morceaux for violin with pianoforte, op. 78; twenty-four Études artistiques for pianoforte ; Six Contes de la Veillée à quatre mains, op. 67; Nocturnes, op. 68; Premier Mai; Trois Scènes Italiennes, op. 126, and other pianoforte music and many songs."