About this Recording
GP676 - GOUVY, L.T.: Sonatas for Piano 4 Hands, Opp. 36, 49 and 51 (Naoumoff, Yau Cheng)
English  French 

Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819–1898)
Sonatas for Piano Four Hands


Louis Théodore Gouvy was born in the Saarland town of Goffontaine (today Schafbrücke) just east of Saarbrücken, into a French-speaking industrialist family of Walloon origins. Prussian by birth, he had to wait until 1851 to be granted French nationality, by which time he had met the requirement to be resident in France for ten years.

Gouvy began piano lessons with a private tutor at the age of eight, and was educated in France—Sarreguemines, then Metz—developing a keen interest in Classical Greek culture and in modern languages—not only German, which he spoke fluently, but English and Italian as well. In 1837 he went to Paris to study law, continuing his piano lessons with a pupil of the pianist and composer Henri Herz (1803–1888).

Two years later, he made up his mind to abandon any thoughts of a career in the law and to devote himself to music. He explained his plans to his mother: “My goal, my ambition is not to become a teacher or a professional pianist. Music means more to me than that. Last Sunday at the Conservatoire I heard a symphony by M. Reber… Now that’s something I regard very differently than I do the ten digits of M. Liszt; that’s a goal I should truly be proud to achieve.” He began studying harmony and counterpoint with Antoine Elwart, who taught at the Conservatoire, and took violin lessons with a young German violinist named Carl Eckert, a former pupil of Mendelssohn. In 1841 he undertook advanced piano studies with Pierre Zimmermann, another teacher at the Conservatoire.

The following November Gouvy travelled to Germany, meeting Spohr in Frankfurt and Mendelssohn in Leipzig. On 23 November he reached Berlin, where he met Meyerbeer and Liszt. After visiting Dresden, Prague, Nuremberg and Mannheim, he returned to Goffontaine. On 11 March 1844 in Paris, at a concert in the series known as the Concerts Vivienne, the first public performance of one of his works took place, conducted by Elwart: an Overture for orchestra he had written in Berlin. Two days later, Gouvy decided to travel to Rome. He remained in Italy until May 1845, drawing inspiration from the stimulating and creative circles in which he moved, mixing not only with musicians such as Eckert and the Danish composer Niels Gade, but also with artists. Although Rossini, whom he met in Bologna, advised him to write for the stage, he ultimately chose instead to compose his First Symphony, Op. 9, completed on 12 March 1845. On returning to France, he invested all his energies into getting his symphony performed. It was heard in Paris at a private concert on 7 February 1846, then in public on 17 December 1847, and was very well received by audience and critics alike.

Thereafter, Gouvy would spend his winters and springs in Paris, promoting his music and cultivating his contacts, and his summers and autumns in Goffontaine, composing. He stood out in French musical life as a composer of orchestral and chamber music. Four more symphonies appeared in quick succession, in 1848, 1850 (now lost), 1852 and 1855, and in 1850 he conducted his Second Symphony at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. Writing about the First, in the Journal des débats on 13 April 1851, Berlioz commented, “I found the symphony by M. Gouvy very beautiful, in the most serious sense of the word ... A remarkable work whose Adagio, conceived in a new form and on a remarkable scale, aroused in me as much astonishment as it did admiration.” Despite his friendships and the recognition of the Parisian music scene (figures such as Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Lalo, Massenet, Pasdeloup, Lamoureux and Berlioz), however, Gouvy failed to establish a lasting reputation as a composer. From summer 1857 onwards, he concentrated primarily on chamber music, then on his first opera, Der Cid, which occupied him during 1862 and 1863. Deeply affected by the death of his mother in 1868, he elected to move to Hombourg-Haut in Lorraine, not far from his birthplace. That same year he wrote his Fifth Symphony, Op. 30 and the Symphonie brève, Op. 58.

While on holiday in Switzerland in July 1870 he heard the news of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. The Treaty of Frankfurt of 10 May 1871 stipulated that the German-speaking regions of Alsace and Lorraine would be annexed into Germany. Gouvy had as many friends in France as he did in Germany: forced to make a choice, he decided to base himself in Paris. He became a member of the Société Nationale de Musique, recently founded by Saint-Saëns, Lalo and Fauré, and was elected on to its committee in 1873.

Over the next few years, most of the works he wrote were vocal pieces, both sacred—Requiem, Op. 70 (1874), Stabat Mater, Op. 65 (1875)—and secular, such as the trilogy of dramatic cantatas inspired by Ancient Greece—OEdipe à Colonne, Op. 75 (1880), Iphigénie en Tauride, Op. 76 (1883), and Electre, Op. 85 (1886). All of these were successfully performed in the main musical centres of Germany, Gouvy by then having established many contacts in the country, helped perhaps by the family of his German sister-in-law Henriette (née Böcking), herself a talented musician. Those contacts included such eminent names as Hiller, Reinecke, Gernsheim, Clara Schumann, Bargiel, Brahms, Joachim and Bruch. Tchaikovsky met Gouvy at Reinecke’s home and later described him as entirely “Germanized”, adding, “Perhaps M. Gouvy has good reason to complain about France, but it was painful for me to hear him praise all things German at the expense of all things French”. This notwithstanding, Gouvy was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1894 on the death of Anton Rubinstein, and to the König-Preussische Akademie in Berlin in 1895. He died in Leipzig on 21 April 1898.

Much of Gouvy’s piano music was written for four hands. The opening movement of the Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 36 (1861) is marked by its expressive modulations, and cast in an inventive sonata form, with three themes. The intimate, nostalgic, Schubertian tone of the beginning forms a contrast with the declamatory nature of the livelier second subject’s dotted rhythms, and its concluding motif of whirling semi-quavers. The third subject creates a denser polyphonic texture in the way it so closely intertwines the two parts, and brings the exposition to an end in more serene manner. The Adagio, conceived as a continuous flow, begins with a theme of elegant innocence. The second theme brings out a gentle, inward-looking conversation between motifs, above repeated chords. The third sets two distinctive motifs in opposition, one songful, the other with an initial dotted rhythm. This thematic material is repeated once, in variation. The last two movements, played without a break, are of undeniable originality. The duple-time Intermezzo takes the form ABA’B’coda (based on fragments of A) and replaces the expected scherzo. Its staccato theme becomes more contrapuntal before a more flowing, major-mode second subject. Eschewing virtuosity, the Épilogue finale has a barcarolle rhythm, pre-echoing Offenbach.

Gouvy’s Second Sonata in C minor, Op. 49 (1869) begins with an expressive descending theme, immediately developed in a bridge passage leading to the more confident second theme, played over repeated triplet notes. The exposition concludes energetically in E flat major while the abbreviated recapitulation ends in a peaceful coda. In the Larghetto, a theme generating music of greater drama, above dense tremolos, is haltingly sketched out. Out of this material there emerges a motif which, shared between all four hands, plays a part in the elaboration of the main theme over a repeated-quaver accompaniment. The final bars see a modulation towards the G minor of the following movement, a Minuetto with a trio in the major. The implacable march of a bass line in octaves gives this movement a purposeful sense, while in the Finale, we find once again the bithematic writing that Gouvy was so fond of, with a contrast drawn between a victorious-sounding first theme and a more relaxed, major-mode second.

The Sonata No. 3 in F major, Op. 51 (1870) is a shorter, more traditional work. The cheerful sonata-form Allegro con brio entrusts most of the thematic material to the “prima” part while the “seconda” busies itself with the restless, shimmering harmonic backdrop. There are two themes, linked by a bridge passage of long note values. The first combines rapid figurations punctuated by an ascending dotted-rhythm motif, the second is more expressive and includes several modulations. The middle movement, simpler in form, is also bithematic, the first subject featuring subtle echoes of Schumann, the second a folk-inflected rhythm. A finale full of energy introduces two thematic groups: one joyfully staccato, the other more tranquil and very fluid, allowing the two players to converse on equal terms. In place of the standard development, the short central section picks up a motif from the first group and alternates it between the two musicians.

Gérald Hugon
English translation by Susannah Howe

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