At the end of the academic year, as we finish writing exams and papers (and grading exams and papers), it seems like a good moment to take a look at two student compositions by Charles Lefebvre (1843-1917), each with corrections by Charles Gounod. Lefebvre began studying with Gounod in 1861, before entering Ambroise Thomas’s composition class at the Paris Conservatoire in the fall of 1863. He later recalled that,

“For me, the greatest influence Gounod exerted, at that time, was less the result of lessons, properly speaking, than of our frequent conversations, in which, responding to the work I submitted, the teacher elaborated on such and such a musical subject, such and such a point of technique or the history of our art, in the most illuminating speeches, often reinforced by examples drawn from the masters, which Gounod sang in his soft, uniquely charming voice, as I have never since heard them interpreted” (loosely translated from “La vie intime d’un grand musicien Charles Lefebvre,” 349).

The short, four-part Kyrie is the more extensively annotated of the two manuscripts. On reading Gounod’s corrections of repetitive and chromatic intervals, music theory students will probably sympathize with Lefebvre, or at least recall their own early attempts at counterpoint. His final note is encouraging, though: “There’s enormous progress: it’s much better, and except for some violations of the proper style for this genre, it’s got the appropriate character.”

Manuscript of Lefebvre's Kyrie eleison, with corrections by Gounod

Manuscript of Lefebvre’s Kyrie eleison, with corrections by Gounod, Mus 735.386.575

The second piece, the duet “Segui, o cara,” became Lefebvre’s first published composition. The manuscript, titled “Duetto italien” and dated January of 1863, has a few corrections to the Andante; the Allegretto that originally ended the work is completely crossed out, although it’s unclear whether the abridgment was made by Lefebvre or his teacher. Gounod’s comments, though less extensive, are even more congratulatory: “Good music! First rate!”

Handwritten congratulations by Gounod, on Lefebvre's "Duetto italien," Mus 735.386.571

Congratulations by Gounod, on Lefebvre’s “Duetto italien,” Mus 735.386.571

  • Duetto italien : soprano et baryton / Ch. Lefebvre. 1863.
    “Segui, o cara”
    Mus 735.386.571

After unsuccessful attempts at the Prix de Rome in the 1860s, Lefebvre won the prize in 1870, for the cantata Le Jugement de Dieu. His musical output ranged across many genres, from opera to solo and four-hand piano pieces, but while he was generally well-regarded during his lifetime he remained only mildly successful as a composer. Lefebvre taught the Conservatoire’s chamber music class from 1895. For an overview of his musical career to 1896, when he was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, see Hugues Imbert’s Profils d’artistes contemporains.

-Kerry Masteller