O Divine Redeemer
by James Welch
Outside of the hymns and songs of the church, probably no other sacred song is so beloved to the Latter-day Saints as Charles Gounod's spiritual song O Divine Redeemer. Who was this composer and how did he come to compose this timeless melody?
Charles Gounod (pronounced goo-know) was born in Paris 18 June 1818. He came from an artistic background: his father was a prize-winning artist who later worked on restorations of paintings at the Louvre. Like many other musicians Gounod was first taught the piano by his mother. At eighteen he became a student of composition at the Paris Conservatory, and three years later he won the Prix de Rome, which gave him a fellowship toward study in that city. There he concentrated on the study of church music, particularly the Renaissance music of Palestrina. Gounod also travelled to Germany, where Felix Mendelssohn's sister Fanny introduced him to the music of Bach, Beethoven, and her brother's music, as well as the writing of Goethe; in Leipzig he heard Felix Mendelssohn perform the organ works of J. S. Bach. He also spent time in Vienna and Berlin, two of the leading musical centers in Europe. By the time he returned to Paris, he had absorbed a wealth of musical styles and had met many influential composers of his day. These experiences prepared him for the rich musical outpouring which soon followed.
In addition to the artistic flair absorbed from both his parents, Gounod also had within him a strong religious interest. On his return to Paris he became a church organist and choir conductor at the Missions Etrangeres in the rue de Bac in Paris. He also considered entering the Roman Catholic priesthood and spent two years studying theology. His early career as a composer was marked by the writing of choral settings of the mass and other spiritual songs.
Like most French composers of his day, Gounod realized that the way to make a name for himself in the music world lay in writing opera and other secular music. His fourth opera Faust (1859), based on the German legend, became Gounod's most famous and enduring large-scale work. Of all the composers drawn to this diabolical story (in which the main character Faust sells his soul to the devil), hardly any could have been less inclined than Gounod, who was an amiable, placid, and spiritually-minded man. He also wrote a successful opera based on the story of Romeo and Juliet.
Gounod married Anna Zimmermann, the daughter of Paris Conservatory piano professor Pierre Zimmermann [1820-1848]; they had one child, a son Jean. Gounod's interest in choral music took him to England, where he served as the first conductor of the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society, formed in 1871. He composed numerous choral compositions in English, in addition to conducting his operas (Faust was said to be Queen Victoria's favorite opera). Eventually he returned to France, where he died on 18 October 1893. Because of his prodigious output as a composer, he is considered the central figure in French music during the third quarter of the 19th century. Composers directly influenced by him include Bizet, Saint-Saens, Faure, and Massenet.
Gounod's compositions include over a dozen operas, 17 masses, a host of sacred and secular choral works, six oratorios (the most famous being La Rédemption), two symphonies, chamber music, solo piano and organ pieces, and even teaching methods for piano and French horn. His most recognizable instrumental piece is Funeral March of a Marionette, written in London in 1872 for piano and later orchestrated in 1879. This colorful piece was much later adopted as the theme music for the Alfred Hitchcock television show.
Gounod composed several hundred sacred solo songs, characterized by their tender simplicity and lyrical charm. His most famous sacred song, of course, is his 1852 setting of the Ave Maria, in which he added a beautiful melody to one of J. S. Bach's preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Many of his songs were in French or Latin, but from his years in England, he composed his own musical settings of various English texts. These [texts, some of which are found in the LDS Hymnal to music by other composers,] include Jesus of Nazareth, There is a Green Hill Far Away, Entreat Me Not to Leave Thee (The Song of Ruth), Abraham's Request, The King of Love My Shepherd Is, Forever With the Lord, and The Holy Vision. He also composed a setting of Tennyson's Ring Out, Wild Bells, and Longfellow's The Arrow and the Song. (Incidentally, there is no music by Gounod in the LDS hymnal.)
Of particular interest to Latter-day Saints is Gounod's song O, Divine Redeemer. Gounod composed both the words (in French) and music to this song in April 1893, six months before his death, so it is one of his last compositions. Some consider it to be one of his last expressions of faith. The song was written originally for mezzo-soprano with orchestral accompaniment. It was probably not published during his lifetime, but it was arranged for piano and voice by Mr. Paladilhe and published on 15 December 1894 in a famous French literary magazine, La Revue de Paris. The original title of the song is Repentir, meaning "Repentance," and is subtitled Scene sous forme de priere, (literally, "Scene in the form of a prayer").
An original copy of this periodical is found in the rare books collection at Stanford University. It was a memorable experience to enter this immense climate-controlled library and hold an actual first-edition copy of the song.
A footnote to the first page states [translated here from the original French by Richard Butler]:
A fairly literal translation (by Richard Butler) of the original French text is as follows:
Some Latter-day Saint readers may be somewhat surprised and unsettled by the unsubtle 19th-century Roman Catholic images of mortification, humiliation, and punishment in the original. By comparison the modern English translation is more gentle, but still fairly true to the original French text. Some editions also include a text in Latin.
The modern English text, added sometime later by an anonymous translator, is as follows:
This moving song has for decades been beloved of many Church leaders and members alike. It was a favorite of President Ezra Taft Benson, and some may remember hearing his daughter sing it during a session of general conference.
More recently, during the April 1996 conference Elder David B. Haight referred lovingly to O Divine Redeemer as he related the experiences surrounding his call to the Council of the Twelve. When he first took his seat on the stand as an apostle, the Tabernacle Choir performed this song. "I thought my heart would break in the pleading of those words: 'Remember not, remember not, O Lord, my sins.'"[Ensign, May 1996, p. 23]
What then has made this song so remarkably universally treasured by the Saints? Certainly the lyrical tune is easy to remember. The text also speaks to the hearts of all listeners who love the Savior and trust in Him for forgiveness and a blessing. But also impressive is the knowledge that this gifted, inspired composer chose to seal his long career in sacred music with this final moving testimony.