Gouvy was born into a French-speaking family in the village of Goffontaine, then a Prussian village in the Sarre region (now Saarbrücken-Schafbrücke, Germany). The family was of Belgian descent. Gouvy's great-grandfather Pierre came from Goffontaine, a Belgian village near Liège. Around 1753, being mayor of Saarlouis, he named his ironworks factory "Goffontaine". Because this region fell under Prussian control shortly before his birth, Théodore Gouvy could not attain French citizenship until the age of 32.
He began piano lessons with a private tutor at the age of eight, and was educated in Sarreguemines (France), developing a keen interest in Classical Greek culture and in modern languages. He spoke not only German and French, 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) and became friendly with Adolphe Adam. This led to further music studies in Paris and Berlin. Unable to pursue music instruction at the Conservatoire de Paris, he took up private courses.
Drawn toward instrumental music rather than opera, this led Gouvy to live the last third of his life almost entirely in Germany where he felt more appreciated. In particular, he wrote twenty-four compositions for full orchestra, including nine symphonies, as well as overtures and variations. Chamber music comprises a large portion of Gouvy's work and accounts in particular for four sonatas in duet form, five trios, eleven quartets, seven quintets, an enormous piano repertoire, several scores for wind ensembles, as well as many melodies and Lieder. There are also five dramatic cantatas: Aslega, Œdipe à Colone, Iphigénie en Tauride, Électre, and Polyxène; two operas: Le Cid and Mateo Falcone; as well as some large religious works, including a Requiem, a Stabat Mater, a Messe brève, and the cantata Golgotha.
Gouvy was a man of two cultures, divided between France and Germany, from which he drew his inspiration, his characteristics and his force. While to a certain extent he was known and recognised in his lifetime, he fell into obscurity following his death.
During his lifetime, his compositions, and especially his chamber music, were held in high regard and often performed in countries like Germany, Austria, England, Scandinavia, and Russia, rather than France. Gouvy was universally acknowledged for being a master of form and for his deft sense of instrumental timbre. Mendelssohn and Schumann were his models. Virtually all of his works show that he was a gifted melodist. Musicians of the first rank such as Johannes Brahms, Carl Reinecke, and Joseph Joachim, who were familiar with Gouvy's music, held it in high regard.
Hector Berlioz wrote in the Journal des débats of 13 April 1851: "[t]hat a musician of the importance of M. Gouvy is still not very well known in Paris, and that so many gnats bother the public with their tenacious buzzing, it is enough to confuse and inflame the naive spirits that still believe in the reason and the justice of our musical manners".
But Berlioz's favourable reviews had little effect, and Gouvy's music continued to be neglected until the end of the 20th century. In 1994, his Requiem, with its vigorous Dies iræ, was revived by the Lorraine Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Jacques Houtmann (who recorded a CD with the work, which appeared the K617 label). Stylistically the composition owes something to Mendelssohn, to Gounod, and to Verdi, but remains quietly original despite these influences.
Although his work comprises more than two hundred compositions, including 90 opuses published in his lifetime, it largely remains ignored.
40 Poèmes de Ronsard Op．37, Op.41, Op.42, Op.44 (1876)
Songs and Sonnets by Desportes Op．45 (1867)
La pléiade francaise Op．48 (1876)
Que dites-vous, que faites-vous, mignonne? (1866)
Wolfgang Birtel, "Zu Persönlichkeit und Werk des 'saarländischen' Komponisten Theodor Gouvy (1819–1898)", in: Mitteilungen der Arbeitsgemeinschaft für mittelrheinische Musikgeschichte, vol. 38 (1979), p. 463–472.
Alexandre Dratwicki (ed.), Théodore Gouvy: Cantates, œuvres symphoniques et musique de chambre, CD booklet notes (3 CDs), Ediziones singulares/Palazetto Bru-Zane (Centre de musique romantique française), 2013.
Herbert Schneider & René Auclair (ed.), Théodore Gouvy 1819–1898. Bericht über den Internationalen Kongress / Actes du Colloque international, Saarbrücken/Hombourg-Haut' (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2008), ISBN978-3-487-13541-0.
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↑ The Neue Berliner Musikzeitung for 3 December 1856 notes a Leipzig performance from manuscript conducted by the composer in a concert of 25 November of that year. So premiered no later than 1856 at any rate.