, a work which links Gounod with the unlikely figure of the great Scottish explorer David Livingstone, is a most curious song. After his meeting with Stanley (‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’) the indefatigable missionary, already ill but refusing to leave Africa, continued his search for the source of the Nile. On 1 May 1873 Livingstone’s African servants found him dead, kneeling in prayer by his bedside. This was at Chitambo’s village in the Ilala district of what is now Zambia. The faithful helpers embalmed the body (the heart was buried in African soil) and carried Livingstone’s remains to the coast in a perilous journey of nine months. The body was taken on board a ship to England for a state funeral, and the followers stayed by the body’s side until the moment of burial in Westminster Abbey. This was one of the biggest news stories during Gounod’s period in London and he immediately set some occasional verse by Lord Houghton which encapsulates the contemporary English view that events throughout the world occurred merely in order to play movingly in the theatre of the British Empire. In a preface to the French edition of this song Gounod writes: ‘The death of a great man is not only a national sorrow, it is a universal one … the lines of Lord Houghton moved me deeply—I forgot in reading them that I was not the compatriot of the famous explorer—or rather it seemed to me that I was just that.’ This is another superb genre piece beginning with music which evokes the hypnotic heat of Africa and the swaying rhythms of a slow cortège carrying a heavy burden (the music is prophetic of Chausson’s La Caravane in the same key). Only at the words ‘welcoming sounds of fresh blown seas’ does the music quicken into semiquavers, and from there it builds into an impressive (and somewhat jingoistic) climax where the music takes on a lofty quality prophetic of the Edwardian visions (nobilmente and grandiose) of certain pieces by Elgar.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993