The music of French composer Benjamin Godard, whose meteoric rise to fame during the late 1870s earned him a general popularity that eluded most of his Parisian contemporaries, has fallen out of the general repertory since his death in 1895. Godard was born in Paris on August 18, 1849, and was trained on the violin as a young boy (he was fortunate enough receive lessons from famed virtuoso Henri Vieuxtemps). After entering the Paris Conservatoire in 1863 (composition with Henri Reber) and making two unsuccessful bids in for the Prix de Rome (1866 and 1867), Godard earned a living as a violist until his music began to attract the attention of publishers during the final years of the 1860s. Godard's reputation as a skilled and prolific composer grew steadily during the 1870s, and when his Le Tasse (dramatic symphony for chorus, soloists, and orchestra) was awarded the Prix de la Ville de Paris in 1878 Godard entered the front rank of Parisian musicians.
Godard gained further attention when his music was made a focus of conductor Jules Étienne Pasdeloup's Concerts Populaires; Godard himself took over direction of the concerts during the mid-1880s, renaming them the Concerts Modernes, but the series never regained the success it had achieved under Pasdeloup. An interest in opera during the 1880s and 1890s led to the production of five dramatic operas, all popular failures (though the "Berceuse" from the 1888 opera Jocelyn is Godard's only well-known work). A comic opera, La vivandière, was left unfinished at the composer's death in 1895; the orchestration of the work was finished by another musician and the work was premiered in Paris later in the year.
Given Godard's instrumental background, it is not surprising that his chamber and symphonic works have the most to offer performers and listeners. The five symphonies (some with fanciful titles, e.g. Symphonie gothique or Symphonie orientale), while perhaps less rewarding than the music for violin (five sonatas for piano and violin, two concertos, of which the Concerto romantique is considered the superior, and an important solo violin sonata), are nevertheless superior to the operas, which fall rather short of their dramatic ambitions due to a lack of potent musical substance. Godard seems to have had little innate sympathy for the piano, and, although works for this instrument actually constitute a substantial portion of his total output, his piano music is generally rather trite. Perhaps Godard's widespread fame as a salon composer compelled him to compose such trifles, but he was not a miniaturist at heart, and his efforts in this vein are generally unsuccessful.
From 1887 on Godard was a member of the faculty at the Paris Conservatoire, and in 1889 he was named a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur.