Charles Gounod Biography

(French Composer Best Known for His Operas: ‘Faust’ and ‘Roméo et Juliette’)

Birthday: June 17, 1818 (Gemini)

Born In: Paris, France

Charles Gounod was a French composer best known for writing operas such as Faust and Roméo et Juliette. Raised in Paris by elite parents, Charles lived in the Palace of Versailles during his early childhood. After graduating in philosophy, Charles became interested in becoming a musician, largely due to the influence of a piano player mother. He learned music at Conservatoire de Paris and won the esteemed prize Prix de Rome, which led him to travel through multiple European cities to learn music. He found a great interest in religion and during his early years, he composed religious hymns and choirs. However, in the mid-1840s, he turned to opera instrumentals and composed some of the most popular operas of his time, such as Faust and Romeo et Juliette. His growing career was largely influenced by the Franco-Prussian war in the early 1870s, following which he moved to London with his family. Following his absence from the French composing scene, he was no more as relevant as many young composers had taken his place. However, his influence remained on many young composers for decades to come.

Quick Facts

French Celebrities Born In June

Also Known As: Charles-François Gounod

Died At Age: 75


Spouse/Ex-: Anna Zimmerman (m. 1852)

father: François-Louis Gounod

mother: Victoire Lemachois

children: Jean Gounod

Born Country: France

Composers French Men

Died on: October 18, 1893

place of death: Saint-Cloud, France

Notable Alumni: Lycée Saint-Louis

Cause of Death: Stroke

City: Paris

More Facts

education: Lycée Saint-Louis

Childhood & Early Life

Charles Gounod was born Charles-François Gounod, on June 17, 1818, in Paris, France. He was born as one of two sons of Francois Charles Gounod and Victoire. His father was a painter and an art teacher while his mother was a piano player who was formerly a piano teacher. His family had immense respect among the French artistic circuits. His father was later appointed as the official artist of Duc de Berry, French royalty, and was given an apartment in the Palace of Versailles. Thus, Charles spent his childhood in the palace and had a comfortable upbringing.

Charles received his early training from his mother and learned to play the piano before he entered his teen years. As for his education, he was enrolled at Lycée Saint-Louis, where he studied philosophy. He graduated in philosophy and after that, he began serious about a career in music. He took music lessons from Anton Reicha. Reicha was known as a personal friend of Beethoven and one of the best music teachers alive.

Reicha passed away a few years later, which had Charles enrolling at the Paris Conservatoire to continue his music education. There he studied under teachers such as Fromental Halévy and Jean-François Lesueur. By that time, he had begun composing and was entering into the big leagues slowly.

A few years later, in 1839, he composed a song that won him the Prix de Rome. It was his third attempt to win the award, which even his father had struggled to win. It was one of the highest awards for a budding musician. This honour had Charles winning a three-year stay in Rome at the Villa Medici studying at the French Institute there.

His stay in Italy had a major influence on his work. He got into studying music with Giovanni da Palestrina, who was a popular Italian renaissance composer. Charles further travelled through Vienna, Paris, Prague, Dresden and Berlin and returned to Paris.

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Immediately after his return to Paris, Charles began working at the Church of the Missions Étrangères as an organist and a choirmaster. For the next two years, he focused his attention on theological studies. He had also become deeply interested in religion and at one time in the mid-1840s, he contemplated joining Priesthood. He was torn being becoming a religious composer or composing secular music.

In 1846, he joined the seminary of Saint-Sulpice but he wasn’t keen on taking the Holy Orders. He wanted to marry and have a normal life while being devoted to God. He was thus known as a ‘philandering monk’. He left working for the church. He had halfway composed a couple of his requiems. He left them unfinished and in 1847, he began composing for the operatic stage.

The general response to some of his earliest operas such as Sapho and La Nonne sanglante was not very enthusiastic, despite the fact that they were well received by other composers and critics.

His 1855 composition Messe de Sainte-Cécile was pathbreaking in many ways. It combined the religious themes with the secular ones and produced unique music which is now regarded as one of his best works to date. Other than the religious themes that were prevalent in his operas, he also experimented further with the comic themes as well. Le Médecin malgré lui opera was a great example of that, which was based on Moliere’s comedy.

One of his most significant opera works was titled Messe Sollenelle, which he composed in 1854. It was known as Saint Cecilia Mass and was religious music. This was, in many ways, the work that brought him a massive reputation. It was first performed on November 22, 1855, on St. Cecilia’s Day.

In 1855, Charles composed two symphonies, one of them was Symphony No.1 in D minor. However, despite the popularity of the composition, it was performed very rarely. Another one of his songs was titled Vive l'Empereur, which he composed in honour of Napolean III. It was loved so much that it ended up becoming the official anthem of the Second Empire.

For his continuous work, his fame was expanding outside the national borders. He was awarded a Knight of Legion of Honour in 1856, which was among the biggest civilian honours in France.

Charles was known for the originality in his compositions. However, he received some criticism from the later critics for being a little oversentimental in many of his compositions. That said, his impact on the later period of operatic and choir music is unmistakable.

He had spent many years writing the instrumentals for the opera titled Faust. He had begun working on it in 1852 and it was finally completed in 1859. This composition ushered French opera into a new era. This is perhaps known as the best work by Charles and it further overshadowed all his later great compositions such as Philémon et Baucis, La Colombem Mireille and Roméo et Juliette.

In 1852, Charles further began working at the Orpheon Choral Society as a conductor. He wrote multiple choral works for them, which also included two masses.

The Franco-Prussian war impacted his life. He decided to take refuge in neighbouring England. In 1870, he moved to London and started his own choir. It was initially titled after him, but it later became the Royal Choral Society. In London, he mostly worked towards writing oratories. There he lived in the house of a famous English singer named Georgina Weldon.

In 1871, he composed the orchestra titled Gallia, which was inspired by the defeat of the French military in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. He further composed instrumentals such as La Rédemption and Mors et Vita.

Another major honour came his way in 1888 when he was made a grand officer of the Legion of Honour.

Despite being one of the most popular French composers of all time, Charles’ only a few compositions only made it to the international circuits and gained reputations in line with Beethoven and Bach. He kept inspiring several composers such as Gabriel Faure decades after his death.

Personal Life & Death

Charles Gounod married Anna Zimmerman. She was the daughter of Pierre-Joseph Zimmerman, a teacher at the Conservatoire, where Charles studied music. The couple had two children, a son and a daughter.

Charles was happily married for most of his life. However, he got attracted to an English singer named Georgina Weldon. That relationship was largely platonic.

Charles Gounod passed away on October 18, 1893, in Saint Cloud, France.

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