Charles Gounod was one of the most brilliant French composers of the 19th century, in the same league as Jules Massenet and Jacques Meyerbeer. Gounod had a bent for both music and painting, both of which he inherited from his parents. However, one fateful day, Charles Gounod went with his mother to a performance of Rossini's “Othello”, which fomented his passion for music and consequently tempted him into choosing music over painting. His highly acclaimed work “Faust” gained immense popularity and became the most frequently staged operas of all time, so much so that it was performed around 2,000 at the Paris Opera alone. On the other hand, there are many operas and sacred music of Gounod that have fallen into obscurity and are seldom performed. The entire gamut of Gounod’s work includes numerous operas, oratorios, symphonies as well as several chamber music.
Charles Gounod’s Childhood And Early Life
Charles Gounod was born in Paris on 17 June 1818. He was the second son of Louis Francois Gounod, painter and draftsman, and Lemachois Victoire, a pianist and daughter of a former lawyer. He received his first lessons in piano from his mother. In 1823, his father Louis Francois Gounod died when he was just four years old. Gounod displayed talent in both art and music in his childhood. Charles Gounod once went with his mother to a performance of Rossini's “Othello”, with Malibran portraying Desdemona. The performance stirred Gounod so much that he left art for music and started composing at a tender age of twelve. He went to study at Paris Conservatoire in the year 1836 under Fromental Halévy and Pierre Zimmermann.
Gounod married Anna Zimmerman, daughter of Pierre-Joseph Zimmerman, a professor who taught him at the Conservatoire. Then he went to live in Saint Cloud, where he built a cottage on the property of his in-laws. He fathered two children. His son Jean was born on 8 June 1856 and his daughter Jeanne was born in the September of 1863. Later in his life, Gounod became enamored by amateur English singer Georgina Weldon. The seemingly platonic relationship ended with great bitterness and acerbic litigation.
Three years later, in 1839, after joining Conservatoire, he won the highly prestigious Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand following the footsteps of his father, François-Louis Gounod, who had won the second Prix de Rome in painting in 1783. While in Italy, Gounod developed a keen interest in Rome. On 5 December 1839, he left for Italy to study the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and devoted himself to the study of religious music of the 16th century. Owing to his remarkable liking for sacred music, he even contemplated joining the priesthood around 1846-47, and he was in a quandary as to whether to join church or to continue with secular music. Gounod arrived at Paris in the year 1843 and took the position of organist of Mission Etrangères. However, in the state of a persistent religious dilemma, Gounod entered the Carmelite monastery as a noviate in 1847. He was perhaps not suited for religious profession, and was often referred to by some as "the philandering monk." Later, he abandoned his religious quest and devoted himself whole-heartedly to music. On May 30 in 1852, Gounod was appointed as the Director General of the teaching of singing in schools of Paris, and director of the Brass band, choral movement of the working classes.
One of Gounod’s most significant works, “Messe Solennelle” was completed in the year 1854, which is popularly as the “Saint Cecilia Mass”. This work, which exalted Gounod’s career, established him as an illustrious composer. It was first performed in Paris on Saint Cecilia's Day, November 22 in the year 1855, for the church of Saint Eustache.
Gounod composed two symphonies in 1855. His Symphony No.1 in D major inspired 17-year-old student of Gounod Georges Bizet’s who later that year composed Symphony No. 1 in C. However, despite of the splendor of Gounod's symphonies, they were seldom performed. In month of July in 1856, Charles Gounod in honor of Napoleon III wrote "Vive l'Empereur", the official anthem of the Second Empire.
On 6 January 1856, Gounod was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and later, on 13 August 1866, he was promoted to the rank of officer of “Legion of Honor”. Though he composed his first opera, “Sappho” in 1851, he didn’t taste any real success until “Faust” in 1859. Although the work initially was not well appreciated, but the revised version, which was performed in the year 1862, went on to become a great success. This, even today, is supposed to be his best work. The opera was played in many other theaters, both abroad and in France. In Paris alone, “Faust” was performed 314 times on the different stages of the Lyric Theatre until April 1869, and 166 times `between 1869 and 1875. It brought Gounod great international fame. “The Romeo and Juliette” based on Shakespeare’s play, which was premiered in 1867, is also one of his much-performed work. “Faust” was controversial, as many critics believed it was far more sophisticated as compared to Gounod's prior works. Even one critic went on to say that he doubts whether Gounod composed it. However, when challenged for a duel, the critic withdrew his statement.
Gounod lived in England between 1870 and 1874. He was the first conductor of what is now called as the Royal Choral Society. During the later period of his life, Gounod yielded to his earlier religious impulses of composing sacred music. His Pontifical Anthem, “Marche Pontificale” composed in 1869, was later declared the official national anthem of Vatican City in the year 1949. He was made a Grand Officer of the “Legion of Honor” in July 1888.
A few days after he completed the composition of a requiem for his grandson, Charles Gounod passed away of a stroke on the18 October 1893, in Saint Cloud, France.
- Sappho, 1851
- La nonne sanglante, 1854
- Le médecin malgré lui, 1858
- Faust, 1859
- Philémon et Baucis, 1860
- La colombe, 1860
- La reine de Saba, 1862
- Mireille, 1864
- Roméo et Juliette, 1867
- Cinq-Mars, 1877
- Polyeucte, 1878
- Le tribut de Zamora, 1881
- Jésus sur le lac de Tibériade, 1878
- Christus factus est, 1883
- Mors et Vita, 1884
- Symphony No. 1 in D major, 1855