Charles Gounod

Composer Charles Gounod

Opera composer whose Faust is one of the most popular and tuneful works in the world repertory. He also composed church music and his Ave Maria setting is world famous.

Vital Statistics
Paris, June 18, 1818
St. Cloud, Oct. 18, 1893
Performed As:
During Lifetime:
Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) helps to found microbiology and invents the Pasteurization process. Theater licensing is revised in 1849, allowing theaters besides the Paris Opera to present through-sung opera in French.
Biographical Outline
  • Childhood and training, 1818-1839: Charles' father dies a year after his son's birth. His mother, Victoire, supports Charles and his older brother, by teaching piano. Charles enrolls in the Paris Conservatoire, studying composition and winning the Prix de Rome in 1839.
  • Church Musician, 1840-1847 : In Rome, Gounod discovers the music of Giovanni Palestrina in performances at the Sistine Chapel and is inspired to become a church musician. On the return journey, he meets Felix Mendelssohn who has a powerful effect on his music. Back in Paris, he takes up a position as chapel master at the Séminaire des Missions Etrangères church. He even enrolls for several months in a seminary.
  • A New Path, 1848-52: Gounod, although still strongly religious, turns toward opera. He befriends the influential singer Pauline Viardot who secures him a commission from the Paris Opera. Sapho (1851) is a failure, but attracts attention from musicians. Gounod marries Anna Zimmermann in 1852. Her father notates an improvisation which becomes the famous Ave Maria.
  • Ladder Climber 1853-67: Gounod takes up the posts of director of the Paris Orpheon, an organization of choral societies, and director of vocal instruction in the Paris schools. Despite the failure of his next opera, Gounod continues to compose at a rapid rate, including, not surprisingly, some fine choral music. His opera Faust (1857) gradually becomes popular, leading to five more operas, most notably Romeo et Juliette, a smash success in 1867.
  • Cast Adrift, 1868-74: An intense friendship with the sculptor Marcello (the Duchess Castiglione Colonna ) leads him to take a vacation in Italy. Then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 forces him out of Paris and eventually to England. While there, he comes under the influence of Mrs. Georgina Weldon, who advises him on business affairs (leading to lawsuits for royalties and back payments against his publishers). Gounod writes music for the choral society she has founded, and promises her a lead role in his upcoming opera. Anna Gounod, mortified by rumors in the Parisian press, returns to France. Gounod stays in the Weldon household for three years. Serious illness and prompting from his friends, causes him to return to Paris.
  • Eminence grise, 1875-93: Gounod's operatic career founders after a series of monumental flops. But at the same time, he completes two enormous and successful oratorios for the Birmingham Three Choirs Festival in England (La Redemption and Mors et vita). The second of these receives a command performance in the Royal Albert Hall in 1886. He continues to compose up until his death, leaving a Requiem Mass unfinished. He is given a state funeral.
Fun Facts
  • Social graces: As a young man, Gounod was a fine looking gent with large, expressive eyes. He was a good conversationalist and a great letter writer. On the other hand, he apparently didn't have much of a relationship with his wife and was suspected of having affairs with other women, particularly Pauline Viardot and Georgina Weldon.
  • With friends like this … : Gounod was unable to return to England for the premiere of his oratorio Mors et vita because the lawsuit-happy Mrs. Weldon had won a libel judgement against him. He didn't contest the case because at the time there was no way for her to collect money from him in France. But she did have the option of having him arrested if he set foot in England and the betting money says she would have been happy to do so. When she finally returned the opera manuscript he was working on at her house, she had emblazoned her name across every page.
  • Friend and mentor: Gounod had a wide circle of composer and musician friends, many of whom thought of him as a mentor. They included members of his generation, like Cesar Franck (four years younger) and Eduard Lalo as well as succeeding generations like Camille Saint-Saens, Georges Bizet, and Gabriel Faure.
  • The Hitchcock Connection: Funeral March for a Marionette was written for an unfinished suite but got new exposure as the theme song for the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 1950s and 60s.
  • A fine hand: Gounod's father was an artist and Charles himself was good enough at drawing to excite comments from artists during his stay in Rome.
  • Official composer: In 1856, Gounod tossed off “Vive l'Empereur!” which became the national anthem of Second Empire France (1852-1870). Another of his well-known compositions is the motet Gallia, full of patriotic sentiments and written during the siege of Paris.
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Explore the Music

Gounod's music's distinguishes itself by its ingratiating melodic charm, much like his model, Felix Mendelssohn. He was a musician who valued elegance as much as dramatic effect.

  • Opera ups and downs: Faust, when it finally got to the Paris Opera in 1859, became one of the most successful productions of all time. By the time Gounod died, the show had been performed there over 1,000 times and was a staple of central European theaters as well. It was staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York for the first time in 1883 and is now the eighth most frequently performed opera there. Romeo et Juliette was also a hit, though it is not as popular now. Most of Gounod's many other operas bombed or were at least financial failures. If you want to explore beyond the big two, try the one act comic opera Le medecin malgre lui (The doctor in spite of himself) or Mireille (1864).
  • Ave Maria: Probably the composer's most recognizable single piece is the Ave Maria, which is basically an improvisation on J.S. Bach's famous Prelude in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Gounod was a devotee of Bach's music.
  • The Church Musician: Gounod was religious throughout his life and was profoundly affected by his Roman experience, where he also studied with a charismatic priest, Pere Lacordaire. At his funeral, he instructed that Gregorian chant be the only music played. His oratorios are rarely heard now, but they were major pieces in the 19th Century, when many people thought of him as the successor to Handel and Mendelssohn. He also wrote 21 masses, some in a severe a capella style that recalls Palestrina. But the mass you're most likely to hear is the St. Cecilia Mass, which has been recorded several times.
  • Don't forget: Gounod wrote two lively, pleasant symphonies in the 1850s, both of which have been recorded. He also wrote a delightful “Petite symphonie” for 10 wind instruments (1885).
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