Charles Gounod (1818 – 1893)

Charles Gounod was born in Paris. As a child, he demonstrated a talent and love for music and studied piano with his mother, before entering the Paris Conservatory, where he studied composition with Pierre Zimmerman, (his future father-in-law) and Fromental Halévy, (the future father-in-law of Gounod’s student, Georges Bizet). He later assisted Zimmerman with his classes. He won the Prix de Rome in 1839. While in Rome, he studied the music of the Renaissance Italian composers, especially Palestrina. He also was introduced to the music of J.S. Bach through Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn. He later set the first Prelude in C, from the Well-Tempered Clavier to the Latin sacred text that became his famous Ave Maria. Another minor work for piano, the Funeral March of a Marionette, became a well-known piece through its use as the theme of the Alfred Hitchcock television programs.

His first noteworthy composition was the St. Cecilia Mass in 1854. The following year he wrote his two symphonies. He later composed a Petite Symphonie for winds that is performed on college campuses. Although he wrote in all genres, including 7 string quartets, he is primarily remembered as an opera composer, completing 13 operas during career. His masterwork is the opera Faust, based on the novel by Johann Goethe. It is still a favorite with audiences. His Shakespearean opera Roméo et Juliette is also frequently heard.

Gounod was a very devout Catholic and had considered the priesthood. Although strong in his own faith, he was very charitable towards Protestant beliefs and traditions, as well. He composed 6 oratorios, a Requiem, and several other pieces of sacred music, including the Marche pontificale, which later became the official Papal anthem. He sought to incorporate his basic Christian beliefs into his music, even his operas and always tried to live out his beliefs through his concern and care for others. He took in an elderly poor musician and made him his copyist, providing financial security for him. He also did much to support and encourage younger composers, even if he disagreed with their style. He did much to advance the careers of Bizet, Cesar Franck, Jules Massenet, Eduard Lalo, and Claude Debussy. While singing the “Benedictus” section of his Requiem, Gounod suffered a stroke and died two days later.

“Besides Goodness and Truth, there was Beauty, which proceeded from the other two as the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son.”

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Suggested Reading:

Charles Gounod. Memoirs Of An Artist: An Autobiography.