Charles Gounod

Charles Gounod


• 1818 1893

Editor's Choice

A committed Catholic, it's perhaps unsurprising that Charles Gounod was drawn to the religious themes that informed his most successful opera. Based on a French play that was in turn based on Goethe's literary tragedy, Gounod's five-act 1859 opera charts the consequences of striking a deal with the devil. Beyond its ever-relevant subject matter, the work has some interesting quirks. Ten years after its premiere, Gounod had to create a ballet scene, so that 'Faust' could be performed at the Paris Opéra, and the resulting addition is now often performed independently. Before that, however, it had enjoyed a successful run in Dresden under the title 'Margarethe', possibly to differentiate it from Louis Spohr's 1816 version of 'Faust'. Gounod's work continued to be staged as 'Margarethe', or its' German diminutive 'Gretchen' in Germany for some time.


Charles Gounod is best known for his operas Faust and Romeo et Juliette and for his Ave Maria based on the first Prelude of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 (1859). Except for concertos, he composed music in the major genres, but with varying success in the instrumental realm. Gounod was more at home in the vocal arena, particularly in opera and sacred music. Though his reputation began to fade even before he died, he is still generally regarded as a major figure in 19th century French music. Stylistically, he was a conservative whose influence nevertheless extended to Bizet, Saint-Saëns, and Massenet, although he could not be called a trailblazer or the founder of any movement or school. His works are tuneful, his vocal writing imaginative, and orchestral scoring masterly. Gounod's compositions, even his two symphonies and lesser known operas, are occasionally explored today, and the aforementioned Faust and Romeo et Juliette and, particularly, the Ave Maria are widely performed and recorded.

Gounod was born on June 17, 1818. His mother was a pianist who served as the young boy's first teacher. While still in his youth she arranged for him to receive composition lessons from Anton Reicha. After Reicha's death, Gounod began studies at the Paris Conservatory, where he won a Grand Prix in 1839 for his cantata Fernand.

After further composition studies in Rome, where he focused on 16th century church music, particularly the works of Palestrina, he became deeply interested in religion and by 1845 was contemplating the priesthood. Though he would eventually reject the idea and marry, he remained religious throughout his life and wrote many sacred works, including masses, the most popular being the 1855 St. Cecilia Mass. In that year Gounod also turned out two symphonies, which achieved attention, but not lasting success. It was the 1859 opera Faust, however, that, after a slow start, became Gounod's calling card and is now core to the operatic repertoire. Mireille (1864) and especially Romeo et Juliette (1867) added to his reputation, not only in France, but throughout Europe.

From 1870-1875 Gounod lived in England owing to the exigencies of the Franco-Prussian War. In his years there and in the period following his return to France, Gounod wrote much music, especially religious music, but never again attained the kind of success he experienced in the 1850s and '60s. Among his more compelling and imaginative late works is the 1885 Petite Symphonie, scored for nine wind instruments. Gounod died in St. Cloud on October 18, 1893.