Charles Gounod

1818 1893

Charles Gounod



Charles Gounod was a French composer who is nowadays celebrated for his opera Faust and his Ave Maria based on a Bach prelude. Gounod composed in most of the genres that existed at the time, both sacred and secular. He was less famous or influential than other French composers of the late 19th century, but that does not take from the value of his music in the present day.

Charles Gounod was born on 17 June 1818 in Paris, into an artistic family. Gounod’s father François-Louis came from a long line of painters and engravers who worked for royalty. He was said to have possessed astounding talent, having won the prestigious Prix de Rome for painting in 1783, but he was also a man of very modest ambition and therefore never achieved fame. Gounod’s mother Victorie was a pianist and was also a talented artist, who began a piano school to support the family when her husband died prematurely. As a child, Charles Gounod displayed precocious skill and affinity for both music and the visual arts. He became a boarding school pupil who was allowed to leave the school regularly for harmony and counterpoint lessons with Antoine Reicha. After his teacher’s death, he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire where he studied with Fromental Halévy, Henri Berton, Le Seur and Ferdinando Paër, all of whom strangely and unfortunately died before Gounod had even spent 18 months studying with them. He did not cite any of them as having had any particular lasting impact on his musical style. He did acquire an admiration for Gluck’s operas, however.

In 1839, Gounod won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand, which led to a four-year stay in Italy as well as a small portion of time in Austria and Germany. In Rome, he was inspired by the performances of the music of the Renaissance composer Palestrina by the choirs of the Sistine Chapel. He was also deeply moved by the art and architecture that he found there, describing Palestrina's stile antico counterpoint as an analogy to Michelangelo’s frescoes. During his time in Rome, he also spent time discovering the poetry of Lamartine and Goethe’s playFaust, dreaming of one day adapting it. While in Rome, Gounod composed hisa Capella work Te Deum for ten independent voices as well as a mass with orchestra.

In stark contrast to his feelings of profundity from experiencing the mastery of Palestrina and Michelangelo, Gounod was completely unimpressed with the operas of Donizetti, Bellini and Mercadante, referring to them as ‘vines twisted around the great Rossinian trunk, without its vitality and majesty’.

His impressions of Vienna, on the other hand, were completely positive. He was ecstatic to discover the cities ofMozart and Beethoven and letters home described the ‘imperious influence of the idea of Beethoven’. On his journey home, he metMendelssohn in Leipzig. He showed his composition portfolio to Mendelssohn who was whole-heartedly enthusiastic and he gave Gounod a private performance of hisScottish Symphony with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn would prove to leave a lasting imprint on the younger composer. His influence can be perceived in Gounod’s First Symphony, in the offertory of his Messe solennelle de Sainte Cécile and in the third act of his opera Mireille.

Gounod returned to Paris in 1843 and began working as maître de chapelle  (Kapellmeister) at the Séminaire des Missions Etrangères church, a position that his mother had used her influence to obtain for him. He enjoyed the artistic freedom that came hand in hand with the position, composing sacred works and training the choir to perform hisa Capella pieces in the way he wished. He began training as a priest at St. Sulpice seminary, but only lasted half a year.

After leaving his job at Séminaire des Missions Etrangères church, he met the generous artistic couple Louis and Pauline Viardot, who proved important to his next career move.Pauline Viardot was a composer and singer with a penchant forGluck’s operas and her husband Louis was a music critic and impresario. Pauline established contact between Gounod and the librettist Emile Augier, along with a commission from the Paris Opéra, which resulted in Gounod’s opera  Sapho. The Viardots provided Gounod and his mother with a place to stay at their country estate after the sudden death of Gounod’s brother. Gounod was grateful for the peace and tranquillity that allowed him to work on hisSapho, during a time that would have otherwise been turbulent. There were rumours circulating about a possible affair between Pauline and Gounod, but the truth was never revealed.Sapho, which draws on ancient themes, was a box office failure following its premiere in Paris on 16 April 1851 as well as in Covent Garden in London the same year.Berlioz was supportive of the work, but in general, the critics found it too simple and salon-like, with its pastiche of 18 th century French music.

Gounod had a falling out with the Viardots following his marriage to Anna Zimmerman in 1851, probably regarding his supposed love affair with Pauline. Nevertheless, Gounod’s career progressed well in this period. A few months after his marriage, Gounod was appointed director of the Paris Orphéon, a network of choral societies. Anna Zimmerman’s father was a prominent figure in the Paris music scene and a retired Paris Conservatoire professor. One of Zimmerman’s counterpoint students at the time was the youngBizet. At times, Gounod was asked to substitute for his father-in-law, eventually becoming Bizet’s mentor. Another young composer that Gounod encouraged wasSaint-Saëns.

Gounod was in awe of Bach and improvised a descant Ave Maria melody over Bach’sC major Prelude (BWV 846) from The Well-Tempered Klavier Book 1.

In 1856, Gounod began working on Faust, with the writers Jules Barbier and Michel Carré (the same writers who had written the play that led to Barbier’s libretto of Offenbach’s successful Tales of Hoffmann). Goethe’sFaust had already been adapted for the Parisian stage many times. Gounod took a break from composing it in 1857, but resumed a year later andFaust was finally premiered on 19 March 1859 at the Théâtre-Lyrique. About a quarter of the music Gounod had written had been cut and the premiere attracted very mixed reviews. The more progressive music critics like Berlioz were full of enthusiasm, but others were hostile. It was soon performed in many parts of Germany, whereWagner attacked it in his Deutsche Kunst und deutsche Politik (1867) as a French travesty of an important German literary movement. After the Théâtre-Lyrique went bankrupt,Faust was adopted by the Paris Opéra in 1869 and it grew in popularity over the following years.

A short solo piano piece Funeral March of a Marionette, which he composed in 1872, gained unprecedented posthumous recognition when it was used as the TV theme tune forAlfred Hitchcock Presents from 1955 to 1965. The piece is a parody of the personality of the music critic Henry Chorley whom Gounod met while in England, escaping the Franco-Prussian war. Gounod’s English patron Georgina Weldon joked that Henry Chorley moved like a “stuffed red-haired money”. In 1879 Gounod orchestrated the piece.

Gounod left an important stamp on French music during his lifetime, but fell from favour as his music began to pale in comparison to that ofFauré. As an opera composer, his influence over Bizet, Massenet and Saint-Saens should not be underestimated. InDebussy’s view ‘the art of Gounod represents a moment in French sensibility. Whether one wants to or not, that kind of thing is not forgotten’.