Life and Works
One work has ensured Charles Gounod a central position in the opera repertoire. His Faust is presented at an average of 22 opera houses worldwide every year. But his Roméo et Juliette is not far behind with 14 annual outings. And the other ten of his 12 operas also continue to make occasional appearances. Another perennial Gounod favourite is his 'Ave Maria', which sets the sacred chant as a descant over the opening C major prelude from Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. But this and his famous operas make up just a small fraction of his output.
Gounod was one of the real giants of French musical life in the second half of the 19th century. His catalogue includes works in every major genre of the day, especially song, orchestral music and choral music. He was born into an artistic family; his father was a painter and engraver who worked for royalty. But he died young, and Gounod's widowed mother supported the family by teaching piano. Gounod inherited the talents of both parents, but music claimed him as a career.
At the Paris Conservatoire, he studied with Fromental Halévy, Jean-François Le Sueur and Ferdinando Paër. At the age of 19 he achieved second place in the prestigious Prix de Rome competition. Winning the first prize two years later allowed him to travel to Rome to take in the musical culture of Italy. The world of Italian opera, at that time dominated by Bellini and Donizetti, made little impression on the young composer. So rather than remain in Italy, he opted to spend the final year of his scholarship travelling through Austria and Germany. A visit to Mendelssohn proved significant, and an encounter with his 'Scottish' Symphony left a deep impression.
Gounod eventually returned to Paris with an idea to abandon music in favour of the priesthood. But the vibrant musical life in the capital soon changed his mind and he began to make his way in Parisian musical circles. Relationships with influential married women were a continuous and problematic feature of Gounod's career. These friendships led a range of unflattering accusations against him, and in one case he was even forced to defend himself against legal action.
The singer Pauline Viardot secured the commission for his first opera, Sapho. But she and the composer later fell out over his marriage to Anna Zimmermann, daughter of a Paris Conservatoire professor. A friendship with the English amateur singer Georgina Weldon resulted in his moving into her London home for three years. During his time in England, Gounod became the first conductor of what is now the Royal Choral Society.
Back on French soil after a rift with Mrs Weldon, Gounod returned to composing operas, and later shifted his focus to choral music. His connections with Britain's vibrant choral music scene now proved useful. Gounod's oratorio La rédemption went down particularly well with British audiences and singers, thanks in part to its dedication to Queen Victoria. His output of choral music included three oratorios, 21 masses and numerous cantatas.
Gounod was undoubtedly an influential figure in the history of French music. He mentored Georges Bizet, whose Symphony in C bears the imprint of Gounod's own Symphony no.1. His songs paved the way for Fauré and Debussy, and his operas influenced Massenet and Saint-Saëns. But his refusal to follow the innovations of Richard Wagner, which were then sweeping Europe, alienated him from many critics. Debussy's remark that 'Gounod, for all his faults, is necessary' demonstrates the respect shown to him by his contemporaries. Even when his musical aims differed from theirs, all had a deep admiration for his determination, artistically, to be his own man.