Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Life of Gounod
The Life of Charles François Gounod
Charles François Gounod was born in Paris in 1818, and died there in 1893. He wasa pupil of the Paris Conservatoire, where he won the Prix de Rome, the greatest musical prize the world offers. This meant a three years stay in Rome for musical study, and that again meant, for Gounod, the fostering of a powerful religious sentiment. After the severe apprenticeship, he returned to Paris and became master of the choristers and organist of the Church of the Foreign Missions. For the nonce he seemed entirely absorbed in the Church. The same streak of mysticism was paralleled in the life of the young Liszt, who was acutely seized with the doctrines of St. Simon. Like Liszt, Gounod came dangerously near entering upon a monastic life at the very outset of his career. He did, in fact, take a two years course in theology, and one can still see "Abbé Gounod" printed as the designation of the composer on some of his music. Finally he came to the conclusion that he had not the proper "vocation," and what the Church lost, music gained. The religious fervour returned to him in his old age, when he produced the great and now unjustly neglected oratorio, "The Redemption" (for the copyright of which Novello paid him the unprecedented sum of £1000), and the ponderous "Mors et Vita." He declared himself that the most powerful musical influence of his career was his first hearing of Mozarts "Don Giovanni." His opinion of that immortal work has already been quoted. Gounod regarded Mozart as the greatest of all composers, though he once called Beethovens Ninth Symphony the Bible of musicians.
His earlier operas failed entirely, and this temporarily drove him back to sacred composition. "Faust," however, written when he was forty, changed all that. Not remarkably successful at first, as we shall see, it grew steadily in public favour until now its only rivals are Wagners "Tannhäuser" (perhaps "Lohengrin") and Bizets "Carmen." His other operas, with the single exception of "Romeo and Juliet," have not enjoyed any measure of popularity. Several of them, indeed, are as dead as Queen Anne, though some ought not to be. "Mireille," for instance, is a work full of charm and poetry that has met with less favour than it deserves.
In England, apart from the two great works on which his fame and influence as a composer of opera will rest, Gounod has been known chiefly for his songs, particularly for semi-sacred songs of the "Nazareth" type, and for the ever-popular Bach-Gounod, "Meditation." In all the countries of Europe he is known by his "Faust."