Charles Gounod in 1859, the year of the premiere of Faust
Gounod was born in Paris, the son of a pianist mother and an artist father. His mother was his first piano teacher. Gounod first showed his musical talents under her tutelage. He then entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied under Fromental Halévy and Pierre Zimmerman (he later married Anne, Zimmerman's daughter). In 1839 he won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand. In so doing he was following his father: François-Louis Gounod (d. 1823) had won the second Prix de Rome in painting in 1783.
During his stay in Italy, Gounod studied the music of Palestrina and other sacred works of the sixteenth century; he never ceased to cherish them. Around 1846-47 he gave serious consideration to joining the priesthood, but he changed his mind before actually taking holy orders, and went back to composition. During that period he was attached to the Church of Foreign Missions in Paris.
In 1854 Gounod completed a Messe Solennelle, also known as the St. Cecilia Mass. This work was first performed in its entirety in the church of St. Eustache in Paris on Saint Cecilia's Day, 22 November 1855; Gounod's fame as a noteworthy composer dates from that occasion.
Gounod late in his career.
During 1855 Gounod wrote two symphonies. His Symphony No. 1 in D major was the inspiration for the Symphony in C composed later that year by Georges Bizet, who was then Gounod's 17-year-old student. In the CD era a few recordings of these pieces have emerged: by Michel Plasson conducting the Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse, and by Sir Neville Marriner with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix Mendelssohn, introduced the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach to Gounod, who came to revere Bach. For him The Well-Tempered Clavier was "the law to pianoforte study...the unquestioned textbook of musical composition". It inspired Gounod to devise a melody and superimpose it on the C major Prelude (BWV 846) from The Well-Tempered Clavier Bk. 1. To this melody in 1859 (after the deaths of both Mendelssohn siblings), Gounod fitted the words of the Ave Maria, resulting in a setting that became world-famous.
Gounod wrote his first opera, Sapho, in 1851 at the urging of his friend, the singer Pauline Viardot; it was a commercial failure. He had no great theatrical success until Faust (1859), derived from Goethe. This remains the composition for which he is best known; and although it took a while to achieve popularity, it became one of the most frequently staged operas of all time, with no fewer than 2,000 performances of the work having occurred by 1975 at the Paris Opéra alone. The romantic and melodious Roméo et Juliette (based on the Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet), premiered in 1867, is often in the repertoire of the world's opera houses but has never come close to matching Faust's popular following. Mireille, first performed in 1864, has been admired by connoisseurs rather than by the general public. The other Gounod operas are rarely performed.
Caricature from Punch,
From 1870 to 1874 Gounod lived in England, at 17 Morden Road, Blackheath. A blue plaque has been put up on the house to show where he lived. He became the first conductor of what is now the Royal Choral Society. Much of his music from this time is vocal, although he also composed the Funeral March of a Marionette in 1872. (This received a new lease of life in 1955 when it was first used as the theme for the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.) He became entangled with the amateur English singer Georgina Weldon, a relationship (platonic, it seems) which ended in great acrimony and embittered litigation. Gounod had lodged with Weldon and her husband in London's Tavistock House.
He performed publicly many times with Ferdinando de Cristofaro, a mandolin virtuoso living in Paris. Gounod was said to take pleasure in accompanying Cristofaro's mandolin compositions with piano.
Later in his life Gounod returned to his early religious impulses, writing much sacred music. His Pontifical Anthem (Marche Pontificale, 1869) eventually (1949) became the official national anthem of Vatican City. He expressed a desire to compose his Messe à la mémoire de Jeanne d'Arc (1887) while kneeling on the stone on which Joan of Arc knelt at the coronation of Charles VII of France. A devout Catholic, he had on his piano a music-rack in which was carved an image of the face of Jesus.
He was made a Grand Officer of the Légion d'honneur in July 1888. In 1893, shortly after he had put the finishing touches to a requiem written for his grandson, he died of a stroke in Saint-Cloud, France.