Gounod was born in Paris. His father was a painter and engraver. His mother was his first piano teacher. When his father died in 1823 his mother started a school to teach the piano. Gounod soon showed musical talent and went to study at the Paris Conservatoire. He studied with three teachers, all of whom died soon after Gounod became their pupil. The first time he competed for the Prix de Rome he did not get it, but the third time, in 1839, he was successful. This meant that he could go to Rome to learn more about music.
In Rome he liked the religious music of the 16th century by composers such as Palestrina. He did not much like the modern opera composers such as Donizetti and Bellini. Gounod also spent some of the year in Austria and Germany. He passed through Leipzig where he met Mendelssohn, whose music made a big impression on him.
Gounod returned to Paris where he got a job as director of music at a church. He thought of becoming a priest, but then he changed his mind. He left his job in the church. Some time later he became friends with the singer Pauline Viardot and her husband Louis. He spent some time at their house composing the opera Sapho.
He composed the Messe Sollennelle, also known as the Saint Cecilia Mass. Two fragments of this work were first performed in London during 1851 and it helped him to become famous. By this time he was married. He had a job in charge of several choirs. He started to write a lot of choral music.
He wrote two symphonies in 1855, the 1st Symphony in D major, and the 2nd Symphony in E flat, although they are not often played today.