Sue Young Histories

Charles Francois Gounod 1818 – 1893

September 28, 2009

Charles Francois Gounod 1818 – 1893Charles Francois Gounod 1818 – 1893 was a French composer

Gounod was a friend of Pauline Viardot García, the homeopath Gaston Hoffmann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Adelina Patti,

Thomas R Mackern was the homeopath of Georgina Weldon and her husband, and he was also called to treat Charles Gounod during his illness (as was his colleague Wilberforce Smith), when he was staying with Georgina Weldon,

Gounod was born in Paris, the son of a pianist mother and an artist father. His mother was his first piano teacher. Under her tutelage, Gounod first showed his musical talents.

He entered the Paris Conservatoire where he studied under Fromental Halevy and Pierre Zimmermann (he later married Zimmermann’s daughter).

In 1839, he won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand. In this, he was following in his father’s footsteps; Francois Louis Gounod (d.

  1. had won the second Prix de Rome in painting in 1783.

He subsequently went to Italy where he studied the music of Palestrina and other sacred works of the sixteenth century. Around 1846-47 he began studying for the priesthood, but he changed his mind and went back to composition.

In 1848, Gounod started writing a “Messe Solennelle”, also known as the “Saint Cecilia Mass”. This work (which still crops up quite often in concerts and on disc) was first performed in London during 1851, and from its premiere dates Gounod’s fame as a noteworthy composer.

During 1855 Gounod wrote two symphonies. His Symphony No. 1 in D major was the inspiration for the Symphony in C, composed later that same year by Georges Bizet, who was then Gounod’s 17 year old student.

Despite their charm and brilliance, Gounod’s symphonies are largely neglected nowadays. In the CD era, however, a few recordings of these pieces have emerged: by Michel Plasson conducting the Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse, and by Neville Marriner with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Gounod wrote his first opera, Sapho, in 1851, but had no great theatrical success until Faust (1859), based on the play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This remains his best known work, and although it took a while to achieve great renown, it eventually became one of the most frequently staged operas of all time.

The romantic and highly melodious Roméo et Juliette (based on the Shakespeare play), premiered in 1867, is also performed and recorded now and then, even though it has never come close to matching Faust’s popularity.

Mireille of 1864, a charming and graceful composition, has been admired by connoisseurs rather than by the general public.

From 1870 to 1874 Gounod lived in England, becoming the first conductor of what is now the Royal Choral Society. Much of Gounod’s music from this time is vocal in nature. He became entangled with the amateur English singer Georgina Weldon, a relationship (platonic, it seems) which ended in great acrimony.

Fanny Mendelssohn introduced the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach to Gounod, who came to revere Johann Sebastian Bach hugely. For him, The Well Tempered Clavier was “the law to pianoforte study … the unquestioned textbook of musical composition”.

Later in his life, Gounod returned to his early religious impulses, writing much religious music. His earlier work included an improvisation of a melody over the C major Prelude (BWV 846) from The Well Tempered Clavier, to which in 1859 Gounod set the words of Ave Maria, resulting in his composition Ave Maria, a setting that became world-famous.

He also wrote a Pontifical Anthem, now the official national anthem of the Vatican City. He also wanted to compose his Messe à la mémoire de Jeanne d’Arc while kneeling on the stone on which Joan of Arc knelt at the coronation of Charles VII of France. A devout Catholic, Gounod 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, apparently shortly after he had put the finishing touches to a requiem written for his grandson, he died in Saint Cloud, France.

One of his short pieces, Funeral March of a Marionette, became well known as the theme to Alfred Hitchcock Presents.