Born: Paris, France, 17 June 1818
Died: Saint-Cloud, France, 18 October 1893
Charles Gounod’s fame rests on one immortal opera, Faust. Roméo et Juliette and Mireille are regularly performed around the world, but many of his other operas were failures, did not hold the stage, or have been forgotten.
Nevertheless, his music influenced and was admired by later generations of French composers. Debussy believed that Gounod represented an important stage in the evolution of French sensitivity, and that he modelled for an entire generation the principles of clarity, balance and suavity. Ravel held that the musical renaissance of his day began with Gounod. Saint-Saëns, Massenet, and Bizet were his protégés and disciples, while Fauré admired him and César Franck considered Gounod his master. Reynaldo Hahn’s musical trinity was Mozart, Gounod and Saint-Saëns, and called Gounod the French Schubert and Schumann.
Tellingly, most of these musicians were not primarily opera composers.
It is, to be honest, more difficult to make the case for Gounod as an opera composer than it is for Meyerbeer or Massenet, who ruled the French lyric stage before and after him. Meyerbeer’s operas are rich and imaginative, while the quality and individuality of Massenet’s operas is astonishing.
Although even his dramatically most feeble operas contain at least one delightful melody, Gounod’s operas are often less than the sum of their parts. What makes him a good composer of religious music or of mélodies makes him a weaker composer of opera.
The problem, as Steven Huebner suggests, may be that Gounod was fundamentally not a dramatic composer; his tastes were too refined for the opera stage.
‘There are three great priesthoods’, Gounod proclaimed; ‘that of the Good, that of the Truth, and that of the Beautiful. Saints, scholars and artists are the three distinct forms of that substantial unity which is the ideal.’
Many of his finest moments are charming and graceful, delicately melancholy, or skilful depictions of a place, rather than drama. When he wants excitement, he is all too apt to crib from Meyerbeer; the Act III finale of Roméo et Juliette is an echo of that in Les Huguenots, while the love duets are Gounod’s own. If he seldom sets the pulse quickening, however, nor does he stoop to the blatant emotionalism of many Italian composers.
Inadequate recordings don’t help Gounod’s cause. He wrote his operas for the finest performers in Paris, the musical and cultural capital of the nineteenth century world. Modern recordings of his lesser known operas often feature at best second-rank singers whose native language is not French. This is true of La reine de Saba and Polyeucte.
Music came early to Charles-François Gounod (1818–93); he learnt it, he said, suckling at his mother’s breast. Gounod remained devoted to his mother throughout his life. After his father, a painter, died in 1823, his mother gave piano and drawing lessons to support the boy and his brother. She had studied piano with the father of Adolphe Adam, composer of the Postillon de Lonjumeau, and with Beethoven’s friend Hüllmandel. She it was who first took him to the opera – to see Otello in 1829 or 1831, with Maria Malibran singing Desdemona, and to Don Giovanni in 1832. From that moment, he wanted no other career than that of a composer.
His mother, however, was against the idea. She asked the director of his lycée to have a word with the boy – but Gounod’s setting of a text so impressed the schoolmaster that he embraced him, saying: ‘Go, my child, and make music!’ When Gounod began his studies at the Conservatoire, his mother asked Anton Reicha, his counterpoint teacher, to make his life hard. ‘If you return him to me hating music, I will bless you!’ Reicha failed in this task (‘Hélas, Madame! … this child is gifted …’) and Gounod went on to study with Fromental Halévy, Henri-Montan Berton, Jean-François Le Sueur, and Ferdinando Paër.
His efforts were rewarded in 1839 with the Prix de Rome, which he won on his third attempt. At the Villa Médicis, he became friends with its director, the painter Ingres, who had known his father. The two bonded over their mutual passion for art and music, and Ingres offered Gounod a place at the Villa if he applied for the Prix de Rome as a painter. He got to know important artists including Fanny Hensel, who later introduced him to her brother Felix Mendelssohn, and Pauline Viardot, Malibran’s sister and a remarkable singer in her own right. He composed his first melodies, Le vallon and Le soir, and his setting of the Mass Ordinary was performed at the church of San Luigi del francese to mark the birthday of Louis-Philippe.
Gounod returned to Paris in May 1843, where he found work as chapel master of the Missions étrangères, where he composed a Messe brève pour voix d’hommes, a Chant du depart des missionaires, and some cantatas. At this time he seriously considered entering the church. He studied theology and philosophy at the seminary of Saint-Sulpice; was permitted to wear ecclesiastical costume; and signed himself ‘Abbé Gounod’. He realized, however, that taking holy orders would be a mistake. ‘It would be impossible for me to live without my art, and leaving the habit for which I was not made, I returned to the world.’
In 1848, he resigned his position as chapel master, and left the seminary in 1850. He became reacquainted with Viardot, who asked him why he had not composed an opera. Fresh from her phenomenal success in Meyerbeer’s Prophète, she used her influence with Nestor Roqueplan, director of the Opéra, to secure Gounod a commission for Sapho (1851) – a critical success, but not a popular one.
He married Anna Zimmermann, daughter of a Conservatoire piano teacher, in 1852, and became a father in 1855. He worked as superintendent of instruction in singing to the communal schools in the city of Paris and director of the Orphéon choral society.
More works followed throughout the 1850s: the operas La Nonne sanglante (1854), pulled after only a few performances, and Le médecin malgré lui (1858), after Molière’s play; stage music for François Ponsard’s tragedy Ulysse (1852), admired by Saint-Saëns and Hugues Imbert; the Méditation sur la prélude de J.S. Bach (1853), better known as the Ave Maria; his Messe solennelle de Sainte Cécile (1855); and ‘Vive l’Empereur’, the official hymn of the Second Empire.
Success was coming Gounod’s way; immortality came with his next opera: Faust (1859). Unpopular at first, it was not until the 1862 revision that it entered the repertoire.
Gounod was prolific as an opera composer in the 1860s. He wrote two light opéra-comiques, Philémon et Baucis and La colombe (both 1860); La reine de Saba (1862), a grand opera that failed; and the pastoral Mireille (1864). He was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts and appointed officer of the Légion d’Honneur in 1866. Roméo et Juliette, his most enduring success after Faust, appeared in 1867.
The Franco-Prussian War and siege of Paris interrupted Gounod’s career. In 1870, he moved with his family from Paris to England, where he became involved with the singer Georgina Weldon and her husband Harry. Although Gounod composed the motet Gallia, more than 60 songs, two Mass settings, choral pieces and parlour songs in English and French, his sojourn in England was not happy. He lost a legal suit and faced the prospect of prison, while his relationship with Mrs Weldon ended disastrously. Gounod’s friends rescued him, and brought him back to France in 1874, but she kept hold of the score of Polyeucte, which she claimed to have destroyed. She returned it at last, with her name scrawled on each page. Polyeucte, eventually performed in 1878, was not a success, while neither Cinq-Mars (1877) nor Le tribut de Zamora (1881) held the stage.
In his final years, Gounod was the grand old man of French music. He was, James Harding writes, regarded from the 1880s until his death as ‘the incarnation of modern French music’ – and ‘the mantle of the patriarch descended upon willing shoulders’. He was made Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur in 1877 and Grand Officier in 1880. Having abandoned the stage, he composed sacred works (La Rédemption, performed 1882; Mors et Vita, 1885; Messe à la mémoire de Jeanne d’Arc, 1887; settings of the Mass), and wrote books on Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1890) and his own memoirs.
Gounod died on 17 October 1893. At the service in the church of the Madeleine, his disciple Saint-Saëns paid homage to ‘the artistic educator of his generation’.