Gounod summarized

You will find on this page a remarkable summary of Charles Gounod's career wrote by Mrs Marie-Hélène Coudroy-Saghaï, Head of Research at the National Superior Music Conservatory of Paris. Why should I try myself on the art of the conciseness, when others master this exercise with talent. Many thanks to her. This text is illustrated with contemporary photos and paintings in order to better understand the universe which was his. I am aware that the time neede to read this page may be important, therefore you can simply to save it to your hard drive with your navigator, and read it leisurely when disconnected.


He was born in Paris on June 18, 1818, in a family of artists. Remarkable draftsman, painter of talent, his father had occupied the function of professor at the Ecole Polytechnique and Master teacher of drawing to the Pages of Louis XVIII . His mother, excellent musician, had been taught piano by Louis Adam and Hullmandel. Widowed in 1823, she had to give piano lessons to provide for her children. She taught Charles rudiments of music and he showed early musical capacities.

During his years of study at the Saint Louis secondary school, where he obtains his high school diploma of philosophy in 1836, he attends the representation of Rossini's Otello at the Theatre - Italien, as well as in that of Mozart's Don Giovanni. These two masterpieces are the major musical revelations of his youth. Gounod will have all his life a fervent admiration for Mozart and will never forget to celebrate his genius. The discovery of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and the 9th with choirs, at the Société des Concerts reinforces his musical enthusiasm. Full of a high artistic ideal, young Charles has the ambition to become a great composer. He is the pupil in Halévy's conservatory for the fugue and the counterpoint, and Lesueur's for the composition. In the Rome competition , he takes second price in 1837 and two years later, as a supreme consecration, first prize with the cantata Fernande on a text of the count of Pastoret. Before leaving for the villa Médicis in Rome where he was to live during two years as prize-winner of the Institute, Gounod composes for the mass anniversary of his Master Lesueur, an Agnus Dei for 3 voices and choir, about which Berlioz writes these prophetic lines: " Everything there is new and distinguished: song, modulations, harmony. M. Gounod proves here that one can expect everything from him ".

The departure for Rome is not easy, because the young man leaves his beloved mother for the first time. Heartily welcomed by Ingres, then director of the Académie de France, they quickly become close friends, the painter sharing an equal passion for music. Gounod accompanies him on the piano in sonatas for piano and violin of Mozart or Haydn, introduces him to the Alceste of Lulli, or sings with his wonderfully expressive voice his favorite tunes. At Ingres asking, Gounod develops also his gift for drawing, performing over a hundred tracings from primitive subjects. The painter's portrait of the young Gounod dates back to that period. The musician reads Goethe's Faust and composes melodies like "Le Vallon", "Le Soir", on poems from Lamartine. The style is very personal, and distinguishes itself from the romantic salon music of the time by it's fluid prosody and harmonic refinement. He is often seen at the Sixtine Chapel where he bathes in Palestrina's art. Sacred music spirits him, transports him. On the other hand he finds the repertoire of the roman theaters, limited to Donizetti, Bellini or Mercadante, quite deceiving, unable to find there "any musical profit to collect!". Gounod meets at the Villa Medecis the singer Pauline Viardot, who initiates him to the world of theater, as well as introducing him to Fanny Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn's sister. Outstanding pianist, she introduces him to german music, "which troubles and enthuses him".

Gounod par Ingres
Gounod par Ingres
Of an impressionable nature, he comes under the influence of Father Lacordaire, a brilliant predicator, who was in Rome to restore the order of the Dominicans. Under his influence, Gounod will evolve towards social Christianity and comes to think of embracing the ecclesiastical state. This mystic crisis is amplified by his friendship with Charles Gay, future bishop of Poitiers, who had arrived in the last months of 1839 to prepare his priesthood. From then on, Gounod dedicates himself to religious music. He retires in the convent of San Benedetto at Subiaco, to write a solemn mass, that he will have performed in the church Saint-Louis-des Français on May 1-st, 1841, day of Louis-Philippe the Ist's birthday, the success of which gained him the title of lifetime honorary choirmaster . For the first compulsory "flight", he composes a Te Deum in the palestrinien style which Spontini, in the official report of the Institute, sanctions in these terms: " This composition lacks melodies, varied cantilenas , motives, expression and melodious physionomy".


He leaves Rome " the serene, the pacifying " for Vienna where musical life, theatrical or symphonic, is prosperous. He goes, for the first time, to a representation of the "Enchanted Flute", buids up relations with influential artists and conducts, during the winter of 1842-43 , two of his works, a Mass and a Requiem, in the Karlskirche. In Berlin, he finds Fanny Hensel who introduces him to her brother, who welcomes him by these words: " Oh! It's you the madman my sister spoke to me about"! With his Gewandhaus orchestra, Mendelssohn has him him to his Scottish Symphony, and reveals to him, on the organ of the Thomaskirche, the compositions of Bach. He judges his Requiem of Vienna " worth of Cherubini " and advises him to write symphonic music. Mendelssohn's work will stay for Gounod " the most precious of models "

Gounod ecclesiastique
Gounod ecclésiastique

Back in Paris in May 1843, Gounod accepts the position of musical director at the Church of Foreign Missions. There, he imposes to the parish, with some difficulty, the music of Bach and Palestrina. During five years, he will shy away from worldly seductions, writing exclusively religious music. However, he befriends artists like Gustave Courbet, Theophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval and, notably, the republican satirist singer Pierre Dupont, even though he doesn't share his political ideals. From October 1847 thru february 1848, he wears the ecclesiastical frock and signs his letters "l'Abbé Gounod". Whilst working on a study of the compared history of the religions, Gounod goes to the conferences of Lacordaire at Notre-Dame, as well as theological lectures at Saint Sulpice.

But the musician, then 30 years old, becomes aware that " there is only one road to follow to become a name: it's the theater ". Through the intervention of the violinist Seghers, he contacts Pauline Viardot who had just created with brightness Fidès's role in Meyerbeer's "Prophet". She pushes him to write an opera, she takes the initiative to impose by her commitment his first operatic work, "Sapho", on Émile Augier's libretto. Even if it meets only with a mild success, it brings the attention of the public and the critics, who understand that it's not an event but a coming. At the Comédie-Française, he writes several entertainments for the "Bourgeois Gentleman" as well as for "Ulysses", a tragedy with choirs, directed by Jacques Offenbach when it opens in 1852. For the first time, his partition was going to be published. " Saved from oblivion! Nothing can give an idea of my joy " wrote Gounod.


A short time after his marriage with Anna, daughter of Joseph Zimmerman, composer and piano teacher at the Conservatoire, Gounod is named director of the Paris Brass band, choral institution recruiting in the working class, then one year later, in 1853 , director of singing education of the Paris municipal schools. These functions which he assumes with dedication give him the opportunity to write numerous choral and religious works, among which the "Mass for Orphéonistes" played in Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois in June1853, under his direction.

Le Chalet à Saint-Cloud

After his father in law's death, he moves into their property in Saint Cloud, where he will reside most of his life. That same year, his famous Ave Maria, already popular, will have an enormous success in the orchestrated version. Gounod composes a new national anthem "Vive l'Empereur" in honor of Napoleon III, and has sung by 1500 voices at the Universal Exposition of 1855. After the failure of his second lyrical work "La Nonne Sanglante", he resumes work on his Faust, originally conceived in Rome. Overworked, victim of a bad case of nervous breakdown, which he was prone to, he is interned in the famous hospital of Dr Blanche. After a period of forced rest, he compose a masterpiece of wit and vigor, Le Medecin malgré Lui.

Faust is finished, but because of competition with the theater of the Porte Saint Martin, showing a drama on the same subject, it will only open in 1859 at the Théatre-Lyrique. Considered more exercised than inspired, more symphonic than melodic, Faust does not gain immediate success. Actually, this opera of half character, in which the vocal virtuosity gives way to a burning melodic lyrism, breaks with the beautiful italian canto and meyerberian effects, so appreciated by the public. He privileges Marguerite's character, painting the deep feelings of her soul. " When I compose, says Gounod, I am penetrated with the feeling, the words, with the character of the person, and I let my heart speak". According to tradition, the composer has to add a ballet for the representation of his work at the Opera in 1869; resolving to it, he assumed " his humbling profession of decomposer of music ". Enjoying universal popularity, Faust symbolizes the flourish of the French lyric art.

Gounod resigns from his position at the Brass band, and writes two light operas, "Philémon et Baucis" and "La Colombe", on a libretto of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, his official librettists. Although judged as models of taste and sharpness, the two works not more successful than his opera "La reine de Saba". He turns back to poetic opera, better adapted to his lyric vein, and comes out with "Mireille" based on Mistral, and "Roméo et Juliette".

Happy to leave Paris which " suffocates and chokes him", he composes in the South of France, in order to bathe in the atmosphere in which his characters evolve. Created at the Théatre-Lyrique in 1867, Roméo and Juliette, who raises unanimous enthusiasm, marks the highlight of the dramatic career of the composer. Exhausted nervously by this period of intense creative activity, Gounod looks once more for peace and isolation in Rome, his preferred retreat, where he would have always wanted to live. He lets his religious fervour run free by sketching a " Christian opera " "Polyeucte".

But the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 puts a halt to the composition of this work he is so fond of. Overwhelmed by the state of France, unable to "live under the ennemy's flag", Gounod takes refuge in England with his family. He will meet there the singer Georgina Weldon, who will have a strong influence on him (ascendant absolu), convincing him to act in ways totally in opposition with his nature. And thus, he becomes her "protégé" during three years, at Tavistock House, composing without respite, suing constantly his publishers and, finally, refusing the position of director of the Conservatoire de Paris. Tired, sick, Gounod finally leaves London with the help of Dr. Blanche and a few friends. He abandons there a few manuscripts, notably "Polyeucte", conficated in vengeance by Georgina Weldon. Back in France, he will retranscript the entire work from memory, with a prodigious accuracy. Very depressed by the failure of this opera which, more than any other, is the reflection of his inner convictions, Gounod said:" May all my works perish, may my Faust perish, but Polyeucte must be revived and must live."

Gounod londonien
Gounod à la mode Londonienne
Thinking only of:" turning to the sky all his forces of contemplation ", the musician works "almost reluctantly" on his ultimate dramatic work "Le Tribut de Zamora", and composes two oratorios, "Redemption" ( 1882 ) and "Mors et Vita" ( 1885 ), not devoid of theatrical effects. In the last years of his life, he will displays a rich and varied literary activity, becomes a critic also , writing in defence of Saint-Saens at the creation of "Henry VIII" and "Proserpine" . With tireless vitality, supervises the last rehearsals of his works, which he conducts most of the time. The concert at the Chatelet on April 4, 1890, where he conducts his works to a triumphant success, marks his last public appearance. Laden with honors and decorations, Gounod had till the end his easygoing temperament, always ready to seduce. Stimulated by kindness, devoted to those who come to him, he creates instinctively around him a current of sympathy and affection which he needs so profoundly . In spite of a failing health, he attends the concerts of sacred music by the Singers de Saint-Gervais, begins a musical diptych on Saint François d'Assise and writes his last melody "Tout l'Univers obéit à l'Amour".

Obsèques nationales en l'église de la Madeleine

Stroked while composing a Requiem in the memory of a grandson, Gounod dies in Saint-Cloud on October 17, 1893. National burial takes place at the Madeleine, where, according to his wish, a Gregorian mass is sung. Gounod will remain forever the musician of love " whose immense sigh goes away to get lost in infinity ".


Marie-Hélène Coudroy-Saghaï
in charge of research at the
National Superior Music Conservatory of Paris

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