Charles Gounod


“It is not labor that kills. It is sterility. To be fruitful is to be young and full of life.”

The calamitous power of Napoleon Bonaparte came to an inevitable end with the mad flight of the French troops from Waterloo, June 18, 1815. The great devastator had for years drained France of its strongest and healthiest men to gratify his ambition for dominion and his appetite for military success. Singularly enough many of the most famous musicians were born during this period of great upheaval in Europe. Charles Francois Gounod came into the world to witness numerous wars and continual political turmoil in his own country where the government could turn from a monarchy to a republic literally over night. Nevertheless, he was an emissary of peace during his entire lifetime, and stood amazed at the continual reversion of man to the barbarisms of war. Indeed, we may well ask ourselves whether the man who could strike terror throughout Europe was as important to civilization as one who could produce the following thought found in one of the letters of Gounod written in 1870, just after our own civil war, and before the Franco-Prussian war.

“Humanity yet lingers, it would seem, under the grim shadows of chaos, amidst the monstrosities of the iron age; and instead of driving their weapons into the earth to benefit their fellow creatures, men plunge them into each other’s hearts to decide the ownership of the actual soil. Barbarians! Savages!”

Gounod’s father, Francois Louis Gounod was born in 1758 and did not marry until he was forty-seven years old. He died when his son Charles was only five years old. A painter of distinguished note himself, he spent much of his time restoring many of these great masterpieces to be found in the lavish summer homes of the French monarchs at Versailles. His ancestors had been makers of the elegantly engraved armor and weapons that added so much to the spectacular attractiveness of the wars of other days. It was Gounod’s mother, however, who developed the love for music in the little child who was to write operas and oratorios which brought his name such wide renown. She was the daughter of a French magistrate, very pious, highly cultured and was a music teacher for over thirty-two years.

At the time of the master’s birth Gounod’s parents resided in a modest little house in the section of Paris near the venerable Abbey of St. Germain des Pres. The artist father and musician mother fighting valiantly against commercialism and mediocrity upon one side and poverty upon the other had a very happy home nevertheless. The father’s artistic conscience was so highly developed that he would work with extravagant disregard for the value of his time in order to have his art creations worthy. His wife in fact was compelled to argue with him to send them to market when there was real need of money in the home. Cleaning his palettes and even finishing some of the pictures herself she gained an artistic insight which at the death of her husband in 1823 enabled her to continue the little art class which had been the mainstay of the family. There were two children, Charles Francois and his brother ten years older. The little mother struggled valiantly on for years, teaching drawing and music, from early morning until late night, in order to secure the right support and educational advantages for her sons. So beautiful was her maternal devotion that we may well pause for a while and draw back the curtain of years to look upon a little scene which reveals the spirit of musical enthusiasm which must be at the base of the successful musical career of every successful student. Gounod in his own story of his life tells of his first visit to the opera together with his mother and his older brother:


“I was nearly wild with impatience and delight. I remember I could not eat for excitement, so that my mother said to me at dinner, ‘If you don’t eat your dinner I won’t let you go to the opera.’ and forthwith I began to consume my victuals, in a spirit of resignation at all events.”

We had dined early that evening as we had no reserved seats (this would have been far too costly), and we had to be at the opera house before the doors were opened, with the crowd of people who waited on the chance of finding places untaken in the pit. Even this was a terrible expense for my mother as the seats cost three francs and seventy-five centimes each (about seventy-five cents).”

“It was bitterly cold; for two mortal hours did Urbain and I wait, stamping our frozen toes, for the happy moment when the string of people began to move past the ticket office window. We got inside at last. Never shall I forget my first sight of the great theater, the curtain and the brilliant lights. I felt as if I were in some temple, as if a heavenly vision must shortly rise upon my sight. At last the solemn moment came. I heard the stage manager’s three knocks and the overture began. My hearts was beating like a sledge hammer. Oh, that night! that night! what a rapture, what Elysium! Malibran, Rubini, Lablache, Tamburini, the voices, the orchestra! I was literally beside myself. That night I never closed my eyes; I was haunted, ‘possessed.’ I was wild to write an Otello myself.”

Charles never forgot his mother’s sacrifices, and his devotion to her up to the time of his death was very beautiful. The following lines found in the preface to his autobiography are well worth quoting:

“If I have worked any good during my life, by word or deed, I owe it to my mother and to her I give the praise. She sleeps beneath a stone as simple as her blameless life had been. May this tribute from the son she loved so tenderly form a more imperishable crown than the wreaths of fading immortelles he laid upon her grave, and clothe her memory with a halo of reverence and respect he fain would have endure long after he himself is dead and gone.”

As a child Gounod possessed the gift of absolute pitch. He discovered that the dogs barked in certain pitches and that the street venders sang “as if they were crying” when they sang in the minor mode. His early training was almost entirely received from his mother who, however, did not wish to have her son a musician, knowing the privations which many unsuccessful artists undergo. She did, however, place him under the instruction of the noted contrapuntalist Anton Reicha, who advised Madame Gounod to make a musician of the boy. Accordingly, after he had received his Bachelor’s Degree from the Lycee St. Louis, he entered the Paris Conservatoire where he studied with Halevy, Lesueur and Paer. In 1837, after he had been in the conservatoire but one year, he won the second Prix de Rome with his cantata Marie Stuart and Rizzio; and in 1839 he won the Grand Prix de Rome with his cantata Fernand, carrying twenty-five votes out of twenty-seven.

His residence in Rome made a profound impression upon him and led him to make a thorough study of the old ecclesiastical music of Palestrina, whom he always compared with Michelangelo. Of them he said, “Both have the same simplicity, even humility of manner; the same seeming indifference to effect, the same scorn for methods of education. There is nothing artificial or mechanical about them. The soul wrapped in ecstatic contemplation of a higher world, described in humble and submissive language the sublime visions that pass before its eyes. The art of the two masters is a sort of sacrament, whose outward and visible sign is but a transparent veil stretched between man and the divine and living truth.”

On his way back from Rome Gounod met Mendelsohn and other famous musicians, and became acquainted with the radical departures represented in the innovations of Schumann.

Arriving in Paris Gounod was appointed to the post of organist at Les Missions Etrangeres and apparently had the customary difficulties of the organist of to-day since the Abbe felt it necessary to remind him that the parishioners did not think his style entertaining – whereupon Gounod reminded the Abbe that he had come to improve the musical taste of the parishioners and not to consult it. Gounod, however, was devoted to the church and took a course in theology for two years. It was at  one time expected that he would enter the priesthood. After five years of comparative oblivion the name of Gounod comes to the public notice through the successful performance of his Messe Solonelle in London. His first attempt at a three-act opera Sappho was produced at the Grand Opera House in Paris in 1851. It was not, however, a success owing to a weak libretto.

In 1852 Gounod became conductor of the united male singing societies in Paris as well as the vocal schools. Gounod’s important dramatic works were produced during the years from 1850 to 1870, after which he devoted his time almost wholly to religious compositions. The dates of the best known works are as follows:

  • Sappho (1851)
  • Ulysses (1852)
  • La Nonne Sanglante (1854)
  • Le Medecin malgre lui (1858)
  • Faust (1859)
  • Philemon et Baucis (1860)
  • La Reine de Saba (1862)
  • Mireille (1864)
  • La Colombe (1866)
  • Romeo et Juliette (1867)


Although Gounod was a thorough master of the resources of the orchestra his two symphonies (D and E flat), written in 1852, have never claimed wide attention and are generally conceded to be unimportant.

It was, however, not until 1859 that his great success Faust was first produced. The master had been greatly attached to the poem for many years. Even during the glorious days at the Villa di Medici in Rome we find him studying the Goethe version of the legend. This remarkable opera was first performed in America in 1863. A recent book upon opera estimated that it is sung throughout the world more than any five operas combined. At the Paris Grand Opera Faust has been given 1,500 times, and no less than $30,000 has recently been spent there for new scenery for this opera alone. This seems quite astonishing when it is remembered that the first productions of the opera were very far from being successful. Faust is said to have earned over three million francs for the producers. Performances of the opera were prevented in Rome as the government prohibited presentations of “his satanic majesty” on the stage.

At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, Gounod, who detested fighting, sailed for England together with his wife and two children. He conducted concerts at the Crystal Palace, concerts of the Philharmonic, and concerts of the Gounod Chorus (later the Royal Choral Society). While residing in England he is said to have written many of the very much sung scred songs, including The King of Love My Shepherd Is, There is a Green Hill Far Away, Nazareth, etc.

In 1875 Gounod returned to Paris, where he had been made a member of the Institut de France. Here he devoted himself to the composition of two sacred works. The Redemption (first produced in Birmingham, England, 1882), and Mors et Vita (first produced in Birmingham in 1885).

In 1893 Gounod was engaged upon work with a Requiem. He was going over the score of what he hoped to make his greatest work and describing his purpose to a pupil when he came suddenly upon a particularly effective passage, and, in the excitement of the moment, fell over the score, dead. Like Mozart he had provided his own memorial service. His funeral in Paris indicated the regard of the French state for its men of genius. Preceded by a company of police and followed by cavalry, infantry and artillery – an odd cortege for an emissary of peace – the procession included many of the most famous men of letters, science and art in France. Queen Victoria, always an ardent admirer of Gounod’s music, sent a handsome wreath to be placed upon his grave.

The existing photographs of Gounod testify to the fact that he avoided all tendencies to appear like a “genius”. His face was said to have been exceptionally mobile and expressive. The portraits of him do not, it is believed, convey a correct idea of his handsome and highly emotional countenance. The peculiar contrast represented in two of his most famous works, Faust and the Messe Solonelle, symbolizes the caprices of his character. At heart he was imbued with mysticism and at times was deeply sensitive to the ritual of the church he loved so well. At other moments it may safely be said that the worldly spirit of Faust and Romeo and Juliet made itself conspicuously present in his character. Gounod was always a gentleman in the sense of being kind and considerate of others. He was lovable and sympathetic, but lacked decisiveness and great personal force. His lack of sophistry was one of the most distinctive traits of his character.

Gounod’s preference for the organ was quite pronounced and was doubtless due to his churchly tendencies. He had a fine small pipe organ in his home and enjoyed playing upon it, often continuing his playing well into the early hours of the morning. Saint-Saens speaks of his piano-playing, describing him as an agreeable performer, but at the same time relating his difficulty in playing his own scores.

Gounod’s greatest success as a conductor was with large choruses. He was always sincere and filled with a sense of seriousness of the work at hand which made him lose all idea of self. In Paris and in London he met with great applause at the choral concerts he conducted. In London he failed to win the personal friendship of some of the newspaper critics, and this led to controversies which hurt his sensitive nature very greatly. His symphonies, which do not rank with his better know works, were favorable received at the time of their performance in England.


In his autobiography Gounod mentions many friends. Aside from those associated with him in his educational work, he speaks particularly of the French painter, Georges Ingres, director of the Munich Academy at Rome, whose art is said to hold the middle place between the classic and the modern, and in this way runs parallel to the musical art of Gounod. Gounod was also devoted to Berlioz whom he described as the greatest emotional influence of his youth. They exchanged numerous interesting letters, and Gounod in his monograph of the older French master said, “The musical works of Berloiz may earn him glory. The published letters will do more. They will earn his love, and that is the most precious of all earthly things.” Gounod valued his friendship with Saint-Saens and other contemporary French musicians also very highly Mme. Viardot (Pauline Garcia) should also be mentioned as a “friend in need’ since she was continually seeking to promote the youthful works of the composer.

Of Gounod’s operas the most celebrated are:

  • Faust
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Philemon et Baucis
  • The Queen of Sheba


Other operas are:

  • La Nonne Sanglante
  • Le Medicin malgre lui
  • Mireille
  • La Colombe
  • A la Frontiere
  • Le Tribut de Zomora
  • Polyeucte
  • Maitre Pierre
  • Georges Dandin


His sacred works many believe will survive his operas. His best known religious compositions are :

  • Solemn Mass in G
  • Masses for Men’s voices
  • The Redemption
  • Messe Angeli Custodes
  • Messe Sainte Cecile
  • Mors et Vita
  • Fourth Mass
  • Galia
  • Le Sept Paroles de Jesus
  • Pater Noster
  • Ave Verum
  • Salutaris
  • Stabat Mater
  • and more….

Many of Gounod’s songs have been very popular indeed, and such works as Nazareth, There is A Green Hill Far Away and the Ave Maria, written over the prelude to the first Fugue in the Well Tempered Clavichord of Back, have become extremely popular. Gounod’s Autobiographical Reminiscences rank with those of Berlioz in interest, although not nearly so comprehensive. Gounod wrote many monographs upon noted musicians and also a Method for the Cornet. His compositions suitable to the piano are limited to transcriptions of his operatic works and such unimportant pieces as The Funeral March of Marionette, Marche Romaine, etc.

It is difficult to form a just appreciation of Gounod’s work as a whole since there are many moments of undoubted inspiration, continual evidences of highly developed craftsmanship in composition, instrumentation, etc, which have been greatly admired by real music workers who now the difficulties encountered in securing such effects, much deliciously sensuous melody and often very decided dramatic force in his stage works, as well as an unmistakable spirit of reverence in his church compositions. However, it cannot be denied that there are here and there passages of banality or mediocrity which are difficult to associate with Gounod’s more inspired periods. Many of his melodies are extremely original and at times voluptuous.

Some of Gounod’s favorite sayings include:

  • In art, mere realism is another word for slavish imitation.
  • Labor is neither cruel nor ungrateful.
  • There is no necessity that every man’s cup should be the same size. The great point is that each should always be full to the brim.
  • Nowadays the artist is no longer his own master. He belongs to the world at large, he is worse than its target. He is its prey. His own personal and productive life is almost entirely absorbed, swamped, squandered, in so-called social obligations, which gradually stifle him in that network of sham and barren duties which go to make up many an existence devoid of serious object and high motive. In a word, society eats him up.