Charles-François Gounod (born Paris 17 June 1818; died Saint-Cloud (France) 17 October 1893) was a French composer. Gounod (pronounce: “Goo – no”) wrote many different kinds of pieces, but he is best known today for his operas Faust and Roméo et Juliette and, especially, for the very popular “Ave Maria” which is a melody that goes with a prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach.
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.
In 1856 he started to write the opera by which he is now best remembered: Faust (1859), based on the first part of the play Faust by Goethe. The opera was produced in 1859 and soon was performed in many countries, especially in Germany. The composer Richard Wagner was the most important opera composer in Germany and his operas were quite different, so he said that Gounod’s operas were silly.
When the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870 Gounod went to live in England. He stayed there for five years becoming the first conductor of what is now the Royal Choral Society. Gounod wrote a lot of music for choirs at this time, including a motet composed especially for the grand opening of the Royal Albert Hall in 1871. He worked very hard, although he was often depressed about the war situation in France. His house in Saint-Cloud had been destroyed. He returned to France in 1874 and was glad to be back with his family.
Later in his life, Gounod became very interested in religion again. He wrote a lot of religious music, including his famous musical setting of Ave Maria based on the first prelude from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach and Hymnus Pontificius the anthem of Vatican. He also wrote two oratorios, including Mors et vita which Queen Victoria liked so much that she asked for it to be played in the Royal Albert Hall in 1886.
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