Charles-François Gounod was born in Paris on June 17, 1818 to a Prix de Rome award winning painter François-Louis and his wife, a pianist. He took piano lessons from his mother and eventually entered the Paris Conservatoire. Gounod followed in his father’s footsteps by winning the Prix de Rome in 1839 for his cantata Fernand. As part of the award, he stayed in Rome and studied sacred music. Upon his return to Paris, Gounod became the music director of the Missions Etrangères church in 1843 and briefly considered joining the priesthood. He decided instead to pursue composition, although would maintain an interest in sacred music until his death. In 1854, he composed St. Cecilia’s Mass and the next year wrote two symphonies; his Symphony No. 1 in D Major would prove to be an inspiration for future student Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C.
Gounod revered Bach and used the C Major Prelude to set Ave Maria. At the urging of mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, Gounod tackled the world of opera with Sapho for the Paris Opéra but it was not well received. After several more attempts, Gounod finally found the right mix of librettists (Jules Barbier and Michel Carré), story (Goethe’s 17th century classic Faust), producer (Léon Carvalho) and musical inspiration for the operatic version of Faust in 1859. It was an immediate hit and his publisher made sure that the new opera was marketed internationally—a genius move that cemented the opera’s status as one of the most popular in the repertory.
Four more operas followed on the heels of Faust; Philémon et Baucis (1860), La Colombe (1860), La reine de Saba (1862) and Mireille (1864) but none met with much success. But Gounod continued to work with his team of librettists and had long considered the idea of turning Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into an opera. Gounod began work on the new opera in 1865 and his librettists decided to stick closely with the Shakespeare tragedy including some word for word translation into the French libretto. Roméo et Juliette opened at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris on 27 April 1867 during the Exposition Universelle and, like Faust, was an immediate success.
Gounod was a prolific composer and wrote many other works including oratorios, ballets, masses, instrumental, motets and songs. In 1870, Gounod moved his family to England to escape the possible fall-out from the Franco-Prussian War. By 1874, the Gounods moved back to France. In 1888, he was named Grand Officer in the Legion d’Honneure (Legion of Honor) and he continued to compose, favoring more sacred music than secular in his later years including a mass inspired by Joan of Arc. On October 18, 1893, Gounod died from a stroke in Saint-Cloud, France. His operas Faust and Roméo et Juliette remain some of the most popular in the operatic repertory. And surprisingly, a small instrumental piece Funeral March for a Marionette (1873) introduced new audiences to Gounod as the theme of the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.