Charles Gounod


Born: 1818   Died: 1893   Country: France   Period: Romantic
Charles Gounod is best known for his operas Faust and Romeo et Juliette and for his Ave Maria (1859). Except for concertos, he composed music in the major genres, but with varying success in the instrumental realm. Gounod was more at home in the vocal arena, particularly in opera and sacred music. Though his reputation began to fade even before he died, he is still generally regarded as a major figure in nineteenth century French music. Read more Stylistically, he was a conservative whose influence nevertheless extended to Bizet, Saint-Saëns, and Massenet. He could not be called a trailblazer or the founder of any movement or school. His works are tuneful, his vocal writing imaginative, and orchestral scoring masterly. Gounod's compositions, even his two symphonies and lesser known operas, are occasionally explored today, and the aforementioned Faust and Romeo et Juliette and Ave Maria are widely performed and recorded.

Gounod was born on June 17, 1818. His mother was a pianist who served as the young boy's first teacher. While still in his youth she arranged for him to receive composition lessons from Anton Reicha. After Reicha's death, Gounod began studies at the Paris Conservatory, where he won a Grand Prix in 1839 for his Cantata Fernand.

After further composition studies in Rome, where he focused on sixteenth century church music, particularly the works of Palestrina, he became deeply interested in religion and by 1845 was contemplating the priesthood. Though he would eventually reject the idea and marry, he remained religious throughout his life and wrote many sacred works, including masses, the most popular being the 1855 St. Cecilia Mass. In that year Gounod also turned out two symphonies, which achieved attention but not lasting success. It was the 1859 opera Faust, however, that, after a slow start, became Gounod's calling card. Mireille (1864) and especially Romeo et Juliette (1867) added to his reputation, not only in France but throughout Europe.

From 1870-1875 Gounod lived in England owing to the exigencies of the Franco-Prussian War. In his years there and in the period following his return to France, Gounod wrote much music, especially religious music, but never again attained the kind of success he experienced in the 1850s and '60s. Among his more compelling and imaginative late works is the 1885 Petite Symphonie, (scored for nine instruments). Gounod died in St. Cloud on October 18, 1893. Read less
Gounod: Sacred Choral Works / Burton, Webber, Et Al
Release Date: 11/27/2007   Label: Centaur Records  
Catalog: 2848   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Ave Maria


About This Work
Ah, the famous Bach/Gounod Ave Maria. So familiar and lyrical, a wedding music standard, it seems to be a naturally pious work. And yet it has a little-known history that reveals a different kind of devotional intent. The melody that Gounod wrote to Read more go with the first prelude from Book One of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier began as an improvisation made one evening after dinner with friends. The arpeggiated chords of the prelude work as the accompaniment to the cantilena melody, not unlike a song by Mendelssohn or a Bellini aria. Gounod's father-in-law wrote it down and not only had a violinist and choir perform it for Gounod, but also sold it to a publisher (he did give the money to Gounod). The Méditation, as the first published version for violin and piano was named, was an instant success, with publishers rushing out various arrangements for different instruments. How the Latin text of "Ave Maria" ended up attached to the melody is the real story. The composer, with his penchants for romance and drama, would frequently become infatuated by young, married women. According to the family story, Gounod was at one time enchanted by a young woman by the name of Rosalie. He found a poem by Alphonse de Lamartine, Vers sur un album, which he set to the Méditation's melody, thinking it would be an appropriate gift for Rosalie. Although the text is innocent enough, Rosalie's mother deemed the gift inappropriate. She politely suggested the "Ave Maria" text as an alternative. Taking the hint, Gounod made minor changes to adjust the melody to the text, and a classical music hit was born.

-- Patsy Morita
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