The composer of Faust was the son of a talented lithographer and painter whose early death doomed his widow, Victoire, and his little boy, Charles, to a life of bitter poverty. It was no wonder that Victoire vehemently opposed the career in music for which her son was destined.
Still, against her better judgment, she arranged for her son to study with Antonìn Reicha, a well-known composer and theorist, and within a year he had learned everything Reicha had to teach. He received a liberal arts degree from the Lycée Saint-Louis and entered the Paris Conservatory. He tried three times to win the Prix de Rome — three years of study in Rome at the expense of the French government — and when he did so in 1839, Victoire rewarded him with the full score of Mozart's Don Giovanni.
The tooth-and-nail battle against poverty had largely been won, but another conflict dogged Gounod for the rest of his life. Author David Dubal explains.
Gounod loved Italy, with its balmy climate, easy manners, and abundance of churches. Years later he remarked, "I feel that the land of Rome and Naples is my true, my only country. It is there that I would have wished to live until the end of my days."
He had always been deeply attracted to Catholicism and the religious life, and once he was in the Eternal City, pious fervor seized him. Disdaining the tawdriness of the operatic world, he plunged himself into the study of the old polyphonic masters. Palestrina's purity delighted him most. Soon Gounod was composing strict three-part masses.
Gounod stayed at the Villa Medici, the headquarters of the French Academy, where winners of the Prix de Rome studied. He developed a close relationship with the Academy's venerable director, Jean-Auguste Ingres, who was not only a violinist but the greatest classical painter of the age; Ingres encouraged Gounod to develop not only his musical talent but also his considerable gift for drawing and painting.
In Rome, Gounod also met Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn's sister and herself a fine pianist. Together they read Goethe's Faust, which made an indelible impression.
After completing his three-year term of study in Rome, Gounod visited Vienna, then returned to Paris to look for a position, preferably at a church. He gratefully accepted a post as organist and choirmaster at the Missions Étrangères and immediately introduced Palestrina's music to the parish.
In 1846, thinking seriously of entering the priesthood, he started a two-year course at the seminary of Saint-Sulpice. Gounod had more than a streak of the mountebank in him: although he was only a student, he could not resist donning the cleric's garb. The course satisfied only half of his nature, however, for Gounod's temperament constantly wavered between religious ecstasies — expressed in theatrical or mystical language — and voluptuous seductions. It was a dissonance in his nature that was never resolved.
Fortunately, Gounod did not neglect his music while he was at the seminary. Instead, he delved into Schubert, Schumann, and the radical Berlioz, who would eventually herald Gounod's gifts in a triumphant review of Faust.
A major turning point came as a result of his regular attendance at the soirées of the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot-Garcìa, an extraordinary musician and actress. Captivated by Gounod's talent and personality, she persuaded him to forget his career in the church and compose operas. As a vehicle for Viardot, he composed Sapho (1851).
Gounod had long resisted the worldly temptations of opera, with its intrigues, prima donnas, fame, and fortune, and in composing one he felt that he had fallen from grace. As if to repent, for every opera he composed he would produce a mass or oratorio.
Sapho was shelved after four performances at the Paris Opéra, but Gounod was hooked. His next opera, Ulisse (1852), did well; it was performed 40 times — quite exceptional for an unknown composer in Paris. His 1857 Le Médicin malgré lui, based on Molière's play of the same name, is touched with light refinement and gentle humor and was a mild success.
It was Léon Carvalho, director of Paris's Théâtre-Lyrique, who urged Gounod to use Goethe's Faust as a subject. Gounod accepted the challenge. Faust, which premiered on March 19, 1859, added a golden chapter to the history of opera. It rapidly achieved international repertory status. Gounod would never again achieve the triumph he had with it, although his 1867 Roméo et Juliette came closest. He fled to London in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War, an event that deeply shook him.
England loved his operas and religious works and was hospitable to Gounod, and he remained there for five years. His personal life was in turmoil in those years, though. In April 1852, he had married Anna Zimmermann, daughter of a well-known piano teacher at the Paris Conservatory. The couple had a son and a daughter. Gounod — in spite of his piety — was an endless womanizer, but for almost two decades Anna had withstood the humiliations. In 1871, Gounod began another affair with an intelligent but unstable socialite, Georgina Weldon. The relationship with Georgina lasted some years, but his marriage survived.
Musically, Gounod's stay in England was fruitful. He had turned more and more to religious music, and England's liking for choral music and the high performance standards prevalent there inspired him, as they had Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn. For Debussy, the church music "of Gounod and company seems to come from some kind of hysterical mysticism and has the effect of a sinister force." But the formula worked, and the Victorian temper adored the constant flow of Gounod's piety in motets, canticles, cantatas, oratorios, requiems, and masses. Perhaps best known are the oratorios La Rédemption (circa 1882) and Mors et vita (circa 1885).
Along with his sacred music, he wrote many songs and salon pieces for the piano. One of them, the lugubrious "Funeral March of a Marionette" (1872), was used by Alfred Hitchcock in his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with no credit given to the composer.
Some critics have been unduly harsh on Gounod, but he nevertheless had a potent influence on a long line of French composers, including the early Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns, Henri Duparc, Ernest Reyer, Gabriel Fauré, Jules Massenet, and Francis Poulenc, all of whom were attracted to his sinuous and specifically French lyricism. Although Gounod is known today by only a fraction of his work, Faust, with its magnetic attraction, will be heard as long as opera still has the ability to enchant us.
This article was excerpted from The Essential Canon of Classical Music by David Dubal, with the permission of the author.
Houston Grand Opera's production of Gounod's Faust, starring William Burden, Samuel Ramey and Tamar Iveri and directed by Francesca Zambello, runs from January 20 to February 3 at the Wortham Theater Center in Houston. Details are available at www.houstongrandopera.org.