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Classical Composers A-Z: Charles Francois Gounod

Peter Wintersgill sketches the life of Charles Francois Gounod, composer of operas and the exquisite St Cecilia Mass.

Born
Paris, 18th June 1818.

Father
Francois, painter.

Adolescence and Early Adult Life
Studied at Paris Conservatoire where he won the Prix de Rome in 1839. Studied in Rome, especially music of Palestrina.

Back in Paris he became organist of a church there. He studied for the priesthood, but was never ordained.

He met Mendelssohn and Schumann during a visit to Germany. Wrote his Messe a tre in 1840, which had its premiere in Vienna and his Messe Solenelle in 1849, which had its premiere in London.

Later Adult Life
He lived in London for five years (1870-1875) where he founded a choir which became the Royal Choral Society.

He is remembered chiefly as an opera composer, of which he wrote twelve altogether. The early ones all failed to survive, his first real success being Faust (1859), which has been popular ever since. Later ones include Mirielle (1864) and Romeo and Juliet (1867).

He only wrote two oratorios - La Redemption (1881) and Mors et Vita (1885) for the Birmingham and Norwich festivals respectively. The St. Cecilia Mass followed in 1882 and the Petite Symphonie in 1888.

Gounod learnt a lot from Berlioz and passed his influence on to such composers as Bizet and Massenet. The Ave Maria was a setting of Bach's C major prelude.

He could write lovely melodies, e.g. O Divine Redeemer from Repentir and in his many songs, but he was not really at home in large scale works such as oratorios and symphonies; in this way he could be regarded as a sort of French Sullivan.

He was a mystic and his music reflects this. He died in St. Cloud on 18th October 1893 aged 75.

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