Charles Gounod at 200

Yesterday we celebrated the 200th birthday of the French composer, conductor, and organist Charles Gounod (17 June 1818 – 18 October 1893).

Gounod is especially known today as the composer of the operas Faust (1859) and Roméo et Juliette (1867). But this does not do justice to his extensive oeuvre, which took all genres into account.

Sacred music forms the center of Gounod's compositional output. In 1839, he won the Prix de Rome at the Paris Conservatory. While in Italy, he was deeply impressed by the vocal polyphony of the 16th century, especially by the works of Palestrina, which he heard in the Sistine Chapel. Fanny Hensel, who was also in Rome at the same time, shared German music and literaturewith him, including the writings of Goethe. Gounod studied theology upon his return to Paris. Though he was never ordained, he liked to sign his letters “l'abbé Gounod.” His deep religious beliefs were expressed in many sacred works.

He finally became world famous in 1859 with his opera Faust, which in Germany became known by the name of the actual hero of the work, Margarethe. Gounod was a maître de chapelle and organist, and from 1852 to 1860 he was the director of the Orphéon de la Ville de Paris, the largest men's chorus in the city. Due to the Franco-Prussian war, Gounod went to London in 1870, where he remained until 1874. After his return, he devoted himself to composing sacred music.

Gounod's Méditation sur le 1er prélude de Bach is also very famous, a melody that Gounod wrote in 1852 for violin and piano, superimposed over Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude no. 1 in C from the Well-Tempered Clavier. In 1859, he added the Ave Maria text to it.

Charles Gounod composed 12 operas, incidental music, oratorios, cantatas, around 15 masses (including requiems), orchestral music, chamber music, and numerous other choral works, songs, piano pieces, and instrumental pieces. Many of these can be found in the RISM online catalog. The filter Genres can be used to further browse the 180 sources for Charles Gounod.

Image: Roméo et Juliette. Deux scènes by Charles Gounod, autograph manuscript, p. 160c. Juilliard Library (US-NYj), RISM ID no. 900004919. From the Juilliard Manuscript Collection.


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