b. Paris, France, June 17, 1818;
d. St. Cloud, France, October 18, 1893
Charles Gounod was an atypical candidate for theatrical composition, as he came from generations of silversmiths and painters rather than musicians. Something of a child prodigy (like his idol, Mozart), he was first taught by his domineering mother, who was gifted at both art and music. At 21, he won the coveted Prix de Rome on his second try, but by the time he completed the requisite two-years of study in Rome, he had yet to produce anything that could be considered a masterpiece. Part of his problem was his facility at drawing; his master, the great French painter Ingres, encouraged him to take a second Rome prize in painting. If anything, Gounod was simply too good at too many things, a trait that would dog his entire career.
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Gounod’s personality was dominated by mystical Catholicism and the need to please everyone, especially women. He was prey to frequent attacks of severe guilty religious conscience, psychosomatic illnesses, and even nervous breakdowns over his relationships and actions. But he was praised for his personal charm, even, at least initially, by those who later became bitter foes. Throughout his life he wavered between the sacred and the secular, even briefly contemplating the priesthood. Gounod eventually married Anna Zimmermann, the daughter of his piano teacher at the Paris Conservatory. The two poles of his personal life were summed up by malicious friends who referred to him as a “philandering monk.”
Faust (1859) was Gounod’s first operatic success, though it took a few years to achieve universal popularity. It has since been performed over 2,000 times at the Paris Opéra alone. His opera, Roméo et Juliette (1867) was his only unqualified instant success, but Faust remains more popular today. By the end of his career, Gounod had become something of a French national treasure, reaping numerous honorary degrees and positions and finally dying peacefully while reading through the orchestral score of his final work, appropriately enough—a requiem.