One work has ensured Charles Gounod's lasting fame: Faust. Gounod's greatest operatic hit is presented at an average of 22 opera houses worldwide every year. Roméo et Juliette is not far behind it, while the remaining ten of his operas continue to make occasional appearances. Another perennial favourite is 'Ave Maria', drawn from the opening C major prelude of Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. But these works are only a fraction of the French composer's output.
Gounod was one of the giants of French musical life in the second half of the 19th century. His catalogue includes works in every major genre of the day, especially song, orchestral music and choral music. He was born into an artistic family. His father was a painter and engraver who worked for royalty and died young. Gounod's widowed mother supported the family by teaching piano. Gounod inherited the talents of both parents, but music claimed him as a career.
At the Paris Conservatoire, he studied with Fromental Halévy, Jean-François Le Sueur and Ferdinando Paër. Aged 19 he achieved second place in the prestigious Prix de Rome competition. Winning the first prize two years later allowed him to travel to Rome to take in the musical culture of Italy. The world of Italian opera, at that time dominated by Bellini and Donizetti, made little impression on the young composer. Rather than remain in Italy, he opted to spend the final year of his scholarship travelling through Austria and Germany. A visit to Mendelssohn proved significant, and an encounter with his 'Scottish' Symphony left a deep impression.
Gounod returned to Paris with an idea to abandon music in favour of the priesthood. But the vibrant musical life in the capital changed his mind and he began to make his way in Parisian musical circles. Relationships with influential married women were a frequent and problematic feature of Gounod's career. These friendships led a range of unflattering accusations against him. In one case he was even forced to defend himself against legal action.
The singer Pauline Viardot secured the commission for Gounod's first opera, Sapho. But she and the composer later fell out over his marriage to Anna Zimmermann, daughter of a Paris Conservatoire professor. A friendship with the English amateur singer Georgina Weldon resulted in his moving into her London home for three years. During his time in England, Gounod became the first conductor of what is now the Royal Choral Society.
Back on French soil after a dramatic rift with Mrs Weldon, Gounod returned to composing operas, and later shifted his focus to choral music. His connections with Britain's vibrant choral music scene now proved useful. His oratorio La rédemption was particularly popular with British audiences and singers, thanks in part to its dedication to Queen Victoria. His catalogue of choral music included three oratorios, 21 masses and numerous cantatas.
Gounod was undoubtedly an influential figure in the history of French music. He mentored Georges Bizet, whose Symphony in C bears the imprint of Gounod's own Symphony no.1. His songs paved the way for Fauré and Debussy, and his operas influenced Massenet and Saint-Saëns. But his refusal to follow the innovations of Richard Wagner, which were then sweeping Europe, alienated him from many critics. Debussy's remark that 'Gounod, for all his faults, is necessary' demonstrates the respect shown to him by the next generation of French composers.