b. Paris, 17 June 1818; d. Saint-Cloud, 18 October 1893
Initially destined for a career in the Church and always strongly attracted to sacred subjects despite a scandal-prone private life, Charles Gounod became the most popular operatic composer in French history, remembered above all for his setting of Goethe’s great metaphysical drama Faust.
As a young man, Gounod had intended to take holy orders but he abandoned such plans shortly before his 30th birthday. His first attempts for the stage were weak pastiches of the classical tragedies of Gluck, and not until some 10 years later did he hit upon a subject that really stimulated him – Goethe’s Faust. Premiered at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1859, the work became so hugely popular that in 1869 Gounod was invited to expand it for the Opéra, re-scoring the spoken dialogue as sung recitative and adding ballet interludes.
None of his next few operas enjoyed the same success: the five-act La Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba), for example, attracted accusations of ‘Wagnerism’, a cardinal offence in late-19th-century Paris; while its successor, Mireille, was an overnight failure in 1864. In 1867, however, Gounod’s reputation was saved by the Shakespearean adaptation Roméo et Juliette.
In 1870, fleeing the Franco-Prussian War and the scandal generated by his alleged adultery, Gounod brought his long-suffering wife and children to England, where he was warmly received, not least by Queen Victoria, an admirer of his music. However, in February 1871 the composer’s wandering eye lit upon the amateur singer and society hostess Georgina Weldon. Before long Anna Gounod had admitted defeat and taken her children back to Paris. Gounod remained behind in London, growing in popularity thanks to his stream of archetypally Victorian pious slush, much of it written for his mistress’s questionable talents. Their relationship began to suffer, however, when Weldon attempted to embroil the composer in various dubious financial enterprises and in June 1874 he left both her and England.
Upon his return to Paris, Gounod wrote three more operas, but his sentimental style was by now sounding dated. Grudgingly, he retired from opera composition, returning to liturgical music. He continued, nonetheless, to be fêted as one of the few to maintain a distinctively French style, and in this respect he was seen as a model by many later French composers, such as Massenet and Ravel.
Already a member?
Sign in now to access the members only area
Not a member?
Join now to receive priority booking, invitations to dress rehearsals and members-only events and much more.