Charles-François Gounod emerged as one of the leading figures in French music during the latter part of the 19th century. Although the composer never achieved the titanic stature of Wagner or Verdi, Gounod’s opera Faust has rivaled some of their most successful works in popularity.
The young composer showed early artistic talent, but his parents were determined that he study law. Gounod’s preference for music eventually won, and at the age of 16, the rebellious teen began the official path of a typical 19th-century composer in France.
At the Paris Conservatoire, Gounod studied with Halévy, Le Sueur and Reicha. Winning the Prix de Rome in 1839, he embarked upon a two-year study in Italy, during which the composer first became familiar with the Faust and Romeo legends.
Returning to France, Gounod was fortunate to befriend an influential soprano, Pauline Viardot, who helped him get a commission from the Paris Opéra. Sapho, set to a libretto by Emile Augier, was a critical success but not a huge box-office draw, and was dropped after six performances.
Nonetheless, a debut at Paris’ leading opera house helped his reputation, and Gounod was offered subsequent commissions from the Opéra. Unfortunately, the composer’s second opera – La nonne sanglante – was only marginally more successful than his first, and his next project – Ivan le terrible – was canceled after an attempt had been made on French Emperor Louis-Napoléon’s life (the libretto contained a similar plot of regicide). Gounod’s fate at the Opéra was in limbo.
Meanwhile, Léon Carvalho, new director of the Théâtre Lyrique, courted the composer with the prospect of producing Faust. They soon discovered that another theater, the Théâtre de la Porte-St-Martin, had planned an extravagant spectacle based on the Goethe play. Gounod’s Faust had to be put on hold, and Carvalho tried to appease the composer with a comic libretto, Le médecin malgré lui, based on text by Molière.
Le médecin did not prove successful, but soon Gounod caught a break: the St. Martin theater postponed its version of Faust, and Carvalho gave Gounod the go-ahead to complete his opera. A resounding success in France and all over Europe, Faust elevated Gounod to a composer of international acclaim.
Over the next few years, Gounod produced four more operas: Philémon et Baucis, a mythological comedy in the vein of Jacques Offenbach’s hugely successful Orphée aux enfers; La colombe, an opera comique about an impoverished nobleman’s attempts to win the heart of a wealthy countess; La reine de Saba, based on the biblical tale of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; and Mireille, a love story set in the south of France. None of these works achieved the special appeal of Faust, although Mireille became a staple of the Opéra-Comique’s repertory. Around this time, the composer’s life began to unravel: the French press repeatedly accused him of “Wagnerism” (a result of his association with the German composer), and a nervous condition resurfaced. Rehearsals of Mireille strained Gounod’s friendship with Carvalho – at one point their communication was reduced to the exchange of notarized letters. He eventually mended his relationship with Carvalho, and produced another work for the Théâtre Lyrique, Roméo et Juliette.
At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Gounod moved his family to England, where he worked on his opera Polyeucte. While there, he befriended an enthusiastic fan, Georgina Weldon, who soon began to manage his business affairs. A romantic relationship developed, which became widely known when Gounod’s incensed wife returned to Paris in 1871.
In 1874 the composer abruptly returned to France and family. In his haste, he left the nearly complete score of Polyeucte behind, and the embittered Georgina refused to part with it. Gounod took legal action, and also began rewriting the opera from memory (which took nearly a year). Georgina eventually returned the score, but only after scrawling her name across every page.
Polyeucte was not produced until 1878. In the meantime Gounod received yet another offer from Carvalho, who had assumed directorship of the Opéra-Comique. Cinq Mars was set to a story of political conspiracy and intrigue by Sir Walter Scott. However, its reception echoed those of his early operas – the work was neither offensive nor memorable in any way.
Le tribut de Zamora was Gounod’s last work for the stage. His reputation, unfairly associated with the “frivolous” cultural products of the Second Empire, declined during the more austere Third Republic, and he spent his final years composing sacred music. Despite this faint reception, his masterpieces Faust and Roméo et Juliette remain in repertory to this day, and remind us of the higher purpose to which Gounod’s operas aspired during a period of artistic escapism.