Like Puccini, Gounod lost his father at age 5. His mother, a fine pianist, took care of her children by opening a piano studio, and gave Gounod his first lessons. Although she did not encourage his musical goals, she permitted Gounod to study composition privately with composer and theorist Antoine Reicha.
Gounod entered the Paris Conservatory at 18, where his teachers included composer and writer Jean-François Le Sueur and Fromental Halévy (composer of La juive). Weirdly, all of his teachers died within a year and a half of teaching Gounod....
On his third try, in 1839, Gounod won the prestigious Prix de Rome, which gave the winner three years in Rome (with Austria and Germany often thrown in as well). Other winners have included Berlioz, Bizet, and Lili Boulanger (the first woman); famously, Ravel never won (despite being much better than the competition).
While in Rome, Gounod heard Palestrina performed in the Sistine Chapel (sacred music and music on sacred themes remained important throughout his life), met Fanny Mendelssohn, and became friends with the brilliant artist Dominique Ingres, who thought Gounod was a good enough artist to have won a Prix de Rome in the fine arts as well as music. He also read Goethe’s Faust and began dreaming of setting it to music.
He spent part of his third year in Austria and Germany, and visited Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig on his way back to Paris. Here he became church organist and choirmaster at the Église des Missions Étrangères and, believing he had a religious vocation, enrolled in seminary in 1847. By 1848, however, he had stopped studying for the priesthood (future events suggest that the celibacy part would have been tricky for him).
Gounod’s first opera, Sapho, was the result of his friendship with the famous mezzo-soprano and composer Pauline Viardot (1821–1910). The commission from the Paris Opéra was an impressive step for a not-yet-well-known composer. The opera, which was to serve as a vehicle for Viardot, was composed at her country estate; Gounod’s fellow guest was Russian writer Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883), best known for his novel Fathers and Sons and his play A Month in the Country. Turgenev provided feedback for Gounod’s work, which was possibly not a great idea given that the opera turned out to be a failure. But the astute Berlioz recognized the composer’s talent, and Gounod received a second commission from the Opéra.
The new opera was set to a libretto by the famous Eugène Scribe, titled La nonne sanglante. Those of you who read French realize that this means “The Bloody Nun.” Makes you want to race right over to the opera house to hear it, right? Berlioz had already worked with this libretto, setting a few scenes and then stopping; Verdi had considered it as well, as had others. But it was left to Gounod to do the honors, and, frankly, it was even more of a flop than Sapho.
Meanwhile, Gounod (who had long since left his church job) became conductor of the Orphéon choral group in 1851; he held this position for eight years. He was also director of vocal instruction in the Paris public schools. Not surprisingly, he wrote lots of choral music while he was with the Orphéon, including a batch of patriotic works. He also conducted massed groups of choral singers, numbering in the thousands. This type of big, big vocal performance didn’t die out with the nineteenth century; see the entry for Vaughan Williams’s Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. It still existed in Europe in the 1980s, at least; when I lived in Brussels I took part in one such event and it was lots of fun.
But back to Paris. Opera #3, Le médecin malgre lui (1858, based on the funny Molière play) was a success, and then Gounod really hit it big with #4: Faust (see the discussion below), followed by eight more operas, including Philémon et Baucis (1860), Mireille (1864), and Roméo et Juliette (1867). None of them after R & J were much good, though, and the critics practically begged him to stop writing opera, which he did in 1881. But at least for a while he was the leading opera composer in France.
1870 brought the Franco-Prussian War, and Gounod shepherded his family out of France and over the Channel to England. This was a wise move, as his house was destroyed by the Prussians. While in England Gounod was invited to write a motet for the opening of the Royal Albert Hall (1871); this success led to his directing the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society. He also got involved in various copyright issues, urging an international congress on issues relating to the music publishing industry.
Another involvement was more problematic. An introduction to Georgina Weldon, a singer (amateur) and teacher, led to a complicated situation where Gounod moved in with Weldon and her husband while Gounod’s wife went back to France without him. This messy situation (with all sorts of business and professional entanglements involved) lasted for several years. During this period Gounod was sought for the directorship of the Paris Conservatoire, but he was not about to leave England. As is often the case, though, the Gounod/Weldon liaison ended badly, with him fleeing England to reconcile with his wife and her (Weldon) suing him for libel.
Gounod’s two most successful works from his late years were his oratorios La rédemption and Mors et vita, both written for the Birmingham Choral Festival and following in the footsteps of Handel and Mendelssohn. These are not exactly choral blockbusters these days; his best-known free-standing choral work is the Messe solennelle de Sainte Cécile. The Messe brève aux chapelles, which I recorded a few years ago with Schola cantorum, is a pleasant work, and I suspect that much of his functional liturgical work is equally easy on the ears. Two works that I don’t know myself but are supposedly worth knowing are a “chant évangelique” for baritone, Jésus de Nazareth, and the incidental music to Ulysse. One piece that everyone knows is Gounod’s Ave Maria, which famously sets a lyrical melody over the first prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; Gounod himself made multiple arrangements. Also well-known is the Funeral March of a Marionette, originally a piano work, which baby-boomers will recognize as the theme music for the show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” And an absolutely charming work that deserves to be much better known is Gounod’s Petite Symphonie for nine wind instruments.
Gounod warranted a state funeral at his death, but, despite that fact that he wrote gobs and gobs of sacred music throughout his life, the only music performed on the occasion was plainchant—on his specific orders.
The Faust legend goes back to the sixteenth century at least, but it was Goethe’s play that engendered the nineteenth-century fascination with the story. (As aside: until she got to college, my mother pronounced Goethe’s name as “go-eth” rather than Gur-tuh. She’d only read the name, and had never heard it spoken. A similar thing happened for me with the famous seventeenth-century English diarist, whose name I pronounced as Peppies until I got to graduate school and heard “Peeps” for the first time. But really, can you blame me—Pepys?)
Back to Gur-tuh. His play, usually considered his masterwork, took him more than sixty years to write (not working non-stop, fortunately) and was completed only in 1831, a year before his death (though Part I was published in 1808). Composers loved it, as did lots of other people. An incomplete list of works inspired by it, in whole or part, would include Spohr’s opera Faust, Boito’s opera Mefistofele, Busoni’s opera Doktor Faust, Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, Liszt’s Faust Symphony and his various Mephisto Waltzes, Wagner’s Faust Overture (a probably apocryphal story has Wagner wanting to write a whole opera but deciding that Gounod had pretty much done the trick), Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, operas by lots of people you’ve never heard of (e.g. Lutz) and of course Gounod’s opera.
Gounod’s opera, to a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, was planned for the Théâtre Lyrique, which meant it had spoken dialogue. For performances in the provinces in 1860, the year after the premiere (arranged in part by Gounod’s energetic publisher, Antoine Choudens), Gounod added recitatives. When the work was transferred to the Paris Opéra 1869 after the Théâtre Lyrique went bankrupt, Gounod added the obligatory ballet.
In Act I, the erudite but unhappy Faust makes a pact with the devil, Méphistophélès: his soul in exchange for youth (Méphistophélès helps him along by showing an image of the luscious Marguerite).
Act II introduces Marguerite’s brother, Valentin, boozing it up in a tavern before heading off for the wars. Marguerite encounters Faust but declines his attentions.
Marguerite receives gifts from two suitors in Act III: flowers from a student and a box of jewels from Faust (via Méphistophélès). The latter gift prompts the famous “Jewel Song” aria. Faust shows up and there’s a classic back and forth wooing between Marguerite and Faust, but we all know where it’s going to lead, and it won’t be good for Marguerite.
Act IV opens with Marguerite at the spinning wheel (the scene is subject of the famous Schubert song “Gretchen am Spinnrade”). She has given birth to Faust’s child, but Faust has deserted her (is anyone surprised?). We then move on to Valentin’s return from the wars, marked by the famous “Soldiers’ Chorus” (the best-known of all of Gounod’s choral compositions). Learning of Marguerite’s disgrace, he duels with Faust, who kills him, but not before Valentin blames his sister and damns her for all eternity. The act concludes with Marguerite in a cathedral, attempting to pray while being tormented by Méphistophélès (what a rotter that guy is!).
At the beginning of Act V we find Faust and Méphistophélès in the Harz Mountains on Walpurgis Nacht (in case you are wondering, this is April 30, halfway around the year from Halloween). They then move inside a cavern filled with history’s most beautiful women (e.g. Cleopatra). Suddenly Faust sees a vision of Marguerite in a prison cell and demands to be taken to her.
In the final scene, Méphistophélès has secured the keys to the prison (where Marguerite has been placed for killing her child) and Faust is now with her (we do need a final love duet, after all). Faust wants her to flee with him, Méphistophélès wants them both to follow him, and Marguerite wants divine help. She gets it; just as Méphistophélès cries “Judged!,” (i.e., damned), angels (that’s us, the chorus) appear and sing instead “Saved!” Christ triumphs at last over the devil.
There is *much* not to like in this plot (which doesn’t come from the composer, after all), but Gounod’s exceptional music more than makes up for it. Faust is gorgeous from start to finish.
A Personal Note
After writing this in June 2017 I spent a week in Leipzig, where I experienced an unexpected Faust connection. I had a pre-opera dinner one day at Auerbachs Keller (“Auerbach’s Cellar”), a bar/restaurant that dates back to the fifteenth century and got its name in the sixteenth (the current incarnation is from the early twentieth century). The bar happens to have been Goethe’s favorite hangout in his student days (he studied in Leipzig from 1765 to 1768), and consequently it’s the first place Goethe has Mephistopheles take Faust when they set off to explore the world. It’s a fun place to visit, as it is filled with paintings and other images showing scenes from Goethe’s play, many of which are in Gounod’s opera as well. Not surprisingly, the food is very, very German.