Charles Gounod was raised in a family of music lovers, then studied music at the Paris conservatoire with Halévy and Lesueur. He was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1839, which entailed a period of residence at the Villa Medici, where he studied sacred music. In 1843, he was made choirmaster and organist at the Foreign Missions church. He also took theology lessons, but gave up the idea of entering the church shortly after the establishment of the Second Republic.
Gounod studied Lully, Gluck and Mozart, and was especially fond of Rossini's music. He was strongly drawn to opera, but his first efforts in the genre, Sapho and Ulysse, were not very successful. His fifth opera, Faust, finally won favour with audiences and critics, though it broke away from the Italian bel canto style and gave priority to melodic lyricism over vocal virtuosity. This opera marked the renewal of French opera, which was also perceptible in his numerous songs, written in an uncluttered, sober style in which the vocal lines follow the natural accentuation of the language. After producing three operas that went largely unnoticed, Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (1867) was very successful and marked the height of his career. Several operas followed, including Jeanne d'Arc and Polyeucte. Towards the end of his life, Gounod wrote only sacred music, including several masses and two well-known oratorios, _Rédemptionand Mors et Vita_.
Gounod's work reflects the composer's love of literature as he strives to reveal the subtlest shades of human feeling. Gounod's clear, measured writing helped define the French style that was passed down to Bizet, Lalo and Saint-Saëns, as opposed to the Italian bel canto style or Wagnerian Romanticism.
Six landmark dates in the life of Gounod:
• 1839: Grand Prix de Rome for his cantata, Fernand.
• 1843: choirmaster and organist at the Foreign Missions church.
• 1851: premiere of his first opera, Sapho.
• 1852: first publication of a score by Gounod (Ulysse).
• 1852-70: president of the Orphéons choral society in Paris.
• 1870: went into exile in England during the war
Six key works by César Gounod:
• 1853: Ave Maria
• 1855: Messe solennelle de Sainte-Cécile
• 1859: Faust, opera in 5 acts set to a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on the play by Goethe; premiered at the Théâtre Lyrique.
• 1864: Mireille, opera in 5 acts set to a libretto by Michel Carré, based on a Provençal poem by Frédéric Mistral (Mireio).
• 1867: Roméo et Juliette, opera in 5 acts set to a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on the play by Shakespeare; premiered at the Théâtre Lyrique.
• 1885: oratorio Mors et Vita.