The French composer Charles Gounod composed a work which for
more than half a century was the staple ot every opera house in
the world. Although Faust is no longer fashionable, and
Gounod's reputation has dwindled to that of a relatively minor
figure, his influence during his lifetime was considerable and his
craftsmanship and elegance give enduring pleasure.
Born in Paris in 1818, Gounod studied at the Paris
Conservatoire. In 1839 he won the coveted Prix de Rome and during
the resulting three-year stay in Rome steeped himself in the
sixteenth-century choral music sung in the Sistine Chapel.
Palestrina was a particular revelation to him, and sacred music
was to constitute a large, though now largely forgotten part of
Gounod's output. Between 1846 and 1849 Gounod actually studied for
the priesthood and throughout his life he vacillated between the
spiritual and the carnal.
In 1842 Gounod visited Vienna, Berlin and Leipzig, where he met
Mendelssohn — a composer he resembles in many ways. Back in Paris
he became the organist at the Missions Etrangeres. He married in
1852 and started to compose operas, initially unsuccessful works
in the style of Meyerbeer and then lighter and happier works such
as Le medecin malgre lui in 1858.
But it was with Faust in 1859 that Gounod struck gold.
The enduring popularity of the work is due above all to the
extraordinary richness of melodic invention: from Marguerite's
sparkling "Jewel Song" to Faust's fervent "Salut, demeure
chaste et pure" there is scarcely an unmemorable tune in the
The operas Mireille (1864) and Romeo et Juliette
(1867) were also successful, but his stay in England between 1871
and 1874 was a mixed blessing. He was favoured by Queen Victoria
and found an audience for his oratorios La redemption and
Mors et vita; but he also came under the sway of the
eccentric and notorious singer Georgina Weldon. Gounod's
infatuation drew him into a turbulent, hysterical world. She was
often involved in lawsuits, even attempting to blackmail Queen
Victoria to obtain funds for her singing academy. Gounod returned
to Pans in 1874, but although he lived on for two decades his rich
period of creativity was over. Only the Petite symphonic
(Little symphony) for wind instruments has a youthful freshness
that reminds the listener of Gounod's happier years.