Charles Gounod

Portrait of Charles Gounod

Charles Gounod was a French composer principally of opera and sacred music. He was born on 17th June 1818 in Paris, France and died on 18th October 1893 in Saint-Cloud, France aged 75.

Major Works

Requiem (1842)
“Sapho” (1851) 
“Saint Cecilia Mass” (1855)
“Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (1856) 
“Faust” (1859)

Biography Timeline

Charles Francois Gounod was born on 17th June 1818, at 11 Place St-Andre des Arts in Paris, France. He was the second son of Louis Francois Gounod a painter and engraver, and Victoire Lemachois.

1823: His father dies and his mother gives piano lessons in order to look after her two boys.

1829: He enters the Lycee Saint-Louis.

1831: In January he sees a performance of Giachino Rossini’s opera “Othello” and is impressed by it.

1832: A visit to see Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” inspires him to become a composer.

1835: He leaves school.

1836: He receives lessons from several composers in composition including Fromental Halévy. He enters the Prix de Rome for the first time.

1839: He wins the Grand Prix de Rome at his third attempt.

1840: As his prize he goes to study in Rome on 27th January. Whilst there he meets Fanny Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, who introduced him to German music.

1841: He composes and conducts at the first performance on the 1st May at the church of St. Louis of the French for the feast of King Louis-Philippe.

1842: He leaves for Vienna in September. 

1843: He performs his Mass in in the St. Charles Church in Vienna and in April he visits Leipzig in Germany where he meets Felix Mendelssohn in person. In November, back in France he is appointed as choirmaster of Foreign Missions. 

1847: The Archbishop of Paris authorises Gounod to wear clerical clothing and he lives in the house of the Carmelites and takes tuition in theology at the Saint-Sulpice Seminary.

1850: He leaves Saint-Sulpice.

1851: The first performance of his opera “Sapho” take place on 16th April to much critical applause.

1852: He marries Anna Zimmerman on 20th April. She is the daughter of a professor at the Conservatory. From the on he will stay in Saint-Cloud in the house of his in-laws where he will then build a cottage in the grounds. In May he is appointed Director General of the teaching of singing in the schools of Paris as well as director of the city’s Brass band, choral movement.

1855: The first performance of the “Saint Cecilia Mass” on 22nd November.

1856: He is awarded the Chevalier of the Legion de Honor in January.

1856: His son Jean is born on 8th June. In July he writes “Vive l’Empereur” in honour of Napoleon the Third and this becomes the official anthem of the Second Empire.

1857: He works on his opera “Faust” although the score is dismissed by the Paris Opera, however the Theatre Lyrique, agree to take it.

1858: His mother dies on 16th January.

1859: The first performance of “Faust” is given at the Theatre-Lyrique on 19th March. It is a great success and goes on to be performed 314 times.

1860: “Philemon et Baucis” is performed in the Theatre-Lyrique in February.

1861: He works on a new opera “La Reine de Sabat” although it is a failure when it is performed in the following year.

1863: In March Gounod works on “Mireille” based on a poem by Frederic Mistral of Provence who invites him to come and work with him. Birth of his daughter Jeanne is born in September.

1864: “Mireille” is performed at the Theatre Lyrique on 19th March but is not well received by the audience.

1866: He is elected to the Academy of Fine Arts in May and in August he is promoted to Officer of the Legion d’Honor.

1867: The first performance of “Romeo et Juliette” is held at the Theatre-Lyrique on 27th April. It is a great success.

1870: Due to the revolutionary political situation Gounod leaves Paris and travels to Liverpool, England and then on to London with his family.

1871: In December he helps found a choral society at the Royal Albert Hall in London with Georgina Weldon and she sings many of his songs.

1874: He returns to France in June.

1876: During the summer he writes “Cinq-Mars” and a Mass of “Sacré-Coeur de Jésus”.

1877: “Cinq-Mars” is a failure at the Opera-Comique in Paris. In August Gounod is appointed Commander of the Legion d’Honor.

1880: He is appointed Great Officer of the Legion d’Honor.

1882: The oratorio “La Redemption”, written ten years earlier, is a great success at its first performance on 30th August at the Birmingham Music Festival in England.

1887: He conducts a Mass in the cathedral at Rheims on 24th July in memory of Joan of Arc.

1890: He writes a study of Mozart’s “Don Juan”

1891: Now in failing health he retires to his home in St. Cloud although he sometimes still gives concerts.

Charles Gounod dies on 17th October 1893, in Saint-Cloud. He is given a State Funeral in the church of the Madeleine, Paris on 27th October, with Camille Saint-Saens playing the organ and Gabriel Faure conducting the orchestra. He is buried in the cemetery of Auteuil.

Further Information

List of compositions by Gounod.