Gounod is an intriguing fellow, an endearing mix of the profane and sacred – rather like his music. His father was a clever but unsuccessful painter who died when Gounod was four but his mother, also a good artist, taught music and successfully ran her late husband’s lithography business. Gounod picked up both arts quickly but it was after a performance of Rossini’s Otello when he was 13 that decided him irrevocably on music as a profession. ‘I felt as if I were in some temple,’ he recalled later, ‘as if a heavenly vision might shortly rise upon my sight...Oh that night! What rapture! What Elysium!’ His mother insisted on his having a thorough academic education before studying music. Gounod duly complied then, aged 18, entered the Paris Conservatoire. After three attempts he won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1839 and hurried off to immerse himself in Italy and its music. Unlike Berlioz, it proved a formative experience and he became captivated by the music of Palestrina, making a serious study of 16th-century ecclesiastical music. His absorption led him to start writing church music of his own. When he left Rome to return to Paris, he did so by way of Vienna and Leipzig, where he spent several days with Mendelssohn and heard the choral music of Bach for the first time. His first position on returning to Paris was as organist for Les Missions Etrangères (the Chapel for Foreign Missions). The early composers he had come to love were introduced into the services amid objections – they were not the same as the fashionable sentimental music played in most Catholic churches at that time.
Gounod’s profound religious nature led him to begin theological studies in preparation for entering the priesthood but the pull of music was too strong (and so, it proved, was that of the flesh) for him to progress beyond the novitiate stage. Nevertheless, he affected the wearing of clerical garb and signed himself ‘Abbé Gounod’ – rather like Liszt (who was challenged by similar temptations). Gounod was even known in some quarters as ‘the philandering monk’. He was clearly one of those outgoing people whom most people cannot resist, a man of impish humour and enormous charm. The actor Edmund Got recorded in his diary that Gounod was ‘as talented musically as he is exuberant and shamelessly pushy as a man’.
A chance meeting with the influential prima donna Pauline Viardot led her to ask Gounod to write an opera for her. Gounod had no difficulty in falling in love with one of her daughters (the eventual engagement, however, did not lead to marriage). The only way for any composer to make money from music in Paris was by writing opera and, though he had no experience of writing for the stage, Gounod set to his task with a will. The result was Sapho (1850) – not a huge success but enough of one to encourage him to write more. In 1852 he was appointed conductor of the Orphéon (a union of choral societies), a position his new father-in-law had arranged, for Gounod married Agnes Zimmerman, the daughter of Pierre Zimmerman, the famous teacher of piano at the Paris Conservatoire. Four years later he began work on the opera that was to make him world famous, Faust. After its premiere in 1859, Gounod was the most famous musician in France. He tried for the rest of his life to repeat its extraordinary effect – La reine de Saba (his own favourite), Mireille and Roméo et Juliette were not failures but came nowhere near the popularity of Faust. To be strictly accurate, the first production was not an overwhelming triumph and Gounod had to wait another 10 years for its revival before it really took off to become the most popular French opera of the entire 19th century. In less than 50 years it had notched up over 2000 separate performances worldwide. No publisher would touch it at first; however, a newcomer in the publishing field, Choudens, took it up. It made the company’s fortune.
At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, Gounod and his wife, along with Viardot and other artists, fled to London. He remained from 1870 until 1875 – rather longer than the duration of the war. He stayed in Tavistock House, once the home of Dickens, with the eccentric and unstable Mrs Georgina Weldon, whom Gounod seduced. After his wife returned indignantly to Paris, he seems to have remained there quite happily in a pleasant ménage à trois, Georgina managing Gounod’s affairs. Gounod met with great success in England, founding the Gounod Choir. He returned to Paris and for the last decade of his life turned to religious mysticism and the writing of liturgical music but, truth to tell, after 1870 produced little of significance. ‘He might well have echoed Tennyson’s despairing cry,’ wrote Martin Cooper, ‘that he was the greatest master of English living and had nothing to say.’