The French composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is known mainly for his operas, his melodies and his religious work. Raised in a family of music-loving artists, Charles Gounod won the First Prize in Rome in 1839. He lived for three years at the Villa Medici run by Ingres. Studying religious music, he regularly attended the Sistine Chapel. The choirs make a great impression on him. He immerses himself in the art of Palestrina.
In 1843, he became chapel master and organist of the Church of Foreign Missions in Paris. After the revolution of 1848, he abandoned the idea of entering the orders but did not give up either his faith or religious music: his last work was, moreover, a Requiem.
In 1852, he married Anna, one of the four daughters of Pierre-Joseph Zimmerman, who teaches the piano at the Conservatoire de Paris. Attracted by the theater, Gounod composed his first lyrical works without much success (Sapho, 1851. Ulysse, 1852). But his fifth opera, Faust, 1859, won public and critical acclaim. In 1864, the reception given to Mireille after a Provençal poem by Frédéric Mistral was also icy.
Gounod found success with Roméo et Juliette (1867), the peak of his career. A few lyrical works follow: "Jeanne d'Arc", "Polyeuctus". At the end of his life, Charles Gounod only wrote sacred music, including several masses as well as two famous oratorios, Redemption and Mors et Vita. A national funeral was given to him in the Madeleine Church with, according to his wishes, a Mass in Gregorian.
Purity, simplicity, sobriety, by his clear and measured writing, Gounod contributed to the definition of the "French style" of French music of the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, which is also opposed Italian bel canto than Wagnerian romanticism. No doubt his heirs are Georges Bizet, Édouard Lalo, Jules Massenet and Camille Saint-Saëns and the "French" melodists, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.
© Didier Chagnas
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