Gounod, Charles François


Heredity did much for this eminent French composer. Gounod's father, François Louis Gounod, a talented and highly esteemed painter, transmitted to him a love of color and a sensitiveness to artistic form that expressed itself at one time in a desire to follow the same calling, but was diverted into another channel, more familiar through early training; for the elder Gounod died when Charles was a small boy, leaving the support of two sons to the highly gifted and cultivated mother, an accomplished musician, who continued to teach her husband's pupils in drawing, and also began giving music lessons.

The generally accepted date of Gounod's birth, 1818, has been disputed by an old friend and pupil of his mother, who states it must have been as early as 1811 or 1812. At the early age of two he exhibited a keen musical ear, and at eleven he was sent to the Lycee St. Louis to enter upon a course of general study. Here the chapelmaster, Monpou, discovered that the child had a good voice and could read at sight, and at once appointed him soprano soloist among the choir-boys; but at the age when his voice was  changing and needed rest, this unwise musician kept him singing, and ruined his voice for the future.   Meanwhile, an intense love of music, coupled with secret ambition, was growing in the child's mind, and distracting his attention from his studies at school. An opera was a rare treat, but gave him enough to think and dream about for days. The boy now began to " scribble " music during school hours, which when discovered, drew down punishment upon him. This only strengthened his resolve to continue musical work in addition to his studies, and to this end he wrote to his  mother a formal announcement of his determination to follow music as a profession, which was a source of great disturbance to her, knowing as she did, from bitter experience, the varying fortunes of an artist's life. She consulted the principal of the school, who sought to dissuade Gounod from his purpose, but to no effect. The teacher then gave him a few stanzas to set to music, with which Gounod succeeded so well that he won over the enemy, and a compromise was effected by which he began lessons in musical theory under Anton Reicha. The boy made rapid progress; but before long Reicha died, and he then obtained admission to the Paris Conservatory, continuing his study of counterpoint and fugue under Halevy and composition under Lesueur, whose strong bent toward religious music was an influence to which this gifted and susceptible pupil fully responded. About this time the first hearing of Mozart's Don Giovanni and two of Beethoven's symphonies made a lifelong impression upon Gounod, and he resolved to make a complete triumph of this period of probation, and secure his mother's final consent to his purpose, by winning the Prize of Rome, which would exempt him from the term of military service, looming up in the near future as a barrier to his plans. In 1837 Gounod obtained the second prize for his cantata, Marie Stuart et Rizzio, which was performed in public that year. This was not sufficient to gain the longed-for freedom, but it gave him another year's grace, and on the third competition he won the grand prize with his cantata, Fernand. Before he left for Rome, however, he composed, at the request of the chapelmaster of St. Eustache, an orchestral mass for that church, which was directed by the young composer, and won cheering encouragement just before his departure. The three years of study that followed made many and varied impressions upon Gounod's keen artistic sensibilities; the paintings of the old Italian masters, and the music of Palestrina, whom he ever afterward connected in thought with Michelangelo, alike quickened his religious instincts  but the degenerate Italian theatres jarred upon him, and instead of studying dramatic music by hearing operas, he had recourse to the scores of his favorite composers in that line, Gluck, Lully, Mozart, and Rossini. A product of this period was a mediaeval mass without accompaniment, given at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, 1841, for which he was given the title of Honorary Chapelmaster for life.