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Charles Gounod (1818-1893)

Gounod was one of France’s premiere composers, standing alongside Jules Massenet and Jacques Meyerbeer. Born in 1818, he won the prestigious Prix de Rome before he was 20.  But during his studies in Rome he focused not on the composition of opera, but on sacred music. Indeed, throughout his life, Gounod was fascinated with religious music. In 1843, he returned to Paris and took the position as organist of Mission Etrangères. Later that year he wrote the mass "Messe Sollennelle," which launched his reputation as a noteworthy composer.

In 1851, Gounod wrote his first opera Sapho, but it took another 8 years for Gounod to produce his first great opera, Faust.  Based on a classic German legend, the character of Faust makes a pact with the Devil. The tale has received treatments from many of the world's greatest artists:  musical works by Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt, etchings by Rembrandt, numerous ballets, and literary works by Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Mann, and Goethe.  It is the first part of Goethe's play that serves as the model for Gounod’s opera.
 
Originally composed with spoken dialogue, the first performances of Gounod’s Faust in 1859 at the Theatre-Lyrique in Paris were not well received. It was up to the publisher Antoine Choudens and Gounod to revise the work into a grand opera with great spectacle. Its subsequent performance in 1862 was a hit, ensuring its lasting place in the operatic repertoire ever since.  Throughout the 20th century, Faust remained the most popular opera at the Metropolitan Opera, having received more performances at the Met than any other work in the repertoire.

Gounod's other great works include an improvisation of a melody over the C major Prelude from J.S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier.  In 1859 Gounod set the words of Ave Maria to this melody, resulting in his composition Ave Maria, a setting that became world-famous. He also wrote Inno e Marcia Pontificale, now the official national anthem of the Vatican City.



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