Charles-François Gounod emerged as one of the leading figures in French music during the latter part of the 19th century. Although the composer never achieved the titanic stature of Wagner or Verdi, his opera Faust once rivaled in popularity some of their most successful works.
The young Gounod showed early artistic talent, but his parents were determined that he study law. His preference for music eventually won, and at the age of 16, the rebellious teen began the official path of a typical 19th-century composer in France.
At the Paris Conservatoire Gounod studied with Halévy, Le Sueur and Reicha. Winning the Prix de Rome in 1839, he embarked upon a two-year study in Italy, during which time the composer first became familiar with the Faust legend.
Returning to France, Gounod quickly obtained a position in a mission church but was fortunate to befriend an influential soprano, Pauline Viardot, who maneuvered a commission for him from the Paris Opéra. Sapho, set to a libretto by Emile Augier, was a succès d’estime — but not a huge box-office draw. It was dropped after six performances.