b Paris, June 17, 1818; d St. Cloud, October 18, 1893
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.
Faust’s legendary deal with the Devil has intrigued creative minds for centuries, perhaps reaching its zenith in the music, visual arts and literature of the Romantic period. The story reaches back to early 16th-century Germany, an era of religious turmoil and upheaval, when it was commonly believed Satan was just around the corner. The namesake of the drama, Dr. Johann Faust, was educated at the University of Heidelberg and studied divinity at Wittenberg, but was forced to flee under suspicion of dabbling in the black arts. (Faust himself denied nothing, boldly referring to the Devil as his “brother-in-law” and the spirit of Helen of Troy as his mistress). It is said that he met with a violent end, perhaps by a sleight of alchemy gone awry.
Such a colorful figure hardly could have gone unnoticed, and various treatments of the good doctor’s life began to emerge almost immediately after his death. Festival puppet plays communicated the morality tale to the illiterate, and printed chapbooks began to circulate at county fairs for those who could. Johann Spiess’s Historia von Doktor Johann Fausten (1587) emerged as a popular version (sensationally translated into English as The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr. John Faustus) and inspired a dramatic interpretation by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). Unlike Speiss’s moralizing fable, Marlowe crafted his play with a slightly lighter tone in mind. In this case it is Faust who aggressively pursues a contract with the Devil, and with Mephistopheles as his guide, he makes his way through the courts of Europe, creating tricks and feats of magic for heads of state. Throughout he is tormented by two angels — one good and one bad — and repentance is always a viable option (at least until the very end). Oddly out of character, Faust chooses that particular moment to make a pathetic plea to God for salvation, but it is too late — the Devil takes his soul as per their agreement. A moral message concludes the drama.
Cultural life in Paris during the 19th century evolved significantly amidst a whirlwind of improbable events. Tossed back and forth between democracy and autocracy, and transformed by an unlikely and unloved emperor from a medieval maze to well-ordered metropolis, the city’s turbulent history was reflected in its arts. Theaters were especially vulnerable; plagued with closures, relocations, bankruptcies and deadly fires, each competed aggressively for their piece of an upwardly mobile middle class. Out of the chaos emerged such disparate musical forces as Meyerbeer, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, Bizet and Offenbach, all vying for the opera dollar.
A little political history might be in order. Following the revolution of 1789, which displaced Louis XVI and the ancien régime, the Jacobin Republic was established by 1791, followed by the Thermidorian Republic in 1794. As war was declared on the new government by Europe’s other powers (especially Austria, whose royal family member, Marie-Antoinette, had been executed by the rebels) France began to push beyond its national boundaries, and the new government found among its generals one of stellar quality. Little did they know young Napoleon Bonaparte would seize enough power to install his own Consulate in 1799 and crown himself emperor in 1804. His glory was short-lived, however, as his expansionist designs turned back at him — by 1814 he was ousted and exiled, and Louis XVI’s brothers, first Louis XVIII then Charles X, were restored to power.