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Charles Gounod(1818ó 1893)

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Charles Gounod was devoted to both his church, and his music. His love for composition and performance kept him from joining the clergy, as he looked to music as a source of spiritual inspiration. Born in Paris on June 17, 1818, Gounod stemmed from a family of artists. His father was a talented painter, and his mother was a pianist. As Gounodís father died when the boy was merely five years old, Gounod was raised solely by his mother. She encouraged his love for music, and gave him his first piano lessons. At school, Gounod relished his music classes the most, and at the age of thirteen decided that he wanted to devote his life to music. His mother, a shrewd businesswoman, as well as an admirable musician, supported Gounodís love for music but demanded that he complete his academic studies before pursuing a musical career.

Thus, at the rather late age of eighteen, Gounod enrolled in the Paris Conservatory. He studied under Halevy and Lesueur, and won the acclaimed Prix de Rome. The Prix de Rome required that Gounod spend three years in Rome. During this period Italian church music became particularly meaningful to him, and his religious tendencies were heightened. He attended the Sistene Chapelís services, and began to write church music. The production of two Masses was undertaken, one of which was performed in Rome and the other in Vienna.

After returning home, Gounod began the intensive study of theology, and seriously contemplated joining the clergy. At this point he was forced to determine whether he wanted to spend his life as a priest or a musician. Unable to relinquish his love for music, Gounod decided to exalt God through his compositions. He continued writing church music until the renowned prima donna, Pauline Viardot, accidentally encountered him and requested that he write an opera for her. Gounod could not turn down the patronage of such a noteworthy performer, and produced an opera, Sapho, in which Viardot starred. Although the opera was not particularly successful, it convinced many audience members of Gounodís musical talent.

While directing a choral group, the Orpheon Society, Gounod experimented with writing more operas. Constantly plagued by censors and ailing performers, most of Gounodí s operas did not receive much acclaim. However, Faust, an opera that suffered a poor initial reception, soured to great heights many years later. It became Londonís most popular operas in the 1870s, and was performed thousands of times in Paris.

Working as a choral director, Gounod retained his love for church music. He eventually gave up the writing of operas, and devoted himself entirely to religious pieces. He produced several masses, and passed away in 1893 during the writing of a Requiem. Gounodís melodious works, filled with tender sweetness and refinement, are best exemplified by his breathtaking piece, Ave Maria. This work is truly a jewel that captures the essence of Gounodís life work. Music seemed to define his religion, resulting in works that resonate with purity and power.

Notes by Shanaira Udwadia (July-2001)