Charles Francois Gounod, 1818-93, French composer, was born in Paris. His father was a painter, his mother a pianist, and from her he received his first musical instruction. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1836 where his teachers were Halévy, Paer, and Lesueur, all operatic composers. He was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1839, as a result of which his interest in the music of the church developed, and the stage was set for the lifelong struggle in Gounod's soul between the sacred and the secular, the mystical and the worldly, a struggle apparent in much of his creative work. Returning to Paris via Austria and Germany, he became organist of the chapel of the "Missions Etrangeres," wrote considerable religious music, and even considered entering the priesthood. However, about 1850 he was commissioned to compose an opera, Sapho. Several others followed before he achieved a real success in 1859 with Faust, upon which his fame still chiefly rests. Herein is the struggle between the flesh and the spirit set forth with especial clarity. La reine de Saba, Mireille, Romeo et Juliette and others followed at intervals, during which time Gounod was also producing masses, oratorios, and other sacred music. Among these are Messe de Sainte Cecile, Messe du Sacre Coeur, The Redemption and Mars et vita. Though praised by Saint-Saens, this music, according to most critics, tends toward monotony and heaviness.
Among the many honors bestowed upon him, Gounod was made a member of the Institute de France in 1866 and grand officer of the Legion of Honor in 1880. He continued to compose until his death at St. Cloud, though he was content in his later work to use methods he had used repeatedly before. His music is sweet and melodious, often for too extended a period without the relief of contrast and dramatic intensity.