Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was more at home in the vocal arena, particularly in opera and sacred music. He is regarded as a major figure in nineteenth century French music. Stylistically, he was a conservative whose influence nevertheless extended to Bizet, Saint-Saëns, and Massenet. His works are tuneful, his vocal writing imaginative, and orchestral scoring skilled. Gounod's compositions, symphonies, and operas are still explored today, particularly his works Faust, Romeo et Juliette, and Ave Maria.
Gounod received his first piano lessons from his mother. She later arranged for him to receive composition lessons from Anton Reicha. After Reicha's death, Gounod began studies at the Paris Conservatory. He went on to win a Grand Prix in 1839 for his Cantata Fernand, following the footsteps of his father, François-Louis Gounod, who had won the second Prix de Rome in painting in 1783.
After further composition studies in Rome, where he focused on sixteenth century church music, particularly the works of Palestrina, he became deeply interested in religion and by 1845 was contemplating the priesthood. Though he would eventually reject the idea and marry, he remained religious throughout his life and wrote many sacred works, including masses, the most popular being the 1855 St. Cecilia Mass. However, his calling card was the 1859 opera Faust, which added to his reputation, not only in France but throughout Europe. Faust was controversial, as many critics believed it was far more sophisticated as compared to Gounod's prior works. One critic said he doubted Gounod even composed it. However, when challenged to a duel, the critic withdrew his statement.
From 1870-1875 Gounod lived in England. In his years there and in the period following his return to France, Gounod wrote a compelling number of pieces music, especially religious music, but never again attained the kind of success he experienced in the 1850s and '60s. Among his more compelling and imaginative late works is the 1885 Petite Symphonie, (scored for nine instruments).
A few days after he completed the composition of a requiem for his grandson, Gounod passed away of a stroke in October 1893, in Saint Cloud, France.