French composer Charles Gounod was born on June 17, 1818. He studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and won the Prix de Rome in 1839 for his cantata Fernand. This gave him the opportunity to study in Rome where he fell in love with 16th century Italian music. He almost entered into the priesthood, but ultimately returned to composition, particularly of sacred music. His career was firmly established with his Messe Solonelle, first performed in Saint-Eustache (near Les Halles). Next came Symphony 1 in D major. He was introduced to the piano and Bach by Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the composer, and this inspired him to write a song that must be one of the most recognized melodies in the world, Ave Maria. Another of his piano compositions, Funeral March for a Marionette, achieved 20th century fame as the theme for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Gounod moved from sacred music to opera. His most successful creation was Faust. He then took a position in London as the conductor of the Royal Choral Society. He returned to sacred music with his Pontifical Anthem, today the official anthem of the Vatican. He was made a Grand Officier of the Légion d’Honneur. Gounod died on October 17, 1893 shortly after composing a Requiem for his son.
Today’s expression, aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera (ed twa luh seeL ted-erA) means “help yourself, heaven will help you.” We’d say, “Heaven helps those who help themselves.” It seems to be an appropriate expression for the composer of so much sacred music. Gounod may not have definitively entered into the priesthood, but his lifelong interest in his faith led him to create sacred music that has endured more than a century. It may even have helped him in heaven. Qui sait?