Thanks to a thorough musical grounding from his mother, Charles Gounod made rapid progress at the Paris Conservatoire - the year after commencing his studies in 1836 he won the Second Prix de Rome, and was overall winner in 1839. Travelling to Rome that year he encountered the music of Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina while visiting the Sistine Chapel and was impressed by its humility and lack of artifice. He also befriended Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel who introduced him to her brother Felix Mendelssohn. The French church in Rome comissioned a mass from him, and further religious commissions were forthcoming when he travelled to Vienna in 1842, including a requiem. Visiting the Hensels in Berlin and Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig allowed them instil in Gounod an extensive knowledge of the Germanic tradition.
After returning to Paris and promoting the works of Palestrina and Johann Sebastian Bach to unappreciative church audiences, Gounod began work on his first opera. Sapho (1851) was praised by Hector Berlioz but not a success. Undeterred, he continued to write stage works, and his ecclesiastical pieces were enthusiastically received. By the late 1850s he had shed the formative influence of Giaccomo Meyerbeer and was ready to write his most famous opera, Faust (1859). Firmly establishing Gounod as an operatic composer, Faust mixed grand opera with counterpoint, lightness of touch and colourful musical characterisation.
Fleeing the Franco-Prussian war, Gounod and his family travelled to England where he was the first to conduct the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society. Here he was well received thanks to works such as his Méditation sur le 1er prélude de S. Bach (1852), in which he set the Ave Maria to the accompaniment of the C major prelude from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Failing health and a tumultuous private life led to Gounod's return to France in 1874. There he adopted an ever more simplistic style which many thought banal - his oratorio La rédemption (1882) was panned by European critics such as Hanslick, but English publishers and audiences remunerated him handsomely. This led to a return to church music in later life, and he completed another 12 masses before his death in 1893.