François-Joseph Gossec

As a composer, François-Joseph Gossec lived through nearly an entire century and was a part of various epoch-making developments in musical history. He was born at the time of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s (1683 – 1764) Tragédie lyrique and died just as Hector Berlioz was finishing his “Symphonie fantastique”. As a composer, conductor, teacher and concert organizer, he not only witnessed but also had great influence on the transformation of the French capital’s musical scene. Its previous courtly structures were increasingly giving way to bourgeois institutions, not least influenced by the French Revolution.

Gossec was born in 1734 in Vergnies as the son of a Wallonian farmer. His musical talent soon became apparent and he was sent to obtain a musical education as a choir-boy at the collegiate church of Walcourt at the age of six. In 1742, he was accepted into the choir of Antwerp Cathedral. In 1751, Gossec relocated to Paris, where he found employment as a violinist in the private orchestra of Alexandre Jean Joseph Le Riche de La Popelinière , a wealthy patron of the arts and general tax farmer of the King’s. There he met both Jean-Philippe Rameau, who headed the orchestra for many years, and Johann Stamitz. The latter introduced Gossec to the achievements of the Mannheim School: homophonous orchestra symphonies and innovative dynamic effects featuring the necessary clarinets, basset horns and other wind instruments.

Gossec published 24 symphonies between 1756 and 1762. At the age of 25, he achieved his breakthrough as a composer with the “Grande Messe des morts”. It served as a model for Mozart, and Hector Berlioz referred to this work in his “Requiem”. Gossec’s “Messe des morts” is not only distinguished by its dimensions or Gossec’s mastery of counterpoint. What lets this piece truly stand out is that it is arranged as a symphonic work, requiring a full classical orchestra and an equally large-scale choir. Also, in the “Tuba mirum”, Gossec used the wind instruments – trumpets and trombones together with clarinets and horns – as a distant orchestra. The composer achieved spatial sound effects which Berlioz was able to build on in his “Requiem” (1837) and his multi-choir “Te Deum” (1848/49).

Following the death of La Popelinière, Gossec took on the direction of two orchestras that were maintained by two high-ranking aristocrats between 1762 and 1769, gaining great esteem with both of them. Apart from his work in the service of the aristocracy, he was also involved in organising concerts and heading various Parisian musical institutions run by the city’s untitled citizens: In 1769, he founded the Concert des amateurs, an association funded by private citizens, which hosted concerts, commissioned and performed new compositions and engaged performers and composers of international esteem. There, Gossec was the first to perform a symphony by Joseph Haydn. As early as 1773, he handed over the direction of the Concert des amateurs to Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and became the director of their competition, the Concert spirituels, which he modernised and restructured.

Gossec was caught up in intense, decade-long fundamental disputes about opera. The controversy focused on the question of whether French or Italian opera should dominate, or rather, on the emancipation of bourgeois genres of opera. This issue was a direct cause of the varying success of his own operatic work. In the field of Opéra Comique, Gossec was dislodged by André-Ernest-Modest Grétry (1741 – 1813), even though his own contributions to this genre, for instance “Les Pêcheurs” and “Toinon et Toinette”, enjoyed great success with the audience. His Tragédie Lyrique “Sabinus”, created in 1771/72, is considered a masterpiece, but after 11 successful performances, it was discontinued due to the overwhelming success of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Iphigeneia on Aulis”. This, however, did not deter him from working for Gluck both as composer and arranger, or to take his part in the so-called Piccinnist-controversy.

The onset on the French Revolution brought about new, unexpected prospects for the composer, who was now 55 years of age and saw himself as largely a failure. Gossec was commissioned to compose a “Te Deum” for the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. The performance of this work on 14 July 1790 featured 300 wind instruments and hundreds of drums alone. During the Revolution, Gossec managed to establish himself as one of its leading composers. In this context, he created the one-act Scène religieuse or Tableau patriotique “L’Offrande à la liberté”, a kind of dramatisation of the Marseillaise, as well as the Divertissement lyrique or ballet “Le Triomphe de la République”, also in one act, which he composed in celebration of the Republican army’s victory over France’s enemies at Valmy in 1792. It was performed on the anniversary of the First Republic at the Paris Opera in 1793.

During the 1790s, Gossec dedicated himself to musical education. In 1795, he was instrumental in founding the Conservatoire de musique; he was appointed as one of the institute’s inspectors, together with the composers Grétry, Luigi Cherubini, Étienne-Nicolas Méhul and Jean-François Le Sueur. His work as a composer steadily decreased during the First French Empire under Napoléon (1808 – 1815). His “Symphonie à 17 parties” (1808 – 1809) and his “Messe des vivants” (1813) were to be his final creative highlights. From 1815, he led a secluded life in Passy, a town near Paris, where he died in 1829.

As of November 2019

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