A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Fétis, François
FÉTIS, François Joseph, born March 25, 1784, at Mons, died March 25, 1871, at Brussels, the most learned, laborious, and prolific musical littérateur of his time. He was the son of an organist at Mons, and early learned to play the violin, piano, and organ, completing his studies at the Paris Conservatoire. Boieldieu and Pradher were his masters for the piano, but he only succeeded in gaining the harmony prize in 1803, and the second 'second prix' for composition in 1807, scarcely as much as might have been expected from one who delighted to style himself the pupil of Beethoven. He married in 1806, and in 1811 pecuniary difficulties, caused by the loss of his wife's fortune, compelled him to retire to the Ardennes, where he remained till his appointment as organist and professor of music at Douai in Dec. 1813. In 1821 he succeeded Eler as professor of counterpoint and fugue at the Paris Conservatoire, and became librarian of that institution in 1827. In March 1833 he was appointed director of the Brussels Conservatoire and maitre de chapelle to the King of the Belgians, two important posts, which, besides ensuring him many gratifying distinctions, obliged him to take part in the labours of the Belgian Académie Royale, for which he wrote several interesting memoirs.
Fétis must be considered separately in his various capacities of composer, author of theoretical works, historian, and critic. As a composer he wrote much pianoforte music for 2 and 4 hands, chamber-music, duos, a quartet, quintets, and a sestet, overtures and symphonies for orchestra, operas and sacred music. His operas 'L'Amant et le Mari' (1820), 'Marie Stuart en Ecosse' (1823), 'La Vieille' (1826), and 'Le Mannequin de Bergame' (1832) were produced at the 'Opéra Comique' with some success, though they now seem feeble and antiquated. Among his sacred compositions we will only specify his 'Messes faciles pour l'orgue,' and his 'Messe de Requiem' composed for the funeral of the Queen of the Belgians (1850). The greater part of his church music is unpublished. Fétis's fame however rests not upon his compositions, but upon his writings on the theory, history, and literature of music. His 'Méthode élémentaire .... d'harmonie et d'accompagnement' (1824, 36, 41), which has been translated into English (Cocks & Co.) and Italian; his 'Solféges progressifs'; 'Manuel des principes de musique'; 'Traité élémentaire de musique' (Brussels 1831–32); 'Traité du chant en chœur'—translated by Helmore (Novello); 'Manuel des jeunes compositeurs'; 'Méthode des méthodes de piano'; and 'Méthode élémentaire de Plain Chant,' have been of great service to teachers, though some of them bear traces of having been written in haste for the publishers. Far above these must be ranked his 'Traité de l'accompagnement de la partition' (1829); his 'Traité complet de la théorie et de la pratique de l'harmonie' (1844), which has passed through many editions and been translated into several languages; and his 'Traité du contrepoint et de la fugue' (1824), a really classical work. These two last Fétis considered his best original productions, and looked to them for his permanent reputation. They were the more important in his eyes because he believed in the infallibility of his doctrines. Outside his own peculiar system of harmonic generation—the 'omnitonic' system, whose main principle is that harmonic combinations exist by which any given sound may be resolved into any key and any mode—he saw nothing but error and confusion. As a historian he was equally systematic and equally impatient of contradiction. Nevertheless, in his 'Biographie universelle des Musiciens,' and in his 'Histoire générale de la Musique' errors of detail and mistakes in chronology abound, while many of the opinions he advances are open to question. Easy as it may be however to find fault with these two standard works, it is impossible to do without them. The first edition of the 'Biographie' (Paris 1835–44) is especially defective, but it contains a remarkable introduction founded on the writings of Forkel, Gerber, Kiesewetter, Hawkins, and others. Fétis intended to use this introduction as material for a 'Philosophie de la Musique,' but had not time to accomplish it. The second edition of the 'Biographie' (Paris 1860–65) though more complete and more satisfactory than its predecessor, should still be consulted with discretion; its dates are still often wrong, and there are mistakes, especially in the articles on English musicians, which are almost ludicrous, and might have been avoided. [For Supplement see Pougin.] Fétis unfortunately allows his judgment to be by passion or interest. It is a pity that in his 'Histoire génerale de la Musique' (Didot, 5 vols. 1869–76) he is not more just to some of his predecessors, such as Villoteau and Adrien de la Fage, whom he quotes freely but never without some depreciatory remark, thus forgetting the poet's words:—
'Ah! doit-on hériter de ceux qu'on assassine?'
In spite of this defect, and of a strong tendency to dogmatism, the 'Histoire générale de la Musique,' although a fragment—for it ceases at the 15th century—exhibits Fétis at his best. Another useful work is 'La Musique mise à la portée de tout le monde' (Paris 1830, 34, 47), which has been translated into German, English, Spanish, and even Russian. The same elevation and clearness appear in his innumerable articles and reviews, which were all incorporated in the 'Biographie,' the 'Curiosités historiques de la Musique' (Paris 1830), the 'Esquisse de l'histoire de l'harmonie' (Paris 1840, now very scarce), and other works already named. The 'Revue musicale' which he started in 1827, and continued till 35, was the foundation of the musical press of France. This short résumé of Fétis's labours will suffice to show the immense services he rendered to musical instruction and literature. Had he been a little less one-sided, and a little more disinterested and fair, he would have been a model critic and littérateur.
[App. p.635–636 "in 1829 he came to England for the purpose of giving a course of lectures on musical history. The season was too far advanced to allow of his doing so, and the plan was abandoned, a single lecture being given at Sir George Warrender's, on May 29, when illustrations were given by Camporese, Malibran, Mme. Stockhausen, Donzelli, Begrez, Labarre, De Bériot, etc. In 1828 he had been for three months in England. See the Harmonicon for July, 1829."]His eldest son, Edouard, born at Bouvignes in Belgium, May 16, 1812, at an early age assisted his father, and edited the 'Revue musicale' from 1833 to 35. He is now art critic of the 'Indépendance Belge,' has edited the 5th vol. of 'Histoire générale de la Musique,' and has published 'Légende de Saint Hubert' (Brussels 1847), 'Les Musiciens Beiges' (Brussels 1848), a useful work, and a 'Catalogue raisonné' (1877) of his father's valuable library purchased by the Government for the 'Bibliothèque Royale' of which E. Fétis is librarian. He is also professor of æsthetics to the Brussels Académie des Beaux Arts and member of the Académie Royale in Brussels.
[ G. C. ]