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A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Gossec, François Joseph

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GOSSEC (so pronounced), François Joseph, born Jan. 17, 1733, at Vergnies, a village in Belgian Hainault, 5 miles from Beaumont. He was the son of a small farmer whose name is spelt Gossé, Gossez, and Gosset, in the registers of his native place. From early childhood he showed a decided taste for music, and there is a tory that while herding the cows he made himself a fiddle out of a sabot with strings of horse-hair. He was always particularly fond of the violin, and studied it specifically after leaving the cathedral of Antwerp, of which he was a chorister till the age of 15. In 1751 he came to Paris, and was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Rameau, and to become conductor of the private band which was maintained by the Fermier-général La Popelinière for the express purpose of trying the new works of his protégé and friend the author of 'Castor et Pollux.' It was while conducting these performances, and observing the poverty of French instrumental music, that Gossec conceived the idea of writing real symphonies, a species of composition then unknown: his first was performed in 1754, five years before the date of Haydn's first.[1] It was some time before the public appreciated this new style, but his quartets, published in 1759, became rapidly popular. By this time he was attached to the household of the Prince de Condé, who gave him tho opportunity of making himself known both as composer and conductor. Under this encouragement he entered upon the departments of sacred and dramatic music, and quickly gained a reputation in both. In his 'Messe des Morts,' which made a great sensation when first performed at St. Roch, 1760, he has produced an effect which must have been not only quite new but also very mysterious and religious, by writing the 'Tuba mirum' for two orchestras, the one of wind instruments concealed outside, while the strings of the other, in the church, are playing an accompaniment pianissimo and tremolo in the upper registers. In his oratorio of 'La Nativité'[2] he does the same with a chorus of angels, which is sung by an invisible choir at a distance.

In writing for the stage he was less of an innovator. He produced successively 'Le Faux Lord' (1765), a three-act opera, left unfinished owing to the badness of the libretto; 'Les Pêcheurs' (1766), long and successfully performed; 'Toinon et Toinette' (1767); 'Le double déguisement' (1767), withdrawn after the first representation; 'Sabinus' (1774); 'Alexis et Daphné' produced the same night with 'Philémon et Baucis' (1775); 'La Fête de village,' intermezzo (1778); 'Thesée' (1782), reduced to three acts, with one of Lully's airs retained and re-scored; 'Rosine' (1786); 'L'Offrande à la liberté' (Oct. 2, 1792); and 'Le Triomphe de la République, ou le Camp de Grandpré' (Jan. 27, 1793). In the two last works he introduced the 'Marseillaise,' with slight alterations in the air and harmony, and very telling instrumentation.

The ease with which Gossec obtained the representation of his operas at the Comédie Italienne and the Académie de Musique, proves how great and legitimate an influence he had acquired. He had in fact founded the 'Concert des Amateurs' in 1770, regenerated the 'Concert Spirituel' in 1773, organised the 'École de Chant,' the predecessor of the 'Conservatoire de Musique,' in 1784, and at the time of the Revolution was conductor of the band of the National Guard. He composed many pieces for the patriotic fêtes of that agitated period, among which the 'Hymne à l'Etre suprême' and 'Peuple, réveille-toi,' and the music for the funeral of Mirabeau, in which he introduced the lugubrious sounds of the gong, deserve special mention. On the foundation of the Conservatoire in 1795 Gossec was appointed joint inspector with Cherubini and Méhul, and professor of composition, a post he retained till 1814, Catel being one of his best pupils. He wrote numerous 'solféges,' and an 'Exposition des principes de la Musique' for the classical publications of the Conservatoire. He was a member of the Institut from its foundation (1795), and a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (1802). He retired from his professorship in 1815, but until 1823 continued to attend the meetings of the Académie des Beaux Arts, in which he took great interest. He died at Passy, where he had long resided, Feb. 16, 1829.

Gossec's works are both numerous and important, and include, besides the compositions already named, 26 symphonies for full orchestra, one of which, 'La Chasse,' suggested to Méhul his 'Ouverture du jeune Henri'; 3 symphonies for wind; a symphonie-concertante for 11 instruments; overtures; quartets, trios, and other chamber music; masses with full orchestra; a 'Te Deum,' then considered very effective; motets for the 'Concert Spirituel,' including a 'Dixit Dominus' and an 'Exaudiat'; several oratorios, among them 'Saul,' in which he inserted an 'O salutaris' for 3 voices, composed for Rousseau, Lais, and Chéron, during a country walk on Sunday; a set of fine choruses for Racine's 'Athalie '; and finally a 'Dernière Messe des Vivants' (1813), and the ballet héroïque of 'Calisto,' neither of which have ever been engraved, but form part of the large collection of his autographs in the library of the Conservatoire. [App. p.652 "Add to list of works an oratorio, 'L'Arche d'alliance,' performed at the Concert Spirituel; Choruses to the tragedy of 'Electra' (1783); 'Berthe' (with Philidor and Botson, Brussels 1775); operas, 'Hylas et Silvie,' 'La Reprise de Thoulon,' and 'Le Perigourdin,' not publicly performed. It should also be noticed that the introduction of horns into the orchestra is attributed to him, and that the employment of the gong or tam-tam in his funeral music in honour of Mirabeau is the first instance of its use as an orchestral instrument."]

Gossec's life may be held up as a model to young artists; without money or friends, we may even say without genius, and without the aid of masters, he educated himself, and by toil and study attained the rank of a classical composer. His career presents one unfortunate peculiarity. No sooner had he worked out an original idea than some man of genius stepped forward and appropriated the ground he had won. As a writer of symphonies he saw his 'Chasse' and his 2ist Symphony in D eclipsed by those of Haydn; as a composer of sacred music he was surpassed by Mozart, in spite of the long-continued popularity of his 'Messe des Morts'; and at the theatre he was entirely thrown into the shade by Grétry and Gluck. In spite of all this, however, the French school has good reason to be proud of him; he was completely exempt from envy, and, with a disinterestedness truly praiseworthy, did all in his power to promote the works of his great rivals. Nature and his many struggles had made him usually very reserved, but he could be kind on occasion, as he was to Mozart in 1778, who hits him off in a line—'Mein sehr guter Freund und sehr trockener Mann' (April 5).

An oil-painting of him ornaments one of the rooms in the library of the Conservatoire. There is another small portrait engraved by Frémy after Brun, and a marble bust by Caillouete, a pupil of Cartellier. The Belgians, always ready to show honour to the illustrious men of their own country, have lately erected at Vergnies a monument to the memory of Gossec, in the form of a quadrangular fountain surmounted by his bust. It was inaugurated Sept. 9, 1877.

In England Gossec is almost entirely unknown. Probably the only piece published here is the 'O Salutaris' named above, and the fine library of the Sacred Harmonic Society contains but one of his compositions.

[ G. C. ]

  1. The date of Haydn's first Orchestral Symphony, for 2 Violins, Viols, Bass, 2 Oboes and 2 Horns, is 1759; it was published in 1766. (See Pohl's Haydn, i. 196, 283.)
  2. Words by Chabanon de Maugris, who died in 1780.