François-Joseph Gossec



François-Joseph Gossec was born on 17 January 1734 (two years after Haydn) at Vergnies in the Netherlands province of Hainault, and died on 16 February 1829 (two months after Schubert) at Passy, near Paris; his Walloon peasant family name had numerous different spellings, ranging from Gaussé to Gossez via Gossec. His musical aptitude was recognized early, and when he was about six he was sent to the collegiate church at Walcourt, near Charleroi. Soon after this his name is listed as a singer in the chapel of St Aldegonde in Maubeuge, and while there he joined the chapel of St Pierre and studied violin, harpsichord, harmony and counterpoint with Jean Vanderleben. In 1749 he was admitted as a chorister in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Antwerp, where he continued his musical studies with André-Joseph Blavier.

Early in 1751 he went to Paris, armed with a letter of introduction to the great Jean-Philippe Rameau, who was then director of the private orchestra maintained by the fermier-général Le Riche de la Pouplinière, a wealthy patron of the arts. Gossec joined the orchestra as a violinist, and became acquainted with the works of the Mannheim school through Johann Stamitz, who took over the direction of the orchestra from Rameau in 1754. Gossec succeeded Stamitz as director a year later, and after la Pouplinière’s death in 1762 became director of music at the private theatre of Louis-Joseph de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, at Chantilly, and remained there for eight years. In 1769 he founded the Concert des amateurs, which quickly acquired a reputation as one of the best orchestras in Europe and made a feature of commissioning new works and introducing distinguished guest artists. In 1773 Gossec moved to the Concert spirituel, in 1780 he was appointed deputy director of the Opéra, and four years later became the first director of the Ecole royale de chant, which was founded as part of the Opéra. In 1789 he resigned in order to become co-director of the Corps de musique de la garde nationale, a post which accorded with the Republican sympathies that the Revolution had aroused in him, and he was appointed a professor of composition at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique when it was founded in 1795 (replacing the Ecole royale de chant). He was elected a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France when it was established in 1795, and a member of the Swedish Academy of Music in 1799; and in 1804 he was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. He left the Conservatoire when it was re-constituted by Louis XVIII in 1816, and spent the remaining years of his long and busy life in comparative obscurity in the suburb of Passy.

Mozart met Gossec in Paris in 1778, and in a letter to his father in Salzburg described him as ‘my very good friend, and a very dry man’. However that may be there is nothing dry or dull about Gossec’s compositions, which include some thirty stage works (operas – mostly comic, ballet, and incidental music); sacred and secular choral works, with effects that often anticipate Berlioz; concerted pieces and chamber music for a wide variety of instrumental combinations; a huge body of ‘Revolutionary’ music, both vocal and instrumental; and over fifty symphonies. Indeed it is as a symphonist that he is principally remembered. His symphonic output is discussed in detail in Barry S. Brook’s three-volume study La symphonie française (Paris, 1962), which examines more than 1,200 symphonies by 156 composers working in France between 1740 and 1830. He lists 110 instrumental works by Gossec, numbering them chronologically within three categories: works with opus numbers, works without numbers, and unpublished works, from which it transpires that his earliest symphonies (B13–18) probably date from 1753 or 1754, four or five years before Haydn entered the field, and his last (B91) from 1809, fourteen years after Haydn had left it. Of the thirty-six symphonies published in sets of six or three with opus numbers (Opp. 3–6, 8, 12 and 13) all but the last three were issued between 1756 and 1769. The five recorded here are discussed below in chronological order.

Symphony in E flat major, Op. 5 No. 2 (B26)

1. Allegro moderato –
2. Romanza: Andante –
3. Minuetto & Trio –
4. Presto

Symphony in D major, Op. 5 No. 3 ‘Pastorella’ (B27)

1. Adagio lento – Allegro –
2. Adagio –
3. Minuetto & Trio –
4. Allegro

The first two come from the set of six published in 1761 or 1762 as Op. 5 (B25–30). All are in four movements and No. 2, the Symphony in E flat major, is scored for strings, two flutes, two clarinets (making a very early appearance in a symphony), and two horns. It begins with a melodious, if not especially melodic, Allegro moderato in sonata form, with the pairs of woodwinds featured in the second subject; there is a substantial development section, based mainly on the first subject, and a varied recapitulation. The two middle movements are a short ternary-form Romanza with a central episode in C minor, and a jolly Minuet framing a Trio that features the winds. The finale is a busy rondo, with a minore episode. The Symphony in D major, Op. 5 No. 3 is scored for strings, two flutes and two horns, and its first movement is in most ways very similar to that of No. 2, except for the fact that it begins with a miniscule slow introduction and ends very quietly. The second movement is a dignified, rather old-fashioned Adagio in G for strings alone, and its third an airy Minuet enclosing a slightly longer Trio. The best movement of the four is perhaps the finale, a compact, monothematic sonata-form Allegro in the whirling 12/8 metre of a tarantella, whose dynamic surprises emphasize the Mannheim characteristics suggested in the first movement.

Symphony in E flat major, Op. 12 No. 5 (B58)

1. Lamentabile – Presto con furia –
2. Andante moderato –
3. Allegro

Symphony in F major, Op. 12 No. 6 (B59)

1. Allegro molto –
2. Andantino allegretto –
3. Poco presto

The next two symphonies come from the set of six published in 1769 as Op. 12 (B54–59), all of which revert to Gossec’s original (Op. 3) pattern of three movements; both are scored for strings and pairs of oboes and horns. The Symphony in E flat major, Op. 12 No. 5 begins with a substantial slow introduction (marked Lamentabile!), leading to a purposeful sonata-form Presto con furia with a taut development based on both main thematic elements. This is followed by an elegiac Andante moderato in C minor, consisting of a short introductory passage for strings, followed by a longer one for strings and winds, based on the same material and repeated. There is an economical sonata-form finale in a spirited 6/8 ‘hunting’ rhythm. The Symphony in F major, Op. 12 No. 6 boasts an exceptionally bright and tuneful first movement, with at least four themes (the third in a soulful G minor), a development based mainly on the first two of them, and a shortened recapitulation. The tender, lyrical slow movement, in ternary form and in C, is notable for its eloquent writing for muted strings, and is followed by a trim binary-form finale, also with exceptionally interesting string parts – and a bit of jam for the oboes, just to show they have not been forgotten.

Symphony in D major, (B86)

1. Allegro –
2. Andante un poco allegretto –
3. Presto

The last of the five symphonies, chronologically, the Symphony in D major, B86 probably dates from 1776 or earlier, and is scored for strings and pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and trumpets. It does not have the feel of a symphony at all: the first movement is like an extended triumphal march, the second (in D minor) like a funeral lament, and the third (Presto, 3/8) a carefree finale: an ‘occasional’ piece, presumably; but in whose honour?

Robin Golding (1998)