François-Joseph Gossec



Cattle boy, Royalist, Revolutionary, purveyor of opera and ballet, elder statesman, first Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire, father of the French symphony. Like his contemporaries Haydn and Beethoven, a son of the provinces turned worldly man, Franҫois-Joseph Gossec (1734–1829) bridged times of change, setting the dawn of modern history into resonance, commanding the salons, stages and streets of Paris in song, holding her “brilliant schools of civilization” captive with his art.

Like his younger compatriot Grétry, Gossec was a Walloon from the South Netherlands, born into farming stock. Brought up in the church (including a spell as chorister at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Antwerp, contemporary with Haydn’s apprenticeship in Vienna at St Stephen’s), he studied keyboard, violin, harmony and composition before going to Paris, probably in early 1751, armed with a letter of introduction to the “learned” Rameau, he of Traité de l’harmonie fame. Impressed, Rameau secured him a playing position with the private orchestra he directed for Alexandre-Jean-Joseph Le Riche de La Pouplinière, fermier général and patron of the arts. This band consisted of no more than 20 players, but included clarinets, horns and harps, then unusual in France. This proved a useful training ground, particularly when musicians of the stature of Johann Stamitz from Mannheim took the band over in 1754-55. Subsequently, when Gossec took over the Concert spitituel in 1773, the increased complement at his disposal numbered 59, comprising: 2 flutes, 3 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 timpani, 13 first and 11 second violins, 4 violas, 10 cellos and 4 double basses. Gossec’s subsequent appointments in Paris, in a professional life stretching to the 1820s, trace a career of starry magnitude and spiralling public position, culminating in his office as Professor of Composition and Joint Inspector at the newly constituted Conservatoire (1795). He was admitted to the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France in 1799 and, though effectively retired following Napoleon’s fall from grace, the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and Louis XVIII’s dissolution of the Conservatoire in 1816, he continued to attend meetings of the Acacémie until 1823, and in July 1826 was one of the Institut’s examining committee to fail Berlioz’s fugue paper preparatory to competing for the Prix de Rome. He was ninety-two. On his death he was buried at the Père Lachaise cemetry, near to Grétry and Méhul, the sermon read by Fétis.

Spanning the old and new from Caldara, Pergolesi and Vivaldi to Alkan, Franck and Wagner, outliving his great Habsburg contemporaries, bridging Voltaire’s age of scepticism and Rousseau’s one of sensibility (Voltaire who “taught us to be free”, Rousseau who “desired the dictatorship of the proletariat”), living through that era when, as Cherubini’s wife put it, “the guillotine was busy in the morning, one could not get a seat at the opera in the evening”. Gossec was many things. Too many some might say. Composer, instrumentalist, conductor, administrator, academic, theorist, publisher, “democratizer of art”, reformer, a survivor sailing with the wind. Like his friends Cherubini, Grétry and Méhul, David Whitwell remarks (Band Music of the French Revolution, Tutzing: 1979), he was a man who between 1751 and 1816 went seemingly through two careers, both with apparently equal conviction – first as an Establishment Royalist of the ancien regime, writing opéra comique, ballet and divertissement, then as an anti-Establishment Revolutionary “turncoat”, purveying marches and patriotic hymns. Elder statesman of Parisian musical life during the 1790s, he was the Revolution’s chosen spokesman and banner waver, “the musician of the Revolution” (Chronique de Paris) upholding “the glory of the Republic”. To him the Convention turned in 1790 to commemorate the Fête de la Fédération, the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, commissioning the first “national” music of the new era – an open-air Te deum for three-part male chorus (originally 1000 strong) violas and military band (calling, an official report confirmed, for 50 serpents, 300 woodwind and brass, a like battery, “an army”, of snare-drums, and a massive tonnerre imported from the Opéra). Hugely admired and influential, this was to prove “the last abstract choral work [in France], and the last in Latin, for several years” (Whitwell), popular opinion holding that music for such civic occasion should be purely French. “A people reborn, a people who celebrate the conquest of liberty, must speak a new language” (Chronique de Paris).

“His consistent revolutionary and republican conviction that made him set the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity into notes [ ... ] lets him appear just like Beethoven as an humanist in music, whose opus – just like a torch – shines the light of that great age of humankind’s awakening into our times” (Wolfgang Kiess and Thomas Mersich, 1999). The Revolution elevated Gossec. As a stage composer previously (and despite knowing so intimately the mechanics of the theatre world), he’d enjoyed only limited success, let down by weak librettos and overshadowed by (increasingly) Grétry, (inevitably) Gluck. As, however, effectively Master of Ceremonial Music, Tyrtée de la Révolution, he found himself wreathed in laurels. Between 1790 and 1799, through Robespierre’s Terror to the ascension of Bonaparte and the Consulate, he provided some 50 works to command, mainly for chorus, occasionally soloists, with either band or orchestral accompaniment. Paced for gargantuan forces and the adrenalin thunder of unison voices (the Hymn to the Supreme Being of June 1794, legend has it, for the entire populace of Paris), these functioned for many occasions – from epically staged victory celebrations and muffled-drum grand funerals to festivals of Freedom and Reason, all with an emphasis on the colossal. Famous throughout the land was the definitive harmonisation for male chorus and band of Rouget de Lisle’s Marseillaise (1793), “a song”, as H.G. Wells was to write, warming “the blood like wine”. Which, of course, was the whole point. What these aesthetically-tailored pieces d’occasion lacked in musical substance they made up for in ideological flame and emotional charge.

“If Voltaire transformed the thoughts, and Rousseau the feelings, of the 18th century”, observed Harold Nicolson in his Age of Reason (London: 1960), “it was in salons of Paris that the new conceptions of ‘reason’ and ‘nature’, of ‘free thought’ and the importance of the individual, were sifted, codified, and eventually imposed. [ ... ] It was in the salons of Paris that the thinkers of the century, who were generally men of humble or at least provincial origin, acquired the polish and the self-confidence of men of the world”. Directly, indirectly, publicly, privately, these “brilliant schools of civilisation" (so-called by the Comte de Ségur) were Gossec’s workplace, their wish for easy diversion his gift to satisfy. The happier on the ear, the more instant the success. There’s little question Gossec could spin off ephemera by the hour. Simple, singable, made-to-order tunes of “a light and pleasing character”, uplifting rhythms, well-worn clichés, uncomplicated primary harmonies, square-cut designs and bright “fanatically diatonic” major tones were the fashion, and, like Grétry, he was a dab hand at giving his customers what they wanted. But he was not averse to dropping the odd suprise. And he had the capacity to imagine. Things like the cheerful little Tambourin so well-known to young players, the more grotesquely inflated of his Revolutionary music, notwithstanding certain symphonic borrowings Mozart’s damning estimation of him (in a letter to his father from Paris, 5 April 1778) as “sehr trockener Mann”, translatable variously as a “very dry man” (Cobbett, 1929), “very dull” (Anderson, 1938, much quoted since), a “dry stick”, a “prosaic fellow”, and his absence from the programmes of the Philharmonic Society in London, have historically gone against him, exacting a heavy price in the credibility, “divine spark”, stakes. They tell only part of the story, though. Berlioz, may have accorded him just a single non-commital reference in his Memoirs, yet valued his ideas and sonic innovations enough to paraphase, even plagiarise, them. Beethoven similarly.

Early admired as “a student of the German school”, “the only one among us French who can walk alongside these great men in the symphonic genre” (Nicolas Étienne Framery, Journal de musique historique, théoretique, et pratique, May 1770), Gossec, so-called father of the French symphony, composed around 50 examples, mostly for orchestra but including some for wind band. Published in Paris, with the occasional foreign engraving, the majority date from the first half of his life between 1756 (the six Op 3 “Sinfonie a più strumenti”) and 1778. A late Simphonie à 17 parties in F, sketched in 1792, was completed in 1809, the year of Haydn’s death, Beethoven’s Emperor and the French bombardment of Vienna. In these elegant, often understated, works, Gossec, parallelling Christian Bach, the Germans and Austrians, helped consolidate the early classical orchestra, in the process reminding that the more exotic instruments of the day, the more spectacular and grandiose of sounds, remained what they had always been, the preserve of theatre and church rather than concert room. Initially Italianate, progressively more South Germanic, the music is essentially modest and sunny, befitting its divertissement background preluding “splendid” repasts to which, Jean-Franҫois Marmontel tells us in his Memoirs (Paris: 1878), “the elite of the audience, the ambassadors of Europe, the highest nobility, the prettiest women of Paris” would be invited. Basic tonic/dominant/sub-dominant/relative major/minor key relationships, simple sequences, busy pulsating figurations but deliberated harmonic rhythms, assertively operatic cadences, strong dynamic contrasts, fashionable Mannheim crescendos and “rockets”, unison flourishes, woodwind thirds, and slow movements more Larghetto than Largo define the vocabulary. However not all is predictable. Bithematic sonata designs, binary sonata structures variously omitting exposition repeats or repeating both halves, asymetrical phrases, a variety of inverted harmony positions (in spirit more baroque than classical) and pedal points, occasionally complex string textures with passing viola and cello independence, tremolo, divisi and pizzicato writing, increased woodwind prominence (there were good German and Bohemian players in Paris), and a desire for interesting sonorities and balances, are no lesser ingredients of the Gossec style. (Heavyweight tonal argument, motivic development, formal expansion, handling the bigger orchestra, he left to others.)



Symphony (Sinfonia à più stromenti) in E flat, Op. 5 No. 2, Brook 26 (ed. Hofmann)

1. Moderato
2. Romanze
3. Menuetto – Trio
4. Allegro assai

The “Sei sinfonie a più stromenti” Op. 5 were published by Bailleux c. 1761–62, preceding Gossec’s appointment as Director of the Prince of Condé’s private theatre at Chantilly. In a measured 3/4 without repeats, the first movement of No. 2 opens simply, on a segment later reworked in Gossec’s Hymne à l'Etre Suprême for massed choir (8 June 1794). But idiosyncracies soon creep in, including irregular phrase lengths, a varied, curtailed reprise, and the injection of new material late into the proceedings. Not for the first time with Gossec, his exuberance of imagination, open-ended themes with their capacity for fluid exchange, and delight in playing with our expectations, teasingly seem to suggest Mozart concerto style.

In the spirit of a slow gavotte, the E flat Romance (the work is monotonal) takes the form of a five-part rondeau, while the Menuetto and Trio follow a traditional binary design. The finale (without repeats) traces other facets of Gossec sonata style, with the bustling “Scotch”-snap first theme returning in the dominant to round off the exposition before transmoding to C minor for the reprise. The dynamically layered orchestration of the second subject group (mezzoforte oboes, pianissimo horns and strings) is noteworthy. Observing the minuet’s Da capo repeats (in keeping with period performance practice), this recording follows Wolfgang Hofmann’s edition based on parts in the Fürstlich Fürstenbergischen Hofbibliothek, Donaueschingen (Misc MSS 551). These substitute oboes for Gossec’s intended flutes.

Symphony (Grande Simphonie) in F, Op. 8 No. 2, Brook 44

1. Largo – Allegro non tropo [sic]
2. Adagio poco andante
3. Moderato

Many pre-Revolution French symphonies,
through the quality of their orchestration, the delicacy of their colouring and particularly the indefinable sense of equilibrium and felicitous strength that emanates from them, often convey a sense of perfection attained, though they only rarely contain those anguished resonances found at the same period in the works of Haydn and Mozart”.
(Jean Mongrédien. “Paris: the End of the Ancien Régime”, in Neil Zaslaw, ed, The Classical Era, London: 1989).

One, however, whose slow music is “anguished”, has to be this work, the second of Gossec’s “Trois grandes simphonies” Œuvre VIII (c. 1765), written for performance at Chantilly. Scored simply for muted violins and violas (seconds and violas interchanging lower voice rôles), the minor-key Largo introduction to the first movement especially unsettles, its diminished-seventh tension and pathétique torment desolately previewing the Tristan Prelude. Remarkable, too, in the viola part (bars 12ff), is the presence of the thin, undulating horizontal line Marin Marais employed to indicate the two-finger vibrato, pincé ou flattement (Pièces de viole, first book, Paris: 1686) – an expressive device applied subsequently in the Allegro and B flat slow movement. Harking back to the Op. 3 model, the first movement is a sonata structure without repeats, the triadic opening figure acting throughout as an important formal signpost. Representative throughout is how first subject content is tonic-centred while second subject material is suspended above dominant pedal-points, the root of the key playfully less confirmed than implied. Omitting oboes and (optional) horns, the sonata Adagio (without repeats, themes reversed in the varied reprise) is a string scena of warm, sustained bass supporting a melodic line at once vocal, instrumental and declamatory. The (typically Gossecesque) attention to dynamics within a balance is provocative (at the beginning, first violins pianissimo, the remainder of the ensemble piano; later, for a beat, second violins piano against forte violas and bassi, pincé ou flattement). The finale is a monothematic sonata scheme based on a repetitive tag, the reprise (for once routine) replicating the events of the exposition with the addition of a brief coda (bassi resounding fortissimo against the forte of the rest of the tutti). Gossec calls for both halves to be repeated.

Symphony (Symphonie) in G, Op. 12 No. 2, Brook 55 (ed. Hofmann)

1. Allegro molto
2. Andante moderato
3. Presto moderato

From the period of his founding of the Concert des amateurs, the “Six simphonies à grande orchestre [ ... ] par F.J. Gossec d’Anvers [Antwerp]” Œuvre XII, were printed by Vénier, dedicated to Prince Louis de Rohan. It is generally agreed that in works as early as the Op.5 set of symphonies, “Gossec established a secure pattern of four movements [minuets-and-trios placed traditionally third] with controlled logical processes within movements” (La Rue, Wellesz, Sternfeld, “The Early Symphony”, New Oxford History of Music, Vol VII, London: 1973). However, as the G major from Op. 12 and later examples show, he was not averse to returning to the southern-European three-movement style of the path-treading Op. 3 collection (c. 1756).

Op. 12 No. 2 opens vigorously with a triadic theme in the Italianate manner, lent charm by its lilting 3/4 “ballroom” pulse and irregular phraseology. Tonally, the argument may be traditional enough in its tonic/dominant east, but not in the timespan allocated to those areas: the (repeated) exposition spends 19 bars in G against 52 on or in D. Introducing a fashionable Parisian coup d’archet and minore inflections, the development section inverts elements from the first subject and transforms the second cell of the second into a broadly new identity – which material returns in the modified recapitulation. Omitting horns and with violas divided to create a fuller mid range, the adapted-sonata slow movement is in C major, its “pace at ease so that [the whole] seems to be played with the greatest facility” (note in original score). Its simplicity is deceptive, its twists disarming: to see Gossec as a regular formula man, a conformist, is to miss the unpredictability, adventure and humour of his art. Take the Arcadian opening, its two halves adding up to an asymetrical 11-bar statement. Then listen to the chromatic/modulating bass line, contrasting it with the re-focusing of this passage at the start of the second section of the movement, the “wild beast” dotted-rhythm unisons and gentler “Orphean” replies (oboes mezzoforte, strings piano) curiously foreshadowing things to come in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. “The difference from fort to doux [ ... ] must be excessive”, the score says. Calling, Gossec advises, for “a lot of lightness and precision in the bar, without which the parts will become easily disjointed”, the “quibbling” finale (his description; exposition repeated) is an invigorating display of fine-cut textures and lithely transparent imitative polyphonies. The reprise is curtailed (81 bars against the exposition’s 97), with the first subject, re-orchestrated, placed at the end, following an abbreviated second theme and new linking episode (reversing themes to create the arch-like edifices we know so well from the 19th and 20th centuries was a favourite Gossec trick). Interestingly, the tempo markings of the first edition are given both in French and Italian.

Symphony (Simphonie de chasse) in D “La caccia”, Brook 62

1. Grave maestoso – Allegro
2. Allegretto quasi allegro
3. Menuetto 1 – Menuetto 2 – Trio
4. Tempo moderato di caccia

Written circa 1773 for the Concert des amateurs, published in 1776, revived briefly in 1902. Scored for paired oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani and strings. In the early 1760s, benefitting from the availability of the instrument in Paris, Gossec was among the first in France to promote “Mannheim” clarinets in the orchestra: Mozart was not to use them in his symphonies until the Paris (1778), Haydn not until the second London set (1793–95). Music depicting the hunt – in 6/8 and D major, with stridently baying calls – was all the rage in the 18th century. Gossec’s pianissimo-fortissimo Louis XV Versailles homage, bending of cliché and relaxation of formula aside, enjoyed enormous popularity, notably influencing Méhul’s overture La chasse du jeune Henri (1797): in full cry or noble restraint, the horn, trumpet, oboe and clarinet writing is especially rousing. Prefaced by a Grave maestoso introduction, the opening Allegro surpresses repeats. Similarly the second (in D minor, with independent bassoon parts but omitting clarinets, trumpets and drums) and the finale. Menuetto II of the third (tonic and mode unchanged) is scored, serenade-style, for wind octet.

Symphony (Symphonie “No 1”) in B flat, Brook 81

1. Allegro maestoso
2. Larghetto Siciliana
3. Non presto

Published in Paris possibly between 1783 and 1786, the number added separately. Scored for pairs of oboes and horns, “two violins, alto and bass”, flutes replacing oboes in the slow movement – a flowingly pastoral, pizzicato underpinned “Siciliana Pantomina” in E flat, with cuckoo calls, a brief Vivaldi “tempest” at the start of the second half, and an independent cello part. Gossec dispenses with the exposition repeat in the first movement, and varies the recapitulation, reversing the order of subjects (the second, for obbligato oboes, derived from the first). The present recording omits the second repeat of the finale – a lively 3/8 affair, with the second theme of the first group given to violins rather than oboes in the recapitulation.

Symphony (Simphonie “No. 2”) in E flat, Brook 82, RH 53a

1. Largo –
2. Allegro molto –
3. Allegro pastorale gracioso –
4. Presto

Coinciding with the composer’s tenure as sous-directeur at the Opéra, this was engraved by Jean-Georges Sieber of Paris possibly between 1783 and 1786, the number added separately. Unique among Gossec’s 50-odd symphonies (1756–1809) the movements are linked to form a continuous “fantasia” whole. Suggesting a throwback to sonata da chiesa, the first is a measured Largo in 3/2, striking for its expressive crescendi and swelling chords, “solo” staccato horns (natural instruments, crooked, unusually for Gossec, in D sharp), blended and opposed sonorities, pizzicato, and repeated middle section. Music of strong theatre and divisi violas/cellos, terraced in alternating/layered paragraphs of loud and soft, the ensuing Allegro (exposition repeated, reversed themes in the recapitulation) is in C minor.

Abandoning gravitas, the closing movements sketch a winsome 6/8 pastorale in E flat (opening half repeated), and a rustic 3/8 presto bagatelle quaint for neither straying from the home key nor introducing any accidentals. That its conclusion deals in the familiar trinity of tonic, subdominant and dominant chords opening Beethoven’s same-key Emperor serves to remind how often mighty conquest has been the child of modest cliché.

Symphony (Symphonie) in C, Brook 85

1. Allegro maestoso
2. Larghetto
3. Presto

Published in 1780, “à grande orchestre”, probably first performed at the Concert des amateurs, 1769–73. Scored for flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets in pairs, timpani and strings. The imposingly grand, Beethovenian first movement, with a development, like that of the B flat Symphonie – quietly affirming the home key some way before the fortissimo reprise (itself curtailed – 51 bars against the exposition’s 104), coda, characterful bass lines and syncopated off-beat violins alla the opening allegro of the Eroica – exists also in a version for band, circa 1794. Omitting trumpets and drums, the slow movement is in C minor, with both halves repeated. The finale teases threes against twos, with a second subject from the same Exsultate, jubilate “Alleluia” family as the maggiore episode from the close of Mozart’s A minor Piano Sonata, K 310, composed in Paris in 1778.

Symphony (Sinfonia périodique à più strumenti) in D, Brook 87

1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Menuetto – Trio
4. Presto

The first of a set of six symphonies by various hands, including Wagenseil and Cannabich, announced by Bailleux in the Avant-Coureur for 26 July 1762. Scored for strings and two horns (omitted in the slow movement and the trio of the minuetto), this is a buoyant example of the galant style, its “advanced” German leaning evident from the extra dance movement placed between andante and finale. (In keeping with the quick-slow-quick Italian overture style, the French, as we know from Mozart’s Paris, preferred their symphonies to be short and in three movements only.) Curiously presaging Boccherini, the A major binary andante, with its alternately sustained/decorous violin melody, throbbing inner parts and warm gravé pizzicato basso part, is a fragrant little masterpiece. Likewise the 3/8 finale, with varied reprise, echoes of the chase, open orchestration and a D-crooked first horn part going up to a high written C. This recording omits the second repeat of the first movement – distinctive for its unisons, “rockets”, dynamic emphases, droned cadences, and the wistfulness of a second subject idea heard only in the exposition – but, following period performance practice, observes those on the Da capo of the minuet. Varying ensemble colour, the trio section for strings alone, comprised of two halves each of 8+6-bar phrase lengths, is taken solo rather than tutti.

Gavotte in D for strings à 8

Popular with French high society throughout the 18th century and a particular favourite of Rameau’s, the gavotte was a generic French folk dance from Basse-Bretagne. Of the downbeat gavotta bavarica type, Gossec’s, a popular salon encore, comes from Act III of his unpublished opera Rosine, ou L’épouse abandonnée (Opéra, 14 July 1786), where, as “Gavotte No 2”, it provided a pas de deux for dancers of the Académie Royale de Musique. The present (non-attributed, undated) arrangement is for four violins, two violas, cello and double-bass.

Suite de danses (orch. Calmel)

1. Ouverture (Allegretto)
2. Passacaille (Lento)
3. Gavotte (Gracieux)
4. Menuet – Trio (Gracieux)
5. Rondo final (Allegro)

Faithful to the notes but non-period sensitive (witness the valved brass writing, befitting a former student of Messiaen and Milhaud more than any historical stylist), Roger Calmel’s orchestration, published in Paris in 1964, is for wind quintet, trumpet, timpani and strings. Balanced around tonalities pivotally linked (D, G, E, G, D), the five movements include a major rather than minor key sarabande-style Passacaille (the French variation genre of the Couperins, Lully and Marais); a gigue-like Gavotte in 6/8; and a viola-lined Menuet (the measured aristocratic dance of Louis XIV’s court, likewise, as Purcell reminds us, the popular social dance of 17th century England). Three come from the lyric-tragedy Sabinus (Versailles, 4 December 1773; Opéra, 21 February 1774) – “Ouverture” (Polonaise following récit, Act I sc ii); “Air en passacaille” (Shepherds’ Dance, end of Act V; “Quadrille des Nations”, Act III divertissement [four-act revision]); “Rondeau” (closing section of same set-piece – marked tempo giusto mouvement de gavotte in Gossec’s autograph).

Ates Orga