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(1734 - 1829)

François-Joseph Gossec won a place for himself above all as the progenitor of the French symphony, a form to which he made a significant contribution in the earlier part of his long career.

Born at Vergnies, Belgium in 1734, Gossec had his early musical experience as a chorister at Walcourt, in Maubeuge and finally at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Antwerp. In 1751 he moved to Paris, where an introduction to Rameau brought employment by the latter’s patron, the fermier-général Le Riche de La Pouplinière, at first as a violinist and bass player. His position brought not only a connection with Rameau but also with the Mannheim composer Johann Stamitz, who directed the house-orchestra in 1754-55 and was a leading figure in the creation of the Mannheim style of symphony. It was for La Pouplinière’s orchestra, of which he later served as director, that Gossec wrote his first symphonies in a period of employment that continued until his patron’s death in 1762.

During the following years Gossec served in the musical establishment of Louis-Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, at Chantilly, and as intendant de la musique to Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince de Conti. The period brought his first stage works, the earliest of these for the private theatre of the Prince de Conti, and subsequent opéras comiques for public performance in Paris at the Théâtre-Italien. At the same time he continued to write instrumental music both for chamber ensembles and for orchestra. Public concerts in Paris had since 1725 been the province of the Concert Spirituel, but in 1769 Gossec established a new organization, the Concert des Amateurs, which he directed for four years, before the appointment of the Guadeloupe-born swordsman, violinist and composer, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, as director. The Concert des Amateurs continued in existence until 1781, when it closed, to be replaced by the Concert de la Loge Olympique, also under the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. It was for this last that Haydn’s Paris Symphonies were commissioned. In 1773 Gossec became a co-director, with Simon Leduc and Pierre Gaviniès, of the Concert Spirituel, retaining this position until 1777. These years brought continuing association with the Opéra, although he was unable, as a composer, to compete with Gluck or Grétry in this field.

The storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 initiated a period of considerable political and social change that was inevitably reflected in the music of the day. As the revolution gained ground, the concert societies ceased to operate, but Gossec, who had resigned from the Opéra in 1789, found an outlet for his abilities as a musician and his republican sympathies in the Corps de Musique de la Garde Nationale, organized by the former accounting clerk Bernard Sarrette. Sarrette succeeded in setting up a Military Music School, transformed in 1794, thanks to his eloquence before the Convention, into a patriotic National Music Institute, changed again the following year into the Conservatoire, with Gossec one of its five inspectors. He had directed since its foundation in 1784 the Ecole Royale de Chant. This was now absorbed into the new institution. The revolutionary régimes, now the monarchy was abolished, the nobility destroyed and the churches closed, demanded a new kind of music for open, popular performance, to serve their varying ideals. To this Gossec was happy to contribute in a series of compositions, public hymns to liberty, to Voltaire and to Rousseau, to the Supreme Being, to humanity and to the various new festivals that now appeared.

With the accession to power of Napoleon as First Consul and then, in 1804, as Emperor, Gossec devoted himself primarily to teaching and to administrative tasks, composing little, apart from his Symphonie à 17 parties, that he had first sketched in 1792 and completed in 1809. The defeat of Napoleon and the re-establishment of the Bourbon monarchy led to the closure of the Conservatoire in 1816, with Gossec’s enforced retirement. The Conservatoire was replaced by a Royal School of Voice and Drama, its original title only restored in 1831, after the July Revolution. By then, however, Gossec had been dead for two years, after spending the final period of his life at Passy, where La Pouplinière had once housed his musicians.

Box Set Release Catalogue Number
Romantic Piano Favourites Vol 1 Naxos 8.505028

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