François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) was born into a Walloon peasant family in Vergnies, Hainaut and as a child revealed remarkable musical gifts. He began his musical studies at the age of six at the collegiate church of Walcourt. Shortly thereafter he became a member of the chapel of St Aldegonde in Maubeuge and while there joined the chapel of St Pierre where he received instruction in the violin, harpsichord, harmony and composition from its music director, Jean Vanderleben. In 1742 he became a chorister at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Antwerp where he undertook further studies with André-Joseph Blavier.
Gossec went to Paris in February 1751 armed with a letter of introduction to Rameau, who was director of the private orchestra maintained by A.-J.-J. Le Riche de La Pouplinière, fermier général and a wealthy patron of the arts. Rameau was impressed by Gossec’s skills and secured him a violinist’s position in the orchestra. Gossec met Johann Stamitz who directed La Pouplinière’s orchestra in 1754-1755 and through him became acquainted with the latest structural and stylistic innovations of the Mannheim School. During his period with La Pouplinière Gossec published 24 symphonies in four sets (1756-ca 1762) and six symphonies périodiques, one of which, the Symphony in D (1761), is among the first orchestral works in France to use clarinets. He also began writing for the stage at this time as well as composing the first of his many sacred works.
In 1762, after the death of La Pouplinière, Gossec became director of the private theatre of Louis-Joseph de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, at Chantilly where he remained for the next eight years. Beginning in or around 1766 he also assumed the position of ordinaire de la musique in the house of Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince of Conti. During this decade Gossec strengthened his association with the theatre writing a succession of works which met with varying levels of success. In the face of increasing competition from Grétry Gossec abandoned writing opéras comiques following the dismal failure of his pastoral farce, Les agréments d’Hylas et Silvie, at the Comédie-Française in 1768. His resulting concentration on the composition of instrumental music bore rich fruit in both the fields of chamber music and the symphony.
The Concert des Amateurs, founded by Gossec in 1769, soon gained renown as one of Europe’s finest orchestras and under the sponsorship of the fermier général La Haye and the Baron d’Ogny it commissioned new works and presented guest artists of the highest calibre. During each of his four years as director Gossec conducted performances of his own symphonies written especially for this orchestra; during his final year with the Concert, Gossec became the first to conduct a Haydn symphony in France.
In 1773 Gossec assumed joint directorship of the Concert Spirituel (with Simon Leduc and Pierre Gaviniès) remaining there until 1777. He simultaneously maintained his association with the Opéra and oversaw productions of works by Grétry, Gluck and Piccinni; he assumed the title maître de musique in 1775. Although Gluck’s genius ensured that his own work in the realm of serious opera was doomed to failure, Gossec generously supported his great rival in the factional war with the champions of Piccinni.
In spite of his long years of aristocratic patronage Gossec’s republican sympathies were immediately aroused by the Revolution. He resigned his duties at the Opéra in 1789 and directed the Corps de Musique de la Garde Nationale with Bernard Sarette. He helped create a ‘civic music’ in which songs, choruses, marches and wind symphonies, designed for outdoor performance by massed forces, served as the voice of the new regime. In recognition of his service to the new order Gossec was given the title ‘Tyrtée [Tyrteaus] de la Révolution’; he was admitted to the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France on its establishment in 1795 and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur soon after the creation of the order in 1804.
With the ascension of Napoleon and the Consulate in 1799 Gossec’s career as a composer effectively ended: only two significant late works are known; a Symphonie à 17 parties (1809) and the Dernière messe des vivants (1813). Thereafter he devoted his energies to teaching at the newly established Conservatoire; for this he wrote treatises on solfège and singing methods, harmony and counterpoint. Gossec died in the Paris suburb of Passy in February 1829.
Gossec was at the forefront of musical developments in France throughout most of his long and distinguished career. He possessed a fine lyric gift and a keen sense of orchestral sonority which combine with remarkable effect in his best scores. Although the influence of Johann Stamitz on his symphonic output is strong Gossec retains a quite distinctive voice. The later symphonies, with their fuller sonorities and fine wind-writing, are works of considerable stature.