Gossec’s Messe des Morts

François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) was a highly original composer, difficult to classify, because his career straddled the Baroque and classical eras. Gossec played an important role in French musical life for more than 50 years.

He was born in a province of what a century later was to become Belgium. After childhood studies in his native area, including violin, keyboard and composition, and a stint as a chorister at Antwerp Cathedral, Gossec went to Paris in 1751, where he was to spend the rest of his life, becoming a protégé of the great French Baroque master, Jean Philippe Rameau. In Paris, Gossec also became close to Johann Stamitz, the famous musician of the Mannheim School, which played an important role in the development of the classical style.

In 1769, he founded the Concert des Amateurs, where he was the first to introduce Haydn’s symphonies to Parisian audiences. From the 1760s, he composed a substantial series of stage works and became an ally of Gluck, the great composer for the stage, who straddled the Baroque and early Romantic eras and was an inspiration for the ultra-romantic, Hector Berlioz. In 1784, Gossec was appointed head of the Ėcole Royale de Chant, which became the Conservatoire de Musique in 1795.

The Revolution of 1789 saw Gossec emerge to the forefront of musical activity in France and he became one of the official musicians of the new regime. He helped create a ‘civic music’, in which songs, choruses, marches and wind symphonies, designed for outdoor performance, served as the voice of the new regime. His Te Deum, for example, was performed on 14 July 1790 by 1,000 choristers and a very large orchestra with 300 wind instruments alone. He is also the author of the first orchestration of the Marseillaise.

With the ascension of Napoleon in 1799, Gossec’s career as a composer was effectively ended. In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the Conservatoire was closed for some time by Louis XVIII and the eighty-one year old composer had to retire. He was supported by a pension granted by the Conservatoire and lived in the Paris suburb of Passy, where he died in 1829, in his mid-nineties.

The Gossec work performed by the Choir today, the Messe des Morts (Requiem), was composed in 1760, apparently without a commission, the first of many religious works. The first performance was given in May 1760 at the Jacobins’ Church in the Rue Saint-Jacques. It is not clear if this first performance was for a religious service or a concert. We believe that our performance today is the Australian premiere of this extraordinary work.

Gossec reveals his contrapuntal skills in two large-scale fugues on Et lux perpetua in the Introit and the Communion and in the Amen on a plain-chant subject in the Pie Jesu concluding the Dies Irae sequence.

The fortissimo entry announcing the Last Judgement in the Tuba Mirum was the most remarkable and overwhelming effect noted by listeners in the eighteenth century and continues to be so. In a note published many years after the event, Gossec recalled the following audience response to the Tuba Mirum at a performance of the work in 1784 in the St. Eustache Church in Paris:

The audience was alarmed by the dreadful and sinister effect of the three trombones together with four clarinets, four trumpets, four horns and eight bassoons hidden in the distance and in a lofty part of the church, to announce the Last Judgement, while the orchestra expressed terror with a muted tremolo in all the strings.

In his love of spectacular sound effects, Gossec may be seen as a pathfinder for the great Berlioz.

John Bowan

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