Music for a Changing Times
In the USA, François Joseph Gossec may be known mostly to Suzuki students and Porky Pig fans (yes, a 1938 Looney Tune cartoon does use Gossec’s Gavotte). But in France, this composer of the Classical period has a much richer legacy. Born in Belgium, Gossec lived in France through the time of the French Revolution. Despite that upheaval, he wrote dozens of symphonies and operas, as well as ballets and chamber works. Today, his work is played little, but he lives on in the stimulus he gave to French composers who followed him. The patronage of two princes started Gossec’s long career, which focused first on instrumental music. Moving to operas, he found himself always second to contemporaries such as Gluck, but his new ideas in orchestration—his Te Deum was scored for 1,200 singers and 300 wind instruments—did inspire others in the later Romantic period. Gossec arranged for more public concerts at a time when art music was performed mostly for the elite, and he helped to foster Paris’ music conservatories. The French Revolution of 1789 turned his world upside-down: Members of the nobility fled or were killed, the monarchy was abolished, and once-powerless citizens now ruled the land. Gossec proved a survivor. Sympathetic to the new republican government, he was allowed to continue creating music that, as befit to the new times, celebrated liberty and equality. But when the revolution ended and Louis XVIII restored the monarchy, the “in” crowd was now “out.” The royal patrons that Gossec had abandonded weren’t so forgiving, and the old composer had to retire.