François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) came from a Walloon peasant family. At the age of six, he was already a choirboy at the collegiate church of Walcourt, and from then on his path was to move in a musical-artistic context throughout his life. The stations that soon followed were Maubeuge, Antwerp and finally Paris in 1751. There he earned his living as a violinist in the private orchestra of Alexandre Le Riche de La Pouplinières, a wealthy patron of the arts, tax renter and promoter of the Enlightenment.
It was here that Gossec met Johann Stamitz, who introduced him to the Mannheim School. This was probably a decisive encounter in his life.
He would compose chamber music at first, and later more than 50 symphonies and many symphonies concertantes with a wide variety of solo instruments. At the age of 25, he wrote a requiem entitled Grand Messe des Morts, which was premiered in Paris in 1760 and made him famous overnight.
With La Pouplinière’s death in December 1762, Gossec lost his most important supporter. He now directed several chapels and the orchestra Concert des Amateurs, which was dedicated to the performance of contemporary works and quickly achieved great fame throughout Europe (after 11 years he handed over the direction to Saint-Georges).
Gossec, too, was caught up in the fierce disputes that raged for decades over the supremacy of the French or the Italian style within opera, and had to experience this painfully through the changing success of his own operatic output. It seems that he was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. His operas were very well received by the public, but there was always someone else – Grétry or Gluck – to outdo him.
Now Gossec accepted the directorship of the important Concerts spirituels, to which he gave new impetus and which became an integral part of cultural life. At this time he also wrote his oratorio La Nativité, which also inspired many colleagues to write music to texts of the New Testament. And finally, he brought his pedagogical talents to bear as director of the Académie de Musique and the École de chant. So it was only logical that he became one of the inspectors of the newly founded Conservatoire de Paris in 1795. And: enthusiastic about the ideas of the French Revolution, Gossec became an official composer and wrote numerous representative works for the festivities of the revolutionary period.
Gossec lived through almost an entire century. He was born when France was still firmly in the grip of Rameau’s Baroque and died when music by Berlioz was already being played in concert halls.