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ClassicsOnline Home » GOSSEC: Grande Messe des Morts / Symphonie a 17 parties
By Robert Reilly
Grande Messe des Marts
• Symphanie à 17 parties
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 in Hainaut in 1734, two years after the birth of
Haydn, whom he outlived by twenty years, he 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
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 14th 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.
Gossec wrote his Messe
des morts in 1760 and published it twenty years later with a dedication to
the Administrators of the Concerts des Amateurs. It was to serve the purposes
of the Revolution with a performance on 6th August 1789 in honour of the
citizens killed in the storming of the Bastille, with two further performances
in the same month, the first on 22nd August at the Church of Saint-Laurent and
the second on 31st August at the Church of Sainte-Marguerite. It has been
suggested that Gossec's Requiem influenced Mozart, who had received
encouragement from the older man during his stay in Paris in 1778, describing
him as his good friend and ein sehr trockner ManIt (a very dull man).
Certainly Mozart found French choral performance effective, compared, in
particular, with what he had heard in Mannheim. That Gossec's work influenced
Berlioz is probable, although French repertoire included other works on a
similarly grand scale with which the latter would have been familiar.
The C major
instrumental Introduzione, scored for woodwind, horns and strings, is
preceded by the portentous sound of drums and dominated by a rhythmic figure
that suggests the solemnity of what is to follow. The opening figure returns,
briefly supported by the drum. The throbbing sound of muted strings accompanies
the largely homophonic C minor Introit, leading to a brighter E flat
major setting of Te decet hymnus, with soprano and contralto soloists
and moments of contrapuntal imitation in the chorus. Flutes and strings
accompany the soprano soloist in an F minor Largo setting of Exaudi
orationem meam. The original key and rhythmic figure are restored for the chorus
Requiem aeternam and this is followed by a vigorous and grandiose formal
fugal setting of Et lux perpetua luceat eis, accompanied by strings.
The Dies irae opens
with a Baroque G minor introduction before the entry of the chorus. Brass
instruments herald and punctuate the E flat major Tuba mirum with its
dramatic baritone solo. Horns, drums and strings make an impressive
introduction to the C major chorus Mors stupebit, with a histrionic
emphasis in the setting of the word mars (death). The following stanzas
of the sequence are omitted, leading directly to Quid sum miser, set as
an F major tenor recitative, marked Lento. This leads to an F minor
trio, introduced by syncopated strings in accompaniment of a first violin
melody, before the entry of the soprano soloist with the words Recordare
Jesu pie, to be joined by the contralto and tenor soloists, the whole
underpinned by ominous accompanying syncopation. A brighter F major for oboes,
horns and strings, opens the operatic soprano solo of Inter oves. There
is a short instrumental link to the agitated Confutatis maledictis for
chorus and strings, omitting the last line of the text and ending with an E
flat chord that leads directly to the subdued supplication of Oro supplex. The
poignant F minor Lacrymosa, accompanied by oboes, horns and strings, is
a duet for two sopranos. The next verse, Judicandus homo reus, is a
brief B flat major choral interlude, before the G minor Andante of the
choral Pie Jesu, both these last with string accompaniment, the latter
with a moving first violin obbligato against the slower homophonic
writing for the chorus. The sequence ends with a fugal setting of the Amen.
The Offertory, using
a less usual and finally more aggressive scriptural text, opens with a deeply
felt C minor tenor recitative, Vado et non revertar, in which the horn
has a linking part to play in the central section of a movement entrusted
primarily to the strings. The key of E flat major, now with flutes, clarinets,
horns and strings, gives a brighter colour of hope to the tenor Spera in
Deo. There follows an energetic C minor setting of Cedant hostes for
solo tenor and bass with the chorus and strings, to put the enemy finally to
The abbreviated Sanctus
is a short F major movement for the chorus with strings. Woodwind chords
start the setting of Pie Jesu, with its duet for solo tenor and bass,
with the chorus. There is a moving choral setting of the Agnus Dei and a
sombre C minor Requiem aeternam, capped by a splendidly optimistic fugal
plea for eternal light in the final choral Et lux perpetua.
à 17 parties starts with a slow introduction and harks back to an earlier
age. There is a lively Allegro with contrasts of instrumental texture in
which the possibilities of the wind instruments are variously explored in the
martial spirit of the day. The lyrical slow movement again makes good use of
the woodwind and linking notes from the French horn in effective string
writing. The mood changes with a dramatically portentous and sombre Minuet, not
a movement for dancing or for levity, although the Trio adds a curious
turn to it. The work ends with a cheerful Allegro assai in which the
woodwind is splendidly deployed, a movement in which some have detected
revolutionary hints, recalling the events of twenty years earlier.
dona eis Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Eternal rest grant
to them, O Lord:
and let perpetual
light shine upon them.
Te decet hymnus Dells in Sion,
et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem.
A hymn, O God,
becomes you in Sion,
and a vow shall be
paid to you in Jerusalem.
ad te omnis caro
O Lord, hear my
all flesh shall come
dona eis Domine:
Eternal rest grant
to them, O Lord.
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
And let perpetual
light shine upon them.
Dies irae, dies illa,
solvet saeclum in favilla:
teste David cum Sibylla.
quando judex est
Day of wrath, that
the world will melt
as David and the
What trembling there
when the judge shall
coget omnes ante
scattering wonderful sound
through earth's sepulchres
shall bring all
before the throne.
Mors stupebit et
Death shall stand
stupefied and nature,
when the creature
to answer to the one
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
quem patronum rogaturus?
cum vix justus sit securus.
Rex tremendae majestatis,
qui salvandos salvas gratis,
salva me, fons pietatis.
What am I, a wretch, to say?
Whom seek to intercede,
when the just man is barely safe?
King of fearful majesty,
who grants salvation to those to be saved,
save me, fount of mercy.
Recordare Jesu pie,
quod sum cause tuae viae:
ne me perdas illa die.
Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
redemisti crucem passus:
tantus labor non sit cassus.
Juste judex ultionis,
donum fac remissionis,
ante diem rationis.
Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
culpa rubet vultus meus:
supplicanti parce Delis.
Qui Mariam absolvisti,
et latronem exaudisti,
mihi quoque spem dedisti.
Preces meae non sunt dignae:
sed tu bonus fac benigne,
ne perenni cremer igne.
Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the reason for your life:
do not destroy me on that day.
Seeking me, you lived in weariness,
suffered the cross and redeemed me:
let such labour not be in vain.
O just judge of vengeance,
grant me remission
before the day of reckoning.
I groan as an offender:
my face blushes with guilt:
spare the suppliant, O God.
You who absolved Mary
and heard the thief,
you gave hope too to me.
My prayers are unworthy,
but you, in goodness, act kindly,
so that I do not burn in eternal fire.
Inter oves locum praesta,
et ab haedis me sequestra,
statuens in parte dextra.
Among the sheep grant me a place
and separate me from the goats,
putting me on your right hand.
flammis acribus addictis,
(voca me cum benedictis.)
Let the cursed ones be confounded,
committed to harsh flames:
(summon me among the blessed).
Oro supplex et acclinis,
cor contritum quasi cinis:
gere curam mei finis.
I beg you, suppliant, bowing down,
my contrite heart like ashes,
care for me at my ending.
Lacrymosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
Tearful, that day
on which shall rise from the ashes
Judicandus homo reus:
huic ergo parce Deus.
guilty man, to be judged.
Therefore, O God, spare this man.
Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem.
O merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest.
Vado et non revertar:
aeternitatem pavide conspicio:
sors immutabilis tamen contingit me,
jam apertum video monumentum,
vocem tenebrosam audio
ad judicium evocantem me.
quid sum dicturus? heu me miserum:
iram Domini portabo
quare tristis es anima mea
et quare conturbas me.
I go and shall not return:
in fear I behold eternity:
but an immutable fate is upon me:
now I see the open tomb,
I hear a dark voice
calling me to judgement.
What am I to say, wretch that I am?
I will bear the anger of the Lord,
because I have sinned.
Why are you sad, O my soul,
and why are you disturbed?
Spera in Deo,
quoniam adhuc confitebor illi:
salutare vultus mei et Deus meus.
Hope in God,
for I will acknowledge him
as my salvation and my God.
Cedant hostes in adventu ejus,
contremiscant et fugiant in infernum,
confundantur et erubescant:
iter impedire non audeant.
Let enemies withdraw at his approach,
let them tremble and flee to the depths,
let them be confounded and blush for shame,
let them not dare to impede the way.
Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God of Sabaoth.
qui tollis peccata mundi,
Lamb of God,
that takes away the sins of the world,
grant them eternal rest.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.