François-Joseph Gossec: Symphony in D, op. 13 no. 3 ‘La Chasse’

performed by the Concerto Köln under Werner Ehrhardt, or below, in a mislabeled video that is actually the first movement of this work, and probably the same recording

(cover image by Denis Larose)

François-Joseph Gossec was born on 17 January 1734 in Vergnies, “then a French exclave in the Austrian Netherlands, now in Belgium.” This is a point I’ll get to shortly.

He was a choirboy in Antwerp, and moved to Paris in 1751, where he was accepted as a student by the great Jean-Philipp Rameau, who we unfortunately will not be discussing any more than this in this series.

Gossec’s first symphony was performed in 1754. I have a question mark in parentheses next to that statement in my notes… so maybe not. Wikipedia says, citing W. Thibaut, that “[Gossec] imposed his influence on French music with remarkable success.” In 1769, he founded the Concert des Amateurs, discussed in yesterday’s post, and was for a time really very successful. In 1778, Mozart visited Gossec during a trip to Paris and described him as “a very good friend and a very dry man.”

He experienced success in an area that many of his fellow countrymen perhaps did not care as much about, but did eventually become overshadowed by the likes of Haydn. Wikipedia says that Gossec “powerfully stimulated the revival of instrumental music,” in an environment that was and seemed to continue to be fascinated with opera.

And really, even in this first symphony (‘a grande orcehstre’), we hear something operatic, theatrical about it. It has a vivid, punchy expression. The ‘La Chasse’ title refers to ‘the hunt,’ a title that Haydn himself also used, but that doesn’t mean the entire thing is gallopy, heart-pounding movie-score type music. It isn’t. That being said, you can probably find something bucolic or forested or outdoorsy in this work.

It’s in four movements, with a duration of around 15 minutes:

  1. Grave maestoso – Allegro
  2. Allegretto poco allegro
  3. Minuetto
  4. Tempo di Caccia

The fourth movement’s ‘caccia’ is the Italian equivalent to the French ‘chasse,’ so… in the tempo of a hunt.

As I mentioned, though, while not the kind of cinematic, heart-pounding thrill we’re used to these days from the likes of Hollywood or Netflix, it does have a noticeable excitement that’s in keeping with its era.

The first movement has a French flair; the ‘grave maestoso’ introduction gives weight to the opening and grabs the listeners’ attention. This inherent power to the music reminds me a bit of what we would later hear from Berlioz, the breathtaking, limpid color and vividness of the writing. The allegro portion that follows reminds me of the lyricism and magic of Schubert’s sixth symphony, although this work is for me altogether a more convincing construction.

After the excitement of the first movement, the cool, shadowy drama of the second movement is all the more effective. I love the word ‘chiaroscuro’ and I love the effect, and this second movement, as short as it is, plays beautifully with light and shadow. Think of darkness and cloud not in the bleak, formless manner of an overcast evening, but of crisp shape and lines, like shadows cast by trees in a forest.

The third movement returns much to the spirit of the first movement, but here even more lively. Would you expect any less based on what you’ve heard so far? Listen to the pastoral calls and crisp chirps of horns and bassoons.

The finale… what is that sound? It’s a kind of throaty, punchy effect in the flutes that sounds like the garbly call of birds. The drama continues yet in this finale, like coming upon a forest vista, a secluded scene of some kind. While I keep saying the music isn’t cinematic, it’s certainly theatrical, and really perhaps even programmatic, in a way, and gives us a satisfying, triumphant finale, driving home the point that music doesn’t necessarily need to be sprawling and epic to be powerful. This little piece may be small, but it’s concentrated. It might be a cliché to say it packs a punch, but it does.

That weird throaty chirp from flutes is so interesting because you wouldn’t necessarily expect this sound-effect type thing to make an appearance in 1773, but that’s really kind of what it is. It’s a unique sound, surprising at first, but just a small way in which a composer can make an impression and show some creativity in what is, relative to what has come since his time, a pretty standard, traditional layout.

How cool, though, huh? It’s a really enjoyable little work. At the very least, the pieces we’re discussing in this series will hopefully convince you to give an ear to these composers’ other works. Many of them during this time were awfully prolific, and there’s plenty to discover. If Gossec isn’t your thing, though, don’t worry. There’s lots more on the way, so stay tuned, and thanks very much for reading.

(As to the Belgian thing, Gossec and another composer we’ll talk about later on in the series are arguably at least as Belgian as they are French, but for Gossec, at least, he formed such an important part of French musical education and all the rest that… I couldn’t not include him. I don’t plan to be doing a Belgian series any time soon, but there are two of them who got inclusions into this series.)

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