French composers of the classical period



by Anja Weinberger

French composers of the classical period



by Anja Weinberger

If in the German-speaking world the epoch of the classical period is a time peppered with many great and internationally known names, in France this is more true for other periods of music history.

If one asks – in general – about composers of the classical period, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are usually mentioned first; not necessarily in that order, but at least that is the chronological fact. All three were German native speakers and clearly the main protagonists of that amazing sound revolution during the second half of the classical era, the so-called Viennese Classicism. And, as is well known, this is called so because the main events took place in precisely this German-speaking city.

First of all, it must be clarified which time frame is to be considered at all.

The term “classical” in the sense of an epoch in the history of music and art refers to the years after the end of the baroque. In Germany, Bach, Telemann, Handel and many others were engaged in a brilliant sound competition with their Italian colleagues Vivaldi, Corelli, Scarlatti and the French heavyweights Lully, Couperin and Rameau. This period was drawing to a close throughout Europe with the emergence of Bach’s “son generation”. Around 1730, a clear reorientation in the direction of a new style can be noticed, and from this point in time, in retrospect, the classical period begins in historiography.

And so it will be the period between 1730 and 1830 that will concern us in the following. After these 100 years, music throughout Europe turned to Romanticism and its various varieties.

What was the situation like in Europe during this period? And how specifically in France?

Let’s take a closer look.

In 1730, Charles VI is Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, Philip V is King of Spain, Augustus the Strong will live and reign for two more years, Frederick William I is King of Prussia, and his son, the future Frederick the Great, celebrates his 18th birthday.

In France, Louis XV has ruled for eight years.

Until 1715, the French court at Versailles shone under his predecessor, the Sun King Louis XIV, who was the king of the Baroque. After his 72-year reign, a vacuum arose. For heir to the throne became Louis, the great-grandson, who was just five years old; both son and grandson had already died. For seven years, the Duke of Orléans took over the reins of government for the boy. This Philip of Orléans ruled and lived in Paris in the Palais Royal; thus Versailles, until then richly populated and flourishing under the previous reign of the Sun King, lost its attraction. The aristocratic families who lived at or around the royal court returned to their own country estates.

The Duke of Orleans now summoned an Italian artistic troupe, consisting of the acclaimed members of the Prince of Parma’s troupe, to Paris, and they played the numerous theaters. As a result, to this day there is La Comédie italienne in Paris at Montparnasse.

For many years, the musical life of France was now dominated by opera and opera-like music, with symphonic music taking a back seat. Only through the composers of the Belle Époque and the Années folles will this change again.

On October 25, 1722, after seven long years of interregnum, the young King Louis was anointed in Reims and ascended the French throne as Louis XV. The court returned to Versailles, but the splendor of past times could no longer be evoked. The Sun King’s lavish life and expansive wars had left a heavy national debt.

Louis XV ruled until his death in 1774, trying to save what could be saved; then Louis XVI, by this time already married to Marie Antoinette, ascended the French throne. This sixteenth Louis tried his hand at reforms of his own and, in this context, endowed the supreme courts with considerably more power and competence – the beginning of the end, so to speak. The French Revolution could come. In 1789, the time had come.

Of course, one could now go into more detail about what happened in this context, but that is not our topic. We are more interested in the fact that the country was initially very busy with itself and its striving for freedom, equality, fraternity. Apart from that, from that time on, the royal court fell out to protect artists and provide them with a livelihood.

Of course, all of Europe was affected in one way or another by these events, and it was not only in France that a modern understanding of democracy began to emerge.

And yet it is precisely here in France that it is noticeable that the great composers of classical music, with their fame radiating beyond the country’s borders and towering over everything, were simply not present for several decades.

In 1804 Bonaparte had himself proclaimed emperor under the name Napoleon. In 1815, the monarchy was restored, and two rulers succeeded each other in the years of restoration, precisely until the July Revolution in 1830 – and thus precisely until the year that history books set as the end of the classical era.


So let us now set out on a search. Who were the composers who provided music in France during these years?


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In 1795, as mentioned in the previous chapter, the Conservatoire de Paris was founded. One of the founding members was François Devienne (1759-1803). As a professor, he taught a flute class and had a major impact on the music of his time. In the late 1790s, he was at the peak of his solo and compositional career. Playing the bassoon and flute with great virtuosity, he composed works that demanded the highest degree of technical skill and with which he permanently expanded the woodwind repertoire. He also wrote 12 opéras comiques, some of which are among the most frequently performed stage works of the late 18th century, several symphonies, and a great deal of chamber music for various instrumentations, often including flute.

Many of his compositions are closely linked to the historical and political events during the French Revolution. These include, above all, numerous patriotic hymns and songs that were intended to be played at public ceremonies.

His last works bear early Romantic traits.

At the age of 44, Devienne was admitted to the psychiatric institution of Charenton, where he died a few months later. Little or nothing is found about the background of this fate.

The dates of his life are similar to those of Mozart.


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Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) is another of the great unknowns among French classicists. And his story is unique: he was the illegitimate son of George de Bologne de Saint-Georges and Nanon, a black slave from Guadeloupe. In 1747, the father was falsely accused of murder and the family fled to France. The sentence was overturned two years later, but the Saint-Georges settled permanently in France in 1753. Young Joseph was gifted in many ways, very athletic, but also very musical.

His real artistic career began in 1769, when he joined the Concert des Amateurs as first violinist. Following Gossec (see below), Saint-Georges finally took over the direction of this orchestra in 1773, which consisted only to a small extent of well-trained amateurs and mostly of musicians from the opera house.

As a composer, he made a significant contribution to the two main genres of French instrumental music between 1775 and 1785: the symphonie concertante and the solo concerto. A rapid upsurge in concert life in Paris at the time was also to his credit. And he wrote operas, of course, of which unfortunately only one has survived. Several string quartets were also penned by the young composer; with those of Vachon and Gossec, they are among the first French compositions of this genre.

Saint-Georges’s melodic lines are clear and flowing, often with a melancholy tone, cantabile themes, and material often inspired by vaudeville, but also by typical French revolutionary music, which can be observed in many composers of those troubled years.

His skin color did not make life easy for him, and after several hostilities he turned down an appointment to one of the directorships of the Académie royale de musique.

In the last third of his life, therefore, he had to fall back on other talents to make a living. In England, he participated in a series of sensational fencing competitions and in 1792 entered the service of the Garde Nationale as a captain. During the “Reign of Terror” of 1793/94, marked by the brutal repression of anyone suspected of being an opponent of the Revolution, Saint-Georges was also imprisoned for 13 months. After his release, he did not receive a new command; he died reclusive and impoverished after another two years at the age of not even 55.


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François- Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) came from a Walloon peasant family. At the age of six he joined the collegiate church of Walcourt as a choirboy, and from then on his path was to be 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, tax renter and promoter of the Enlightenment.

Here Gossec met Johann Stamitz, who introduced him to the Mannheim School. Probably this was a decisive meeting in his life.

He will compose chamber music in the beginning, later more than 50 symphonies and many Symphonies concertantes with various solo instruments. At the age of 25, he wrote a requiem entitled Grand Messe des Morts, which 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 eleven years he finally handed over the direction to Saint-Georges).


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If Gossec is considered the most important French symphonic composer of the time, then André-Ernest-Modest Grétry (1741-1813) deserves the same title in the field of opera.

He was not a native Frenchman either, but came from Liège. His father’s roots were peasant, but he was a violinist himself and gave music lessons.  Grétry also began his career as a choirboy. At the age of 11, he experienced the guest performance of an Italian opera company, whose performances and rehearsals he attended enthusiastically and with great patience. This experience will have consequences.

Soon we find him, made possible by a scholarship, in Rome for six years at the Collège Darchis. In the Italian city he met Piccini and the latter was full of praise.

After a longer stay in Geneva, he finally came to Paris in 1767.

There, shortly after his arrival, he met Jean-François Marmontel, who would provide him with libretti in the following years. Even their first joint opera, Le Huron, became an overwhelming success, whereupon Grétry received his first commissions from the royal court.


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In 1773, Michel-Jean Sedaine replaced Marmontel as librettist, and in 1774, after the accession of Louis XVI, Grétry’s relationship with the court intensified. He soon became Marie-Antoinette’s private music director.

Now his works dominated not only the repertoire of the Comédie-Italienne, but also the concert halls of the noble palaces in Versailles and outside Paris.

Finally, Thomas Hales entered Grétry’s life as a third librettist, and after his early death, the composer set existing texts by Racine or Euripides, for example, to music.

It is above all his contribution to light-hearted musical theater that has survived the test of time. La Caravane du Caire, for example, surpassed all Gluck operas combined, with over 500 performances at the Opéra.

The Revolution caused Grétry to lose the pension he had been promised, as well as his employer. So he threw himself into writing his memoirs and composing essays. In 1813 he died alone in Montmorcey, having had to bury his wife and three daughters years earlier.

He was the first composer ever to be honored with a scholarly complete edition of his own work. The huge number of stage works almost makes one forget that he was also one of the first to compose string quartets – six in number. There are also some symphonies and a concerto for flute and orchestra. However, Grétry will always be remembered as an opera composer.


This is how it was in France during the 100 years that we now call classical in retrospect. My earlier impression was reinforced during the research for this text: classical music in France is indeed an extremely regional music, written by composers, living in France, for their local audience.

Revolutionary music on the one hand determined the concert programs, and on the other hand, even in the first half of the classical period, operas in French were primarily on the program. Symphonic music and piano or chamber music, which do not require language and therefore rarely convey political content, were not as important as they were in the Viennese classical period.

Of course, many others composed, for example Etienne-Nicolas Méhul or Jean-François Lesueur. However, I have chosen these four to provide a first overview.

In my book “Kulturgeschichten – nicht nur für Flötisten” (Cultural stories – not only for flutists)I went into more detail about the founding of the Conservatoire de Paris. But you can also read more about it in the Leiermann blog article From France to the Whole World.


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Read more:

The Sachertorte

The origins of the operetta

The life of Ida Presti

Der Leiermann

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