It is not surprising
that after the premiere of Messe des
Morts in May 1760 the composer, François-Joseph
Gossec, became an overnight success.
It is surprising
that, even today, a work of such magnificence
remains relatively unknown. As few as
five versions are to be found in the
recorded music catalogue
One may suggest as
"amazing" the fact that in
Vienna, the musical heart of Europe
around 1800, where Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven
and Schubert lived, this masterpiece
by Gossec was not performed before 1992
and then only 18 of the total 25 movements.
Joseph Gossec was born
in Belgium and later moved to Paris.
Along with Sammartini, Haydn and composers
of the Mannheim school he was the father
of the classical symphony. Initially
a choirboy, Gossec later became the
protégé of his teacher
Gossec wrote some fifty
symphonies, and concertante works that
attracted attention and invitations
beyond France. The "hunting"
symphonies of Karl Stamitz and Haydn
are considered exact quotes from Gossecís
Symphonie de Chasse. Mozartís
Symphony in D major, written from Paris,
unmistakably reflects Gossecís influence
and not least Beethovenís Seventh Symphony
contains similarities to Gossecís Le
Temple de la Révolution which
some suggest to be plagiarism. As official
composer for the French Revolution he
wrote numerous choruses, marches, and
hymns, a Te Deum and the opera,
LíOffrande à la Liberté
for public celebration.
Even before the publication
of Haydnís symphonies, in 1756 Gossec
had his own first six symphonies published.
However the 25 year-old composer intended
his "breakthrough" by a masterpiece
of breath-taking proportions. It is
unknown for what occasion he composed
his 90 minute long Requiem (Messe
des Morts) but it is likely that
Louis-Joseph de Bourbon commissioned
a funeral mass for his daughter Marie
who passed away one year, before aged
three, and his wife who died on March
9th 1760, aged 23. It is
a strange parallel to Count Wallseg-Schuppach
who commissioned a Requiem from Mozart
in similar circumstances but in that
case the composer died before its completion.
Gossec divided the
Latin requiem into twenty-five movements.
He omitted the Kyrie and some strophes
of the sequence. The performance time
of around 90 minutes presents recording
challenges; it is too long for one CD
and too short for two. As to be expected,
several creative solutions have been
The Naxos recording
with conductor Diego Fasolis (8.554750-51)
extends to two disc and includes, as
a bonus, Symphonie à 17 parties
by the same composer. While the
review recording is conveniently on
one disc, the original work has been
rather "traumatised" to facilitate
this. The fugues have been omitted to
accommodate a total recording time of
65:49. Given the counterpoint skills
demonstrated in the choral fugue by
Gossec this is rather a disappointing
It appears that to
date, only five recordings of the Messe
des Morts have been made. In addition
to the two already identified, a Koch-Schwann
release on which Jacques Houtmann conducts
the Liège Symphony Orchestra
with chorus and soloists was the first
commercial recording. There is a version
by Musica Polyphonia on period instruments,
Erato CD 2292-45284-2. This also has
abridgements, but its virtues include
excellent strings. The most recent recording
(2003) is to be found on the K617 label.
It employs Choeur de Chambre de Namur
and La Grande Ecurie at la Chambre du
Roy with conductor Jean Claude-Malgoire.
(K617 7152). K617 refers to the work
by Mozart for Glass Harmonium, which
bears the same catalogue number.
what is presented on the review disc
is well done. Choir, musicians and soloists
provide a very musical and enjoyable
performance of the Requiem would ideally
reflect, within the performance variables,
the original intent of the rite. While
the modern-day notion of the Requiem
as a poetic, armís length secular reflection
on death, often more operatic than intelligible
is common, this was not the original
intent. The Requiem was established
as a rite facilitating the soulís safe
passage from the body, through limbo
leading either to immortality and eternal
life or damnation.
The text of the Dies
irae and Tuba mirum deal with doom and
gloom and the perils of the Last Judgement.
Dies Irae: That
day of wrath that will dissolve the
world in ashes.
The trumpet, sounding its wondrous
To the tombs of
the whole world
Shall bring everyone
before the throne.
of four clarinets, four horns, four
trumpets and eight bassoons to dramatically
highlight the drama of the Last Judgement,
receives an empathetic and convincing
execution on the review disc.
In stark contrast the
over-riding message of the Requiem is
"hope"- in salvation. This
is so beautifully conveyed through the
text and music of ĎSpera in Deo"
from the Offertoriumí
Spera In Deo:
Hope in God, for I will trust in
Him as before
Saviour of my soul,
and my God.
On the review disc
the singing of "Spera in Deo"
is quite stunning, and very emotionally
conveys this most important human endeavour
- hope. Is it coincidental, or intentional
and symbolically significant that of
all the 22 movements presented, that
dealing with hope is the longest [5:36]?
There is no perception of inappropriate
tempo or protraction. In the version
by Fasolis this movement is one and
a half minutes shorter [4:08].
The practice of using
male voices in roles traditionally sung
by females, generally is not one that
garners favour with this writer. In
the aria "Spera in Deo," Fasolis
employs a male singer and much of the
magic generated in the review disc simply
evaporates. It is not uncommon for interpretive
decisions of this kind to bias the preference
of listeners away from one version to
This new SACD format
of Gossecís Requiem on the Capriccio
label can be confidently recommended.
Its musical virtues more than compensate
for the unfortunate abridgements. The
beautiful singing by Eva Csapó
and Hildegard Laurich is a highlight
of this choral masterpiece.