A New Revolution In Music: Gossec’s Sabinus

The story of François-Joseph Gossec’s ‘revolutionary’ 1773 opera.

Detail from a costume plate for Sabinus by Louis-René Boquet, 1775. (Gallica)

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-11-07-45     By Alina Tylinski

François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) was an influential composer, theorist, and administrator who, with the collective efforts of his contemporaries, helped transform musical institutions in France at the close of the eighteenth century. Derived from peasant origins in Vergnies, Belgium, he obtained successive posts at the Paris Opéra following the premiere of his celebrated Messe des morts (1760). He was one of the founding professors of the Conservatoire de Musique and composed a large quantity of music for the festivals of the French Revolution. A prolific writer, Gossec drafted a number of reform texts, treatises, and histories in addition to his musical output.

Nevertheless, Gossec is rarely recognized for his efforts, much less as an opera composer. His works are certainly underrepresented in today’s repertory and many have not yet received a modern performance. However, Sabinus, his first attempt at writing a lyric tragedy, proved to be a watershed in the newly emerging genre of ‘reform opera’ in 1770s France. While the work was ultimately overshadowed by performances of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, Sabinus holds greater significance than its public reception attests. Not only was it written with musical innovation in mind, but with a specific historical intent. Designed to ameliorate the crisis of widely-perceived cultural deficit in French opera following Rameau’s death in 1764, the aesthetics and themes presented in Sabinus were conscious attempts to revitalize French ‘genius’. In a report co-authored with Étienne-Nicolas Méhul in 1803, Gossec deemed the work ‘one of the forerunners of a new revolution in music’.

We are fortunate to possess the libretto for the work annotated in Gossec’s hand, in addition to a handful of essays reflecting on the history and state of his art, which shed light on the intentions with which Gossec wrote Sabinus.

So what made Sabinus revolutionary? ‘Revolution’ was a buzzword in musical discourse at the time, and held different meanings in different contexts, as Philippe Vendrix has shown. In this case it refers to a sudden, singular transformation in the musical arts, and therefore historical progress. ‘Revolution’ also connotes ‘genius’, that is, the arrival of a composer who shockingly (and permanently) transforms a nation’s music. In eighteenth-century France, Rameau and Lully were lionized as examples of such revolutionary genius. Rameau in particular was referenced, as he belonged to the recent past. Who would inherit his legacy? Revolution was therefore viewed as something a composer should aspire to, in the name of maintaining progress in the musical arts.

Two critical elements in Sabinus indicate that Gossec himself strove toward this goal: novelty and variety.

Set in first-century Gaul, Sabinus brought novel thematic material to the lyric stage. Rather than drawing from classical subject matter, it concerns the rebellion of the Gaulish nobleman Julius Sabinus against Roman authority. Against a backdrop of ancient forests, caves, and druids, Sabinus rescues his lover Eponine from the jealous Roman governor Mucien while liberating the Gauls.

By discarding popular settings of classical civilizations in favor of early French history, Gossec reversed the aesthetics of lyric tragedy to feature nature as a sacred force, rather than employ the merveilleux (marvellous). The merveilleux was ‘a vital element of supernatural and magical scenes and for those depicting transformations, battles and other spectacular events’ designed to transport the audience into a fantastical world (Grove). A common use of the merveilleux was ‘the arrival of gods among mortals’.

While one could argue that Gossec did not eliminate this element entirely, particularly in Act II when the Grand Druid enters the cave to make an appeal to the gods, the gods remain absent from the stage as characters. However, they are personified as natural phenomena: in the aforementioned scene (II.3), the cave responds to the Druid’s request with a subterranean rumble, shutting him inside, in which Eponine responds, ‘Heavens! The sound has intensified’.

What is more, Gossec’s emphasis on nature sauvage (savage nature) modifies each scene to conform to this idea of primitive simplicity. As Dominique Lauvernier has noted in his essay on Gossec’s lyric tragedies, Sabinus contains a variety of stock settings (the public place, the tomb, the temple), but they are adapted to the concept of nature as a sacred force. For example, the forest setting in Act II functions as a kind of temple, where ‘during 20 measures of a slow march, the druids go to the altar in ceremony’, according to Gossec’s annotations. The appearance of the Genie of Gaul in third act also serves as a godlike embodiment of nature, whom Sabinus consults for advice (III.3).

Novelty additionally takes precedence in Gossec’s choice of instrumentation. In a short history completed around 1810, Gossec indicates the use of these instruments in Sabinus, relatively new to instrumental ensembles at the time. ‘This was the first time trombones were heard in this theater [the Paris Opéra], and the second time for clarinets combined with horns and trumpets’, he insists.

While Gossec’s factual information is a bit faulty, given that Rameau had used clarinets prior to Gossec in his operas Zoroastre (1749) and Acante et Céphise (1751), the peculiar instrumentation in Sabinus does capture the attention of the listener. Rich textures and pops of color emerge from the numerous ballets, particularly in the tambourins and chaconne (two types of dance). My personal favorite is Gossec’s careful selection of timbres in the percussion, immersing the listener in the ‘primitive’ theme of his work. Gossec acknowledged this himself in the 1803 report written with Méhul: ‘The music offered a very marked character, a most vivid color’.

Variety is also featured in Sabinus as a critical revolutionizing element. Perhaps more than novelty, this aimed directly at achieving favorable audience reception of the work. Like Rameau, Gossec paid scrupulous attention to his relationship with audiences and their particular tastes. Writing to his friend Auguste Panseron in 1814, he spoke of this crucial link: ‘It is the public that sustains us; it is therefore for the public that we must work’. In the 1770s, the concept of variety largely appealed to theatergoers, a term frequently referenced in reviews of staged works. Public judgment could therefore deem a work ‘revolutionary’ if it exhibited a sound balance, that is, if varied musical fragments flowed together seamlessly with the plot rather than disrupting the action.

Gossec applied this principle to Sabinus, but perhaps in excess. A dialogue in the March 1774 issue of the Correspondance littéraire criticized the tedious and detached quality of the ballets interspersed throughout Gossec’s work: ‘You love ballets: ah well, gentlemen, in what opera could you find more? In what opera could they be longer?’ ‘The longest, it is true; however, one yawns.’ 

Indeed, Sabinus contains a startling number of dances, not only for aesthetic quality but to accommodate for scene and costume changes. Among Gossec’s annotations in the libretto, the word ‘simphonie’ appears eight times, ‘rittournelle’ (ritornello) four times; an assortment of dances also appear, including frequent mentions of marches, gavottes, airs, pantomime, and, during the finale, a ‘contredanse’. Gossec’s attempt to revolutionize by such a means therefore holds greater significance than its actual outcome.

Variety also takes shape in the form of instrumentation. Gossec’s precise tonal palette for Sabinus – designed to transport the audience into the realm of early Gaul – was intended to be memorable, painting the scene as explicitly as the costumes and machinery onstage (which Gossec also takes care to specify in his annotations). For example, different fragments of color appear throughout the work, such as ‘thunder’ (IV.2), likely produced by the timpani and trombones, and the announcement of a cavalry trumpet (I.4). Gossec later reiterated the importance of this variety in a treatise composed in 1791: ‘It is to the taste of the composer to choose his sounds in a way that creates varied, punctuated songs that flatter the ear, as in our bouquets, where a delightful mixture of colors flatters our vision’.

While Sabinus was ultimately put to rest with Gluck’s explosive popularity in 1774, Gossec’s mindful attention to novelty and variety throughout the work illustrate that he intended to claim agency over a musical ‘revolution’. Sabinus still awaits a modern reprise over twenty years after Dominique Lauvernier’s proposal to stage it in the theater of Versailles, and certainly deserves one. It would be a wonderful testament to Gossec’s efforts, and a reminder that we have not yet forgotten him.

Read more about opera on Corymbus:

Opera’s Gender Problem: Diversity And The Battle For Relevance

Alina Tylinski is in the process of completing her BA in history with honors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A former clarinet student, she is looking to pursue musicology in her future graduate studies with a focus on music in eighteenth-century France. She tweets as @f_j_gossec and her blog can be found at