Alina M. Tylinski - Madame Gossec

Alina M. Tylinski - Madame Gossec

Madame Gossec: A case study of gender and music in the ancien régime

Marie-Elisabeth Gossec’s story is one of re-imaginings: no engravings or portraits of her survive, nor does her name appear anywhere in her husband’s voluminous correspondence. Rather, her life resembles a collection of legal documents and certificates, a data set, a statistic. Nearly effaced from the French musical canon, Marie-Elisabeth’s story has largely depended on the fabrications of men, who have certainly not ceased to portray her as an equally material object. In some cases, she has even appeared nameless (such as in the euphemism compagnie dévouée [devoted company]). [1]

In my research on François-Joseph, I first came across Marie-Elisabeth in a (now out of print) biography published by the early twentieth-century musicologist Louis Dufrane. She drew my attention for a number of reasons: not only was she a musician herself, later wedded to a composer at the centre of French musical life, but an exceptional case study in questioning ancien régime gender ideologies. In the 1750s, Marie-Elisabeth was appointed the resident harpsichordist of the fermier général La Pouplinière’s (all-male) orchestra in Passy. Her brief but intriguing career, terminated by pregnancy, certainly yields a number of questions – many of which remain unanswerable due to missing information. In this article, I examine how Marie-Elisabeth’s presence and subsequent absence from the public sphere fits into the context of eighteenth-century beliefs about gender and music.

Marie-Elisabeth Georges originated from Antwerp, and is presumed to have been born between 1730 and 1740. I have come across a speculated date (1738), but the ancestry website from which I retrieved it neglected to provide supporting evidence. Nevertheless, I will use it as a point of reference for the purpose of piecing information together.

In the absence of knowledge about her childhood, we can guess that Marie-Elisabeth came from an upper-class, if not wealthy family. In their book Women Writing Opera, Jacqueline Letzter and Robert Adelson note that eighteenth-century women from well-to-do families were often educated and literate, exposed to literature, theatre, and the arts at a young age. [2]  This included music lessons on instruments deemed ‘appropriate for women, namely instruments not placed between the legs or distorting facial expression, such as the harp or a keyboard instrument. [3]

From this point onward, it is impossible to reconstruct Marie-Elisabeth’s story independently of her husband’s experiences. Following Adolphe-Charles Adam’s highly fictive Derniers souvenirs d’un musicien (1859), musicologists have assumed that she accompanied François-Joseph to Paris in 1751, where he launched his career as a violinist at La Pouplinière’s residency. No solid evidence can confirm this, although it seems likely that the two met in Antwerp – François-Joseph had studied at the maîtrise (music school) of Notre Dame throughout the 1740s. Throughout the nineteenth century, Gossec scholars believed Marie-Elisabeth to have married around this time, if not earlier. Numerous authors remarked on the couple’s young age (about 18 years). However, evidence discovered by Louis Dufrane in the early twentieth century contested this theory. Dufrane found a marriage recorded in the registries of the Paroisse Saint-André in Antwerp dated 1758, just one day after the birth of the future revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre, that read as follows:

Paroisse Saint-André, le 7 mai 1758, mariage de François-Joseph Gossé et Marie-Elisabeth Delicht.

[Parish of Saint-André, the 7th May 1758, marriage of François-Joseph Gossé and Marie-Elisabeth Delicht.] [4]

The name Delicht certainly offers some confusion – had François-Joseph married twice? Dufrane offers an explanation, arguing that Marie-Elisabeth may have Frenchified her surname to Georges upon her arrival in Paris. Orthographic changes were common to this period, often used for commercial or legal purposes. François-Joseph himself changed his name on multiple occasions early in his career, his name printed as Francisco Giuseppe Gossec di Anversa in several publications of his symphonies. What is more, the name Gossé (the original spelling of François-Joseph’s name inscribed in his baptism record) is a rare occurrence among documentation from this period, Dufrane has affirmed. Searching through marriage registers from 1720 to 1770, he found only two other possibilities, both inconsistent with other information concerning François-Joseph’s life: a Gossez (married in 1761) and a De Gossé (married in 1764), respectively. [5]

The marriage date of 1758 has generally been accepted by musicologists writing in the twenty-first century. It aligns with average marriage ages in France at the time; Margaret Darrow has estimated that women living in the mid-eighteenth century married at approximately 24 years. [6] Using the 1738 date for Marie-Elisabeth’s birth, this would make her twenty years old, and François-Joseph twenty-four.

The marriage witnesses appear to have lacked blood relation to either party: Dufrane lists a Corneille de Sweert and an I.-J. Wouters as those present. [7] Perhaps this suggests a hasty or clandestine ceremony, likely hidden from parents or other family members. Given that François-Joseph severed his ties with his mother, father, and siblings after leaving for Antwerp, this is certainly plausible. Margaret Darrow notes that although most marriages rested on parental consent, popular ideologies circulating widely in the latter half of the century, particularly in cities, argued that couples had the right to make such decisions themselves. [8] With the diffusion of ideas championed by writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, marriages like Marie-Elisabeth’s were not foreign to this decade. The ceremony’s remote location also raises some skepticism (the couple resided in Paris a few years prior to this date). On 11 October 1759, the couple legalized their union in Paris before the notary Bevière, their names recorded as François-Joseph Gossé and Marie-Elisabeth Georges. Later, upon his wife’s death in 1801, François-Joseph indicated he was unable to recover the document certifying this information, supposedly lost during the French Revolution.

According to Claude Role, Marie-Elisabeth’s name first appeared on the roster of La Pouplinière’s orchestra around 1756. [9] Dufrane denotes a change in directorship around this time, concurrent with a decline in the health of former director Johann Stamitz’s (the cause attributed to his resignation later in the year 1755). After a brief interim period, François-Joseph assumed directorship in 1756, the same year of Marie-Elisabeth’s debut: Dufrane indicates a significant wage gap in their respective appointments, totaling 1,800 and 1,200 livres per year. [10] Perhaps, then, if not for her talents, those of Marie-Elisabeth’s future husband had played a significant role in determining her employment. The available evidence suggests a long period of courtship between the two, if they had indeed known each other prior to or since 1751.

Marie-Elisabeth’s foray into the French musical scene is more remarkable yet as she continued her work not only following her marriage, but two years after her pregnancy. In the eighteenth century, marriage often formed an obstacle to women in pursuit of musical careers. [11] Pregnancy in particular diminished their chances, as the responsibility of caring for their children confined them to the home. However, it appears that Marie-Elisabeth had at least briefly defied these social expectations; she not only generated income through the orchestra the year following her marriage, but two years after the birth of her son Alexandre-François-Joseph in 1760. In 1913 Georges Cucuel reproduced the state of appointments for La Pouplinière’s musicians in November-December 1762, the last two months before its dissolution, where Marie-Elisabeth, listed as Fme. Gossé, earned 25 livres per month compared to her husband’s 100, totaling 50 livres for two months.

The birth of her son, however, had certainly narrowed her chances of attaining a flourishing musical career. As evidenced by Marie-Elisabeth’s small salary, much effort went into creating barriers to women’s success in music, particularly if it posed a threat to her duties as a mother and wife. [12] Alexandre Gossec was born in December 1760, only to confine Marie-Elisabeth to her home three years after the disbanding of La Pouplinière’s orchestra. After an only too brief showcase of her talents, Marie-Elisabeth receded into the backdrop of the French musical scene, unmentioned and presumably forgotten until the appearance of a letter addressed to François-Joseph in 1794 referring to her as citoyenne Gossec.

Marie-Elisabeth died on 11 March 1801 (20 Ventôse Year IX), the causes of her death unreported. Following her estimated birth date, she was sixty-three years old, her brief escapade as a harpsichordist having long passed. With increasingly repressive measures against women’s autonomy installed under Napoléon I, her services to the musical world perhaps faded with the ancien régime itself, only to be recovered by musicologists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were to treat her as nothing more than a statistic. Nevertheless, Marie-Elisabeth Gossec's life and work presents not only a fascinating case study for future musicological research in itself, but also makes a significant contribution towards the re-evaluation of the Western musical canon.


Alina Tylinski is in the process of completing her BA in history with honours at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in addition to studying German and French. 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 currently runs a blog devoted to Gossec research at


[1] Louis Dufrane, Gossec: Sa vie, ses œuvres (Paris: Fischbacher, 1927), 182.

[2] Jacqueline Letzter and Robert Adelson, Women Writing Opera: Creativity and Controversy in the Age of the French Revolution (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 17.

[3] Ibid, 48.

[4] Quoted in Dufrane, 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Margaret H. Darrow, “Popular Concepts of Marital Choice in Eighteenth Century France,” Journal of Social History 19 (1985): 265.

[7] Dufrane, 21.

[8] Darrow, 268.

[9] Claude Role, François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829): Un musicien à Paris de l’Ancien Régime à Charles X (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000), 15.

[10] Dufrane, 16.

[11] Letzter and Adelson, 66.

[12] Ibid, 65.


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