ALINA M. TYLINSKI - François-Joseph Gossec, Feminist? Composition Lessons for Women Harpsichordists
François-Joseph Gossec remains little known as a composer, much less as an advocate for women. It may appear strange and even anachronistic to pair the name of an eighteenth-century composer with the term “feminism,” particularly for Gossec, whose inclinations his biographers have described as “très ancien régime.” Indeed, as a reader of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (at the very least, of his musical theories), Gossec seems an unlikely feminist. However, neither readership nor admiration of Rousseau automatically entailed support of his views on women and gender. Many of his admirers, among them the Marquis de Condorcet, Maximilien Robespierre, and Gossec’s operatic rival André Grétry, advocated for women’s access to new opportunities, albeit in a Rousseauist framework; that is, the language of “separate spheres” largely prevailed in their discourse. Gossec was no exception.
However, Gossec’s efforts to include women are exemplary in that they transgressed gendered boundaries of education. In a letter to the Paris Opéra’s intendant-general Papillon de La Ferté from November 1786, he defended the new École Royale de Chant, of which he was director, against rumors of annexing it to the Opéra’s École du Magasin. He dedicated a subsection to discussing the progress students had made in musical composition classes, offering a few brief but striking remarks on women:
Cette science n’est utile aux demoiselles que pour l’accompagnement du clavecin, dont les éléments sont les mêmes, et elles y travaillent presque toutes ; cela leur devient même indispensable, selon mes statuts et mes principes. Ce n’est donc que du côté de nos jeunes garçons que l’on doit attendre quelque chose dans cette partie.
(This science is only useful for ladies who provide accompaniment on the harpsichord, whose elements are the same; they almost always work within this area and for them it should even become indispensable, according to my statutes and principles. It is therefore not only our young boys who should expect something in this area.)
Composition, as Jacqueline Letzter and Robert Adelson have noted in their book Women Writing Opera, was considered an exclusive reserve of masculine talent. It was an art of the imagination (as Gossec upheld himself), demanding capabilities that women allegedly lacked. “On leur accorder tous les talents, hors celui d’inventer” (One accords them all talents except for invention), Condorcet affirmed in his Lettres d’un bourgeois de New Haven (1788). Why, then, would Gossec choose to support women engaging a subject outside their sphere? A number of factors offer evidence for his radical position.
Gossec was not alone in suggesting such measures. The 1780s marked a decade of agitation for gender equality in France, especially in academies, where learned women numbered among the candidates for admission. In 1787, the future revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre argued in favor of admitting women into the Academy of Arras in a controversial speech that generated both opposition and enthusiastic support. Likewise, Condorcet, as mentioned previously, championed women in his writings. Nearer to Gossec’s realm, Grétry offered women lessons in composition himself; three out of four of his students were girls, among them Sophie Bawr, Caroline Wuiet, and his daughter Lucile. His Mémoires, published in 1789, discussed the importance of women’s musical pursuits at length. In short, Gossec’s environment placed him in direct contact with outspoken ideas. As a masonic lodge affiliate (initiated into La Réunion des Arts in 1781), it is likely that Gossec shared the feminist views maintained by his contemporaries. The lodges dedicated themselves to creating a more “enlightened” society, in which equality played a pivotal role. In fact, this was the basis of Robespierre’s argument in 1787, stating that women’s membership in academies could only benefit the institutions’ intellectual status. Gossec’s 1786 proposal only echoed such popular currents of thought, as he had certainly been well-acquainted with them.
A second and perhaps more plausible reason for Gossec’s support of women may have been their utility. Appointed director of the École Royale in 1784, he had issued a series of reform proposals for vocal pedagogy at the Opéra five years earlier as the institution’s director, complaining of the poor instruction singers received, in addition to their equally poor performance. He also sought to reform the rather haphazard methods of learning music theory, often taught through continuo realization on the harpsichord. In Gossec’s view, this reform was essential for those who were trained as keyboard accompanists. He proposed training in composition as a solution; this would offer students the opportunity to apply theory (figured bass notation and voice leading) to practice and therefore induce rapid progress in their learning. As harpsichord remained a staple instrument for women (not placed between the legs or distorting facial expression), they often served as accompanists. It is therefore probable that Gossec advocated for women from a utilitarian standpoint. To realize his reforms, both sexes needed equally rigorous training. Indeed, a note dated July 5, 1787 praised the ten-year-old singer Charlotte Mazière for her ability to “touche un peu de clavecin” (play a little bit of harpsichord); it seems that Gossec viewed this skill as an advantage to his ambitions.
The composer perhaps had a more personal reason for issuing his statement regarding women in 1786. His wife, Marie-Elisabeth Georges, played the harpsichord in a concert setting during the early years of their marriage. According to Gossec specialist Claude Role, her name appears on the roster of the tax farmer La Pouplinière’s orchestra around 1756, about five years after Gossec entered there as a violinist. She is listed as the orchestra’s resident harpsichordist until 1763 when its members disbanded upon La Pouplinière’s death. Following the records compiled by Georges Cucuel in 1913, Marie-Elisabeth earned a salary of 25 livres per month compared to her husband’s 100 for her services. Perhaps his awareness of his wife’s musicianship (of which we unfortunately know very little) had provoked Gossec to suggest that women harpsichordists learn composition.
While Gossec shared the gendered, Rousseauist views of many of his contemporaries, his advocacy for women harpsichordists rightfully categorizes him as a feminist. Due to the rise of feminist thought in the 1780s, in addition to the efficacy of possessing educated accompanists, it is no surprise that Gossec vocalized his support. Moreover, Gossec’s proposal appears to have transferred to a later document, further confirming his feminist outlook:
Les classes de la section de solfège, celles de la section de chant, celle de clavecin dans la section des instruments, et les cours dans la section de composition, reçoivent les élèves des deux sexes.
(The classes of the section of solfège, those of the section of singing, those of harpsichord in the section of instruments, and the courses in the section of composition will receive students of both sexes.)
Although Gossec and his reforms remain little known today, perhaps this one is of the greatest importance, highlighting his dispositions for revolution and social change in eighteenth-century France.
Alina Tylinski is in the process of completing her BA in history with honors 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 fjgossec.wordpress.com.