ALINA M. TYLINSKI - "Un effet terrible et sinistre": Theatre and the Sublime in Gossec's 'Messe des morts'

ALINA M. TYLINSKI - "Un effet terrible et sinistre": Theatre and the Sublime in Gossec's 'Messe des morts'

An anonymous letter printed in a 1783 issue of the Journal de Paris described François-Joseph Gossec’s Messe des morts as depicting “le tremblement de la terre et le bouleversement de la Nature” (the shaking of the earth and the overturning of nature). Indeed, the work launched Gossec into public view following its first performances in 1760, commended for conjuring up sonic images of anxiety and terror associated with the biblical Last Judgment. What is more, its dramatic treatment of the prose of the dead, employing both musical and spatial effects to illustrate the Latin text, drew attention to Gossec's potential to write for the lyric theatre. Gossec himself acknowledged the profound effect of two segments from the work, writing fifty years later:

Dans les deux strophes Tuba mirum et Mors stupebit et naturæ de la prose des morts, on fut effrayé de l’effet terrible et sinistre de trois trombones réunis à quatre clarinettes, quatre trompettes, quatre cors et huit bassons cachés dans l’éloignement, et dans un endroit élevé de l’église, pour annoncer le jugement dernier, pendant que l’orchestre exprimait la frayeur par un frémissement sourd de tous les instrumens à cordes.

(In the two verses Tuba mirum and Mors stupebit et natura of the prose of the dead, the terrible and sinister effect of three trombones combined with four clarinets, four trumpets, four horns, and eight bassoons  hidden in a distant, elevated place in the church to announce the Last Judgment was terrifying, while the orchestra expressed fear with a deafening tremolo in all of the string instruments.)

My recent research on Gossec’s opera Sabinus (1773) provides a number of insights into his Messe des morts, including a possible connection between these two works which I explore in this article. The first Dies irae and following Tuba mirum in Gossec’s Messe  shares a number of similarities with the dramatic makeup of Act II, Scene 3 of Sabinus, his first lyric tragedy. Depicting otherworldly, “sublime” forces, these two excerpts use similar scene structures and mimetic devices to represent the arrival of a “Last Judgment”. I do not suggest that these segments are musically congruent, but rather that they share similar theatrical features and, moreover, that the Messe des morts perhaps served as a blueprint for the scene from Sabinus. This is certainly possible as Gossec did not publish his Messe until 1780 and would have retained his original manuscripts for reference.

Sabinus has a libretto by Michel Paul Guy de Chabanon and first appeared in five acts at the theatre of Versailles on 4 December 1773 for the marriage festivities of the Comte d’Artois. Reduced to four acts, it debuted in Paris on 22 February 1774 at the Académie Royale de Musique. Set in first-century Gaul, this opera concerns the rebellion of Julius Sabinus against tyrannical Roman rule. In Act I, Sabinus receives orders from the governor Mucien forbidding him to marry Eponine, his lover, upon the penalty of death. Sabinus disregards this command which forces the couple to flee. Eponine escapes to the sacred forest of the druids in Act II and the Grand Druid enters a cave to consult an oracle on the fate of Eponine’s lover. It is here that Gossec utilizes “sublime” effects similar to those found in his Messe des morts.

This scene in Sabinus opens with the entry of the druids, who march to an altar as they prepare for the Grand Druid’s appeal. The text of the Grand Druid’s recitative establishes a “Last Judgement” setting, stating that “Des présages affreux ont paru dans les airs” (Frightful omens have appeared in these airs) and “La colère du Ciel contre nous se déclare” (The heavens declare their wrath against us).* The druids are fully aware that their own fate rests on the terrible news they await.

 Examining the Latin prose of the Dies irae in the Messe des morts shows a similar theme:

            Dies irae, dies illa,

            Solvet sæclum in favílla,

            Teste David cum Sibýlla.

            Quantus tremor est futúrus,

            Quando judex est ventúrus,

            Cuncta stricte discussúrus.

           (That day of wrath, that dreadful day,

           Shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,

           As David and the Sybil say.

           What horror it must be,

           When the judge from heaven descends,

           On whose sentence all depend.)

While the musical settings of each segment differ significantly, they deliver a similar message to the audience, aided by the narration of the text.

In the Dies irae, Gossec uses staccato dotted rhythms and tremolo figures that pierce the dense instrumental texture to induce a sensation of “quivering” anxiety. The prospect of doom retreats for a moment, but lingers as the chorus sings (in hushed voices) of trembling before their judge. Gossec effectively dramatizes the liturgical text by placing a wavering line beneath the static eighth notes in the voices and strings to embellish the word “tremor”.

The entry of the druids in Sabinus employs analogous features.  Dotted rhythms and tremolos in the march to the altar drive the onstage action towards the inevitable disaster that will befall the characters.  Suspensions in the bassoons also announce disaster’s lurking presence.

Perhaps the greatest theatrical resemblance exists between the Tuba mirum and the brief yet powerful “bruit souterrain” (subterranean noise) that follows the Grand Druid’s entry into the cave. Both excerpts reimagine otherworldly sounds, using space and sonic “dimensions” to create a sense of distance between mortals and (rather abstract) divine figures. Here Gossec’s spatialisation of the orchestra in the Messe offers physicality to this effect, with a group of brass and clarinets placed offstage to “announce” a godlike presence. The unison rhythms, aided by stark beats of silence, suggest a sense of verticality, as though the sound pierces through the sky. Indeed, the text aligns with the effect produced:

           Tuba mirum spargens sonum

            Per sepúlcra regiónum,

            Coget omnes ante thronum.

            (The mighty trumpet’s wondrous tone

            Shall rend each tomb’s sepulchral stone,

            And summon all before the throne.)


Gossec’s writing for Sabinus, however, is more complex. He provides elaborate orchestration to compensate for the absence of a text and a divine figure onstage. Similar to the Tuba mirum, the “bruit souterrain” passage manipulates silence to amplify the terrifying effect of the musical passages. A note in the score reads:

Le druïde touche la porte de l’antre avec le guide chêne, la porte s’ouvre, le druïde s’enfonce dans l’antre; la porte se renferme. Moment de silence.

The druid touches the door to the cave with a branch of oak; the door opens; the druid is forced into the cave; the door closes. Moment of silence.

The “bruit souterrain” commences on the following page in chilling C minor tonality. Soft rolls in the timpani underscore a sinuous bassoon line, generating a foreboding atmosphere as octave suspensions in the horns yield a sense of “cavernous” depth. A gradual crescendo closes the last two measures, adding unison strings to reinforce a sense of verticality. After Eponine exclaims, “Ciel! Le bruit a redoublé” (Heavens! The sound has intensified), the musical sequence repeats and builds, pivoting to the dominant tonality (G minor). Like the offstage ensemble in the Tuba mirum, Gossec’s “bruit souterrain” illustrates the manifestation of a sublime force by constructing musical “dimensions”.

Although both passages utilize starkly different textures, embellishments, and tonal colours to convey otherworldly powers, the Dies irae/Tuba mirum sequence in the Messe des morts and Act II, Scene 3 in Sabinus share a common dramatisation of a “Last Judgment” scene. As Gossec wrote Sabinus ten years after the premiere of his Messe, it is likely that the latter had served as a template for his first tragic opera. Between 1760 and 1770, Gossec dabbled only in light opéra-comique genres; the startling effects in his Messe foreshadow the dramatic capabilities that he would later utilise when writing in the French tradition of the tragédie en musique.

*I reference the five-act autograph score for Sabinus, F-Pc/Ms-1429 (Bibliothèque nationale de France) and the libretto annotated by Gossec.

Alina Tylinski is currently completing her BA in History with honours at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also studies German and French. A former clarinet student, she is looking to pursue musicology in graduate studies with a focus on music in eighteenth-century France. She currently runs a blog devoted to Gossec research at

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