Although a native of the South Netherlands, Gossec played a vital role in the musical life of Paris for over 50 years. He was at the forefront of musical activities at the time of the French Revolution and became the new order's foremost musical representative. One of the most prolific of 18th century French composers, he is best remembered today for his instrumental works, many of which show the influence of the Mannheim school. Gossec's most popular work among audiences today is probably the symphony nicknamed La chasse (The Hunt).
Gossec was born in Vergnies on 17 January 1734 and began singing at the collegiate church of Walcourt from the age of six. He also sang at the chapel of St Pierre and was taught violin, harpsichord, harmony and composition by its music director, Jean Vanderbelen. After a period as a chorister at Antwerp cathedral, Gossec moved to Paris in 1751.
Through the influence of Rameau, Gossec joined the private orchestra of A-J-J Le Richie de La Pouplinière (fermier général of Paris) and became its director in 1755. Works from this period include sonatas for flute and violin and 24 symphonies that, through Gossec's association with Johann Stamitz, were increasingly influenced by the Mannheim school.
In 1759 Gossec married Marie-Elizabeth Georges and, during the same year, composed the first of his religious works, a Messe des morts (Requiem). An interest in vivid theatrical sound effects encouraged him to write operas, though his talents in this area were modest. Nonetheless, several, including Les pêcheurs were very successful.
In 1769, Gossec founded the Concert des Amateurs, an orchestra supported by public subscription that soon became one of Europe's finest. The orchestra performed Gossec's own works alongside other symphonies written for the orchestra. In 1773, Gossec took over directorship of the Concert Spirituel. In the next few years, he composed only pastorals and ballets, no doubt influenced by his friendship with Gluck. Once Gluck had left Paris, Gossec returned to opera composition.
When the events of 1789 sparked revolution, Gossec resigned from his duties at the Paris Opéra and directed the Corps de Musique de la Garde Nationale, helping to create music for the people and serving as the musical representative of the new order. In 1792 his L'offrande à la liberté, dramatizing the battle between the Revolutionaries and their foreign enemies and culminating in a setting of the Marseillaise, became very popular. It was still being performed in national festivals as late as 1848 and played a vital role in establishing the Marseillaise as a revolutionary musical symbol.
Showered with honours from the new regime, Gossec's star seemed to be in the ascendancy. Unfortunately the rise of Napoleon and the Consulate effectively put an end to Gossec's composing career, and he devoted himself to teaching instead. As professor of composition at the Conservatoire, he wrote singing methods and harmony and counterpoint treatises, but when Louis XVIII dissolved the Conservatoire in 1816, Gossec lost his job. His remaining years were spent in the Paris suburb of Passy, where he died on 16 February 1829 at 95 years old.
Gossec's life and career parallels the remarkable changes to French cultural life at the end of the 18th century. Starting as a court composer, he moved on to working as a freelance artist for the opera houses and subscription orchestra, before establishing himself as the musical leader of the Revolution. Somewhat ironically, his career was ended by the political turmoil that brought him such success.