Fétis, François-Joseph

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Fétis, François-Joseph

Fétis, François-Joseph, erudite Belgian music theorist, historian, and critic, father of Édouard (-Louis-François) and Adolphe (-Louis-Eugène) Fétis; b. Mons, March 25, 1784; d. Brussels, March 26, 1871. He received primary instruction from his father, an organist at the Mons Cathedral. He learned to play the violin, piano, and organ when very young, and in his 9th year wrote a Concerto for Violin, with Orch. As a youth, he was organist to the Noble Chapter of Ste.-Waudru. In 1800 he entered the Paris Cons., where he studied harmony with Rey and piano with Boieldieu and Pradher. In 1803 he visited Vienna, where he studied counterpoint, fugue, and masterworks of German music. Several of his compositions (a Sym., an overture, sonatas and caprices for Piano) were publ. at that time. In 1806 he began the revision of the plainsong and entire ritual of the Roman Church, a vast undertaking, completed, with many interruptions, after 30 years of patient research. A wealthy marriage in the same year, 1806, enabled him to pursue his studies at ease for a time; but the fortune was lost in 1811, and he retired to the Ardennes, where he occupied himself with composition and philosophical researches into the theory of harmony; in 1813 he was appointed organist for the collegiate church of St-Pierre at Douai. In 1818 he settled in Paris; in 1821 became a prof, of composition at the Paris Cons. In 1824 his Traite du contrepoint et de la fugue was publ. and accepted as a regular manual at the Cons. In 1827 he became librarian of the Cons., and in the same year founded his unique journal La Revue Musicale, which he ed. alone until 1832 (his son Edouard ed. it from 1833 until 1835, when its publication ceased). He also wrote articles on music for Le National and Le Temps. In 1828 he competed for the prize of the Netherlands Royal Inst. with the treatise Quels ont etc les merites des Neerlandais dans la musique, principalement aux XIVe-XVIe siècles…; Kiesewetter’s essay on the same subject won, but Fétis’s paper was also printed by the Inst. In 1832 he inaugu-rated his famous series of historical lectures and concerts. In 1833 he was called to Brussels as maitre de chapelle to King Leopold I, and director of the Cons.; during his long tenure in the latter position, nearly 40 years, the Cons, flourished as never before. He also conducted the concerts of the Academy, which elected him a member in 1845. He was a confirmed believer in the possibility of explaining music history and music theory scientifically; in his scholarly writings he attempted a thorough systematization of all fields of the art; he was opinionated and dogmatic, but it cannot be denied that he was a pioneer in musicology. He publ. the fist book on music appreciation, La Musique mise à la portée de tout le monde (Paris, 1830; numerous reprints and trs. into Eng., Ger., It., Sp., Russ.); further pedagogical writings are Solfeges progressifs (Paris, 1837) and Traité complet de la théorie et de la pratique de I’harmonie (Brussels, 1844). As early as 1806 Fétis began collecting materials for his great Biographic universelle des musiciens et bibliographic générale de la musique in 8 vols. (Paris, 1833–14; 2nd ed., 1860–65; suppl. of 2 vols., 1878–80; ed. by A. Pougin). This work of musical biography was unprecedented in its scope; entries on composers and performers whom he knew personally still remain prime sources of information. On the negative side are the many fanciful accounts of composers’ lives taken from unreliable sources; in this respect Fétis exercised a harmful influence on subsequent lexicographers for a whole century. His Histoire générale de la musique, in 5 vols., goes only as far as the 15th century (Paris, 1869–76; reprint, Hildesheim, 1983); this work exhibits Fétis as a profound scholar, but also as a dogmatic philosopher of music propounding opinions without convincing evidence to support them. Of interest are his Esquisse de l’histoire de l’harmonie considerée comme art et comme science systématique (Paris, 1840), Notice biographique de Nicolo Paganini (Paris, 1851; with a short history of the violin), Antoine Stradivari (Paris, 1856; with a commentary on bowed instruments), reports on musical instruments at the Paris Expositions of 1855 and 1867; etc. He was also a composer. Between 1820 and 1832 he wrote 7 operas, serious and light, for the Opéra-Comique; composed church music, 3 string quartets, 3 string quintets, 2 syms., and a Flute Concerto. His valuable library of 7,325 vols. was acquired after his death by the Bibliothèque Royale of Brussels; a catalog was publ. in 1877.


K. Gollmick, Hen F., Vorstand des Brüsseler Conservatoriums als Mensch, Kritiker, Theoretiker und Componist (Leipzig and Brussels, 1852); L. Alvin, Notice sur F.-J. F. (Brussels, 1874);R. Wangermée, F.-J. F.: Musicologue et compositeur (Brussels, 1951); B. Huys et al, F.-J. F. et la vie musicale de son temps: 1784–1871 (Brussels, 1972).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire