Le Sueur or Lesueur, Jean François

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Le Sueur or Lesueur, Jean François

Le Sueur or Lesueur, Jean François, eminent French composer and writer on music; b. Drucat-Plessiel, near Abbeville, Feb. 15, 1760; d. Paris, Oct. 6, 1837. At 7 he was a choirboy at Abbeville, and at 14, in Amiens, where he took a course of studies. Interrupting his academic education, he became maître de musique at the Cathedral of Séez, and then served as asst. choirmaster at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris. During this time, he studied harmony and composition with Abbé Roze. He subsequently was maître de musique at the cathedrals of Dijon (1781), Le Mans (1783), and Tours (1784). He then returned to Paris, serving (upon the recommendation of Grétry) as maître de chapelle at the Holy Innocents. When the competition for the post of maître de chapelle at Notre Dame was announced in 1786, Le Sueur entered it, and won.

He organized an orch. for the chief festive days, and brought out masses, motets, services, etc., using a full orch., thus completely transforming the character of the services. He was greatly successful with the congregation, but the conservative clergy strongly objected to his innovations; other critics called his type of musical productions “opéra des gueux” (beggars’ opera). He expounded his ideas of effective and descriptive music in a pamphlet, Essai de musique sacrée ou musique motivée et méthodique, pour la fête de Noël, à la messe de jour (1787). This evoked an anonymous attack, to which he replied with another publication, Exposé d’une musique unie, imitative, et particulière à chaque solennité (1787), reasserting his aim of making church music dramatic and descriptive. He left Notre Dame in 1788. After a sojourn in the country, he returned to Paris and produced 3 successful operas at the Théâtre Feydeau: La Caverne (Feb. 16, 1793), which had a popular success, Paul et Virginie (Jan. 13, 1794), and Télémaque (May 11, 1796). He also composed 10 hymns, written for various revolutionary festivals, which proved popular. He joined the Inst. National de Musique in 1793, the predecessor of the Paris Cons., which was organized in 1795, subsequently serving there as an inspector and a member of the Committee on Instruction. With Méhul, Langlé, Gossec, and Catel, he wrote the Principes élémentaires de la musique and the Solfeges du Conservatoire. Le Sueur was dismissed in 1802 because of an altercation that occurred following the rejection, by the Opéra, of 2 of his operas in favor of Catel’s Sémiramis. For 2 years he lived in poverty and suffering, until Napoleon, in 1804, raised him to the highest position attainable by a musician in Paris by appointing him as his maître de chapelle, succeeding Paisiello. His rejected opera, Ossian ou Les Bardes, was then produced (Paris, July 10, 1804) with great applause; his other rejected opera, La Mort d’Adam (Paris, March 21, 1809), was a failure. After the restoration of the monarchy, and despite Le Sueur’s avowed veneration of Napoleon, the government of Louis XVIII appointed him superintendent and composer to the Chapelle du Roi. He retained his post until 1830, and was also prof, of composition at the Paris Cons, from 1818 until his death, his celebrated pupils numbering Berlioz, Gounod, and Ambroise Thomas. He was made a member of the Institut (1813). His last operas, Tyrtee (1794), Artaxerse (1797), and Alexandre à Babylone (1815), were accepted for performance, but were not produced. His other works include the intermède L’Inauguration du temple de la Victoire (Paris, Jan. 20, 1807; in collaboration with L. Loiseau de Persuis) and the opera Le Triomphe de Trajan (Paris, Oct. 23, 1807; in collaboration with Persuis), several sacred oratorios (Debora, Rachel, Ruth et Noémi, Ruth et Booz), Solemn Mass for 4 Voices, Chorus, and Orch., the cantata LOmbre de Sacchini, 3 Te Deums, 2 Passions, and Stabat Mater. These, and some other works, were publ., but he left many more (over 30 masses, etc.) in MS. His major theoretical and historical work was his Exposé d’une musique unie, imitative et particulière à chaque solennité (4 vols., Paris, 1787). J. Mongrédien éd. Jean-François Le Sueur: A Thematic Catalogue of His Complete Works (N.Y., 1980).


C. Ducanel, Mémoire pour J.F Lesueur (Paris, 1802);

Raoul-Rochette, Notice historique sur la vie et les oeuvres de J.-F. L.S. (Paris, 1837); S. de la Madeleine, Biographie de J.-F. L.S. (Paris, 1841); W. Buschkötter, J.F. L.S. (Halle, 1912); F. Lamy, J.F. L.S. (1760–1837) (Paris, 1912); M. Herman, The Sacred Music of J.-F. L.S.: A Musical and Biographical Source Study (diss., Univ. of Mich., 1964).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire