François-Joseph Fétis

François-Joseph Fétis

François-Joseph Fétis (March 25, 1784 — March 26, 1871) was a Belgian musicologist, composer, critic and teacher. He was one of the most influential music critics of the 19th century, and his enormous compilation of biographical data in the "Biographie universelle des musiciens" remains an important source of information today. His wife, Adélaïde Robert, was the daughter of the French politician Pierre-François-Joseph Robert.

He was born in Mons, Hainaut, and was trained as a musician by his father, who followed the same calling. His talent for composition manifested itself at the age of seven, and at nine years old he was an organist at Sainte-Waudru, Mons.

In 1800 he went to Paris and completed his studies at the Conservatory under such masters as Boïeldieu, Jean-Baptiste Rey and Louis-Barthélémy Pradher.

In 1806 he undertook the revision of the Roman liturgical chants in the hope of discovering and establishing their original form. In this year he also began his "Biographie universelle des musiciens", the most important of his works, which did not appear until 1834.

In 1821 he was appointed professor at the Paris Conservatory. In 1827 he founded the "Revue musicale", the first serious paper in France devoted exclusively to musical matters. Fétis remained in the French capital till 1833, when at the request of Leopold I, he became director of the conservatory of Brussels and the king’s chapelmaster.

He also was the founder, and, until his death, the conductor of the celebrated concerts attached to the conservatory of Brussels, and he inaugurated a free series of lectures on musical history and philosophy. He produced a large quantity of original compositions, from the opera and the oratorio to the simple chanson, including several musical hoaxes, the most famous of which is the "Lute concerto by Valentin Strobel", premiered with Fernando Sor as soloist.

In 1856, he worked closely with Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in writing a fascinating treatise about Antonio Stradivari ("Antoine Stradivari, luthier célèbre"). It includes detailed chapters on the history and development of the violin family, old master Italian violin makers (including the Stradivari and Guarneri families) and an analysis of the bows of Francois Tourte.

Fetis had the privilege to have Paganini, Schumann and Berlioz as contemporaries and to work with the violin maker and dealer, Jean Baptiste Vuillaume. Fetis's work provides a unique window into the times and as such is a particularly valuable reference for the modern researcher, dealer and player.

More important perhaps than his compositions are his writings on music. They are partly historical, such as the "Curiosités historiques de la musique" (Paris, 1850), and the "Histoire universelle de musique" (Paris, 1869—1876); partly theoretical, such as the "Méthode des méthodes de piano" (Paris, 1837), written in conjunction with Moscheles. Some of his criticisms of contemporary composers have become quite famous. He said of Berlioz, "...what Monsieur Berlioz composes is not part of that art which we distinguish as music, and I am completely certain that he lacks the most basic capability in this art." In the "Revue musicale" issue of February 1, 1835 he wrote of the "Symphonie Fantastique", " [Berlioz] had no taste for melody, and but the feeblest notion of rhythm; his harmonies, formed by heaping up piles of tones in the most monstrous way, still managed to be flat and utterly boring."

While Fétis's critical opinions of contemporary music may seem reactionary, his musicological work was ground-breaking, and unusual for the 19th century in attempting to avoid an ethnocentric and present-centered viewpoint. Unlike many others at the time, he did not see music history as a continuum of increasing excellence, moving towards a goal, but rather as something which was continually "changing", neither becoming better nor worse, but continually adapting to new conditions. He believed that all cultures and times created art and music which were appropriate to their times and conditions; and he began a close study of Renaissance music as well as European folk music and music of non-European cultures. Thus Fétis built the foundation for what would later be termed comparative musicology.

Fétis died in Brussels. His valuable library was purchased by the Belgian government and presented to the Brussels conservatory. His historical works, despite many inaccuracies, remain of great value for historians.


* "Antoine Stradivari, luthier célèbre" - F. J. Fétis (Paris, 1856)
* Alvin, "Notice sur F. J. Fétis" (Brussels, 1874)


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