The early years and the Revolution
Born at Drucat-Plessiel, near Abbeville, 15 Feb., 1760; died at Paris, 6 October, 1837. After a period at chorister at the prestigious maitrise at Abbeville, his first works of note were performed at the Concert Sprituel in Paris 1782-1783. He subsequently was to win the competition for the top church music job after Versailles, that of Notre-Dame-de-Paris, for which he had to take on Holy Orders. He had particularly innovative ideas concerning the appropriateness of music for certain religious offices (which sometimes caused offence), as can be seen from the pamphlet which he wrote in his own defence, Exposé d'une musique imitative et particulière à chaque solennité (Paris, 1787). During the Revolution, under the protection of his friend Bochard de Champigny, he wrote several official pieces, but generally concentrated upon opera. In 1793 came his three-act opera, La Caverne, at the Théâtre Feydeau, Paris. After brilliant and immediate success he then wrote Paul et Virginie which was performed on 13 January, 1794, at the same theatre. Télémaque (May, 1796) was his last work of this period.
He was appointed the inaugural inspector of instruction at the Conservatoire de Musique on its foundation in 1795, and in 1801, he published his project for a plan for the teaching of music in France (Projet d'un plan de l'Instruction musicale en France). But this violent attack on not only the methods of instruction followed at the Conservatoire, but also one of his rivals, Catel, led directly to Lesueur's dismissal from the Conservatoire on 23 September, 1802. On the verge of poverty, he was fortunate enough to be appointed Napoleon's maître de chapelle in 1804, having attracted the First Consul's attention in 1800 during a performance at Les Invalides of his Chant du premier vendémiaire, a huge work for four orchestras and four choirs.
The music for the coronation
Lesueur was particularly fortunate in the circumstances surrounding his appointent to the Tuileries Chapel by Napoleon. His opera Ossian (Napoleon's favourite poet) was first performed in Paris on 10 July, 1804, and was a great success – Napoleon came to see it twice. For it he was rewarded the Cross of the Legion of Honour and a stipend of 18000 francs. Also at the same time, the maitre de chapelle at the Tuileries, the Neapolitan Giovanni Paisiello (1741-1816), on being driven from his post for political reasons had proposed Le Sueur as his successor. Thus Le Sueur was in place to direct the coronation music and to perform three of his own works, the Unxerunt Salomonem, Tu es Petrus and the Coronation March.
According to the accounts of expenses for the coronation, there were five hundred players and singers at the event, divided into two orchestras and a military band, two choirs, two groups of four soloists amongst whom were the vocal stars of the days, the soprano Mme Branchu and the bass M. Lays, not to mention the tenor M. Nourrit and the violinist Kreutzer (to whom Beethoven dedicated his famous sonata). The musicians (set on grandstands at either extremity of the crossing – heaven knows how they managed to play together!) were directed by Le Sueur.
The works performed at the coronation were: a Mass and Te Deum by Paisiello (although the pope's pivate chaplain Speroni refers to the Te Deum stating that it was sung by the clergy and therefore in all probability one sung to plain chant!); a Marche du sacre, and motets entitled Unxerunt Salomonem, for the anointing, Accingere Gladio (now lost), for the tradition of the sword, Judicabit (now lost), and Veni Sancte Spiritus – although perhaps this refers to the plainchant Veni creator sung at the very beginning of the celebration – all by Lesueur); and finally the renowned Vivat, vivat in aeternum by Abbé Roze.
The great professor who discovered Berlioz
After the huge triumph of 1804, Le Sueur position wa assured. He was to collaborate with Persuis in his L'inauguration du temple de la victoire (2 Jan., 1807) and Le Triomphe de Trajan (23 Oct., 1807). On 21 March, 1809, he produced La mort d'Adam et son apothéose to a libretto by Klopstock, which although majestic proved to be lacking in dramatic action. In 1813 Lesueur succeeded Grétry at the Institut, and was sufficiently adroit to preserve his position both during the First Restoration and the Hundred Days. He was to remain Superintendent and composer of the chapel of Louis XVIII until the suppression of the chapel in 1830. On 1 Jan., 1818, he was appointed professor of composition at the Conservatoire (replacing Méhul), and his classes being large and numbering distinguished members: Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), Charles Gounod (1818-1893) and most of all Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). Twelve Grands Prix de Rome came from his school.
Le Sueur's influence on Berlioz is uncontestable. In 1821, Hector came to Paris, officially to study medicine; but in the end it was music which occupied all his time. Lesueur allowed him into his composition class (1823) and was struck by his talent, making him study and encouraging him to enter the Conservatoire.
On 10 July, 1825, after the first performance of Berlioz's Messe solennelle at Saint-Roch, Lesueur remarked: “Come here so that I can embrace you, parbleu, you shall be neither a doctor nor a apothecary but rather a great composer; you have genius, and I say that because it is true”.
The final years
Lesueur wrote the Te Deum and other music for the coronation of Charles X at Reims (29 May, 1825). His other compositions were: three operas which had been accepted by the Opéra but were never performed in his lifetime, Tyrhée, Artaxerse, and Alexandre à Babylone; a Christmas mass or oratorio (1826); a solemn mass for four voices, choir, and orchestra; two Passion oratorios (1829); Rachel, an oratorio; Super flumina Babylonis (1833); Ruth et Booz, oratorio; a cantata for the marriage of the Emperor Napoleon I. He also wrote Notice sur la Melopée, la Rhythmopée, et les grandes caractères de la musique ancienne (Paris, 1793); and an unpublished treatise on the music of the Greeks. Lesueur had both originality and genius, and, while it is impossible to rank him with Cherubini and Méhul, it is nevertheless true that the French school of the early nineteenth century is greatly indebted to his initiative and passion for his art (particularly Berlioz).
Jean-François Lesueur died in Paris, 6 October, 1837, at the age of 77. He is buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, in the 11e division. And in Abbeville, boulevard Vauban, there stands a modern statue of the composer, which replaced the earlier bronze version melted by the Nazis during the occupation in 1942.
Michaud, Biographie universelle, tome 24, p. 346;
Dictionnaire Napoléon, p. 1070, “Le Sueur”, by J. Mongrédien; p. 1212, and “Musique” by the same author
Denise Leprou, “Napoléon et la musique”, Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien n° 342
Napoléon, éd. Rencontre, 1969, tome 5, p. 182
Christian Wasselin, Berlioz, les deux ailes de l'âme, éd. Gallimard/Découverte, republished January 2003
Jacques Doucelin, “Berlioz, fils prodigue de la musique”, Le Figaro, 20 January, 2003, p. 28.
Marc Allegret and Peter Hicks