The 150th anniversary of the death of François-Joseph Fétis

Hugo Rodriguez

Friday, March 26, 2021

The following is by Hugo Rodriguez (KBR - Bibliothèque royale de Belgique - Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België) and originally appeared on the KBR website. It is published here with kind permission.

The 150th anniversary of the death of François-Joseph Fétis

In 2021, Belgium and the musical world are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of François-Joseph Fétis (March 25, 1784 - March 26, 1871). Fétis was a major figure of 19th-century musical life in Europe. He was a universal man who left his mark on every facet of European musical life.

A career devoted to music

Born in Mons (in the province of Hainaut, Belgium), Fétis studied at the Paris Conservatory. He became its librarian and professor of counterpoint, before being appointed the first director of the Brussels Conservatory in 1833, a position that he held until his death and that cumulated with being King Leopold I’s Kapellmeister.

In addition to his activities as a professor and administrator, Fétis founded the Revue musicale (later Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris) in 1827, one of the leading music periodicals. He organized some of the first concerts historiques in 1832. These are thematic concert-lectures dedicated to the rediscovery of early music, a practice that has become common nowadays. Fétis was also a talented organist and a composer of numerous works in various genres (operas, sacred music, symphonic music, chamber music, etc.).

A leading musicologist

Fétis is also known as a leading musicologist. He actively contributed to making musicology a scholarly field in its own right. His works touch on all aspects of musical phenomena: history of music (with his masterpiece, the Biographie universelle des musiciens et bibliographie générale de la musique, 1st edition 1835-1844, 2nd edition 1860-1865, 8 volumes), music theory and analysis (Traité complet de la théorie et de la pratique de l’harmonie, 1844), popular musicology (La musique mise à la portée de tout le monde, 1830), philology (in particular concerning medieval music), organology, music education, ethnomusicology, music criticism, aesthetics, etc.

Fétis also left us voluminous correspondence (F-J Fétis, Correspondance, ed. Robert Wangermée, Sprimont, Mardaga, 2006). His letters shows the richness and fruitfulness of his intellectual exchanges with many personalities of his time.

The Fétis collection

Both by necessity and by taste, Fétis was one of the most important collectors of his time. His collection of musical instruments is now kept at the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels (MIM). The collections he acquired as director of the Brussels Conservatory are still there, notably the famous Westphal collection, which contains hundreds of manuscripts by CPE Bach and Telemann.

The personal library of Fétis, carefully assembled during his long life, was bought by the Belgian State in 1872. It is today kept at the Royal Library of Belgium (KBR) in the fonds Fétis (FR, NL). With nearly 8,000 old books, it is internationally renowned. It contains manuscripts (including some autographs, such as that of the Pièces pour la luth by J.S. Bach), early printed editions, catalogs of music publishers and theoretical works. The catalog of the fonds Fétis was published in 1877 (Catalogue de la bibliothèque de F. J. Fétis acquise par l’État belge, Brussels, C. Muquardt, reprint by Forni Editore in 1969).

Online access and news

More than a thousand works from the fonds Fétis of the Royal Library of Belgium are now digitized and accessible via the online catalog or via the portal Belgica. The digitized pieces are also described in RISM and links are available directly from the RISM records.

Several events will take place in 2021 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Fétis’s death. We would like to mention a historic concert, a nod to the concerts historiques of Fétis himself, which will take place in Tokyo on March 30, 2021. The program will be devoted to repertoire from the end of the 18th century to the 1830s. The introductory lecture will be given by Professor Chikako Osako (Hiroshima Bunka Gakuen University), who devoted her PhD thesis to Fétis and who is a member of the Laboratory of Musicology (LaM) of the Free University of Brussels. In addition to works by Rousseau, Beethoven, Ries and Albrechtsberger, we will hear the Grand duo pour piano et violon by Fétis (Carli, 1821).

Image: Portrait of Fétis, from Charles Baugniet, Galerie de portraits d’artistes musiciens du Royaume de Belgique. Available online.

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