François-Joseph Fétis
François-Joseph Fétis was a Belgian
Belgium , officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a federal state in Western Europe. It is a founding member of the European Union and hosts the EU's headquarters, and those of several other major international organisations such as NATO.Belgium is also a member of, or affiliated to, many...

Musicology is the scholarly study of music. The word is used in narrow, broad and intermediate senses. In the narrow sense, musicology is confined to the music history of Western culture...

, composer
A composer is a person who creates music, either by musical notation or oral tradition, for interpretation and performance, or through direct manipulation of sonic material through electronic media...

, 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
Pierre-François-Joseph Robert
Pierre-François-Joseph Robert was a French lawyer, politician and professor of public law at the société philosophique, journalist.-Life:...


Life and career

He was born in Mons
Mons is a Walloon city and municipality located in the Belgian province of Hainaut, of which it is the capital. The Mons municipality includes the old communes of Cuesmes, Flénu, Ghlin, Hyon, Nimy, Obourg, Baudour , Jemappes, Ciply, Harmignies, Harveng, Havré, Maisières, Mesvin, Nouvelles,...

, 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
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 and completed his studies at the Conservatory under such masters as Boïeldieu
François-Adrien Boïeldieu
François-Adrien Boieldieu was a French composer, mainly of operas, often called "the French Mozart".-Biography:...

, Jean-Baptiste Rey
Jean-Baptiste Rey
Jean-Baptiste Rey was a French conductor and composer.Rey was born at Lauzerte. He remains the longest-serving conductor of the Paris Opera; his tenure spans from the last years of the monarchy to Napoleon's Empire...

 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
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 devoted exclusively to musical matters. Fétis remained in the French capital till 1833, when at the request of Leopold I
Leopold I of Belgium
Leopold I was from 21 July 1831 the first King of the Belgians, following Belgium's independence from the Netherlands. He was the founder of the Belgian line of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha...

, he became director of the conservatory of Brussels
Brussels , officially the Brussels Region or Brussels-Capital Region , is the capital of Belgium and the de facto capital of the European Union...

 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
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...

 and the oratorio
An oratorio is a large musical composition including an orchestra, a choir, and soloists. Like an opera, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias...

  to the simple chanson
A chanson is in general any lyric-driven French song, usually polyphonic and secular. A singer specialising in chansons is known as a "chanteur" or "chanteuse" ; a collection of chansons, especially from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, is also known as a chansonnier.-Chanson de geste:The...

, including several musical hoax
A hoax is a deliberately fabricated falsehood made to masquerade as truth. It is distinguishable from errors in observation or judgment, or rumors, urban legends, pseudosciences or April Fools' Day events that are passed along in good faith by believers or as jokes.-Definition:The British...

es, the most famous of which is the "Lute concerto by Valentin Strobel", premiered with Fernando Sor
Fernando Sor
Josep Ferran Sorts i Muntades was a Spanish classical guitarist and composer. While he is best known for his guitar compositions, he also composed music for a wide range of genres, including opera, orchestra, string quartet, piano, voice and ballet...

 as soloist.

In 1856, he worked closely with Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in writing a fascinating treatise about Antonio Stradivari
Antonio Stradivari
Antonio Stradivari was an Italian luthier and a crafter of string instruments such as violins, cellos, guitars, violas, and harps. Stradivari is generally considered the most significant artisan in this field. The Latinized form of his surname, Stradivarius, as well as the colloquial, "Strad", is...

 (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
The Guarneri is the family name of a group of distinguished luthiers from Cremona in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries, whose standing is considered comparable to those of the Amati and Stradivari families...

 families) and an analysis of the bows of Francois Tourte
François Tourte
François Xavier Tourte was a Frenchman who, though trained as a watchmaker, soon changed to making bows for playing classical string instruments such as the violin....


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, 1840), written in conjunction with Moscheles
Ignaz Moscheles
Ignaz Moscheles was a Bohemian composer and piano virtuoso, whose career after his early years was based initially in London, and later at Leipzig, where he succeeded his friend and sometime pupil Felix Mendelssohn as head of the Conservatoire.-Sources:Much of what we know about Moscheles's life...


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
Renaissance music
Renaissance music is European music written during the Renaissance. Defining the beginning of the musical era is difficult, given that its defining characteristics were adopted only gradually; musicologists have placed its beginnings from as early as 1300 to as late as the 1470s.Literally meaning...

 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
Brussels , officially the Brussels Region or Brussels-Capital Region , is the capital of Belgium and the de facto capital of the European Union...

. 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.

His pupils included Luigi Agnesi
Luigi Agnesi
Luigi Agnesi was a Belgian operatic bass-baritone, conductor and composer.-Life and career:Born Louis Ferdinand Leopold Agniez in Namur, Agnesi graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Brussels in 1853. There he had studied with Charles-Marie-François Bosselet and the François-Joseph Fétis...

, Jean-Delphin Alard, Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga
Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga
Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola was a Spanish composer. He was nicknamed the "Spanish Mozart" after he died, because, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, he was also a child prodigy and an accomplished composer who died young...

, Louise Bertin
Louise Bertin
Louise-Angélique Bertin was a French composer and poet.Louise Bertin lived her entire life in France. Her father, Louis-François Bertin, and also her brother later on, were the editors of Journal des débats, an influential newspaper. As encouraged by her family, Bertin pursued music...

, William Cusins, Julius Eichberg
Julius Eichberg
Julius Eichberg was a German-born composer, musical director and educator who worked mostly in Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States.-Biography:...

, Ferdinand Hérold, Frantz Jehin-Prume
Frantz Jehin-Prume
Frantz Jehin-Prume was a Canadian violinist, composer, and music educator of Belgian birth. He began his career as a highly successful concert violinist in Europe. From 1865 on he lived and worked mainly in Montreal, Canada; becoming one of the most important 19th century musical figures in Quebec...

, Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens
Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens
Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens , was an organist and composer for his instrument.Born at Zoerle-Parwijs, near Westerlo, Belgium, Lemmens took lessons from François-Joseph Fétis, who wanted to make him into a musician capable of renewing the organ-player's art in Belgium...

, Adolphe Samuel
Adolphe Samuel
Adolphe-Abraham Samuel was a Belgian music critic, conductor and composer. Samuel was Jewish, and late in life converted to Christianity. He spent much time in Brussels where he was a pupil of François-Joseph Fétis, and where he was a friend of Hector Berlioz...

, and Charles-Marie Widor
Charles-Marie Widor
Charles-Marie Jean Albert Widor was a French organist, composer and teacher.-Life:Widor was born in Lyon, to a family of organ builders, and initially studied music there with his father, François-Charles Widor, titular organist of Saint-François-de-Sales from 1838 to 1889...


Fétis and Berlioz

Some of his criticisms of contemporary composers have become quite famous, as well as the responses that they engendered. He said of Berlioz
Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz was a French Romantic composer, best known for his compositions Symphonie fantastique and Grande messe des morts . Berlioz made significant contributions to the modern orchestra with his Treatise on Instrumentation. He specified huge orchestral forces for some of his works; as a...

, "...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 1 February 1835 he wrote of the Symphonie Fantastique
Symphonie Fantastique
Symphonie Fantastique: Épisode de la vie d'un Artiste...en cinq parties , Op. 14, is a program symphony written by the French composer Hector Berlioz in 1830. It is one of the most important and representative pieces of the early Romantic period, and is still very popular with concert audiences...

, "[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."

Berlioz, who had proof-read Fétis’ editions of the first eight Beethoven symphonies for the publisher Troupenas, commented that “[Fétis had altered Beethoven’s harmonies] with unbelievable complacency. Opposite the E flat which the clarinet sustains over a chord of the sixth (D flat, F, B flat) in the andante of the C minor symphony, Fétis had naively written ‘This E flat must be F. Beethoven could not have possibly made so gross a blunder.’ In other words, a man like Beethoven could not possibly fail to be in entire agreement with the harmonic theories of M. Fétis.” Troupenas did in fact remove Fétis’ editorial marks, but Berlioz was still unsatisfied. He went on to criticize Fétis in one of the monologues of Lélio, ou le Retour é la vie, the 1832 sequel to Symphonie Fantastique
Symphonie Fantastique
Symphonie Fantastique: Épisode de la vie d'un Artiste...en cinq parties , Op. 14, is a program symphony written by the French composer Hector Berlioz in 1830. It is one of the most important and representative pieces of the early Romantic period, and is still very popular with concert audiences...

: “These young theorists of eighty, living in the midst of a sea of prejudices and persuaded that the world ends with the shores of their island; these old libertines of every age who demand that music caress and amuse them, never admitting that the chaste muse could have a more noble mission; especially these desecrators who dare lay hands on original works, subjecting them to horrible mutilations that they call corrections and perfections, which, they say, require considerable taste. Curses on them! They make a mockery of art! Such are these vulgar birds who populate our public gardens, perching arrogantly on the most beautiful statues, and, when they have soiled the brow of Jupiter, Hercules’ arm, or the breast of Jupiter, strut and preen as though they have laid a golden egg.”

Not one to be outdone, Fétis may have had the last word in this debate. In the 1845 edition of his treatise La musique mise a la porte de tout le monde, he describes the word “fantastique” saying that “this word has even slid into music. ‘Fantastique’ music is composed of instrumental effects with no melodic line and incorrect harmony.”

Music Theories

Although known primarily for his contributions to musicology and criticism, Fétis had effects on the realm of music theory as well. In 1841 he put together the first history of harmonic theory, his Esquisse de l’histoire de l’harmonie. Assembled from individual articles that Fétis published in the Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris around 1840, the book predates Hugo Riemann
Hugo Riemann
Karl Wilhelm Julius Hugo Riemann was a German music theorist.-Biography:Riemann was born at Grossmehlra, Schwarzburg-Sondershausen. He was educated in theory by Frankenberger, studied the piano with Barthel and Ratzenberger, studied law, and finally philosophy and history at Berlin and Tübingen...

’s more well known Geschichte der Musiktheorie by fifty years. The Esquisse, as the title implies, is a general outline rather than an exhaustive study. Fétis is attempting to show the “facts, errors, and truths” of previous theories and theorists, as he interprets them, in order to provide a solid grounding for other scholars and to prevent subsequent interpretive mistakes.

Fétis’ main theoretical work and the culmination of his conceptual frameworks of tonality and harmony is the Traité complet de la théorie et de la pratique de l’harmonie of 1844. This book has influenced later theorists and composers including Paul Hindemith
Paul Hindemith
Paul Hindemith was a German composer, violist, violinist, teacher, music theorist and conductor.- Biography :Born in Hanau, near Frankfurt, Hindemith was taught the violin as a child...

, Ernst Kurth
Ernst Kurth
Ernst Kurth, was a Swiss music theorist.- Career :Kurth studied musicology with Guido Adler in Vienna, and earned his Ph.D with a thesis about Christoph Willibald Gluck's's operatic style...

, and Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt ; ), was a 19th-century Hungarian composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher.Liszt became renowned in Europe during the nineteenth century for his virtuosic skill as a pianist. He was said by his contemporaries to have been the most technically advanced pianist of his age...

. In the Musik-Lexicon of 1882, Hugo Riemann
Hugo Riemann
Karl Wilhelm Julius Hugo Riemann was a German music theorist.-Biography:Riemann was born at Grossmehlra, Schwarzburg-Sondershausen. He was educated in theory by Frankenberger, studied the piano with Barthel and Ratzenberger, studied law, and finally philosophy and history at Berlin and Tübingen...

 states that “to [Fétis’] meditations we are indebted for the modern concept of tonality…he found himself emancipated from the spirit of a particular age, and able to render justice to all the various styles of music.” Though some other theorists, most notably Matthew Shirlaw, have had decidedly negative views, Riemann’s assessment captures the two key features of Fétis’ text. Though he did not coin the term “tonality,” Fétis developed the concept into its present day form. He claimed that “tonalité” is the primary organizing agent of all melodic and harmonic successions and that the efforts of other theorists to find the fundamental principle of music in “acoustics, mathematics, aggregations of intervals, or classifications of chords have been futile.”

The majority of the Traité complet is devoted to explaining how tonalité organizes music. The primary factor of determining tonality is the scale. It sets out the order of the succession of tones in major and minor (the only two “tonal” modes which he recognizes), the distances which separate the tones, and the resultant melodic and harmonic tendencies. Tonality is not only a governed and conditioned state, but it is a socially conditioned one. Scales are cultural manifestations, resulting from shared experience and education. Nature provides the elements of tonalité, but human understanding, sensibility, and will determine particular harmonic systems. This concept was called a “Metaphysical
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:...

 principle” by Fétis, though Dahlhaus
Carl Dahlhaus
Carl Dahlhaus , a musicologist from Berlin, was one of the major contributors to the development of musicology as a scholarly discipline during the post-war era....

 argues that the term is used in this case to denote an anthropological, culturally relative sense in his 1990 book Studies on the Origin of Harmonic Tonality, and theorist Rosalie Schellhous posits that the Kantian term “transcendental” might be more appropriate.

Harmonic and Rhythmic Modulation

However one wishes to interpret Fétis' Metaphysical theory, one of his more unique theoretical ideas is laid out in book 3 of the Traité complet, that of harmonic modulation. Fétis argues that tonality has evolved over the course of time through four distinct phases, or ordres:
  • Unitonic – Resulting from plainchant tonality, the unitonic phase consists mainly of consonant
    In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples are , pronounced with the lips; , pronounced with the front of the tongue; , pronounced with the back of the tongue; , pronounced in the throat; and ,...

     triads with no possibility for modulation due to the lack of the tritone
    In classical music from Western culture, the tritone |tone]]) is traditionally defined as a musical interval composed of three whole tones. In a chromatic scale, each whole tone can be further divided into two semitones...

     between the 4th and 7th scale degrees. This phase is also referred to by Fétis as tonalité ancienne.

  • Transitonic – Order which began with the introduction of the dominant 7th chord into harmonic discourse, sometime between Zarlino and Montverdi. This development is also directly related to the codification of cadential systems and periodic phrase structure.

  • Pluritonic – Modulation is achieved through enharmonic relationships in which one note of a chord is considered the point of contact between different scales. Fétis claims that Mozart was the first to use such modulations as a means of expression. In this order, the diminished 7th and augmented 6th chords become important as they can modulate to several different tonalities.

  • Omnitonic – The final phase of tonality, and one embodied for Fétis by Wagner, where the alteration of the intervals of natural chords and modification by substitution of notes is so complex that it becomes impossible to identify the original chord. This is seen as a period of extremes, and undesirable compared to the moderately chromatic music of Meyerbeer.

Fétis later applied this same system of ordres to rhythm, “the least advanced part of music...[where] great things remain to be discovered.” Though he did not publish these theories in any of his treatises, they appear in several articles for the Revue musicale and in some lectures which had a profound impact on Liszt
Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt ; ), was a 19th-century Hungarian composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher.Liszt became renowned in Europe during the nineteenth century for his virtuosic skill as a pianist. He was said by his contemporaries to have been the most technically advanced pianist of his age...

. Though music had not yet made it past the first phase, Unirhythm, by Fétis' time, he argues that composers may be able to “mutate” from one meter to another within the same melodic phrase. Though Liszt may have been an open disciple of the ideas of the Omnitonic and Omnirhythmic, the influence of such thinking can perhaps be seen most clearly in the music of Brahms
Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms was a German composer and pianist, and one of the leading musicians of the Romantic period. Born in Hamburg, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria, where he was a leader of the musical scene...

, where hemiola
In modern musical parlance, a hemiola is a metrical pattern in which two bars in simple triple time are articulated as if they were three bars in simple duple time...

and mixing of time signatures is a common occurrence.


  • “Antoine Stradivari, luthier célèbre (Paris, 1856)
  • “Biographie universelle des musiciens et bibliographie générale de la musique” (Brussels, 1835–1844)
  • “Biographies de Joseph et Michael Haydn” (Paris, n.d.)
  • “Curiosité historiques de la musique, complement nécessaire de La musique mise à la portée de tout le monde” (Paris, 1830)
  • “Esquisse de l’histoire de l’harmonie considérée comme art et comme science systématique” (Paris, 1840)
  • “Histoire générale de la musique” (Paris, 1869–76)
  • “Traité au contrepoint et de la fugue” (Paris, 1827)
  • “Traité du chant en choeur” (Paris, 1837)
  • “Traité complet de la théorie et de la pratique de l’harmonie” (Paris and Brussels, 1844)

Texts, Books

  • Books with "Fétis" as author (Google Books)
  • Books with occurrences of "Fétis" (Google Books)
  • Texts with occurrences of "Fétis" (

The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.