FRANÇOIS DE FOSSA, A French Guitarist in Mexico

Published by Legacy of Matanya Ophee on

by Matanya Ophee

This article was presented as a spoken lecture at the IV International Guitar Festival in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in November of 1997. Several small modifications have been made to the spoken text to prepare it as an article. I wish to express my gratitude to Roland d’Ornano Esq. Of Marseille, France, a seventh generation direct descendant of François de Fossa, for making the portraits of the composer available to all.

The purpose of this lecture is to introduce to you a French guitarist-composer who lived at the early part of the nineteenth century—François de Fossa.

The work I chose to open this discussion is the Fifth Fantasie on the air “Les Follies d’Espagna” Op. 12 by de Fossa. There are two reasons why I chose this piece. The first reason is that this was the work which first attracted me some twenty years ago to find out who this man was. The second variation was always known to me as the famous Estudio de Campanelas by Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909). I wanted to know who wrote this music first.

The second reason is nothing more than a figment of my imagination. From all the hundreds of sets of variations on the La Folia theme, there are two which stand in my mind as the most closely related—this one, and the one by Manuel Maria Ponce (1882-1948). I have no reason to suspect that Ponce knew the work of de Fossa. Obviously, the treatment given to the theme by these two composers is entirely different—one is based on classic formulas, the other is in the specific contemporary language of the Mexican master. Yet, most subjectively I must admit, I feel a commonality of spirit between these two. It is possible that my disposition to regard the two compositions as related to one another, is based on my knowledge that in the early years of his life François de Fossa lived in Mexico. While we do not know this for a fact, it may have been that he acquired his early knowledge of music and the guitar here in this country. So who was this man? 

François de Fossa was born in Perpignan on August 31, 1775. His father, also named François de Fossa, was one of the most important historians of the region of French Catalonia, known as the Roussillon. He was a distinguished jurist, head of the faculty of law at the university of Perpignan and a prolific writer.

Not much is known about the education of young François. But having been absorbed with the erudition and learning which must have permeated the household in which he grew up, one can only infer that he must have been exposed to musical culture in his youth.

Shortly after the outbreak of the French Revolution de Fossa emigrated to Spain where he joined the Spanish army as a Volunteer in a company of French army officers and Gentlemen of the Nobility, called the Legion of the Pyrénées. He served there from the creation of the battalion in 1793, and participated in many of its campaigns. In 1796 he was summoned by Miguel d’Azanza, at the time the Spanish war minister, to serve directly under him. In 1789 d’Azanza was named by Carlos IV as Viceroy of Mexico and took de Fossa with him there. After spending some time in Mexico City and Puebla, de Fossa joined the infantry company in Acapulco as a “Cadete Gentilhombre.” In 1800 he was promoted to second-lieutenant. He returned to Spain on orders of the King in 1803. After several military appointments and promotions, he was assigned to the Ministry of the Indies as a Bureau Chief. Eventually, he rejoined his regiment at the rank of Captain. In the battle of Granada, January 29, 1810, he was taken a prisoner by the French, brought to Madrid where he was paroled by Joseph Bonaparte and assigned by him to his old post at the Ministry of the Indies. On the fall of Bonaparte in 1813, he fled to France with the French army which he then joined as a Captain. De Fossa returned to Spain, this time on the French side taking part in the 1823 campaign of the Duc d’Angoulème in Catalonia. At the end of this campaign, he was promoted to the rank of Chef de Bataillon, and in 1825 he was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. Later he participated in the war against Algeria. He retired from military service in 1844. François de Fossa died in Paris on June 3, 1849.

It seems that de Fossa started to compose for the guitar already in 1808. In a letter which he wrote from Madrid to his sister in Perpignan in that year he relates of his attempts to supplement his meager government salary with composing music for the guitar. He even reports that some of his quartets were performed publicly and that he was called by his admirers Haydn of the Guitar. But Madrid of 1808 was not a good place to build a musical career and he soon realized that he should seek his fortunes in other professions. De Fossa indeed never made music a full time career. That did not stop him from composing, and when the time came, from publishing in France and in Germany a considerable number of musical works.

De Fossa’s taste in musical composition, judging from his known works, was directed towards chamber music with other guitars, and with string instruments and piano. He also wrote a few works for the solo guitar and for the solo harpo-lyre.

His original compositions show a refreshing degree of musical sophistication. His was not a mere repetition of formulas, but an attempt to create original music in tune with its time. He prided himself on being a modern composer writing in a modern able, and his work would attest to the fact that he was eminently successful. Since he made the conscious choice of not using music as a means of earning a living, he was free to write, and later to publish, music which pleased his aesthetic sense of balance, without having to cater to the commercial considerations of a publisher. Typically for de Fossa’s compositions, the original works as well as those based on the music of Haydn, demonstrate an unusual richness of melodic materials and amusing surprises dispersed throughout. Syncopated rhythms, often bound together with dissonant pedals, unexpected dynamics, harmonic sleight-of-hand, unusual and frequent modulations and rich dialogue-type texture, all contribute to create a vibrant and intense music. The composer knew the guitar well, the writing is technically idiomatic and exploits a wide variety of instrumental resources. Certainly, his works exhibit a tasteful treatment of classical patterns and a high level of compositional technique.

A major contribution of de Fossa’s to the repertoire of the guitar, besides his own music, is the fact that thanks to his copy of the guitar quintets of Boccherini, the only existing source for most of the surviving quintets, we are able today to enjoy this superb treasure of eighteenth century chamber music, perhaps the cornerstone of chamber music with guitar.

De Fossa was very well known to guitarists of his generation. He had a particularly close relationship with Dionisio Aguado who dedicated to him several of his compositions such as op. 2, Trois Rondos Brillants and Op. 15, Le Menuet Affandangado. Aguado’s Op. 4, Six Petites Pièces, is dedicated to Mme. Sophie de Fossa, our composer’s wife. Moreover, when he published his Escuela of 1825, Aguado invited de Fossa to write the theoretical part of the book. In this book Aguado says:

Don Francisco de Fossa, amigo mio y sugeto de grandes conocimientos musicos, se ha servido honrar esta escuela rectificando algunas teorías, y completándola con un compendio de reglas para modular en la guitarra, cuyo instrumento le es familiar.

(Don Francisco de Fossa, a friend of mine and a man of great musical knowledge, has consented to honor this Escuela by correcting some musical theories, and by completing with a Compendium of rules of modulations on the guitar, an instrument with which he is familiar)

Elsewhere in this book, Aguado credited de Fossa with the invention of artificial harmonics, a technical device that guitarists take today for granted. When Aguado was ready to publish a French version of the Escuela in 1826, the job of translating and annotating it fell naturally on de Fossa. The Aguado-de Fossa Escuela is, in my estimation, the most important guitar method to have been published in the early nineteenth century. In his own Method of 1830, Fernando Sor refers to it on more than one occasion.

As I mentioned before, de Fossa lived for a period of almost five years in Mexico. As a military officer under the protection of the viceroy Miguel d’Azanza, he must have found his way in the upper echelons of Mexican society. At one point, it seems, he fell in love with a young maiden from the city of Querretaro, one Maria Guadalupe Dominguez y Alarcón, the young daughter of Don Miguel Dominguez (?-1830), the Corregidor [Justice of the peace] of Querretaro from his first wife. He asked for her hand in marriage, and her father agreed. The archives of the Spanish Army in the town of Segovia, Spain, contain the full dossier of the affair, including the official petition de Fossa submitted to the King for a permission to marry, as was required by law, and several supporting documents. One of these documents is the official agreement by Don Miguel to this marriage. Here is a facsimile of it:

Please notice the signature at the bottom of the document. And here is facsimile of the signature of Don Miguel as it appears in “Resumen integral de MEXICO a través de los siglos. Tomo III) by Julio Zarate. (Mexico, 1969).

As we can see, there is no question about the authenticity of the Segovia military documents. As we can also see, the documents clearly identify not only the father and the bride-to-be, but also the young woman’s step-mother, the Corregidor’s second wife, Doña Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez (?-1829), a woman known in Mexican history as la Corregidora, the chief instigator of the Insurgency of 1810.

It seems though, that the marriage never took place. There is no mention of such a marriage in the extensive documents about de Fossa which are preserved in several French and Spanish archives. I also have not been able to find such records in any Mexican archives or historical sources. What I did find, in the Fond Fossa in the Archives Departmentales in Perpignan, is a curious document, written in Spanish, clearly in the hand writing of de Fossa himself.

The document commences with these words:

Consultation with Mr. Parish Priest of A… one of his parishioners under the precise condition of being treated and answered Sub sacro Confessionis Sacramentalis Sigillo.[1]Originally translated in 1985 by Mariela Anderson to whom I am grateful. The present translation has been modified in places by myself.

My beloved and venerated Pastor. We, the ones who have the glory of being enlisted under the banner of Catholicism; the ones who serve a God of Peace, Who is twice the Father of mortals, we who are afflicted with the miseries of this human life, we know that we have to find in His infinite mercy a safe harbor against the tempests of the century, that in His extreme kindness, He wished to leave on earth in the person of His Ministers those who would serve as representatives of his clemency and Divine authority for the consolation of the grief-stricken, the solace of the abandoned, the cure of the terrible illness of our passions. With this well-founded confidence I have come to disclose to your grace some weaknesses and frailties of my heart, expecting that the Evangelical charity proper to the Sacred Minister and exercised and restricted to your person, will supply me with the light to guide and assure my steps in the gloomy and winding paths of uncertainty that mark my errant and confused imagination.

At the beginning of the past year, that of ’98, I met in one city of Spain a virgin girl with whom I established a particularly close relationship, whom I’ll now call Clotilde: a thousand promises of loving each other all of our lives and of never breaking the bonds of fidelity that we had promised one another lay the foundations, in spoken and written words, of the mutual love that inflamed us. This, far from diminishing with absence, only grew: on neither side was there the least sign of coolness in the half-year that passed until I went to this America, nor up to the end of ’99, when I started to experience a notable lack of letters from Clotilde, ever more astonishing since up to that time I had not had the mail pass without taking advantage of it. At the same time, rumors were afloat that she had married, and so has been reported by a Clergy from her own country who lived with me. I couldn’t believe it at first, neither did I stop writing her every time someone departed for that Peninsula. After a short while an intimate friend was leaving and I expressly commissioned him to see the interested party (after having informed him of the truth of the rumors that were abound), and learn from her own mouth what were her intentions towards me and let me know by return mail.

I waited for a long time without receiving a letter from either one; I finally got one from that confidant of mine; but after all, he excused himself with frivolous pretexts because he hadn’t been able to do what I had asked him. In any event, he wrote to me from a town that was only two leagues from the home of Clotilde. I am definitely surprised at his laziness and negligence. The continuous silence of that girl contributes, in my point of view, a degree of evidence to my already well-founded suspicions. I let myself believe the news of her move, persuading myself that my friend, knowing the blind love that I felt for her, didn’t want to knock my feelings down with the confirmation of unfortunate news.

With this firm concept, and finding things to distract me, I started to take notice of the merits of a young, modest, well-educated girl (let’s call her Lucretia), whose virtues acquire additional brilliance because of the contrasting viciousness of a stepmother who lived with her. This person, whose real name we shall hide under the one of Clemira, who presented in her dissolute way of thinking an atrocious assembly of depraved circumstances. Previously she had managed, not without shame or remorse on my part, to make me surrender twice to her dishonesty, in the immense holocaust of a brutal debauchery, knocking down the friendship that her husband, Don Juan, felt for me. (Her husband, by the way, deserved a woman more like his daughter Lucretia.) It seemed to me, when looking into the eyes of Lucretia, that I saw some stinging but silent agreement (given her natural shyness and virgin status, this was the only weapon against me). Ashamed of a weakness that neared depravity and with a full measure of admiration for the delicacy with which that girl had let me understand, I strove, from that point on, to cut at its source the infamy that I was beginning to have with the stepmother.

Using pseudonyms in reference to the various persons in his story, de Fossa tells his confessor a long and involved story of unrequited love, and the hopes of married bliss to the young woman, dreams which were disrupted by various actions taken by the young woman’s step-mother.Of course, at this point in time, it is not possible to ascertain if the events described by de Fossa in this confession have any relation to the family of Don Miguel Dominguez, or are simply the fruits of a very active imagination. What we do know for sure, is that at the end of his confession, de Fossa asked the confessor for permission to annul the marriage contract. In his response, the confessor, Timoteo Garcia de Solalinde, agreed that under the specific conflicts between the various personages involved, it would be better if the marriage did not take place.

Another thing we do know for sure is that in spite of the fact that he married Marguerite Sophie Vautrin in 1825 with whom he had three children, de Fossa always kept this confession document among his papers. It is still kept at the Archives Departmentales de Pyrenées Orientales in Perpignan until today, 148 years after his death. That fact tells me one thing: whatever had been the real story of his proposed marriage into the family of the Corregidor, François de Fossa had never forgotten Mexico.

Copyright © 1999 by Matanya Ophee. All Rights Reserved.


1 Originally translated in 1985 by Mariela Anderson to whom I am grateful. The present translation has been modified in places by myself.


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