Bruges – Paris
The remarkable career of Hébert Leemans
A man from Bruges in Paris
There was no shortage of Flemish migrants in Paris in the first half of the 18th century. They were often skilled 2 craftsmen, attracted by the largest market for luxury
goods in Europe in what had been an era of peace, stability and economic development since the death
of Louis XIV in 1715. The Flemish migrants followed
an age-old pattern, as they tended to live in the same neighbourhoods and to seek out each other’s company in various cafés and associations. Some of these were artists: Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was born in Valenciennes in French Flanders before moving to Paris, where he profited from his Flemish heritage and became one of the most influential painters in 18th century France . Joseph Suvée (1743-1807), a painter from Bruges, entered and won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1771; Jacques-Louis David was one of that year’s unsuccessful candidates. What was true for painters was also true
for musicians. Hébert Leemans, was originally a citizen of Bruges, as was his contemporary Suvée; they both moved to the French capital at approximately the same time. Leemans was then to play a significant role in the development of the early French symphonic style.
Hébert Leemans (1741-1771) grew up in a family of musicians. His father, Adriaan Leemans (1707-1750), had moved from Lier to Bruges in 1737 to become not only
the city’s carillonneur but also the organist at St. Donaas’ Cathedral. His eldest son Joannes Leemans succeeded him as organist in 1748; Adriaan Leemans died in the autumn
of 1750. Joannes Leemans died in 1754 and was himself 3 succeeded in the position by Hieronimus Leemans, his
younger brother. A third brother, Johannes Hieronimus Leemans, was active as an organist in Bruges and played an active role in the Confrérie van het Concert in Bruges between 1750 and 1780; this was an association founded in 1746 by talented and passionate amateur musicians who met at regular intervals to play music privately and to give concerts in public. Its members were recruited from the well-to-do middle class and the proceeds from their concerts were often donated to charity. Little is known about their repertoire, but it was certainly the only place in Bruges where the young Hébert Leemans could regularly hear orchestral music performed at a particular level. Hébert was the youngest of the four brothers and received his musical education at home, presumably from his father and his older brothers.
We do not know exactly when Hébert Leemans went to Paris, although we do know that his Opus I was published
in Paris in 1765. His move to Paris seems to have been thoroughly prepared, as the young composer needed three things for such a shift to be successful: contacts in Paris who could show him around, a financial reserve large enough to bridge the period between his arrival and his first income, and a belief in his own talent and
4 in the trust others had in him. Leemans could count on the help of his godmother, the Bruges aristocrat Maria Anna van Caloen (1720-1785), wife to viscount Pieter de Vooght, alderman and high bailiff of the Brugse
Vrije; he dedicated another composition to her in 1767. Leemans initially gave private lessons to the children
and spouses of wealthy Parisian citizens and aristocrats, as did François-Joseph Gossec. A publication dated
1767 mentions Leemans as professeur de chant [et] de violoncelle. He was mentioned in 1771 as [un] des maîtres les plus habiles by the Parisian publisher Nicolas Crapart in a report on the state of singing in Paris, this undoubtedly referring to Leemans’ qualities as a singing teacher.
Alongside composing pastoral ariettas on texts by fashionable galant poets, Leemans seems to have been particularly successful in getting his symphonies published, thanks to the financial support of some of his generally young and influential aristocratic patrons. One of these was Louis Jean-Baptiste Antoine de
Colbert, marquis de Seignelay (1732-1813), a grandson of the great Colbert; Leemans dedicated his collection of six symphonies Opus I (1765) to him. Leeman’s last commission was for the three symphonies à grande orchestre (1771) dedicated to François Alexandre Frédéric de La Rochefoucauld (1747-1827). A study
of the addresses Leemans gave as his residence in his publications shows that he lived in the faubourg Saint-Germain during his time in Paris. This district was developed in the first half of the 18th century by the high French nobility, who at that time were moving away from the Marais and building more modern residences on the other side of the Seine. Given that Leemans seems to have worked principally for the fashion-conscious French aristocracy, it seems logical that he would have lived in their neighbourhood or even have moved in with them.
Leemans worked in Paris exclusively on his own account between 1765 and his shockingly premature death
in 1771. He was hired as a voice or cello teacher, he occasionally acted as an orchestra leader for private concerts, and composed symphonies and songs that were published by several Parisian firms with the help of his aristocratic clientele. He seems to have had a contented private life, having married Françoise Félicité Plancke (note the Flemish name) on 15 August 1769; there were two children of the marriage. Leemans’ death on 6 October 1771 seems to have been sudden. Not only are there no indications that he was ill, but Leemans was busy publishing new works and re-publishing earlier compositions at that time. We can see from the inventory drawn up after his death that the family did not live in poverty; he left his family a substantial inheritance, an indication that he had pursued his musical career with considerable success.
It is also interesting to note that Leemans called himself Leemans de Bruges in almost all of his publications.
The spelling of the city may vary (Bruges or Bruge), but nonetheless demonstrates that Leemans had not forgotten his native city. This also provides an interesting link to works by François Gossec, as he presented himself as Gossec d’Anvers in several publications from that time. Symphonic music underwent a particularly interesting evolution in Paris during the 1760s and 1770s, with the result that Gossec went on to become one of the most important figures in its development, whilst Leemans died before he had the chance to do so.
The symphony in Paris
Leemans’ most important surviving body of work is a collection of fourteen symphonies composed between
1765 and 1771. Symphonies were played in various places at that time, with smaller and larger associations
of Parisian amateurs who met regularly to make music, often in the open air; these societies often had illustrious names, one such being La Société académique des Enfants d’Apollon, founded in 1741. The best-known and prepared of these was Le Concert Spirituel; it had been founded in 5 1725 and had developed into the leading organisation for the performance of symphonic works by the middle of the century. Symphonies were also performed in monasteries, cathedrals, parish churches and episcopal palaces, and were even played during religious services.
The most prestigious place for their performance was in private households: wealthy aristocrats hired orchestras, employed a maître de musique or even kept their own orchestra. This last was of course limited to a very limited caste of 18th-century French aristocrats who used their concerts to display their own prominence.
This was the milieu for which Leemans composed his symphonies.
Gossec composed his first twenty-four symphonies between 1756 and 1762; these works define the style of Parisian symphonic music at that time, which until then had been dominated by the works of Johann Stamitz. Gossec had worked under Stamitz before becoming the director of the private orchestra of the famous
Alexandre Le Riche de La Pouplinière in 1754 and 1755; La Pouplinière had also been a patron of Rameau.
The first editions of Haydn’s symphonies appeared in Paris in 1764, with the result that the demand for symphonic music increased from the middle of the 18th century onwards; Parisian music publishers then increased their 6 production accordingly. Research has shown that more music was published in Paris between 1750 and 1770 than in all other cities combined. Le Concert des Amateurs, an orchestra of 73 musicians conducted by Gossec, was founded in Paris in 1769. It was large, professionally organised and performed for a broad paying audience of both citizens and aristocrats. This marked the beginning of the popular Parisian concert culture, with symphonies being performed before a large paying audience; its evolution would determine the development of the French symphony during the 1770s.
The symphonies of Hébert Leemans
Leemans’ production of fourteen symphonies that
we know of is by no means small in comparison with Gossec’s twenty-four symphonies. It is also strongly suspected that there are further symphonies that have not yet come to light: the publisher Le Menu included a catalogue of other publications by Leemans in his edition of Opus V, in which he mentions an unknown symphony
by Leemans “d’airs d’opéra comique”. There is also the lost volume of Leemans’ Opus 2. The symphonies of Opus I (1765) seem to have been written for orchestras that corresponded to the private orchestras of the aristocracy; Leemans therefore ensured not only that his works could also be played by strings alone but also mentioned that certain instruments could be replaced by others on the title page. He specified, to give one example, that the oboe parts can be exchanged for clarinets in the first
and third symphonies. In this Leemans follows Gossec’s practice in his sets of six symphonies Opus 4 (1758), Opus 5 (1761-1762), the symphony in D (1762) and Opus 8 (1765). Gossec explicitly specified the use of the clarinet only in his later symphonies. Other composers also included such an optional clarinet part, including Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809) in his symphonies Opus 3 (1762) and 4 (1767), and Carl Joseph Toeschi (1731-1788) in his symphonies Opus 3 (ca. 1765).
Leemans does not call for clarinets in the Trois simphonies (1765) published by Bérault, but notes that the oboes can be replaced by transverse flutes, also adding that
“les deux première se jouë Egalement sur la Clarinette”. We have chosen to use oboes in this recording.
The Trois simphonies à grande orchestre published as Opus 4 in 1771 reflect the previously mentioned change in concert culture during the 1770s, when the focus gradually shifted from aristocratic circles with smaller orchestras playing for a limited and elite audience to concerts played in public places and with large orchestras for a wider audience of both citizens and aristocrats. The symphonies of Hébert Leemans were not played at Le Concert Spirituel as far as we know.
There is much less information available, however, about Le Concert des Amateurs, and it is possible that Leemans composed his final set of symphonies for a performance planned there. The title page reads Trois simphonies à grande orchestre and calls for the customary four string parts supplemented by two oboes and two horns. Leemans was not able to continue on this path because of his death in the autumn of 1771; his significance for the French symphony was therefore limited to the late 1760s, the years that just preceded the great flowering of Parisian orchestras and their music.
Translation: Peter Lockwood