François Devienne

1759 1803

François Devienne

Composer

Biography

Devienne was a celebrated French wind instrumentalist – a flautist  and bassoonist – and composer and teacher. His compositions led to the overall improvement of works for wind instruments and his influential flute method and teaching at the Paris Conservatoire influenced many generations of flautists. He was also a successful opera composer, writing one of the most famous operas of his era.

François Devienne was born in Joinville in 1759, the seventh of eight children of Pierre Devienne and Marie Petit. Devienne’s training was a bit convoluted, as two facetious obituaries were published in 1803, which among other falsities, claimed that he wrote a mass at the age of 10 which was performed by the Royal Cravate cavalry regiment. It is believed that he mostly likely received his early musical training from the local organist Morizot and then with his brother and godfather, François Memmie, in Deux Ponts (now Zweibrücken) for two years, from 1776 to 1778. After leaving Deux Ponts in 1778, it is possible that Devienne stayed for a time with the Royal Cravate regiment.

In 1779, he joined the Paris Opéra orchestra as a bassoonist for one season, while studying flute with the principal flautist, Félix Rault. It is then probable that he entered into the service of Cardinal de Rohan as a chamber musician from 1785 to 1785. During this time he also joined the freemasons and most likely became a member of the Loge Olympique, the masonic orchestra, during the 1780s.

Devienne’s first work to be performed in Paris was one of his Bassoon Concertos, by Ozi in 1780 at the Concert Spirituel. Devienne also premiered what was likely his Flute Concerto No. 1 (1782) at the same location in 1782. He also performed his Bassoon Concerto No. 1 (1785) and appeared as a soloist at least 18 times between 1782 and 1785. Not much is known about Devienne’s whereabouts between 1785 and 1789, though it is possible that he became a member of the Swiss Guards Band in Versailles and returned to Paris in late 1788.

It is in 1788 that we can ascertain for certain his position, as he is listed inLes spectacles de Paris 1790 as the second bassoonist of the Théâtre de Monsieur (later the Théâtre Feydeau) from its opening in January 1789. By late 1790, he had moved up to the principal bassoon position, which he held until April 1801.

After his return to Paris, Devienne returned to the Concert Spirituel for solo appearances, including for the premiere of his Sinfonie concertante No. 4 in 1789. In 1790, in addition to performing with the orchestra, he joined the military band of the Paris National Guard, where he taught music to children and participated in many musical events throughout Paris. In 1792, this became the Free School of Music of the National Guard. Devienne, along with two other sergeants, formed the administration of the school. The school eventually became known as the National Institute of Music in 1793 and the Paris Conservatoire in 1795.

In 1790, the Théâtre Montansier opened. The theatre staged almost exclusively original Frenchoperas comiques. Among the operas staged there were Devienne’s Le marriage clandestine(1791) along with two others within the next year. His most popular opera,Les visitandines (1792) was staged at the Théâtre Feydeau. This opera was one of the most successful of the entire Revolutionary period. In Paris alone, the opera enjoyed more than 200 performances between 1792 and 1797. Performances of the opera continued until as late as 1920.

Sometime between 1789 and 1792, Devienne married Mlle Maillard. Together they had five children.

Devienne was a revolutionary flute teacher and published a famous method for the one-key flute in 1794. Its contents include flute techniques and performing practice, most notably 18th century articulation. Both elementary and intermediate duets for flute were also included in the method. Upon the establishment of the Paris Conservatoire in 1795, Devienne was appointed professor for flute and one of its nine elected administrators. In the following years, another three of his operas were staged and he split his time between the Théâtre Feydeau orchestra and the Conservatoire. During his professorship, five of his students won prizes between 1797 and 1801. One of his students, Joseph Guillou was later appointed professor of flute at the Conservatoire in 1816.

After the sudden closure of the Théâtre Feydeau in April 1801, the orchestra was merged with that from the Théâtre Favart in September. Together, they formed the new Opéra-Comique orchestra, though it is unknown if Devienne participated in this new orchestra.

By 1803, Devienne’s mentally health had declined dramatically and in May he entered a home for the mentally ill (the Charenton insane asylum) dying the following September.

Devienne’s work as a composer did much to improve the overall level of works for wind instruments during his time. His most important works are contained within the concerto, sinfonia concertante and opera genres, however he also composed much chamber music including 25 quartets, 46 trios, 147 duos and 67 sonatas. His works usually feature one main melodic line, mostly elegant and graceful in manner, with a subdued accompaniment. The works often lead way to moments of technical virtuosity, but rarely any thematic development or counterpoint. He had the tendency to adhere to the common forms and structures, such as the rondo and early sonata forms along with theme and variations and binary forms. Despite the fact that most of his works appear to have been published, the majority of his manuscripts are missing.

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