You have to pity those composers who got air-brushed out of the limelight during their time for no other reason than they were contemporaries of the acknowledged masters, and so had to live under the long shadows of composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and so on.
Or, at least, it seems to us that they were unduly neglected. It’s nearer the truth to say that societies of their day did afford them recognition, but the passing of time has not been so accommodating.
In this year marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven, let’s refocus for a while on another composer who was also born in 1770. I’m referring to Prague-born Reicha, who trails a variety of forms of his Christian name in his wake. I’m going for Antonín for the purposes of this blog.
Antonín was just one year old when his father, Prague’s town piper, died. His bereaved mother showed no signs of either wanting or being able to look after him. As a result, Antonín ran away to his paternal grandfather when he was eleven years old, and from there it was arranged that he would be passed into the care of his uncle Josef, a highly respected cellist and Konzertmeister at the celebrated court of Öttingen-Wallenstein in Schwabia. Encouraged by the prospect of a proper education and family life, Antonín set out on the journey alone, recalling later that the worst moment came as he tried to cross the border at Regensburg. With no documentation and speaking very little German, he waited until the customs officer had started his lunch and then feigned eye trouble, explaining that he had his papers somewhere, and wanted to visit a shrine in the hope of a miraculous cure. The ruse worked, and the bemused offical allowed him to cross.
During the next three years Antonín learned to play the flute, violin and piano and by 1785, when his uncle Josef was appointed leader of the Elector’s orchestra in Bonn, Antonín was sufficiently accomplished to join him as a flautist and violinist. And there he was to meet another young musician whom the Elector had appointed as an organist and viola-player—none other than Ludwig van Beethoven. The two quickly became friends.
We’ll break the story there to hear some of Reicha’s music. He’s particularly remembered for his chamber music, not least for his two dozen or so wind quintets. Here’s the Finale: Allegretto of the wind quintet Op. 88, No. 2 that he went on to write in 1814.
Finale: Allegretto (8.550432)
We left the young Reicha and Beethoven not only consolidating their friendship in Bonn but also making such good progress in their composition lessons with Christian Neefe that in 1792 both were offered the chance to study with Haydn in Vienna. So, let’s also briefly doff the hat to teacher Neefe by playing a movement from a set of 12 Keyboard Sonatas he wrote in 1773, a time when Neefe’s music flourished as the Baroque was giving way to the Classical period; also the time when Reicha and Beethoven were both 3-year-old toddlers. It’s the Allegro con spirito first movement of the opening sonata in that set.
Allegro con spirito (GP615-16)
Beethoven accepted that invitation to study with Haydn; Antonín opted to stay put in Bonn until 1794, when the city was occupied by Napoleon’s troops. Antonín was dispatched by his uncle Josef to the relative security of Hamburg. Released from performing in the court orchestra, he now turned to composition, teaching and philosophy. Following ill health, however, he moved to Paris in 1799 and then, owing to that city’s political uncertainty, moved to the more stable environment of Vienna in 1801. Although Beethoven’s friendship with Haydn had soured by this time, Antonín enjoyed the friendship of both for the next seven years, acting as a translator when either of them received French visitors, and regarding Haydn as something of a role model.
At this point we can take a moment to hear another extract of Antonín’s music that again features a wind instrument—the clarinet—but this time alongside a string quartet. It’s the Andante Siciliano from his Clarinet Quintet, Op. 107.
Andante Siciliano (SWR10387)
Antonín was an ardent champion of change and developed his own philosophy of music and aesthetics, arguing that ’old’ forms such as the fugue would have a place in modern music only if composers also challenged accepted norms such as the need for barlines or for works to start and end in the same key. He then demonstrated some of his ideas in the Practische Beispiel, a set of 36 bizarre fugues for piano which include unusual rhythms, time signatures and harmonies; they were published in 1803. We’ll hear a sample of his keyboard writing not via those fugues but from his L’Art de varier Op. 57, published a year later. It consists of a theme followed by a mammoth set of 56 variations, a numerical record, at least until Paganini, thirty years later, composed his 60 Variations on Barucabà. Here’s Antonín’s theme, followed by the first and the last variations.
Variation 1 (CDS363)
Variation 56 (CDS363)
In 1803, the year before the publication of that keyboard music, Antonín had written his Symphony in E flat major, Op. 41. The following year, in 1804, Beethoven wrote his ground-breaking Third Symphony, Eroica. The comparison perhaps neatly exemplifies why Beethoven’s symphonies enjoyed greater anticipation by the general public. Nonetheless, let’s allow Antonín a bit of breathing space with an extract from his first foray into symphonic writing. It’s the symphony’s Un poco vivo last movement.
Un poco vivo (C71110)
The following year, in 1805, Napoleon’s troops entered Vienna; Antonín moved back to Paris three years later, where he was never able to earn his living exclusively as a composer. He changed his first name to Antoine and began to earn a reputation as an effective and entertaining teacher; as such, his pupils included Berlioz, Liszt, Franck and Gounod. By 1818 his reputation as a member of the French musical establishment was confirmed by his appointment to teach composition at the Paris Conservatoire. He died in Paris in 1836.
We’ll end this brief introduction to Reicha’s music with an extract from his dramatic cantata Lenore, completed in 1806 (and not to be confused with the subject matter of Beethoven’s Leonore). Lenore awaits her beloved Wilhelm’s return from the Seven Years War. He arrives and urgently proposes to whisk her away on horseback to their nuptials. Her fearful instincts correctly warn caution, but his merciless insistence wins through. The ensuing ride through the night teems with fearful visions: a death march procession; ghastly dancing spirits; graves and tombstones. At journey’s end Wilhelm transforms into a skeleton before disappearing into oblivion. Wailing ghouls surround the terrified Lenore. Our extract depicts the final storm and choir of ghosts entreating God to show mercy on her soul. Splendid stuff.