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The String Quartets of Anton Reicha

Third Sounding

Anton Reicha

Program Notes for a Performance of
Antonín Rejcha's C Minor String Quartet

by Ron Drummond

The full extent of the creative rivalry between Antonín Rejcha and Ludwig van Beethoven, arising out of a friendship dating back to their early teens, will probably never be known. Nevertheless, there is much we can yet learn.

Rejcha's seven years in Vienna, from late 1801 to late 1808 – the heart of Beethoven's heroic decade – was a crucial period in his own development. As Rejcha later recalled, "The number of works I finished in Vienna is astonishing. Once started, my verve and imagination were indefatigable. Ideas came to me so rapidly it was often difficult to set them down without losing some of them. I always had a great penchant for doing the unusual in composition. When writing in an original vein, my creative faculties and spirit seemed keener than when following the precepts of my predecessors." As for the neglect into which Rejcha's music has fallen – especially the works of the Vienna years – Rejcha himself provides some insight: "Many of my works have never been heard because of my aversion to seeking performances," he wrote. "I counted the time spent in such efforts as lost, and preferred to remain at my desk."

Besides numerous symphonies, cantatas and sacred choral works, Rejcha wrote all twenty of his published string quartets in Vienna, as well as nine string quintets (six with two violas, three for solo cello and string quartet), four duos for two violins, a string trio, and a trio for three cellos. Indeed, Rejcha wrote more chamber music for strings alone than he did for winds alone, although the 25 wind quintets that he later wrote in Paris remain his only works to receive anything like regular performance today.

The full extent of Rejcha's musical wealth is only now becoming clear. Indeed, Rejcha's string quartets and string quintets, on the first close examination they've enjoyed in over a century, are proving to be amongst his most radically experimental works.

These experiments, though rooted in a thorough understanding of the innovations of Haydn and Mozart, were so bizarre for their time that they afford glimpses into the musical future. It's as if, listening at the dawn of the nineteenth century, Rejcha in his quartets and quintets overheard late Beethoven and late Schubert, overheard Schumann and Brahms and Dvořák, overheard Bartók and modern jazz. Some of these experiments Rejcha later expanded upon; most he did not. There are even, incredibly, musical juxtapositions in Rejcha's quartets the implications of which no composer has yet explored.

Beethoven particularly praised Rejcha's cantata Lenore. At least one scholar has written of the influence of Rejcha's 36 Piano Fugues Opus 36 on Beethoven's Eroica. Aside from a close knowledge on each man's part of the other's symphonies, it is increasingly apparent that their fiercest engagement as friends and fellow journeymen was in the arena of the string quartet. Yet it would be a mistake to characterize a very real (if mostly friendly) creative rivalry as being essentially competitive. It wasn't. The innovations of one man tended to inspire or help the other to the deeper and richer exploration of the territory he was already surveying on his own. Beethoven and Rejcha, innovators par excellance, tended to push away from one another in their explorations. It was perhaps inevitable that they would eventually lose sight of one another completely. Indeed, from the Classical Era, you will not find two composers whose compositional styles and career paths are more divergent than those of Ludwig van Beethoven and Antonín Rejcha.

Rejcha's first six string quartets, published in two groups of three as Opus 48 and Opus 49 by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1804, constitute a very explicit response to Beethoven's Opus 18. Five of the quartets share key signatures with the Beethoven. Three of those occur in the same positions in their respective sets: in both sets, No. 2 is in G, No. 4 is in C minor, No. 6 is in B flat. So Rejcha's, as Beethoven's, String Quartet No. 4 is in C minor. But Rejcha had no interest in besting Beethoven at Beethoven's chosen procedures. Rejcha's achievement is precisely that he develops procedures that are wholly his own, procedures as intricately and rigorously worked out as Beethoven's, and as unique.

Rejcha delighted in creating thematic puzzles. In his use of sudden, unprepared modulations into remote key areas, he expanded on the work of Emanuel Bach. His rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, and textural juxtapositions elicit insights and emotions arising not so much from the material juxtaposed as from the juxtaposition itself. By the careful orchestration of such dislocations, Rejcha is able to imply musical effects not explicitly contained in the music; he evokes what is absent from the music by what is present. In the Classical Era, only Beethoven in his final string quartets, written twenty years later, would realize the full potential of such techniques, and thereby transcend them.

Yet it appears that Beethoven did not wait twenty years to take up the challenge. There is a very real sense in which the three quartets of Opus 59 are a response to Rejcha, especially the two quartets Rejcha published one-to-an-opus in 1805: the Grand Quartet in C Major, Opus 52, and the Quartet in A Major, Opus 58.

In the C minor quartet, you may hear foreshadowings of Schubert or even Bartók, as, in certain of Rejcha's other quartets, you may get a taste of Brahms or Dvořák. But one thing becomes abundantly clear: Rejcha's quartets are uniquely his own.

Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000 by Ron Drummond.

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