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The String Quartets of Anton Reicha

Fourth Sounding

Anton Reicha

A Brief History

by Ron Drummond

With few exceptions, the precise dating of Anton Reicha's 23-plus string quartets is not known; indeed, we may never be able to establish the order of their composition with certainty. Nevertheless, enough is known about some of the quartets that their probable dates or sequence of composition can be broadly inferred. Anything more precise won't be possible until a careful study of the quartet autographs (assuming they still exist) is undertaken, including a rigorous application of Alan Tyson's findings in the area of paper studies. Tyson's work over the last twenty years has helped to better establish the dating of numerous works by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and may well prove essential to dating Reicha's quartets.

Twenty of Reicha's string quartets were published during his lifetime – though none has been reprinted since his death. In the following, these quartets are listed in the order of their publication, with, for the first eight, my suppositions as to their dates of composition. Note the fourteen-year gap falling between the publication of the eight quartets of 1804-5 and the twelve of 1819-24.

Three String Quartets, Opus 48: in C, G, E flat (Vienna, late 1801-Jan 1803)
Breitkopf und Hartel, Leipzig, 1804
Three String Quartets, Opus 49: in c, D, B flat (Vienna, 1802-3)
Breitkopf und Hartel, Leipzig, 1804
Grand Quartet in C Major, Opus 52 (Vienna, 1803-4)
Breitkopf und Hartel, Leipzig, 1804-5
String Quartet in A Major, Opus 58 (Vienna, 1804-5)
Breitkopf und Hartel, Leipzig, 1805
Six String Quartets, Opus 90: in E flat, G, C, e, F, D
Ph. Petit, Paris, 1819
Simrock, Bonn & Köln, c. 1821
Breitkopf und Hartel, Leipzig, 1821
Three String Quartets, Opus 94: in A, E flat, f
Paccini, Paris, 1824
Hynard, Bordeaux, 1824?
Three String Quartets, Opus 95: in E, D, C
Paccini, Paris, 1824
Hynard, Bordeaux, 1824?

A recently published document sheds light on the dating of Opus 48. On 22 January 1803, Carl van Beethoven, acting as his older brother's secretary, wrote to the Leipzig music publishers Breitkopf und Hartel, offering, among other things, a number of works by Reicha for the publisher to consider. Among these is a set of three string quartets – almost certainly the three quartets of Opus 48 that Breitkopf und Hartel published the following year. If so, then this letter sets an outside date of 22 January 1803 for completion of those quartets. Given the fact that Reicha arrived in Vienna in late 1801, this places the composition of Opus 48 much closer to the publication of Beethoven's Opus 18 – the latter half of which appeared in the fall of 1801 – which supports the interpretation, based on the key arrangements of Reicha's first six published quartets (the three of Opus 49 appeared almost simultaneously with Opus 48 in 1804), that they constitute an explicit response to Beethoven's Opus 18. Indeed, it makes sense that, in the heat of his renewed friendship with Beethoven, who was quickly becoming world famous, Reicha would hunker down and get to work on a set of quartets as radical in its own way as Beethoven's.

Dating the 12 quartets published in Paris is considerably more problematical. It was only in the late teens of the century that Reicha achieved widespread fame, in part due to the popularity of his wind quintets and the publication of his treatises on melody and harmony, which led to his appointment as Professor of Counterpoint and Fugue at the Paris Conservatoire in 1818. On the swell of this new fame, Reicha found that he could now find publishers for a number of his older, previously unpublished works.

Peter Eliot Stone, author of the Reicha biography and worklist in the New Grove Dictionary, assigns the composition of the 12 Paris quartets to Reicha's Vienna years, 1801-8 – the same period that saw composition of his first eight quartets. Stone's placement of the Paris quartets in the worklist suggests his belief that at least some of them were written before the eight quartets of 1804-5. I've only heard one of the Paris quartets – the E minor, Opus 90, No. 4 – and it certainly struck me as being an earlier work than the quartets I've heard from Opp. 48, 49, 52, and 58. But on a single hearing that can be little more than supposition on my part.

Olga Sotolova is the author of a biography and thematic catalog of Reicha's works (Antonín Rejcha, Supraphon, Czechoslavakia, 1979; English translation 1990). Though riddled with errors (a situation no doubt exacerbated by the conditions under which the work was compiled – Sotolova of course lived under a Communist regime at the time, and her ability to gather materials or information from outside her country was severely curtailed), her book remains the most comprehensive modern assessment of Reicha's life and work. Though Sotolova suggests much later dates of composition for the Paris quartets, on such questions I've found her to be particularly unreliable, whereas Peter Eliot Stone has proven to be both more cautious and more accurate. (Sotolova includes a listing of six otherwise unknown quartets, "Opus 9", at a library in Italy: on investigation, however, it turns out these ghostly quartets are merely the library catalog's misprint of "Opus 90"!)

At this point, I am strongly inclined to believe that Stone is correct, and that all twelve of the Paris quartets date from the Vienna years or even earlier. (This view is supported, at least by association, by Reicha himself: in his autobiography, he specifically confirms that the three two-viola string quintets published in Paris in the early 1820s as Opus 92 date from the Vienna years.) My suspicion is that some or all of the six Opus 90 quartets were written before the eight quartets of 1804-5, and that the six quartets of Opp. 94 & 95 represent Reicha's last Vienna quartets (he quit Vienna for Paris in the Fall of 1808).

The unpublished string quartets are an interesting bunch:

Quatuor Scientifique, Vienna, 1806
Bibliotheque Nationale [BN], Ms 12020
[This massive quartet is in twelve movements, eight of which are fugues!]
La Pantomime, Fantasia for String Quartet, Vienna, 24 April 1806
BN, Ms 12020
General Overture for String Quartet Sessions, or: Verification of the Accord of String Instruments, Paris, 1816
BN, Ms 12035

In addition to these, there is a fragment in E flat (BN, Ms 12107) from circa 1799. Also, in Reicha's book, "Treatise on Musical Composition" (1824-26), included as extended musical examples are a number of original works for string quartet: five fugues, a variation set, a "Harmonie retrograde à 4", and a funeral march. Finally, in a U.S. library there's the manuscript of an "Armonia al revescio" for quartet, written (or completed) on 11 June 1834 – quite possibly Reicha's final musical composition.

And at this point, I'll only mention the existence of (at least) twelve duos for violin and cello, four duos for two violins, two string trios (one for three cellos!), three quintets for solo cello and string quartet, and seven quintets for two violins, two violas, and cello. The guy wrote more chamber music for strings alone than he did for woodwinds! And except for the cello quintets (the extraordinary recording on Sony Vivarte by Anner Bylsma & L'Archibudelli), none of these works has ever been recorded!

Another important question concerns the viability of the printed parts. While the quartets are more or less playable from the printed parts alone, there are more than a few printer's errors. With most of these errors, the correct reading can be inferred from the musical context. But there are enough errors of a problematical nature that it becomes particularly desireable to look at the autograph scores. Unfortunately, the literature is silent as to whether any of the autographs still exist. If they do, they are probably at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. An effort should be made to find out what's available there.

And, of course, there is a compelling need for a modern edition of these works, in score and parts. The work has barely begun!

I'll conclude this brief survey with a few notes about the reception history of Reicha's quartets. In Reicha's lifetime, the eight quartets of 1804-5 were never reprinted; the six quartets of Opus 90 were reprinted twice; and the six of Opera 94 and 95 were reprinted once. None of the quartets have been reprinted since Reicha's death.

There can be no doubt that Beethoven knew the quartets of 1804-5; through his brother Carl, he actively promoted their publication. It is highly likely that Franz Schubert played them as a teenager. Whether Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and Dvořák were familiar with any of Reicha's quartets is harder to establish, though some of the forward-looking qualities of the early quartets certainly suggest those later composers! But given the wider distribution of the quartets of 1819-24 (which, unlike the earlier works, appeared from more than one publisher), it was more likely these works that Mendelssohn et al. encountered – certainly Mendelssohn would have seen them as they appeared (we know that at one point he planned to visit Reicha in Paris, though nothing came of it). And in a letter of 15 May 1842, Gaetano Donizetti, recalling Mayr's quartet parties of the late 1810s to early 1820s, mentions playing the great quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Reicha.

As for the quartets' reception in the 20th century, with few exceptions they may as well have not existed. Paul Griffiths, in his The String Quartet: A History, dismisses Reicha's quartets with the mere mention of the Quatuor Scientifique. Peter Eliot Stone's positive and provocative remarks on the Grand Quartet Opus 52 in his New Grove article on Reicha all but exhausts modern critical commentary. The reason for this is simple: Reicha's string quartets have enjoyed no major evaluation in our time, save the on-going one you are participating in now by reading this gallery of articles, whatever its shortcomings.

In the early years of the century, someone in Italy created hand-written scores for at least two of the quartets, though whether for silent study or to prepare for a performance I have been unable to determine.

I am aware of only three public performances of Reicha's string quartets in the 20th century. On 2 December 1936, at a Paris concert honoring Reicha on the centenary of his death, the Calvet Quartet performed a quartet, though the one citation I've seen (in Sotolova) doesn't mention which quartet it was. As of December 1997, the Stamic or Stamitz Quartet of Prague was listing as part of its concert repertoire Reicha's "String Quartet in D Major, Opus 90, No. 5" – though Stone and Sotolova both give F Major as the key of No. 5, with No. 6 being in D. This could be a typo, or might reflect an alternative arrangement of the quartets in one or the other of Opus 90's contemporaneous reprints. In any event, presumably the Stamic performed some quartet of Reicha's at one or more recitals in the months or years immediately preceding December 1997. And lastly, the short-lived Vranitzky String Quartet performed Reicha's C minor quartet in Seattle on 20 November 1998.

The situation reminds me of the status of Beethoven's late quartets prior to the 1920s. Though I'm not suggesting that any of Reicha's quartets attain the level of late Beethoven, some of them are quite radical for their time, and indeed presage by twenty years many of Beethoven's developments. It is arguable that Beethoven's late string quartets were only given the chance to be fully restored to the repertoire – something which, again, did NOT happen until the 20th century – on the strength of Beethoven's "immortal" reputation. If the exact same works had borne Reicha's name instead, we'd be lucky to be hearing of them even now.

Copyright © 1999, 2000 by Ron Drummond.

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