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Anton Reicha

A Biographical Sketch

Anton Reicha

He was born Antonín Rejcha in Prague on 26 February 1770. His father died ten months later. Raised by a mother and stepfather who were unable to provide for his education, he ran away from home at age 11 and made his way to Wallerstein in Swabia, where he was taken in by his uncle, Josef Reicha, a composer and principal cellist in the celebrated orchestra of the Count, Kraft Ernst Oettingen-Wallerstein. With his name Germanicized to Anton Reicha, the boy immersed himself in the study of flute, violin, and piano. It was at Wallerstein that Reicha heard the earliest known work written for the combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, an Allegro in E flat by the court's composer, Antonio Rosetti.

In 1785, Josef Reicha was appointed Kapellmeister to the court of Maximillian Franz (brother of Joseph II) at Bonn. Young Anton joined the orchestra there, playing flute and befriending another youngster, a fifteen-year-old violist named Ludwig van Beethoven. Their friendship would last a lifetime. Anton took music lessons from Ludwig's teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe (who introduced him to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier), and on his own initiative began composing. Along with Beethoven, Reicha enrolled at the University of Bonn, and pursued his studies in philosophy, mathematics, and logic with a passion that would remain lifelong. In his memoirs, he wrote that he and Beethoven "were inseparable companions" during the Bonn years.

Reicha was forced by his uncle to flee the French invasion of Bonn in 1794. Settling in Hamburg, he taught music to survive and continued his academic studies. He gave up performing, and began a lifelong devotion to the philosophical and theoretical explication of music and music pedagogy, backed up with ceaseless compositional experimentation. By late 1797, he had composed at least fifteen string quartets; it's not clear whether any of them were ever published, though it's conceivable that Reicha wrote some of them for the use of his old Bonn friends, the string-playing cousins Bernard and Andreas Romberg, who like Reicha had fled to Hamburg in 1794.

In 1799, Reicha moved to Paris with two completed operas in hand, seeking success in that most competitive of fields, a success that would always elude him. But two new symphonies were well received, and he made numerous important friends, among them Cherubini and Méhul. Still, his repeated failure to negotiate the politics surrounding French opera and secure a commission soured him on the process. As he later wrote in his memoir, Notes sur Antoine Reicha (1824), these experiences led him to develop "a peculiar aversion to taking the steps necessary to have my works performed. I considered this a waste of time, and preferred to remain at work in my study." (This no doubt contributed to the posthumous neglect of Reicha's music.)

It also led him to quit Paris for Vienna late in 1801, where he renewed his friendship with Beethoven (in the heat of which he wrote the eight string quartets that are arguably his greatest works in the form) and became a devoted friend to the aged Joseph Haydn. Reicha's seven years in Vienna were quite probably the most important years of his life from a compositional standpoint. The fifty-odd works written during this time are without question his most stylistically diverse and radically experimental. They include the 36 Piano Fugues, Opus 36, written "according to a totally new method" that left its traces in Beethoven's Eroica and late fugues; L'art de varier, Opus 57, an encyclopedic set of piano variations; ten string quartets; ten string quintets; and numerous other chamber works, symphonies, and choral works, including a cantata, Lenore, and a Requiem.

Reicha settled permanently in Paris in late 1808, where, as in Vienna, he supported himself teaching privately, and continued to compose. Around 1812, at the behest of the professors of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon at the Paris Conservatoire, he began the series of 25 wind quintets that would make him famous. Reicha systematically explored the permutations of wind quintet sonority, and simultaneously perfected large scale sonata structures that could accommodate as many as five principle themes.

In 1814 he published the first of the musical treatises that would secure his posthumous fame, Traité de mélodie. Together with the Cours de composition musicale, published in 1816, it led to Reicha's appointment as Professor of Counterpoint and Fugue at the Paris Conservatoire in 1818. These and other works were widely translated (by Carl Czerny among others) and became standard teaching tools through most of the 19th century. In his most controversial work, Traité de haute composition musicale (1824-26), he advocated the development of quarter-tone notation, proposed speaking choruses, and formulated a 200-piece orchestra. The final volume of this work, containing Reicha's speculations on the future of music, was published the month Berlioz signed up for Reicha's class at the Conservatoire. Berlioz, who would later base his treatment of the viola theme in Herold en Italie on Reichan procedures (and whose theme clearly echoes the theme from the variation movement of Reicha's G Major string quartet, Opus 48 No. 2), went on to fulfill several of Reicha's predictions.

Reicha married Virginie Enaust in 1818; they had two daughters, Antoinette Virginie (b 1819) and Mathilde Sophie (b 1824).

Though he continued to experiment compositionally (most notably in the Études de piano, Opus 102), in general the music of Reicha's Paris years was relatively conservative. In this as in so much else, Reicha's path was the opposite of Beethoven's: Beethoven's experiments grew bolder with time, became more self-assured even as they staked out increasingly rarefied musical territory. Reicha, on the other hand, was at his most radical early on (indeed, one could argue that no other composer in history was as insistently experimental). Out of the many new structural and expressive possibilities he explored during the Vienna years, he chose those few that he found to be the most promising, and spent the rest of his life refining them. (Even the wind quintets, which came later, had their antecedents in the quintets for viola and wind quartet that Reicha wrote in Vienna.) During the Paris years, then, Reicha, with increasing self-assurance, explored with meticulous care and dedication (and, more often than not, genuine inspiration) the narrower musical path he'd so carefully chosen. Understanding this is absolutely crucial to understanding Reicha's development as a composer. Further, developing a full appreciation of Reicha's compositional oeuvre is predicated on understanding that it contains everything from the pedestrian to the profound, from the driest of pedagogical works to the juiciest of musical inventions.

He continued to write opera, and even occasionally managed to get them staged; none was successful. Nevertheless, he considered Sapho (1822) to be amongst his greatest achievements.

The fame that the wind quintets and treatises brought him meant that Reicha was able to find publishers not only for his new music but for many older works as well. Unfortunately, the fact that both old and new works received high opus numbers has made establishing an accurate compositional chronology problematical.

Though Reicha outlived Beethoven by nine years, he ceased writing large-scale musical compositions after 1826. Instead, Reicha concentrated on finishing his last great treatise, Art du compositeur dramatique, published in 1833. He was granted French citizenship in 1829, and received the Legion of Honor in 1831. Amongst his many students, Reicha counted Liszt, Berlioz, Gounod, Franck, Adam, Onslow, Farrenc, and Arriaga. Indeed, Reicha's influence on the Romantic generation of composers was so extensive and so varied that one modern scholar describes him as the secret pivot-point of the Romantic Era. He died on 28 May 1836.

Copyright © 2003 and 2006 by Ron Drummond.

An early version of this biographical sketch first appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of The Chamber Music Journal, published by the Cobbett Association. Another version appears as part of the introductory essays in the scores of The Vienna String Quartets of Anton Reicha, recently published by Merton Music. Reprinted with permission.