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The String Quartets of Anton Reicha

Appendix C

Czech Classicism - The Sweat of the Brow

by Ron Drummond

For most lovers of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, the music of these composers is heard in, if not a vacuum, then in relative isolation. We hear them in the context of their own and of one another's music. With a little study, we can place them broadly in their times in terms of politics, religion, and economics, amidst the science, art, and literature of their most prominent contemporaries. But with the exception of the occasional token piece of music by one of the era's "lesser" composers, the three "greats" alone are heard. The drawing rooms, the churches, the princely halls, the theaters of Europe might just as well have been utterly and completely silent on those occasions when the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was not being played, for all the impact the music that was played has had on how the vast majority of people hear the music of those three composers.

The musical context the casual listener brings to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven is almost entirely music from earlier epochs and later. While these musics do inform how we hear them, I've found in my own investigations that there is a dimension to the music of the "greats" that remains impoverished, that remains utterly inaccessible, when the music of their immediate contemporaries remains silenced. (And, yes, I believe the extraordinarily large amount of fine music from many of those contemporaries is worth exploring in and of itself.) Those halls, churches, living rooms, theaters were raucous with music, with shouting and laughter and discovery – and damn it, I want to hear it, even if all that can be accessible to our distant ears are the passionate echoes.

What we need – what I someday hope to contribute to creating – is a portrait of that time that looks at the ferment, the endless movement, the dailiness of musical lives in all their complexity and sheer numeric proliferation. Making music, whether playing or composing it, is a living activity, full of crooked wigs and spilled beer and social faux pas as much as charm and wit, as much as genius and sweat and candle smoke in the concertmaster's eyes.

And though I believe that there are moments in the music of Pavel Vranický, of Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven and others, that eerily and truly speak from holiness and light, the miracle is that fallible and footsore earthlings birthed or midwifed such utterances. And, once uttered, do we really think they must shake off their earthly trappings as something beneath notice? I think not. The pain and joy of illuminations hard-won is precisely what makes those illuminations worth winning.

We need, among other things, a portrait of Czech emigre musicians and composers in Vienna, c. 1770 - c. 1825. But not in isolation – as so many of the studies of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are, with their unquestioning subject-centrism – rather, in all their glorious interpenetrations with the lives of the city. By evoking the long ago echoes in all the hot-bloodedness and, yes (for they are not incompatible), all the discerning intelligence we can muster, we can begin to redress the balance, we can shake the dust from our pages if not from our passions and restore at least some measure of lost clarities to our present understandings, to our moment's pleasures, and thereby, immeasurably enrich our futures.

But to shift gears a bit: we (all the scholars, historians, and appreciators of music) kid ourselves if we think we know the early history of the string quartet. We don't know it at all. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, more string quartets were composed by Czech composers than by composers of any other nationality – only the Italians were anywhere near as prolific. Just off the top of my head: Vanhal and Krommer wrote over a hundred each; Pavel Vranický wrote 73, younger brother Anton 30; Ryba wrote over 70, Myslivecek 23, Rejcha over 20, Rosetti 10, and on and on. Between just eight composers we have over 400 string quartets! Now I've either heard or have recordings of quartets by all the above-mentioned composers, and in every case the sampling is small. But based on Pavel's ten (out of 73), I can safely and with absolute confidence say that Vranický's achievement as a composer of string quartets is a greater achievement, overall, than Mozart's. Lest that statement be misunderstood, let me clarify: it's simply that Vranický's output dwarfs Mozart's, and the quality of each man's (mature) productions is so superb that Vranický wins by sheer numbers – really, that's at least part of the reason why Haydn's achievement in the medium is also greater than Mozart's. (Granted, it's a double-edged sword: one ranks incessantly; but one also finds that great works enrich the entire field. Vranický's quartets enrich Mozart's for me, not because they are so bad but because they are so good. And vice versa.)

Some food for thought.

Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Ron Drummond

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