Antonin Rejcha

Category: Musician

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Antonin Rejcha (February 26, 1770 – May 28, 1836), known as Anton or Antoine Reicha, was a Czech-born French composer and music theorist. Due to his unwillingness to have his music published, he fell into obscurity soon after his death and his life and work have yet to be intensively studied. He is now best remembered for his substantial early contributions to the wind quintet literature and his role as the teacher of such pupils as Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt.

Reicha was born in Prague. Shortly thereafter, his father died. At ten years of age, he ran away from his apparently neglectful mother. He first visited his paternal grandfather in Klatovy, and then he traveled to Bavaria to meet his paternal uncle, Josef. Josef and his wife, a childless couple, adopted Anton and doted on him: Josef taught his nephew violin and piano and his wife insisted on Anton’s being taught French and German.

In 1785 the family moved to Bonn. There, Reicha became a member of the court chapel of Max Franz, Elector of Cologne; he played violin and second flute in the court orchestra under his uncle’s direction. He also began studying composition about this time, against his uncle’s wishes. He composed and conducted his first symphony in 1787 and entered the University of Bonn in 1789.

Reicha studied and performed at the University of Bonn until 1794. That year, Bonn was attacked and captured by the French. Reicha managed to escape to Hamburg, and he vowed never to perform in public again. He earned a living in Hamburg by teaching harmony, composition, and piano. He continued composing and he studied mathematics, philosophy and, significantly, methods of teaching composition.

Reicha left Hamburg for Paris in 1799, hoping to achieve success as a composer there. Failing in this endeavor, he then moved to Vienna in 1801, where he renewed his friendship with Ludwig van Beethoven (born the same year as Reicha) whom he had first met ten years prior, when the two youths played in the court chapel of Max Franz in Bonn. Reicha’s move to Vienna marked the beginning of a more productive and successful period in his life. As he wrote in his memoirs, “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.” In 1801, Reicha’s opera L’ouragan, which failed in Paris, was performed at the palace of Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz, a prominent patron of Beethoven. Empress Maria Theresa commissioned another opera after this performance, Argine, regina di Granata, which was performed only privately.

Reicha’s life and career in Vienna were interrupted by the 1805 occupation of the city by French troops under Napoleon’s command. In 1806 Reicha travelled to Leipzig to arrange a performance of his new work, the cantata Lenore (stopping at Prague to see his mother for the first time since 1780), but because Leipzig was blockaded by the French, not only was the performance cancelled but he could not return to Vienna for several months. When he did return it was not for long, because by 1808 the Austrian Empire was already preparing for another war, the War of the Fifth Coalition, so Reicha decided to move back to Paris.

In Paris, Reicha again tried to find success as a composer of operas, but, as before, he failed in this attempt. He nevertheless attracted fame as a theorist and teacher. By 1817 most of his pupils became professors at the Conservatoire de Paris. In 1818, Reicha himself was appointed professor of counterpoint and fugue at the Conservatoire with the support of Louis XVIII, despite opposition from its influential professor of composition and (from 1822) director Luigi Cherubini. In 1826 Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and other future stars became students of his. Berlioz in his Memoirs acknowledges that Reicha was “an admirable teacher of counterpoint” who cared about his pupils and whose “lessons were models of integrity and thoroughness.”

Reicha stayed in Paris for the rest of his life. He became a naturalized citizen of his adopted country in 1829 and Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur in 1835. That same year, he succeeded Francois-Adrien Boieldieu at the Academie francaise. He worked on and published two more large treatises, Traite de haute composition musicale (Treatise on advanced musical composition) in 1824–6 and Art du compositeur dramatique (Art of dramatic composition) in 1833. His ideas expressed in the former work sparked some controversy at the Conservatoire.

Much of Reicha’s music remained unpublished and/or unperformed during his life, and virtually all of it fell into obscurity after his death. This is partly explained by Reicha’s own decisions he reflected on in his autobiography: “Many of my works have never been heard because of my aversion to seeking performances […] I counted the time spent in such efforts as lost, and preferred to remain at my desk.” He also frequently advocated ideas, such as the use of quarter tones, that were too far ahead of his time to be understood by his contemporaries. What survives of his oeuvre covers a vast array of genres and forms, from opera to piano fugues, and, most notably, his 25 wind quintets.

Musically, the wind quintets represent a more conservative trend in Reicha’s oeuvre when compared to his earlier work, namely the compositions of the Viennese period. His writing combines virtuoso display (often still very challenging today, yet idiomatic for each instrument), popular elements (from the comic opera his soloists played, from his Bohemian folk heritage, from the military background to his life – many marches, ‘walking’ themes and fanfares), and his lifelong more academic interests in variation form and counterpoint.

Many of Reicha’s string quartets are similarly advanced and anticipate numerous later developments. The eight Vienna string quartets (1801–5) are among his most important works. Though largely ignored since Reicha’s death, they were highly influential during his lifetime and left their mark on the quartets of Beethoven and Schubert, much as Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was ignored by the public but well known to Beethoven and Chopin. Reicha also wrote prolifically for various kinds of ensembles other than wind quintets and string quartets, including violin sonatas, piano trios, horn trios, flute quartets, various works for solo wind or string instruments accompanied by strings, and works for voice. He also wrote in larger-scale genres, including at least eight known symphonies, seven operas, and choral works such as a Requiem.

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