Anton Reicha

Anton Reicha, 1815

Anton (Antonín, Antoine) Reicha (Rejcha) (26 February 1770 – 28 May 1836) was a Czech-born, later naturalized French composer. A contemporary and lifelong friend of Beethoven, he is now best remembered for his substantial early contributions to the wind quintet literature and his role as teacher of pupils including Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz and César Franck. He was also an accomplished theorist, and wrote several treatises on various aspects of composition. Some of his theoretical work dealt with experimental methods of composition, which he applied in a variety of works such as fugues and études for piano and string quartet.

None of the advanced ideas he advocated in the most radical of his music and writings, such as polyrhythm, polytonality and microtonal music, were accepted or employed by other nineteenth-century composers. Due to Reicha's unwillingness to have his music published (like Michael Haydn before him), he fell into obscurity soon after his death and his life and work have yet to be intensively studied.


1770–1805: Early years, first visit to Paris and the Viennese period

Reicha was born in Prague. His father Šimon, the town piper of the city, died when Anton was just 10 months old.[1] Apparently Reicha's mother was not interested in her son's education, and so in 1780 he ran away from home following a sudden impulse – as he recounted in his memoirs, he jumped onto a passing carriage.[2] He first visited his paternal grandfather in Klatovy, and then his paternal uncle Josef Reicha, a virtuoso cellist, conductor and composer living in Wallerstein, Bavaria, who adopted him.[1] Josef and his wife, being childless, could give young Anton their full attention: Josef taught him violin and piano, his wife insisted on his being taught French and German, and he was also taught the flute.[3]

In 1785 the family moved to Bonn, where Reicha became a member of the Hofkapelle of Max Franz, Elector of Cologne, playing violin and second flute in the court orchestra under his uncle's direction.[1] The young Beethoven entered the Hofkapelle as violist and organist in 1789 and Reicha befriended him. Christian Gottlob Neefe, one of the most important figures in the musical life of the city at the time, may well have instructed both Reicha and his gifted piano pupil Beethoven in composition and introduced them to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, such as The Well-Tempered Clavier.

From about 1785 Reicha studied composition secretly, against his uncle's wishes, composing and conducting his first symphony in 1787 and entering the University of Bonn in 1789, where he studied and performed until 1794, when Bonn was attacked and captured by the French. He managed to escape to Hamburg,[1] vowed never to perform in public again and began to earn a living teaching harmony, composition and piano. He continued composing and studied mathematics, philosophy and, significantly, methods of teaching composition. In 1799 he moved to Paris, hoping to achieve success as an opera composer. These hopes were dashed, however: he could neither get his old librettos accepted nor find suitable new ones despite support from friends and influential members of the aristocracy, and moved on to Vienna in 1801.

Once there, like Beethoven and the young Schubert, he studied with Antonio Salieri and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger.[1] Both were renowned teachers, and Albrechtsberger was also an important theorist and acknowledged authority on counterpoint and fugal theory. Reicha called on Haydn, whom he had met several times in Bonn and Hamburg during the 1790s, and renewed his friendship with Beethoven, whom he had not seen since 1792, when the latter moved from Bonn to Vienna. At this time (late 1802–3) Beethoven's Eroica symphony was in gestation, and it is likely that the two men exchanged ideas on fugues in modern composition.[4] 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."[5] 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 only privately performed. His studies in Hamburg came to fruition here with the publication of several semi-didactic, encyclopedic works such as 36 Fugues for piano (published in 1803, dedicated to Haydn)[1] and L'art de varier, a large-scale variation cycle (composed in 1803/04 for Prince Louis Ferdinand), and the treatise Practische Beispiele (published in 1803), which contained 24 compositions.

1806–36: Departure from Vienna and life in Paris

Reicha's life and career in Vienna were interrupted by Napoleon's November 1805 occupation of the city by French troops. 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.[1] He was soon teaching composition privately, future prolific composer George Onslow being one of his pupils by 1808. This time three of his many operas were produced, but they all failed; yet his fame as theorist and teacher increased steadily, and by 1817 most of his pupils became professors at the Conservatoire de Paris. The following year, 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 [6]

Anton Reicha's gravestone at Père Lachaise, Paris

This second Paris period produced several important theoretical writings. Cours de composition musicale, published by 1818, became the standard text on composition at the Conservatoire; the Traité de mélodie of 1814, a treatise on melody, was also widely studied. Another semi-didactic work, 34 Études for piano, was published by 1817. It was also in Paris that Reicha started composing the 25 wind quintets which proved to be his most enduring works:[1] far more conservative musically than the experimental fugues he had written in Vienna, but exploiting the skill of his virtuosi from the Opéra Comique to extend significantly the technique and musical ambitions of future players of the still evolving wind instruments. In 1818 he married Virginie Enaust, who bore him two daughters. Around this time he taught composition to the future pioneer of the modern oboe Henri Brod, and in 1819 he began teaching harmony and music theory to Louise Farrenc; after interrupting her studies for her own marriage, she completed studies at the Paris Conservatory with Reicha in 1825.[7]

Reicha stayed in Paris for the rest of his life. He became a naturalized citizen of his adopted country in 1829[8] and Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur in 1835. That same year, he succeeded François-Adrien Boieldieu at the Académie française. He published two more large treatises, Traité de haute composition musicale (1824–6) (Treatise on advanced musical composition) and Art du compositeur dramatique (1833) (Art of dramatic composition), on writing opera. His ideas expressed in the former work sparked some controversy at the Conservatoire. In 1826 Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz and Henri Cohen became students of his, as did composers Charles Gounod and Pauline Viardot[9] sometime later. Berlioz in his Memoirs[10] (pp20–21) acknowledges that Reicha was 'an admirable teacher of counterpoint' who cared about his pupils and whose 'lessons were models of integrity and thoroughness' – high praise indeed from one so critical of the Conservatoire in general. Frédéric Chopin considered studying with him in 1829 shortly after arriving in Paris from his native Poland, but ultimately decided otherwise. From June 1835 until Reicha's death in May 1836, the young César Franck took private lessons. His notebooks survive (in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris) with Reicha's annotations (and a later cryptic comment possibly by Erik Satie),[11] showing how hard Reicha worked his 13-year-old pupil. Reicha was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, and Luigi Cherubini resumed the teaching of counterpoint at the Conservatoire, replacing Reicha's heretical work on fugue with his own as the standard text.