ANTONIN REJCHA: THE EXPERIMENTALIST.
Antonin Rejcha was born on the 26th of February 1770 in Prague to the town piper Simon Rejcha. (The composer seems to have used the Czech version of his name until he left the country, when he adopted the German form, Anton Reicha. He later became a citizen of France: Antoine Reicha. In this text, we use the Czech variant of his name.) His father, as the oldest son in the family, bore responsibility not only for his offspring, but also for his siblings, which is why at the time, he supported his brother Josef Rejcha (1752-1795) and his studies in Prague. Josef was twelve years younger than Simon and later became a successful musician who would prove to be a key figure in Antonin's life.
Only ten months after Antonin's birth, Simon died unexpectedly and his mother remarried. Four years later, Josef left to take up a position at the court orchestra of the Otingen-Wallersteins in Swabia. For little Antonin, this marked the beginning of a joyless period in which his enormous desire for learning and exceptionally rich fantasy found no response with neither his mother nor his step-father. Around the year 1780, he decided to run away from home in secret, travelling eighty miles to seek refuge with his grandfather in Klatovy, a town in western Bohemia.
At his grandfather's instigation, Rejcha continued a further hundred and eighty miles to Wallerstein to see his uncle Josef, at the time already an established cellist and composer. It wasn't just that the boy was musically talented - Rejcha's grandfather also decided that it was time to repay the late Simon for his care. Josef, together with his French wife Lucie Certelet, accepted his young nephew as his own and began diligently caring for his education. Antonin began playing the violin, keyboard instruments, and flute, he studied French and German, and took in all of the performances by the excellent Otingen-Wallerstein orchestra, which at the time was sometimes referred to as the "Swabian Mannheim". In addition to his duties in the orchestra, Josef Rejcha also went on concert tours (which included a visit to Salzburg, where his playing caught the attention of Leopold Mozart), which led to an offer to take up the position of Capellmeister of the newly established orchestra (and later theatre) of Archbishop Archduke Maximilian Francis of Austria in Bonn. This confluence of coincidences led to Antonin's path crossing with that of his contemporary, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), only a few months younger.
In 1785, Rejcha's entire family moved to Bonn. Antonin began working in the orchestra as a violinist and flute player, his new colleagues including violist Ludwig van Beethoven and his father Johann. The youths quickly became friends and absorbed all the stimuli the intellectually rich Enlightenment environment offered them. They visited the newly established university and we cannot rule out that they both attended composition lessons with the court organist Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798).
Antonin worked diligently and persistently, carefully studying theoretical treatises on composition, of which the most available were probably Abhandlungen von der Fuge (Treatise on the Fugue, 1753) by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (1718-1795) and Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik (The Art of Strict Composition in Music, 1771-1779) by Johann Philipp Kirnberger (1721-1783). At the university, he was captivated by lectures on Kant's philosophy and by mathematics, and he also applied himself to metaphysics, ethics, and literature.
Most of all, however, he wished to compose, despite his uncle's prohibition -Josef thought Antonin lacked sufficient talent and would simply be wasting his time. His nephew responded in his own particular way: he composed music in secret, and in 1787, he managed to get his first symphony - unfortunately lost - performed. Josef admitted the boy had talent after all, and so the doors finally opened to Antonin's longed-for career of composer. His uncle was a great inspiration, as was a meeting with one of the composer idols of the time - Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who passed through Bonn at Christmas 1790.
But the idyllic times were disrupted by dramatic political events. The French Revolution literally broke into Antonin's life. He later wrote that the revolution "took away everything" - and particularly the possibility of becoming his uncle's successor (Josef Rejcha was childless). In 1794, the French Revolutionary Army occupied Bonn, the Prince-elector fled the city, and the future of the orchestra became uncertain. Josef Rejcha thus advised his nephew to go to Hamburg. Josef died the following spring and the young musician had to begin shaping his life without relying on family at all.
Searching for a Path
"My ambition is not only limited to occasionally entertaining an audience - I want to instruct them. That is why I work day and night and why I do not want to create works that simply appear and disappear like clouds above the horizon. I work for the future because I have the talent for it and I bear responsibility for it even now. I haven't the least desire for the ephemeral fame of so many of my colleagues who can barely catch their breath but leave nothing behind," Antonin Rejcha confesses in his autobiography (Notes sur Antoine Reicha, 1824). And it was probably Hamburg where this uncompromising position on life was born. Here, the composer continued as an autodidact in his favourite disciplines (mathematics, physics, astronomy, and philosophy), studying treatises on music theory, teaching, and considering how he might make composition teaching as effective as possible. He also decided he would only write following his own inner need and not for economic reasons - he would become entirely financially independent.
With this in mind, he began undertaking daring compositional experiments that included combining diverse instrumental colours or thinking through the possibilities of 5/4 metre. During his five years in Hamburg, he composed smaller instrumental and vocal works, two symphonies, and his first opera: Godefroid de Montfort. He also met Joseph Haydn for a second time.
Following recommendations from his friends, Rejcha left Hamburg in 1799 to visit Paris. He brought along two operas and two symphonies, with an aim to compose more works while there. Only the two symphonies, opp. 41 and 42, were successful the Theatre Feydeau and Salle Favart were closed shortly before the premiere of his new opera, L'ouragan.
In 1801, he decided - probably with no small measure of disappointment - to leave Paris for Vienna. To see Joseph Haydn, of course, who became his friend, mentor, and unofficial teacher. They discussed a number of compositional questions including the problems of the instrumental fugue, which was a great challenge to both of them. Rejcha also met Beethoven again, perhaps also perfecting his counterpoint skills with Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736-1809), one of the best composition teachers in Vienna. Rejcha gave private lessons, composed, and became more steadfast in his opinions. He denied, for instance, the alluring post of first Capellmeister and composition teacher at the Berlin court of Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. During the seven years he spent in Vienna, Rejcha did not once stop experimenting - wildly at times. As if he wanted to return to the very roots of music and recast them into something entirely new. Long before the rise of dodecaphony and polytonality, he explored the possibilities of quarter-tones, of mixing two tonalities, of destroying the major-minor system, of using unusual intervallic spacings or asymmetrical rhythmic combinations.
Concurrently - as he was of a systematic nature - he searched for ways to give his ideas rules and order. Chaos did not belong in his world. Perhaps that is why of all compositional techniques, he found the fugue most congenial. The fugue brought calm to his mind, turbulent with fantasy. It was a bridge between music and mathematics, providing him with an ideal creative space. It was his meditation.
He introduced his new system of fugue-writing in a series of 36 fugues for piano (Trente six fugues pour le pianoforte, composees d'apres un nouveau systeme, 1803). The set was dedicated to Joseph Haydn and aroused a secret jealousy in Beethoven. Although he made critical remarks in the sense that with Rejcha, a fugue is no longer a fugue, it seems that he let himself be inspired by the new system in his Variations opp.34 and 35. The friendship between the two strong, distinctive personalities could no longer be the same as it was during their youthful days in Bonn, but there was still space for respect and conscious or unconscious mutual inspiration.
Rejcha appended a short theoretical text to the second edition (1805), in which he responded to all the voices criticising his contrapuntal techniques. If we ask after what made his fugues unacceptable to his contemporaries, the answer is hidden in the divergences with established Baroque rules, such as changes in character during the course of the piece, periodic themes in place of aperiodic ones, the minimalist theme on one repeated tone in no. 18, the introduction to no. 27, the abundance of chromaticism or atypical interval spacings. In addition to the fugues, the year 1803 also saw the publication of the Practische Beispiele (1803) with twenty-four experimental pieces imbibed with a mathematico-philosophical foundation arising from Kant's philosophy.
In Vienna, Reicha wrote over fifty pieces. These include operas - once again unsuccessful -, the oratorio Der Neue Psalm, a Requiem (the influence of G. F. Handel is palpable in both), six string quintets, one piano concerto, and a cantata, Lenore, a work which met a fate similar to that of his operas: In Napoleon-occupied Vienna, the cantata could not be performed - the censors would not allow the poem by Gottfried August Burger (1747-1794) from 1774. This story, inspired by the Seven Years' War (a conflict involving the central European powers which took place between 1756 and 1763) and the philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder, is a ballad on a fear of fate determined by supernatural powers - in this case, Lenora, a girl who waits in vain for her fiance to return from the war. She argues with God, she blasphemes despite her mother's warnings, and she is inevitably punished for it. A rider - the dead groom - appears on the stage, takes the bride to the cemetery, where Lenora dies in a twirl of ghosts, never once abandoning hope for forgiveness.
Lenore was impossible to put on in Vienna, so Rejcha attempted to present the work in Leipzig - without success. Napoleon's army was approaching the city, the composer was stranded there for four months without achieving his aims, and he then had to return to Vienna. He did not live to see a performance of the cantata, but his journey to Leipzig was not in vain. He stopped off in Prague on the way, deciding to visit his mother after twenty-six years. The emotional meeting was warmhearted but short - the composer stayed in Prague for only four days and never returned.
Back in Vienna, Rejcha quickly understood that although Austria had signed a peace treaty with Napoleon, a war was on the horizon. He used his contacts with French composers and in the autumn of 1808, he left for Paris (Austria declared war on France on the gth of April 1809). His second visit could not have been more different from his first. The Czech composer quickly fell in love with France: "I always loved France - it's where my dearest friends are. My customs, my great liveliness, how I see and feel - all this is in surprising accord with the nature of the inhabitants of this happy country," he later commented. And France seemed to feel the same way, as it was here that Antonin Rejcha achieved his greatest success, appreciation, and personal happiness. With one fatal exception - opera. First, however, let us consider his theoretical activities. In Paris, the composer continued successfully with private lessons, and when he was accepted for a position as counterpoint and fugue teacher at the conservatory, he had already written textbooks on melody and harmony, preceded by a philosophico-aesthetic commentary, Sur la musique comme art purement sentimental (On Music as a Purely Sentimental Art, 1812-1814). Rejcha incorporated into it a "philosophy of feeling" following the example set by royalist writer Antoine de Rivarol (1753-1801), as well as elements of ancient theories. He also wrote in some detail on the traditional compositional problem of the relationship between poetry and music. He supported the opinion that French is the most universal of all languages - in Rejcha's opinion, its syntax is the only one to correspond to the requirements of common sense, with only the emotional language of music rising above it. The Traite de melodic (Treatise on Melody, 1814) is Rejcha's attempt to create a system and set of rules for musical composition. Some of his colleagues, particularly Francois Joseph Fetis (1784-1871), had reservations about the text, reproaching the author for omitting the treatises of his predecessors (e.g. Johann Matheson's from 1737). Perhaps they were right to an extent, as Rejcha was an autodidact (to a degree), but on the other hand, he was undeniably one of the first to attempt to establish rules for musical-thematic work, including terminology. This was greatly appreciated by one of the great music theorists, Hugo Riemann (1849-1919).
In this treatise, Rejcha applies his deep knowledge of ancient literature, often helping himself along with analogies to sentence structure. He divides musical language down to its smallest particles - melodic atoms, let's say - which he calls dessin (in this context, musical figures). He searches for balance, regularity, and symmetry in melodies, appending many practical examples and instructions. Let us not be fooled by the author's cool logic, however - for Rejcha, emotion is essential. It determines whether compositional techniques are applied correctly. In his opinion, a musical idea should speak to our emotion and please our ear.
The following textbook, Cours de composition musicale, ou Traite complet et raisonne d'harmonie pratique (A Course of Musical Composition, or, A Complete and Reasoned Treatise of Practical Harmony, 1816-18) was so successful at the Paris Conservatoire that it quickly became the officially used text. It was followed by Traite de haute composition musicale (A Treatise on Advanced Musical Composition, 1824-6), in which the composer discusses counterpoint, harmony, canon, fugues, musical form, and motivic work. His last book is Art du compositeur dramatique, ou Cours complet de composition vocale (The Art of the Operatic Composer, or, A Complete Course of Vocal Composition, 1833). These works were well received and within a few years, they were fully or partially translated into English, German, and Italian. If we shift our attention from Rejcha the theorist to Rejcha the pedagogue, the word on the street in Paris was that his method was unrivalled as to effectivity - he had excellent results, he demanded hard work, set a lot of homework, but he was also progressive and (unlike his colleagues) open to the students. Among his pupils, whether at the conservatoire or in private lessons, were Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Adolphe Adam, Henri Vieuxtemps, Charles Gounod, Louise Farrenc, and among the last, for just under a year, Cesar Franck.
Rejcha's imprints on the work of his pupils are clear, whether these be Berlioz's fugue sections, asymmetrical metres, use of timpani, and emphasis on wind instruments, or Liszt's approach to experimentation. Liszt himself admitted that some of his ideas might have been influenced by Rejcha, and Maurice Emmanuel, composer and professor of history of music, in his 1930 biography of Franck, designated Rejcha as the teacher who had the most essential influence on the work of this composer.
As for Rejcha's oeuvre, his operas were not successful, as we've mentioned, and we can only speculate whether this was down to the composer, his librettists, or behind-the-scenes disputes. The composer had the most esteem for his operas Sapho (1822) and Philoclete (around 1822; only three choruses have survived). In Sapho, his contemporaries had the most admiration for the choral parts, the instrumentation, the comical dance entries, and the motivic work.
Rejcha's fame, however, was mostly down to his wind quintets for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon. Between 1817 and 1820, he published twenty-four pieces for this instrumentation, and he soon celebrated great successes, and not only in Paris: "If I am to believe all the congratulatory letters I have received, they have caused a sensation all around Europe," he wrote with appropriate satisfaction.
Today, we'd say they adequately filled a hole on the market - although Giuseppe Cambini's (1746-1825) quintets were already available, it was only Rejcha who elaborated this form to such a level that we can refer to him as the founder of the genre. These quintets were an excellent blend of his outstanding knowledge of wind instruments, his tendencies to experimentation, and his maturity. It's no surprise he included many contrapuntal elements in the quintet, but there is also refined playfulness in the instrumental colours, there is elegance, lightness, humour, and virtuosity. Five of Rejcha's former students - by then already esteemed professors at the Paris Conservatoire - had a significant influence on spreading the fame of these pieces, being the first to perform them: Joseph Guillou (flute), Gustave Vogt (oboe), Jacques-Jules Bouffil (clarinet), Louis-Francois Dauprat (horn), and Antoine Henry (bassoon).
With these professional successes came private joys. In the autumn of 1818, Rejcha married Virginie Enaust, with whom he had two daughters, Antoinette Virginie and Mathilde Sophie. The composer educated his older daughter in music, and it is thanks to her that his autobiography, Notes sur Antoine Reicha, has survived: the composer originally dictated it to his student Henri Blanchard (around 1824), and Antoinette later copied it in its entirety. In 1829, he officially became a French citizen, two years later, he was named a Knight of the Legion of Honour, and in 1835, he became a member of the Academie des Beaux-Arts. His life ended on the 28th of May 1836.
Antomin Rejcha left behind over ten operas, twenty choral works, pieces for solo voice, nine symphonies which survive in their entirety, over ten overtures, a piano and clarinet concerto, chamber music including pieces for glass harmonica, twenty-four wind quintets, twenty string
quartets, three string quintets, and a number of pieces for solo piano.
Throughout his life, he remained true to his principles: "I have no talent for entertaining company, and even less time to spend with company. I can't strive for something, plan intrigues, gain the favour of highly situated men, or spend part of my life in drawing rooms. This is why after twenty years spent in Paris I have no fortune, no high positions - but I have good friends here, I am loved and respected," he proclaimed around the year 1824. And he was right. He did not disappear from the encyclopaedias and textbooks, but today, a large part of his oeuvre is still waiting to be rediscovered.
by Dina Snejdarova
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2019|
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