Antoine Reicha-Sappho

Posted on January 15th, 2010 by


Antoine Reicha

Overture ‘Sappho’ (arr. A. Reicha) 

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Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Aaron Shorr-Piano 2004

Also: Reicha-Duos, Duo Concertant

The most influential musician in post-Revolutionary Paris was the Bohemian-born Antoine Reicha (1770-1836), Beethoven’s exact contemporary and close friend. As teenagers, the two had been colleagues in the Bonn Electoral Orchestra, co-conspirators in the forging of new chamber and contrapuntal languages in Vienna from 1801-1808. After an unsuccessful first visit to Paris in 1799, Reicha settled there permamently after leaving Vienna in 1808. Reicha came to be a close colleague of Pierre Baillot, and intimate of many French intellectuals. He was professor of counterpoint and fugue at he Conservatoire from 1818; in Paris, his students included Baillot, Habeneck, Rode, Berlioz, Liszt,  Gounod, and Franck. 

Reicha’s long-term collaboration with Beethoven has received scant attention, resulting in Reicha’s belittlement as the dogmatic theorist or, as Mendelssohn put it, one of the ‘dried up chrysalises’ that he found on his second visit to Paris in 1826.  However, his music flies in the face of this prejudice, whether one considers the bravado of the  3  Quintets Op 2 , written for the ‘Boccherini’ combination so popular with Baillot circle, the inventiveness of 12 Duos  for violin and cello,  which Baillot and Lamarre premiered, or the sheer innovation of the set of 6 Quartets Op 48 & Op 49 written as a real-time response and stimulus for Beethoven’s  Quartets Op 18.

Reicha’s quartets are the equal of Beethoven’s in inventiveness. They are replete with the easy sonority and good humour, that would be the benchmark of much of the chamber music by the post-revolutionary generation Parisian performers and players.  His 3 Quartets Op 94, were dedicated to Baillot, and the Op 95, to Pierre Rode. 

 Perhaps Reicha’s most distinctive chamber work is his sonata for piano and violin, a Duo Concertant, dedicated to Pierre Baillot in 1826.  This pokes fun at Beethoven, using the opening of the Kreutzer Sonata Op 47, but presto, all the awkward double-stopping in place, as a high-speed fanfare in a Haydn-esque finale. Such challenging writing would have suited Baillot’s athletic playing ideally.  Alone amongst the original three writers of the Méthode, his playing preserved its freshness and brilliance till the end of his career.  Even in later years, according to Ferdinand Hiller, “He still played with all the energy and poetry of youth of youth…” Baillot was the first major violinist outside Vienna to take up Beethoven’s Violin Concerto Op61.  He was scheduled to play it at a concert with Mendelssohn in 1832. This concert was cancelled due to the arrival of cholera in Paris.