Reicha Quartets-‘From where I sit’ by Peter Sheppard Skærved

Posted on April 10th, 2013 by


by Peter Sheppard Skærved

This is the essay which I wrote for the upcoming first issue in our Complete Reicha Quartets on TOCCATA Classics

 Links to Reicha-Duos, Duo Concertant, Sappho

Link to Toccata Classics page

Mihailo Trandafilovski and Neil Heyde.

Mid-way through recording this first disc in the Kreutzer Quartet’s traversal of Anton Reicha’s quartets, Morgan Goff, our violist, said to me:

 You know, we spend all of our time playing music which is new to us, but this is the very first time I have experienced something quite like this. To study, perform, and record great music, great music which is two centuries old, but without the sense of negotiating with a performing tradition, with the memory of recordings and performances heard from childhood onwards – that is an extraordinary privilege, and utterly liberating.

Morgan Goff playing Hindemith with a canvas by John Hoyland, by Richard Bram


He was right. As a quartet, the engagement with the core of the quartet canon, with Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, is the very heart of our work. But the impact of Reicha’s quartets is being felt in our rehearsals of these composers as we are forced to re-evaluate, well, everything, in the light of Reicha’s extraordinary music. A recent rehearsal of Beethoven’s G major quartet, Op. 18, No. 2, a work which we have all known and played since childhood, was transfigured by our engagement with Reicha’s motivic integrity and playfulness. From the moment that we began working on his quartets, the clarity and humour with which he uses the interrelationship between the four players, as illumination for his expressive and architectural concerns shed a new light on similar, but certainly not identical processes in Beethoven’s first ten quartets Reicha’s long-term collaboration with Beethoven – they were friends from the age of fifteen or so – has received scant attention, resulting in his belittlement as a dogmatic theorist or, as Mendelssohn put it, one of the ‘dried-up chrysalises’ that he found on his second visit to Paris in 1826 (Reicha had moved there for a second time in 1808). But that’s not the reason to play Reicha’s works, which offer so much more than a window into a clearer understanding of his friend from the Bonn years onwards. It’s not even enough to say that Reicha’s quartets shine light onto the great quartets of Cherubini, Arriaga, and Mendelssohn – although they do. No, these are masterworks in their own rights, offering crisp models of what the medium can do, taking wing from Haydn’s clarity, and clearing a new road. Although almost unknown, they are central to the canon, and perhaps will soon be recognised as such

Although the works on the first three CDs in this survey, Reicha’s Opp. 48 and 49, were published in two sets, they are as a set of six. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the tradition of publishing chamber works in groups of six (familiar to modern audiences from Haydn’s and Mozart’s quartets, and Beethoven’s Op. 18) was literally halved, and Reicha’s quartets offer a good example of why. There was a degree of conceptual idealism in composing and publishing sonatas in multiples of six (string quartets are ‘sonatas’ in all but name). The ideal to which they refer, as does so much of music history, is Vitruvius’ ‘six principals’ of architecture, laid out in De architectura libri decem between 33 and 14 BC. This ideal underpins the notion of groups of six works that can be seen in the ‘Brandenburg’ Concerti of J. S. Bach, where each concerto, although based on shared material, can be ‘read’ as exemplar of one of the ‘virtues’ of the dedicatee ( ‘Martial Valour’, ‘Skill in the Hunt’, etc.). By the end of his life, Mozart was using the interplay of the established qualities and colour ascribed to certain keys to build cycles which, although not always celebrating the qualities of their dedicatees, proffered a finely calibrated equilibrium of ‘dramatic unities’, both in the broad shaping of key structure, and the resulting onion-layers of internal balances (within each work), and further within each movement and so on, to higher and higher ‘structural magnifications’.

Anton Reicha- Lithograph by A. Frey

Mozart’s cycle of six quartets dedicated to Haydn (published in 1785), follow the trajectory of G major, D minor, B flat major, E flat major, A major, C major. Tellingly, there is only one minor-key work: the second quartet in the cycle, in D minor, three of the movements of which are in the home key. There no other minor movements in the remainder of the cycle. Reicha and Beethoven were clearly familiar with these works, and, when they came to model their respective cycles of six quartets (Reicha’s Opp. 48 and 49, published in 1804–5, and Beethoven’s Op. 18, written in 1801), they provided, wittingly or not, a response to Mozart’s set, which they clearly had played; Mozart’s dedicatee, too, was very important to them. One can ‘read’ their quartets, in one way, as a series of conversations they had about Mozart’s set, just as Haydn’s Op. 64 quartets can be read as part of his dialogue with Mozart. Barry Cooper writes compellingly how Beethoven would ‘flex his muscles’ while preparing to write his Op 18 by copying out Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ quartets. It is fair to assume that Reicha used this technique as well in view of his explicit ‘riffing’ on Mozart’s thematic material, both in the quartets and the 36 Fugues, Op 36, for piano. The clearest pointers to this ‘conversation’ are the fourth quartets in all three cycles.

Although only one of Mozart’s six ‘Haydn’ quartets is in the minor, the ‘writhing’ theme with which Mozart begins the E flat Quartet, K428 (the fourth in his set), is as minore in effect as is possible, although it is in fact maggiore. Beethoven and Reicha both wrote the fourth of their respective sets in C minor (the ‘relative minor’ of E flat major), and each composed in the most overtly Mozartian manner (even though, Beethoven impishly ends his quartet with an explicit reference to Haydn’s Terremoto – of which, more below). Reicha begins his C minor Quartet by quoting Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto, a favourite of Beethoven’s: he turned pages for Beethoven’s disastrous performance. Reicha reported that whilst Beethoven got every more excited, he was kept busy pulling broken strings out of the piano, even trying to adjust broken hammer mechanisms, as his friend forged ahead, undaunted by the destruction of the instrument! So I would like to offer, just as an idea, that a vital of element of Reicha’s quartet-writing was a long-term ‘conversation’ with Beethoven about their mutual admiration for Mozart quartets (and it is clear that his Quartets, as well has Haydn’s Op. 20, made a big impression on them both). It seems to me that the organisation of their respective six-quartet cycles reflects these conversations.

Reicha’s six quartets, Op. 48 and 49, offer a simple change, and one which can be seen mirrored in Beethoven’s later (1806) three-quartet set, Op. 59. The distinguishing feature of Reicha’s set is their length: each quartet is well over half-an-hour long. Quite apart from the musical implications, this development had important ramifications for publishing. Put simply, it was not economically viable for publishers to sell groups of chamber works in bundles of six, when a set of three would already seem ‘value for money’; the publisher could then make a profit from two published sets, not only one. Indeed, that may have been Reicha’s strategy all along, as the letter from Carl von Beethoven, acted as Beethoven’s representative in dealing with publishers, to Gottfried Chrisoph Härtel (of Breitkopf & Härtel) offering quartets seems to make clear:

 I can give you [the quartets] for a fairly reasonable price: three Quartets for 2 violins, viola and violoncello at 50 ducats …. [These] compositions are very skilfully constructed.

But Reicha’s most immediately audible innovation is also one of what might be called ‘instrumental scale’. The beginning of the C major Quartet with which he opens the group unveils a rich sonority: a cello playing an octave pedal over the ‘open’ C string, evoking something much ‘bigger’ than a string quartet. By playing both notes, the illusion of both eight- and sixteen-foot instruments is given, and Reicha invites the players and listeners to revel in the sheer sensation of a roaring C major chord. From the player’s perspective, it’s Brahmsian, perhaps, stretching the ‘rules’ as to what was seen as ‘acceptable’ within a string quartet. But a paradigm has been established, with players and listeners put ‘on notice’ that sound itself is an ideal in Reicha’s mind’s ear. Mihailo Trandafilovski, my violinist colleague in the Kreutzer Quartet, points out that this new paradigm enables the ‘ease with which the material gradually unfolds’ in this movement. The gesture that kept coming to mind, as we returned to perform and rehearse this piece over five years, was the dramatic C major cello arpeggio, from the bottom of the instrument, which opens Mozart’s C major Quintet, K515. I also sense that Reicha chose to bring the expansiveness of string-quintet writing – clearly audible in Beethoven’s 1802 Quintet, Op. 29 (also in C major) – to a place where it had not previously ‘belonged’ in the previously rarefied climes of the quartet.

This first movement of Reicha’s Op. 48, No. 1, flags up another point (all too often ignored by modern-instrument quartets) that the two violins must sit opposite each other. Motifs are handed, or called out ‘across the valley’ of the centre of the quartet, and the second-violin riposte to the first outburst of preening concertante playing from my first-violin chair, is a display of chromatic virtuosity, hurled across the quartet, which the first violin simply cannot match.

The first movement of the Second Quartet makes even more explicit play with the questionably democratic nature of the string quartet. Hans Keller wrote eloquently against the flawed notion of the egalitarian string quartet. I wonder how he would have felt about this work, which begins, as it were, with the string trio on the right of the stage – with the second violin leading and the leader, the primarius, silenced. This device is an inversion of the start of the Beethoven Op. 29 Quintet (Beethoven’s most ‘Reicha-esque’ chamber work from this period), which begins with the ‘stage-left trio’ led from the first violin. Reicha’s inversion – or subversion – is double-edged. It must be remembered that all chamber music until the middle of the nineteenth century was written primarily for the players. The jokes in the orchestral works of the period are writ large, for the audience. String-quartet writing is full of internal witticisms and needling, which mirror the whiplash humour of a good rehearsal. And so it is with Reicha, playing a dangerous game with ‘second-violin authority’ (the reason for the helter-skelter chromatic virtuosity in Op. 48, No. 1). Come the recapitulation, Reicha wickedly undermines the stage-right coup d’état. Trandafilovski notes:

 …unusual corners seem to be characteristic of Reicha. One of my favourites is in the first movement of Op. 48, No. 2, where the development brings us back to G major – after which we find the opening theme in the 2nd violin in E minor! – then taken on by the first violin in G major.

With my dearest friend and colleague from Macedonia, Mihailo Trandafilovski.(Photo Marius Skaerved)


Of course, what happens in rehearsal is that everyone calls out: ‘He’s playing it in the wrong key!’, and then the first violin returns benevolently to guide the ensemble back to harmonic equilibrium. Reicha had just spent two years (1799–1801) in the fervour of post-revolutionary war-time Paris, trying to establish himself as an operatic composer. I see such moments, however much they are for the players, as being political commentary – I am reminded of a Parisian musical cartoon from the period: soldier, cleric, peasant, vainly trying to harmonise serpent, violin and oboe, with the title ‘Bon, nous voilà d’accord…’ (literally, ‘in tune’). The quartet, democratic? For once, I’m with Keller.

The musical fury of Revolution

In the finale of the C major Quartet the internal teasing goes a little further: the first violinist quietly chastises the second for getting a fugue theme wrong. Mihailo Trandafilovski notes: ‘A particularly captivating element for me, as a composer, is the quirkiness of the music (I mean that in the best possible sense)’.

Working on Reicha’s ‘Viennese’ quartets clarifies how important he as in bringing the concerns, techniques, and sonorities of the post-1795 Parisian musical world to Vienna. However unsuccessful his sojourn had been, he had immersed himself in the new soundworlds and technical innovations which were driving the musicians of the French capital. None of these was more important than the ‘troika’ of violinists, disciples of Viotti all, who were revolutionising string-playing: Pierre Baillot, Rodolphe Kreutzer and Pierre Rode. In 1810 Les Tablettes de Polyhymnie articulated the impact these musicians had wrought, since the founding of the Paris Conservatoire in 1795:

 Today, each of the principal teachers at the Conservatoire – Messrs. Rode, Kreutzer and Baillot – has without doubt a school of bowing peculiar to himself, but on the whole, these three manners very much approximate the manner of the greatest master of them all, the famous Viotti [….]the pupils of the three classes all have his broad energetic manner of playing; this results in such unity of performance in the symphonies that from a distance one would believe that there was only one violin on each part.

Viotti as musical director, his ‘bow of cotton’ firmly grasped in his ‘arm of Hercules’. The bow in this picture is not a modern ‘Tourte-model’ but a long earlier type. Perhaps Viotti preferred to not use the Tourtes, with their ‘fini precieux’ for the more risky business of directing. Berlioz recalled Habeneck’s willingness to break his bow in frustration, so perhaps conductors reserved their finer instruments for concertantes.


Reicha later became close to Baillot, dedicating his astonishing Grand duo concertant to him at the end of his life (1826). But Pierre Rode seems to have made the biggest initial impression. The slow movement of Reicha’s C major Quartet, Op. 48, No. 1, offers an insight into his admiration, as I explain below and both men later dedicated quartets to each other: Reicha’s three quartets, Op. 95 and Rode’s two, Op. 28.

The key, melodic and decorative material and the lyricism of the Op. 48, No. 1, Adagio captures the mood of Pierre Rode’s G major Air Varié, Op 10, first heard in Paris in the early 1790s; it was published in 1794 for violin and string trio. With this work, Rode set a new ‘vocal’ style for sung instrumental virtuosity that would be a benchmark for composers writing for string instruments, voice and piano for the next three decades. The major Italian operatic soprano Angelica Catalani (1780–1849) sang it, and Carl Czerny published a piano transcription of her version of the Rode. Niccolò Paganini was so impressed with Catalani’s performance of it at La Scala in 1823 that he wrote out one of her cadenzas, conveniently rendered in idiomatic violinistic style, in a letter written to his lawyer Guglielmo Germi. J. B. Cramer published his own set of variations as Rode’s celebrated Air sung with the greatest applause by Madame Catalani with an Introduction and Variations for the Piano Forte. By this point the music had come a long way from violin-playing, but it still retains a kernel of violin virtuosity, even the memory of the bowing combinations Viotti had innovated.

The opening of Reicha’s slow movement evokes the elegant virtuosity and the sense of rapt attention to line which are hallmarks of Rode’s work. Interestingly, a decade later, Beethoven himself would be writing his last piano-and-violin sonata (in G major, Op. 96) for Rode to play with the Archduke Rudolf; he began with almost the same gesture, in the same key, another affectionate doffing of the hat to the master-violinist.

Yet this movement, although offering ever more elaborate violin figurations and fighting for supremacy above an almost orchestral mass beneath, is not an ‘air with variations’ but a romanza or notturno, a lyrical, ternary-form movement with a dramatic central section. Beethoven’s two Romanzen, Opp. 40 and 50, for violin and orchestra, both written in the autumn of 1802, are the best-known examples of this type (and may well have been written for Rode or Baillot). But the power of the central outburst in Reicha’s Adagio is without precedent. Viola and second violin provide an infernal machine of interlocking staccati, semiquavers and demisemiquavers, while the cello and first violin hurl ‘Handelian’ thunderbolts at each other across the stage. There is something of the fury of stage machinery; playing it feels like operating the rumbling and rattling levers, wheels and canvas that were the stuff of a theatrical storm at the beginning of the 1800s. I suspect that Emmanuel Schickaneder would have loved it.

But it is clear that another storm had influenced Reicha as it had Beethoven: aspects of Joseph Haydn’s Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze can be detected all the way through these quartets. It is abundantly clear that Haydn’s evocation of Matthew 27:51 (‘And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent’), the Terremoto influenced not only the storm in Reicha’s Adagio but also the demonic flashes of thunder in the Menuetto of Op. 48, No. 2. The version which would have been best known to Reicha and his colleagues was published as Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 51, in 1787. I am sure that they had played it. Indeed, the exquisitely delicate violin-writing at the end of Reicha’s slow movement is strikingly similar to the writing at the end of the quartet version, the fragile transmigration of the soul at the end of ‘Into thy hands I commit my spirit’.

Mihailo Trandafilovski points out that Reicha is always thinking cyclically, especially when balancing the respective tenors of Menuetti within a set of works:

‘The range of expression expands from the light and characterful Menuetto of Op. 48, No. 1, to the highly charged, energetic opening of the Menuetto in Op. 48, No. 2 ’.

But Reicha’s drama is very far from being liturgical or even religious. The finale, Allegretto [8], of the last work on this disc, mirrors the form of the Op. 48, No. 1, Adagio, but in a ‘pastoral’ context; one which evokes the last movement of Mozart’s A major Violin Concerto, K219. Reicha initially presents an ‘idealised pastoral’ in the traditional ‘compound time’, so sweet that to modern, perhaps jaded ears, it seems that it must be parody, must be ironic. This idyll is interrupted, by a fiery G minor episode Allegro vivace (recalling Mozart’s ‘Turkish’ episode in the Violin Concerto), full of threat and fury, Gluck-like unisons, and a canonic ‘fugato’ eventually collapsing on to a Tartinian symmetrical oscillation around the note ‘D’ (to E flat and C sharp), and then onto a deliberately awkwardly notated D ‘unison’. The upper instruments play this note as both stopped and open, resulting in a wavering, ‘beating’ sound. At this point, the G major pastoral returns, and one realises that that ‘homeliness’ of the shepherds and fields was what was longed for all along.

Of course, this is quartet is only the second step along the cycle of six (Op 48 and 49). The next quartet picks up the pastoral mood, but transformed into the more heroic key of E flat Major-evoking the hunt, and gradually drawing the listener and player into an astonishing web of drama and expressiveness whose power is finally released with the first movement of Op 49 No 6, the last in this cycle, where all the material which has been laid out with such elegant virtuosity up to this point, is shattered and recast. But that is to come; for now this extraordinary pair of works provides a brilliant introduction to Reicha’s Viennese quartets.



Reicha’s grave stone in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris