François Antoine Habeneck-12 Preludes

Posted on February 12th, 2010 by

François Antoine Habeneck-12 Preludes

Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin Stradivari 1699 

Engineer-Jonathan Haskell (Astounding Sounds)

François Antoine Habeneck - at the beginning of an illustrious career

 The violinist François Antoine Habeneck was the first great string player to be entirely trained in the Paris Conservatoire.  Following his 1804 premier prix,  he was awarded the direction of les Exercises, the student orchestral concerts, for year. This was tremendously successful, and at the end of this year, a delegation of professors demanded that his tenure be made a permanent one. This offered him an opportunity to  develope new ideas and techniques for presenting the modern Viennese repertoire.

Without Habeneck, there would never have been a true orchestral tradition built in France, and that in 1813, the Philharmonic Society in London would have been ‘going it alone’.

In 1807, the Allgemeine Musikalisches Zeitung in Vienna noted the success of Habeneck’s work with the conservatoire orchestra.  His name was not famous outside Frances, so much of his success was put down to Cherubini’s leadership. However, the article speaks of Habeneck’s understanding in Beethoven’s orchestral works, which had grown, along with his players’ expertise, in the years immediately following his 1804 ­premier prix:

            “Cherubini, with the collaboration of several faithful colleagues and teachers, has imparted to the zeal of the conservatoire students not only impetus, but a new direction…the Beethoven Symphonies.  The 1st received a masterly performance.  Since this work is very lively and easy to understand….some applause was to be expected, but no one expected such a large success as this.”

In 1809, the amateur, the Baron de Trémont, then ‘Auditor to the Council of State’, came to Vienna after the bombardment of that city. He sought out Beethoven, and offered to defray the cost his visit to Paris; a visit which never happened. The great composer was very aware of the new orchestral standards that Habeneck was pioneeringat the Conservtoire:

           “I should like to hear Mozart’s symphonies – (he mentioned neither his own nor those of Haydn) – in Paris; I am told that they are played better at the Conservatoire than anywhere else.”


IN 1826 Habeneck initiated the Société des Concerts with a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, in 1826. This replaced the long – defunct Concerts Spirituels.   Vidal takes up the story:

 “In November 1826, on St Cecilia’s day, he organised a meal at his home for the most fervent ones, and he begged them to bring their instruments.  The guests arrived, and they found the parts for a ‘heroic symphony’, unknown to them all, on the music stands.  Habeneck asked for a reading; so they set to work; the day passed in the in the enthusiasm of labour.   Four hours passed; everyone, host and guests, had forgotten about lunch, which Madame Habeneck, guessing what would happen, had taken care not to let go cold. She transformed it into an excellent supper, to which the hardy symphonists did honour, all thinking it excellent.  The result, due to the tenacity and intelligence of Habeneck and sanctioned by the public, was the first seed of our admirable Société des Concerts, which was not long in being organised.  The first took place in the actual hall, on Sunday 9th March at 1828, at two o’clock, and began the evenings with the ‘Heroic Symphony’ of which we have just been speaking.”

Hector Berlioz remembered the struggle that began with Habeneck’s appointment to the conservatoire Exercises in 1804, up to and beyond the founding of the Société des Concerts in February 1828:

“It is thanks to him that his great institution, today famous throughout the civilised world, was founded at all.  It was a hard struggle; and before he could secure adequate performances, he had to persuade a large body of players to share his enthusiasm for totally unfamiliar music which had the reputation of being eccentric and difficult to play; he had to overcome an indifference which turned to hostility at the prospect of endless rehearsals and unremunerative toil stretching ahead.”

Ironically, it was Habeneck’s innovation of the trained large orchestra that gave Berlioz the impetus for his very own ‘exercises’ in orchestral excess. Habeneck’s skill with large forces made works such as the Symphonie Fantastique possible.  But it was also Habeneck who later provided the institutional resistance which Berlioz later attempted to break down, most particularly as his work requires the true conductor, working with a full score, rather than a violinist, given to taking snuff during performances.

Perhaps the most visible Stradivarius, most regularly seen on the Paris, was the magnificent 1734 example that Habeneck played. He was able to use the sheer power of this instrument, to great advantage as an orchestral director. Unsurprisingly, he was not noted as chamber musician, so there were not many works for small groups written for him.  Only two quartets seem to have been dedicated to him during his lifetime-one by the gifted amateur, Georges Onslow (1784-1853), the other, a group of three by Zamboni, a conductor at the Théâtre Italièn.