Reicha Quartets. Flesh and Bone

Posted on January 5th, 2014 by

Reicha Quartets. Flesh and Bone
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Reicha's grave stone in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

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

In many years spent performing and studying the chamber music of Anton Reicha, it has become clear to me, and my colleagues, that his music demands a very particular approach, and, however much this might seem to relate to the performing techniques that we might use to play the music of his friends-be they Beethoven, Cherubini, Pierre Rode or Pierre Baillot – his music demands something else. The unifying feature of a rehearsal of Reicha’s chamber music, is the number of times that the ‘musicking’ will break up into exclamations of disbelief, wonder, outrage and laughter: “He’s not doing that!? I don’t believe it!” are the most common exclamations which punctuate a Reicha rehearsal.

All the way from these relatively early quartets, to the jaw-dropping Duo Concertant, which he wrote for Pierre Baillot shortly before the violinist’s death in 1836, it seems to me that Reicha requires that all of his players constantly ‘think for themselves’, in the course of performance and rehearsal.

The texture of the Quartets Op 48/49, can. on the page can be so easily mistaken for Haydn, in outward appearance. But Reicha’s writing has a very particular quality; not unlike crime or mystery novels, where, at any moment, the smallest gesture or clue can completely change the direction of the plot or outcome. In these works, it feels that, any player might turn the thrust of the argument(s) which Reicha is making. Put another way, the act of playing these works is not unlike a four-handed piece of what the great improviser Keith Tippett described to me as ‘spontaneous composition’.

In an article for Contemporary Music Review , I noted that the early 19th century approach to quartet playing and composition was far from the ‘one-direction’ interpretation which is perhaps over-familiar today:

‘Perhaps the biggest bugbear that the string quartet has faced with the turn of the millennium has been the question of pre-planned interpretation […] Well into the nineteenth century, the most common method of playing string quartets was ‘reading’; until the second decade of that century, the majority of works in the medium were designed to function within the ambit of sight-reading. Felix Mendelssohn wrote his quartet, Op. 12 (1827) for the Parisian quartet of Pierre Baillot, which sight-read exclusively; he enthused at the excitement and quality of the performance. Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that the first chamber work with strings by Ludwig van Beethoven to appear in ‘full score’ was the quintet in C Major, Op. 29, in a celebratory edition in 1825. The practice, the expectation of study and preparation of a quartet using a Partitur would be alien to composers of the period.’

Study and performance of chamber music of this period leads many of us to conclude that the feints and surprises in Beethoven, Reicha, Haydn and their colleagues, are aimed at the players themselves, to experience as they ‘read’ in the salon environment for which the works were conceived. The shaping of such pieces, even when they are known deeply, seems to demand dynamic balance between individual, and shared reactions to the way works ‘take aim’ at the players themselves. Nowhere do I feel that this is more the case than in Reicha’s quartets. I continued:

‘By the end of the twentieth century, the practise of high-level quartet playing had become oriented towards a highly ‘thought-out’, perhaps monolithic, approach to interpretation. […] Many lifelong players in quartets find rationalising the two basic models of a ‘super-controlled’ performance aesthetic with democratic or egalitarian politics difficult. The first model is a hangover from the late nineteenth century, when touring virtuosi, such as Lady Wilhelmina Neruda Halle or Henryk Wieniawski would ‘lead’ three other players, often standing, in ‘quartet evenings’ in the various cities that they visited, leading to the moniker ‘primarius’ for the quartet ‘leader’ in Germany. This dictatorial approach informed much quartet playing during the twentieth century; some brilliant, but ‘top-down’, performances were the result; for instance, my teacher Norbert Brainin is an example of how exciting this practice could be. When its hegemony crumbled, particularly in Europe, a peculiarly un-dynamic playing aesthetic took its place, often to be witnessed in the very quartets who were trained by the great primarii as they themselves turned to teaching at the end of the century. They had a tendency to advocate a highly pre-ordained approach to scores, with careful attention paid to structure and voicing, but a less dynamic approach to the real ‘life’ of a work, its internal ebb and flow, disputes and concordances. Many of us find this practice as suffocating as the old ‘primarius’ system.’

I feel that it behoves me to bring this up, as I am aware that the approach, which I and my colleagues choose to take is not congruent with a ‘civilised’ approach to classical chamber music. Goethe’s famous remark to Mendelssohn’s teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, about quartet playing, makes it very clear that what interested him about ‘four rational persons conversing together’, is that ‘one learns something from their discourse, and becomes acquainted with the peculiarities of their particular instruments’ . Conversation and discourse are not by definition always (hardly ever) harmonious, and as Goethe points out, there is much to be gained from the distinctions between the various instruments (and by extension, the people playing them).

To clarify what this means from a performance point of view, playing Reicha quartets, imagine that you are walking through a landscape, perhaps with a goal in sight, with a group of friends, all of whom, including you, are single- even bloody-minded, confident and cantankerous, and are capable of talking over each other, whilst recognising that you all have something to say. The route has not been agreed, but the destination seems to have been. You all stride off, full of energy and conversation, and at various times, the group fragments, diverts and even separates, as each person follows their ideas, all inspired by, and perhaps even germane to the area you are exploring. There might be some unity of purpose, and there might be elements of leadership, of hierarchy (albeit intermittent), and there might even be unanimity. But overall, the effect, the ‘walk’ is heterogeneous.

But here’s the most unexpected thing. Reicha’s freedom, his discursiveness of meaning and expression, feels most present when he is at his ‘strictest’. This is where his fascination with the function of fugue in quartet writing becomes so interesting. The approach which we find required to ‘enter into the world’ of the Allegro Vivace fugue which ends the E Flat Major Quartet Op 48 No 3 is one where each of us endeavours to produce the most individualised personal energy and shaping. I observe that, in this fugue, where each entry is ‘real’-that is as close to the effect of a canon (without being one), each player needs to ‘fight their corner’, to insist on their own primacy. Imagine if you will, a ‘quodlibet’ (‘everyone for themselves’), with all its participants singing away in strictly controlled counterpoint, but utterly convinced that their material is unique and speaks for itself. This is not a contradiction-indeed, I would argue that the troubling power of the (very different) first movement of Beethoven’s C Sharp minor Quartet Op 131, which is equally ‘strict’, is that each player is required to rigorously pursue a similar quest, albeit with very different material!

Reicha himself seems very interested in what happens when you force multiple players to act as one, as can been felt performing the ‘Imitation of the Aeolian Harp’ movement in his 12 Duos Op 84 for violin and cello (1804?). In this piece, the two players never play together, but ‘hocket’ at high speed, making for a deliberately uncomfortable result, as they have to produce a single line from never playing ‘together’. There’s no question that what causes pleasure to this composer is placing impediments in our way; like the wonderful challenge for pianists of playing his fugue based on the opening theme of Mozart’s Haffner-Sinfonie¸ full of two octave leaps. He clearly enjoys the ‘splash’.

Going back to the E Flat Major Quartet Op 48 No 3, the pugnacity of its short finale is all the more marked by its contrast to the pastoral character of the opening Allegro Moderato. This movement ‘looks back’, not only to works obvious to us today, such as Mozart’s ‘Hunt’ or Haydn’s ‘Rider’ Quartets, but to the less tightly-wrought chamber works of Dittersdorf, Vanhal and Michael Haydn, which were familiar to Vienna-based players and listeners. This large scale movement, five times as long as the finale, contains more than a hint of the discursive, but directed, conversation of the salons which was such an important influence on the evolution of a new chamber music language in the years around the French Revolution. This is the epitome of my ‘quartet players going for a walk’.

A score is in many ways not unlike a script for a play. It is expected that different performances or productions of any play will enter its world from different standpoints. It is also expected that different ‘readings’ will activate its integers in variegated ways, too diverse to list. It is also expected that in any production, the actors will inhabit their characters in various manners, and the situations which result, so that they ‘live’ in some way. This, I have always presumed, is the same with a score.

In theatre, it is expected that the most powerful example of this ‘inhabitation’ is to be found in the ‘soliloquy’. Two or three decades into the 19th century, this dramatic device became commonplace in quartet and quintet writing. However, Reicha’s use of soliloquy, in the Largo of Op 48 No 3, is novel for chamber music of its time, especially in continuing in for a whole movement. The mis-en-scène of this particular movement breaks many of the ‘rules’ that would be retroactively applied to the notion of ‘pure’ classical chamber music in the 20th Century, as it uses gambits, such as tremolo which would later be seen as only suitable for the orchestra or opera pit. It has more than a hint of ‘melodrama’, in the sense that would be understood at the time, and dominated the boulevard theatres of Paris by the end of Reicha’s life. In this Largo , the 1st violin, our ‘Hamlet’ (for sake of argument) in this scene, asks his ‘question’ five times, ‘varying’ it in the manner which had been made popular by Reicha’s friend and colleague Pierre Rode, through understated layering of ornamentation and instrumental colour. There are allusions to Rode’s epochal first G Major Air Varié in more than one of Reicha’s early quartets. A scholar would be quick to point out that Reicha was, consciously or not, evoking the earlier improvisational practice of C.P.E. Bach. His C minor Fantasie H 75 was published in a periodical in the 1750’s with two over layering versions of Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’, as ‘Hamlet, der über den Selbstmord raisoniert’ (‘Hamlet, considering suicide’) to be sung, spoken (or contemplated?) by the player. Reicha’s three other players do not ‘accompany’, but provide ‘landscape’, reflecting and impinging on the musings of the ‘soliloquist’ with varying degrees of comfort and threat. For the final, abbreviated statement of the material, they offer a contrapuntal reaction to each motif of the soloist, resulting in a more ‘quartet-like’ texture, excepting that the 1st Violin does nothing to indicate that they might have noticed! From his standpoint, this is his soliloquy to the end.

There is a link between the performing materials available to actors or musicians, up till the 1800s: I have alluded to this earlier in this piece. Performers were not handed complete texts from which to ‘con’ their parts for a play or musical work. No quartet or quintet player of the 18th or 19th century would expect to study the works except by playing them. They couldn’t, as ‘full scores’ were not available until many years later. In 2013, researching the archive of the Norwegian virtuoso Ole Bull, I discovered his ‘writing out’ of the opening of Mozart’s C major Quartet K465 ‘Dissonance’ . Bull died in 1880: the first edition of the full score of Mozart’s quartets would not appear until 1882. So, in order to study this troubling opening, he would have needed to write it out. This lack of full score, just like the lack of a play script, is another reason that I argue that the very nature of the music itself is to be found in the interactions and reactions as players negotiate their ‘shared stage’, both conceptual and very physical, and the conflicts, the jockeying for position, which result. Rehearsing without a full score is now recognised as offering vital entrée into the world of 18th and 19th Century music, and one which casts doubt over the earlier primacy of score-led ‘interpretation’. Indeed, that word is used increasingly rarely by today’s players; the harpsichordist Julian Perkins (renowned for his work on Handel and Scarlatti cantatas) recently told me that he rejects it, as interfering with the most important aspect of performing, the ‘what happens when you do it’.

Of course, Reicha does not use technical or musical devices, unfamiliar to the players of his day. There’s just the sense, irresistible over years of playing his music, of an interest in increasing the strain, the human drama, which is chamber playing. An example of this ‘strain’ is offered by the second subject of the C minor Quartet Op 49 No 1. With the exposition statement of this theme, in G minor, the dominant key, the ‘forte’ galloping material in 2nd violin, viola and cello, threatens to overwhelm the 1st violin. This struggle is heard twice, as the exposition is repeated. When the material returns in the recapitulation, in the home key, the ‘tonic’ C minor, the ‘galloping’ motif is introduced hesitantly, almost apologetically, ‘piano’. The 1st violin does not have to struggle; its primacy has been established (momentarily). This version is only heard once, as there is no ‘second repeat’. The question, when this is played, is whether this drama is symbolic, or real; should there be an actual struggle, or should it just be alluded to. I find that Reicha enjoys the conflict, that the crisis (for the 1st violin) is real. He returns to it a number of times in this quartet, for instance, assailing the 1st violin with the slashing chords of his colleagues in the second section of the Menuetto, the third movement.

This struggle between participants, which I am offering as but one element of classical quartet playing, is paralleled by Reicha, in the contradictions within the musical material itself. Throughout the Op 48/ 49 Quartets, we hear melodies and motifs which ‘destabilise’ themselves. The tune heard at the opening of the Finale of Op 49 No 1, cannot ‘decide’ whether it’s in ‘compound’ (‘6/8’) or ‘simple’ (‘3/4’) time. There’s no clear pulse or beat in the ‘accompanying’ material; and the cello adds to the ‘problem’ with a markedly aloof ‘augmented’ version of the opening motif, played at the same moment, as a 5-bar cadence. The tension, tentativeness even, in the 1st Violin’s material is highlighted and heightened by the ‘unhelpful’ behaviour of their colleagues. The resulting anxiety-filled silence, propels a unison outburst, breaking out indignantly, like a Bach or Handel oratorio ‘crowd scene’.

But, back to our ‘play’: In order that our ‘poor players’ take on the roles allotted to them in script or score, they will have to ‘do stuff’. From a formal point of view, the ‘doing stuff’ in a play might be read as simply a way to create the framework, the machine of themes, ideas, the ‘argument’ of the text. However, whatever the purpose of writing a play or script, what cannot be avoided is that this ‘doing stuff’ makes ‘stuff happen’. In a crowd scene, people bump into each other, when a door is slammed, it vibrates on its hinges, and lovers ‘do as pilgrims do’, or ‘do thus’. All of these things are not ‘notated’ for we all know, expect, that that in moments of great intimacy or drama, ‘Words strain,/Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,/under the tension, slip, slide, perish,/Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,/Will not stay still.’ T.S.Eliot, was not writing a play, but, to a degree, he was playing with ideas arising from the experience of seeing and hearing music performed, he knew that the point of all this was what happened, in the gaps.

Reicha seems, and I stress that this is, and must be a personal point of view, fascinated (I can only think of him in the present tense) by what actually takes place when players ‘play’. His music demands that we allow it to ‘happen’ that we don’t shy away from its impact, on ourselves, whether players or listeners. It refuses to be boxed up, framed, varnished, to remain polite, in the past. Reicha, like his old friends Beethoven and the Rombergs, began his professional life as a player, part of the Bonn Kapell, instrument in hand. When I was young, he was talked of as something dry, just a theorist. His music, played and lived, reveals him very far from being this, truly flesh and bone.



Anton Reicha-C Minor Quartet Op 49 No 1 (Outtakes!) 

Kreutzer Quartet (Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Mihailo Trandafilovski, Morgan Goff, Neil Heyde) (Engineer Jonathan Haskell) 

Allegro assaiAdagio Menuetto Allegro

Anton Reicha-Quartet Op 48 No 3 (E Flat Major Quartet)

Allegro ModeratoAdagioMenuettoFuga (Allegro Vivace)


Conversation with PSS, Dartington 1995

‘The String Quartet now …’, Peter Sheppard Sk?rved, Contemporary Music Review, Volume 32, Part 4, 2013, Routledge

Ibid, P.298

Ibid, P.299

Goethe and Zelter: Musical Dialogues, Lorraine Byrne Bodle, 2009, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Farnham, P. 445

12 Duos pour violon & Violoncello, precedes d’un petit Traite, Op. 84, Anton Reicha, ed.Gambaro, Paris, n.d.

Op 10

Conversation with PSS, London, November 2013

. One result of this is that a script of the play might be seen as the record, limited though it might be, of this activity, albeit shorn of the quiddity and energy that results when it is ‘done’.

‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, T.S.Eliot, Faber and Faber, 1944, P.17