Antoine Reicha (1770-1836), cosmopolitan and visionary

The teacher of Liszt, Berlioz,
Gounod and Franck, Reicha
was one of the leading importers
of Viennese Classicism
to Restoration Paris.

After the rediscovery of works by Étienne-Nicolas Méhul and Charles-Simon Catel, the Palazzetto Bru Zane continues its exploration of the early decades of the nineteenth century by turning its attention to Antoine Reicha. This Czech-born composer who became a naturalised French citizen in 1829 frequented Beethoven and studied the music of Haydn before moving to the French capital during the First Empire. Of his immense corpus of chamber music, the wind quintets, pioneering works in their genre, are all that remains in the repertoire. But the quality of the rest of his music, in particular his string quartets, is such that we should now lend a more attentive ear to these pieces, which constitute a fascinating link between Viennese Classicism and French Romanticism. Especially as Reicha was a peerless theorist whose erudite research pushed back frontiers in the art of visionary counterpoint and innovative harmony.

‘I have always loved
France passionately;
it is there that my way
of seeing and feeling
belongs.’ (Autobiographie)


Born Antonín Rejcha in Prague, Antoine Reicha was not only a renowned composer but also one of the most important theorists and pedagogues of the first half of the nineteenth century. His father having died when he was still very young, he received his initial training from his uncle, the composer and cellist Joseph Reicha. When the latter was appointed Konzertmeister at the theatre in Bonn in 1785, he moved there with his nephew, who obtained a post as flautist in the theatre orchestra alongside the young Beethoven, who played the viola in the ensemble. This period of his life ended in 1794, with the occupation of the city by the French revolutionary army. The young man travelled to Hamburg, then Paris and finally Vienna, where he completed his training with Salieri among others. It was in 1808 that he settled permanently in France. Although he was seen as a composer of ‘German’ music, his learning in counterpoint earned him an appointment as professor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1818. It was during his period at the Conservatoire that he wrote nearly all his theoretical works, including the Traité de haute composition (1824-26), motivated by a constant concern for balance and rationality, in which he shows exceptional clairvoyance as to the future direction of music. His teaching, open to the idea of progress, deeply influenced such composers as Berlioz, Liszt, Gounod and Franck. He was naturalised in 1829, and in 1835 he was accorded the ultimate honour of election to the Institut de France. Little-known today, his music (including numerous piano pieces and works for wind instruments) oscillates between the expression of a lightness inherited from Classicism and a pronounced penchant for theoretical experimentation that verges on the visionary (as in the Quatuor scientifique and his fugues for piano).

‘An artist without taste
is like a philosopher
without reason.’ (Observations philosophiques et pratiques sur la musique)

A taste for experimentation

Reicha asserted the importance of pushing back the limits of knowledge in order to perfect the music of his time. While his symphonies, concertos and quartets – at least for the most part – seem to be governed by a Viennese style raised to its apogee, he took his harmonic and rhythmic researches to considerably greater extremes in his music for piano, the instrument to which he confided his artistic caprices. One hardly knows what to admire most, the innovation of ‘composed and irregular metre’ or his new theories bearing on part-writing in counterpoint (and especially in fugue). But he did not stop at musical language; he also experimented with the sound medium. He particularly excelled in writing for wind instruments, whose qualities and technical limitations he mastered perfectly. His extraordinary savoir-faire – building on that of his predecessors Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – consisted in turning these instruments’ imperfections into expressive innovations. To this end, he cultivated friendly relations with some of the finest Parisian virtuosi of his time, for whom he wrote his wind quintets and other chamber music: the flautist Joseph Guillou, the oboist Gustave Vogt, the horn player Louis-François Dauprat, the clarinettist Jacques-Jules Bouffil and the bassoonist Antoine-Nicolas Henry. In fact, Reicha was the true creator, before Onslow, of this musical genre which has continued to inspire composers ever since.

‘I always had a great
penchant for doing
extraordinary things
in composition.’ (Autobiographie)

A meticulous theorist

Among the numerous treatises of composition left by Reicha, there is one that may be regarded as his testament: the Art du compositeur dramatique ou Cours complet de composition vocale, published in 1833. Yet even his first theoretical text – the Traité de mélodie (1814), published before he joined the staff of the Conservatoire – was reprinted eleven times and translated into several languages, which makes it much more than a trivial youthful effort. His Traité de haute composition musicale (1824) sparked off numerous reactions and controversies in the conservative and academic musical world, especially on the part of Cherubini (then director of the Conservatoire) and the Belgian writer on music François-Joseph Fétis. Reicha took no offence, and continued constantly to innovate, to experiment, to shake up ideas. ‘I have always been stimulated by the urge to compose something extraordinary . . . I never succeeded better in my intentions than when I contrived combinations and exploited ideas that had never occurred to my predecessors’, he wrote. Such profusion of invention discomfited certain musicians: ‘Monsieur Reicha has too great a tendency to waste his ideas; this music bears witness to a lack of formal control’, was the judgment of Louis Spohr.

Principal theoretical publications

A stylistic mediator

Reicha is the perfect example of a transitional figure who neither renounces the past nor ignores the future. If he was a mediator, it was first of all between the Austro-German style and French musical teaching, which resisted both the harmony of Beethoven and the cantabile of Rossini. ‘The excellence of the Viennese style modifies the definition and perception of music’, he declared; and he had a veneration for Haydn and Mozart that is manifested in a large proportion of his chamber music. However, Reicha was no less estimable as a pedagogue: a generous teacher, confident in the genius of his best pupils, to whom he bequeathed his selective reading of the Classical theories revisited in the light of his own experiments. If one listens carefully to his orchestral music, it is possible to hear from time to time just how it inspired Berlioz, for all the latter’s passionate love of freedom and individuality. And indeed it was that same Berlioz who wrote following Reicha’s death: ‘Always advancing calmly, deaf to the voices of critics, paying little heed to praise, outwardly he valued only the successes of the young artists with whose education he was entrusted at the Conservatoire and to whom he dispensed his lessons with all the care and attention imaginable’ (Journal des débats, 3 July 1836).

‘Sentiment is
the sole object
of music.’ (Sur la musique comme art purement sentimental)