Antonín Reicha



Around 1800 the compositions of Antonín Reicha (1770–1836) were regarded by some as affected and bizarre. At the same time, however, he was reckoned, in Gerber’s words, “among our most important young and promising musicians”. Today Reicha is known to music scholars mostly for his theoretical works. These works, which he began publishing in Paris in 1814, brought him a professorship at the conservatory there in 1818. Translations of these writings, including the German translations by Carl Czerny, also soon made Reicha famous as a theorist outside France. Today’s performing musicians hold Reicha’s chamber music in especially high regard. This is above all true of his wind quintets, works representing the beginning and first high point of their genre, this owing to their fine individual treatment of the instruments, but his works of mixed wind and string instrumentation have also met with interest. Reicha composed most of the works we associate with his name today during the years following his final move to Paris in 1808. His renewed attempts to establish himself as an opera composer in the French capital were no more successful than his first attempt to do so in 1799–1800. As a result of his failures in this area, he was denied a place in the Académie des Beaux Arts until 1835: in Paris one had to have met the challenge of the opera stage to be taken seriously as a composer.

The judgment cited above was based not on Reicha’s Paris compositions but on the works he composed in earlier years and began publishing in Leipzig about 1800. Some of his orchestral works from this period remained unpublished. The numerous published works from this period included mainly piano works, chamber music for stringed instruments, and the op. 41 and op. 42 symphonies (cf. the combined reviews in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, Leipzig, 1806–7 and 1808). During these years, from 1800 to 1808, Reicha was living mostly in Vienna, where he taught, composed, and enjoyed direct access to Joseph Haydn. According to his own testimony, Reicha did not receive formal instruction from Haydn but did obtain numerous valuable tips from him. From 1785 on Reicha had lived in Bonn, where he served as a flautist in the Electorate of Cologne Orchestra under the direction of his uncle Josef Reicha and attended the university and received composition instruction from Christian Gottlob Neefe together with Ludwig van Beethoven, who was a violist in the same orchestra. Reicha resided in Hamburg from 1794 to 1798, and it was there that he thought through and developed the philosophy of education which he so successfully employed during later years. His Obaldi or The French in Egypt, an opera composed for a French opera company led by Pierre Rode, also dates to his Hamburg years. Reicha had it performed in Paris at the recommendation of French emigrées but had no luck with it on the Paris stage. In contrast, his Symphony No. 1 in E flat major (later published as his op. 41) and other orchestral works enjoyed many successful performances and brought him the esteem of numerous French composers. But this was not enough to secure him a permanent post, and so he left Paris for Vienna.


The Symphony in E flat major op. 41, the Overture D major and the Sinfonia concertante for Flute, Violin and Orchestra G major help us to pinpoint Antonín Reicha’s compositional position around 1800. He must have composed most of them before or during his Vienna years. Since the manuscripts are not dated and the first editions did not follow until ca. 1806 (op. 41) and 1823 (the overture), a precise dating is hardly possible. These works corroborate the characterization of his music as “bizarre” and “affected” but also as “full of talent” and “of manifold knowledge”.

Symphony E flat major, Op. 41

1. Largo – Allegro spiritoso
2. Andante un poco adagio
3. Menuetto. Allegro – Trio
4. Un poco vivo

The reviewer of the The Symphony in E flat major op. 41 regarded it as highly successful, tightly constructed, and unified. Like all Reicha’s works from this period, it was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig. Its four movements bear the headings “Largo – Allegro spiritoso”, “Andante un poco adagio”, “Allegro”, and “Un poco vivo”. The first, third, and fourth movements are in the key of E flat major; the second is in the key of B flat major. In its overall form the symphony reflects the norm established by Haydn and Mozart in their last symphonies. The details of the symphony do contain a few surprises but nothing that would have taken away from the overall impression of unity it had for the composer’s contemporaries: this was not a work that was labeled as “affected, in order to appear original”. For example, the beginning of the principal theme in the first movement is expanded by a full measure with the eighth-note precursor in the accompaniment. As a result, the theme is in nine measures instead of eight. Moreover, the entry sequence of the wind instruments in the conclusion of the trio is so tightly constructed that there is no time to rest at all and the repetition of the minuet seems convincing. The reviewer in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung singled out the C minor middle section of the last movement for special mention: “A somewhat strange, unexpected movement [begins]; it is continued until the return of the theme in various imitations and items of usage allowing us to recognize the good contrapuntist.” A “new”, self-contained motif is introduced just prior to the conclusion. Along with these details, the symphony is also distinguished by a wealth of variants, skillful, varied instrumentation, and very effective structure. Here we can only agree with Reicha’s contemporaries, “Certainly this symphony deserves to be widely known”.

Overture D major (5/8)

Allegro un poco vivo

At first glance Reicha’s Overture in D major in 5/8 time seems to have the best claim to the label “bizarre”. In his theoretical writings Reicha spoke out against the notion of the sole validity of symmetrical forms in thematic and metrical design. He regarded themes of five and seven measures as equal to symmetrical groupings. He had already displayed his predilection for composite metrical types and the opportunities offered by them in his Études for Piano Solo op. 30 (Paris, ca. 1800) and Practical Examples (Vienna, 1803), which may be regarded as the precursors of his great theoretical works. The flexibility of 5/8 time, allowing as it does for divisions into 3 + 2 or 2 + 3 eighth notes and various other combinations based on eighth notes, represented an exciting challenge for Reicha’s art of experimentation.

The overture displays a wealth of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic color and requires a high level of virtuosity from the orchestra. It surely would have met with an unfavorable response from the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reviewers had they known of it! Two hundred years later, however, we are more inclined to look for the seeds of future musical developments in Antonin Reicha’s compositions. And his works offer us fertile ground for such an undertaking. He was not a composer who blindly followed traditional norms. Rather he submitted them to close scrutiny and went beyond them as he saw fit. In so doing he often pointed far ahead into the musical future – a fact obscured by the Beethoven cult, which has caused us to overlook many a contribution by his contemporaries to the field of symphonic music.

Sinfonia concertante for Flute, Violin and Orchestra G major

1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Rondo. Allegro

The Concertante for Flute, Violin, and Orchestra in G major also adheres to a traditional movement sequence (Allegro – Andante – Rondo. Allegro) but exhibits some elements departing even more strongly from the norm. For example, after the orchestral introduction each solo instrument enters with its own new theme. The upbeat flute theme induces the entire orchestra to abandon the downbeat for the upbeat. The recurring melodic phrases in the further course of the movement, though always related to the preceding such phrases, also always produce the effect of newness. The soloists are given opportunities to engage in competition in virtuoso episodes. The second movement offers an especially clear example of Reicha’s skill in submitting a melody to ever new variation and continuation. Here the symmetrical two-part structure serves only as a weak support.

In the concluding Rondo the boundaries between the refrains and couplets blur. At the conclusion a variation sequence on a folk-style theme in eight measures forms the final couplet. The most striking feature of this movement is its chamber-musical design. This design is already hinted at in the two-part beginning with the solo flute and first violin and persists over long stretches of the movement.

Irmlind Capelle