Franz Xaver Richter

(1709 –1789)


Franz Xaver Richter was the oldest of the composer-performers who made up what came to be known as the ‘Mannheim school’, but he stood apart from the others and moved on while the reputation of the Mannheim court orchestra was at its height. He was born in 1709, probably in Holleschau (now Holešov, in the Czech Republic). He studied Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus), a treatise on counterpoint by the composer Johann Joseph Fux, which had been published (in Latin, as the title suggests) in Vienna in 1725, and during his years in Mannheim he wrote a treatise of his own.

In 1740 Richter became vice-Kapellmeister at the court of the princeabbot of Kempten, a picturesque town on the banks of the river Iller between Munich and Lake Constance. In 1744, the year after his marriage, his ‘grandes simphonies’ were published in Paris. He moved to Mannheim, as composer and bass singer, in 1747; an oratorio by him was performed there on Good Friday the following year. That oratorio, La deposizione dalla croce, was written at the request of the Elector Carl Theodor, who was responsible for turning Mannheim into an important centre of music. Under the leadership of Johann Stamitz, the orchestra built up an international reputation: the historian Charles Burney wrote that ‘the band... was regarded as the most complete and best disciplined in Europe’. It was particularly well known for its control of dynamics and for executing the special effects written by the resident composers. These included the premier coup d’archet, a precision attack by the strings, and the ‘Mannheim rocket’, a vigorous rising arpeggio. Richter made use of these effects from time to time, but he seems to have found them distasteful. In 1769 he became Kapellmeister at Strasbourg Cathedral; we get a glimpse of him in a letter that Mozart wrote to his father from Strasbourg, in which he says that Richter ‘now lives very economically, for instead of forty bottles of wine a day he only swills about twenty’, and goes on to mention a ‘charmingly written’ new mass.1

Richter’s output included over eighty symphonies, many concertos and chamber works, thirty-nine masses and three settings of the Requiem. Burney’s assessment was cool, and he castigated Richter for his overreliance on sequences:

‘...his works, of various kinds, have merit; the subjects are often new and noble; but his detail and manner of treating them is frequently dry and steril [sic], and he spins and repeats passages in different keys without end… Indeed this species of iteration indicates a want of invention in a composer, as much as stammering and hesitation imply a want of wit or memory in a story-teller.’2

On his death in Strasbourg in 1789, the composer was succeeded by his assistant, Ignaz Pleyel, to whom he had already delegated some of his duties.

Richter’s symphonies were numbered in a thematic catalogue compiled at the beginning of the twentieth century. The numbering does not follow the dates of composition, which in many cases can only be conjectured.

Sinfonia in D major, No. 52

1. Presto assai
2. Andantino sempre piano
3. Presto assai

The Symphony in D major, No. 52, is assigned to the last period of Richter’s life, when he was working in Strasbourg. As with most of his symphonies, it is in three movements rather than four. Scored for strings with oboes, bassoon, trumpets and timpani, it shows Richter with, typically, his feet in both the new galant and the old baroque camps: the first movement is in a tentative version of sonata form, while the melodic shape of the trumpet parts, and a bassoon part that generally follows the bass line, both hark back several decades. The binary form Andantino, which is in A minor, a key touched on in the first movement, features a wistful little tune for oboe and violins. The brass and drums are silent, as usual, but return for the Presto assai finale.

Sinfonia in D major, No. 53 (Trumpet Symphony)

arr. Schroeder
1. Allegro
2. Andantino
3. Presto assai

With its pounding octaves, and two trombe da guerra (trumpets of war) and timpani alternating and combining with the strings, the opening Allegro of the Symphony in D major, No. 53 has the feel of a concerto movement. Fanfares are, predictably, never far away; less predictable is the modulation to the remote key of C major reached by means of a sequence, the device so deplored by Burney. The Andantino introduces an obsessive little triplet figure, with a jerky, dotted phrase by way of contrast. Octave leaps return in the Presto assai, with more fanfares and trills to bring the piece to an exuberant conclusion.

Sinfonie in F minor, No. 43

arr. Vogt
1. Allegro non troppo
2. Andante grazioso
3. Tempo di minuetto

Richter was unusual among the Mannheim composers in favouring symphonies in minor keys. The Symphony in F minor, No. 43, for oboes, horns and strings, was published in London in the 1770s as Number 5 in ‘A third set of six favourite overtures’. The first movement starts as though it were a double fugue; homophonic writing soon appears with a graceful tune in the relative major, but there is much counterpoint too, with Richter slyly turning both fugal subject and countersubject upside down in a false start to the recapitulation. The texture in the strings-only Andante grazioso is spare, often in only two or three parts. The last movement is a solemn Minuet in the home key, with a lightening of mood in the F major trio section.

Sinfonie in D minor, No. 56

1. Allegro con spirito
2. Andante poco
3. Allegro molto

Also scored for oboes, horns and strings, the Symphony in D minor, No. 56 is an earlier work than No. 43: it appeared as one of Richter’s Op. 3, ‘Sei sinfonie a più stromenti’, published in Paris in the 1760s. The bold opening to the Allegro con spirito promises rather more than it delivers, but Richter makes quite a feature of unison writing for the strings, with chromatic inflexions to add a little spice. The movement is another example of sonata form in embryo, with the major key material of the exposition returning in the minor in the recapitulation. The second movement is notable for a two-note sighing figure in the violins. Passion is hinted at: but the end is tranquil, whereas there is no relief from severity in the finale.

Sinfonia in G minor (with fugue), No. 29

arr. Bodart
1. Adagio – Allegro molto
2. Andante
3. Presto

The magnificent first movement of the Symphony in G minor, No. 29 shows the results of Richter’s study of Fux’s textbook. (It is possible that Richter studied with Fux himself in Vienna, but there is no evidence.) The Adagio introduction begins with a measured tread in the cellos and basses. When the oboes and horns enter, a descending chromatic phrase is heard in the middle of the texture; hinted at a little later by the violins, it turns into one of the themes of the double fugue that ensues. The gentle Andante is followed by a Presto that, as so often, is in binary form and in triple time. The grinding discords – seconds and sevenths – are worthy of Richter’s younger contemporary and teacher of his assistant Ignaz Pleyel: the great composer of symphonies, Joseph Haydn.

1 Letter from Wolfgang to Leopold, 26 October 1778

2 Charles Burney, Dr Burney’s Musical Tours in Europe (reprinted 1959), vol ii, p. 240. Ed. Percy A. Scholes, London, Oxford University Press

Richard Lawrence (2007)