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8.554228 - REICHA: Wind Quintets, Op. 91, No. 6 and Op. 88, No. 6
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Antoine Reicha (1770-1836)
Wind Quintets

Following the death of his father in 1771, the one-year-old Antonine Reicha was left in the sole care of his mother. She, however, had neither the inclination nor the ability to look after him properly, and when he was eleven he ran away to his paternal grandfather. Once there, he accepted the offer of a proper education and family life with his uncle Josef, a highly respected cellist and the Konzertmeister at the celebrated court of Oettingen-Wallerstein. He therefore set out on a second journey alone and later recalled that his worst moment came at the border crossing at Regensburg. Speaking little German and possessing no documentation, he waited for the customs officer to start his lunch and then feigned eye trouble, saying that he had his papers somewhere and that he was travelling to a shrine in the hope of a miraculous cure. The ruse worked and the bemused official let him across.

During the next three years Antoine learned to play the flute, violin and piano, and by the time Josef was appointed leader of the Elector's orchestra in Bonn in 1785, his nephew was sufficiently accomplished to join him as a violinist and flautist. He can hardly have hoped for a better opportunity, for the Elector had a particular interest in music and employed the young Beethoven as an organist and viola player. The two young musicians immediately established a firm friendship and by 1792 had made such progress in their composition lessons with Christian Neefe that both were offered the chance to study with Haydn in Vienna. Beethoven accepted, but Reicha remained in Bonn until 1794 when the city was occupied by Napoleon's troops. The Elector fled, and although Josef was too ill to travel he feared that Antonín would be attracted to the revolutionary ideas of the French army and insisted that he should go to the relative safety of Hamburg. Reicha obeyed, but while the move allowed him to abandon orchestral playing in favour of composition, teaching and philosophy, the damp climate affected his health and in 1799 he moved to Paris. Before long, however, he decided that the uncertain political situation outweighed his popularity in the city, and in 1801 he left for the relative stability of Vienna.

Although the earlier friendship between Beethoven and Haydn had now soured, Reicha enjoyed the friendship of both for the next seven years, translating when either received French visitors and regarding Haydn as something of a role model. An ardent champion of change, he also developed his own philosophy of music and aesthetics, arguing that 'old' forms such as fugue would have a place in modern music only if composers also challenged accepted norms such as the need for barlines or for works to start and end in the same key. He then demonstrated some of his ideas in the Practische Beispiel, a set of 36 bizarre fugues for piano which include unusual rhythms, time signatures and harmonies and which he published in 1803. This might have led further, but in 1805 Napoleon's troops arrived in Vienna and when he returned to Paris three years later Reicha found that he was unable to earn a living exclusively as a composer. He continued to publish theoretical treatises on aesthetics, but had to find another source of income and, after changing his name to Antoine Reicha (until now he had been know as Antonín Rejcha), began to earn a reputation as an effective and entertaining teacher. As such, his pupils included Berlioz, Liszt, Franck and Gounod, and in 1818 his reputation as a member of the French musical establishment was confirmed by his appointment to teach composition at the Paris Conservatoire.

Today, however, Reicha is best known for his many quintets for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. This combination of instruments had occasionally been used before, but Reicha was to make the form his own, undertaking a careful study of each of the instruments after a preliminary foray into the medium in 1811 and then writing the pair of 'incomparably superior works' which he published as the first two pieces in his Op. 88. The remaining four quintets in the set were written in 1817, and all six were published and performed at the Théâtre Favart in Paris later that year. These were welcomed as great novelties and the Parisian public awaited his three further sets of six Op. 91 in 1818, Op. 99 in 1819 and Op. 100 in 1820 – with great anticipation. Balzac refers to them in his novel, Les employées, and the Paris correspondent of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung found it 'difficult to imagine a more discreet, livelier or more effective performance. If it is possible to surpass Haydn in quartets and quartet composition, this has been achieved by Reicha in these quintets.'

Parisians were not alone in their enthusiasm for wind quintets. 'They created the same sensation throughout Europe,' recorded Reicha in his autobiography. 'Witness the many letters and congratulations addressed to me from all quarters.' John Sainsbury, writing in England in 1825, was particularly impressed: 'No description, no imagination can do justice to these compositions. The effect produced by the extraordinary combinations of apparently opposite-­toned instruments, added to Reicha's vigorous style of writing and judicious arrangement, have rendered these quintets the admiration of the musical world.' Such enthusiasm was inevitably tempered, however, by some more critical voices. To Louis Spohr, Reicha was 'too profuse with his ideas', although he enjoyed the works' rich harmonies and effective scoring. Berlioz found the works 'a little cold'. But few went as far as the London critic who, after hearing a quintet played at a Philharmonic Society concert in 1825, described it as 'one of the most intolerable pieces that we were ever condemned to hear'.

The players for whom the quintets were written were undoubtedly among the finest of their day. All, except for the bassoonist Antoine Henry had studied composition with Reicha himself, and the clarinettist Jacques-Jules Bouffil was the only one who did not hold a teaching post at the Paris Conservatoire. 'It is almost taken for granted that M. Vogt has not a peer on the oboe,' wrote AMZ; 'Every outstanding player of this instrument here owes his entire training to this artist.' Reicha's flautist, Joseph Guillou, was perhaps in the shadow of his contemporary, Jean-Louis Tulou, but as a teacher none of them was the equal of the quintet's horn player, Louis-François Dauprat. His Méthode de Cor Alto et Cor Basse is one of the most comprehensive and intelligently written tutors ever published, and while its exercises for the natural, or valveless, horn are often fiendishly difficult, Reicha's horn lines show that Dauprat was clearly able to practise what he preached.

Like all but two of Reicha's wind quintets, Op. 91 No. 6, in C minor, begins with a slow introduction. In this case, this is a funeral march which is swept away by an extensive triple-metre Allegro vivace where all the players have a chance to shine. The second movement presents a song-like theme for oboe and then moves on into three rather free variations, the first featuring the horn and the last recapitulating the opening theme on the bassoon. This is followed by a substantial Minuet in which one of the themes is treated fugally. Although the horn opens the associated Trio, the most challenging material is reserved for the clarinet and bassoon, and after an urgent opening the generally relaxed Finale offers further opportunities for virtuoso display.

The Allegro moderato which follows the chromatic and questioning slow introduction to Op. 88 No. 6 recalls the first movement of Op. 91 No. 6 in both its length and its predominantly high-spirited mood. The slow movement, however, is the only Siciliano among Reicha's qnintets. This pastoral dance form had been favoured by eighteenth-century composers but was already considered archaic, and while Reicha retains its traditional pastoral character he also uses the first of the subsequent variations to show the athletic nature of the clarinet. As always in Reicha's quintets, the spirited 'Minuet' is really a Scherzo, but here it is the horn player who has to be on his mettle. Two contrasting Trio sections follow, the first gentle and haunting, the second brash and contrapuntal, and the work ends with a rondo form finale whose predominantly reflective nature is clear from its very opening.

John Humphries


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