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8.570799 - BECK, F.I.: Symphonies, Op. 3, Nos. 1-4 (Toronto Chamber Orchestra, Mallon)
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Franz Ignaz Beck (1734–1809)
Symphonies, Op. 3, Nos. 1–4

 

When Franz Beck composed his first symphonies, some time around the mid-1750s, the genre was in its infancy but it was by no means primitive. The most famous exponent of the symphony, Beck’s teacher Johann Stamitz, director of the celebrated Mannheim court orchestra, had not only raised it to new levels of technical sophistication but, together with a number of his gifted colleagues, had also evolved a new and distinctive style of writing for orchestra. Stamitz’s symphonies were immensely popular, particularly in France. They circulated in both printed editions and in manuscript parts, exerting a profound if localised influence on the development of the symphony. The presence of Stamitz, Richter, Holzbauer, Filtz and others at the Mannheim court created a unique musical environment that must have been intoxicating to a young and ambitious composer such as Beck.

Beck began his musical studies with his father, Johann Aloys, Rektor of the Choral School at the Palatinate Court in Mannheim. He studied violin, double bass and organ, among other instruments, and displayed such impressive talents that the Elector Carl Theodor undertook responsibility for his education. If the account of Beck’s pupil Blanchard is to be believed, the young musician had to flee Mannheim after fighting a duel with a jealous rival and believing that he had killed the man. Many years later, the story goes, he learned that he had been the victim of a hoax: his opponent had only feigned death. This version of events is not universally accepted and it has also been claimed that Beck left Mannheim in rather less sensational fashion in order to study with Baldassare Galuppi in Venice. Whatever the circumstances of his departure, Beck certainly did live in Venice for several years, for it was from there that he eloped to Naples with Anna Oniga, his employer’s daughter. After his eventful sojourn in Italy Beck moved to Marseille and became leader of a theatre orchestra. Although the date of his arrival in France is uncertain, he must have been well-known by reputation at least by the late 1750s since four sets of symphonies were published in rapid succession by Parisian firms beginning in 1758 with the six Op. 1 Symphonies (Sei Overture) on the title page of which Beck is described as “Chamber Virtuoso to the Elector Palatine and pupil of Johann Stamitz”. By the time the Op. 3 Symphonies appeared (1762) Beck’s publisher Venier no longer felt it was necessary to link his name with Stamitz; he does, however, retain Beck’s court position at Mannheim and adds that he is “first violin of the Concert in Marseille”.

Beck moved from Marseille to Bordeaux, where he was appointed conductor of the Grand Théâtre. His theatre duties were combined with composing and teaching. Among his most prominent pupils were Pierre Gaveaux, Blanchard and Boscha. In October 1774 he was appointed organist at St Seurin, Bordeaux, where his improvisations were widely admired. Among the most important works of the pre-Revolutionary period is the magnificent Stabat Mater which was given its first performance at Versailles. Like a number of other prominent composers Beck appears to have had little difficulty adjusting to the new regime and produced a substantial number of patriotic works including a Hymne à l’être suprême. In 1803 he was appointed correspondent of music composition for the Institute of France.

Beck’s symphonies have long been regarded as among the most striking works of their kind from the mid-eighteenth century. Their quality makes it all the more puzzling that Beck apparently lost interest in the genre as early as the mid-1760s. Had he brought his formidable talents to bear on the symphony for another twenty years or so he might have left a body of work equal in stature to that of Wanhal or Kraus. Even the earliest of his symphonies are remarkable for their dramatic flair, rich harmonic language and fluid, inventive part-writing.

Only four years separate the publication of the Op. 3 Symphonies from the Sei Overture, Op. 1, but the works are significantly broader in scope and more advanced in terms of compositional technique. Although they still share many stylistic features with the symphonies of Stamitz and Richter, a new and distinctive voice can be heard in these works particularly in the use of exposed writing for the wind instruments in several of the works. Only three of the set are scored for oboes, horns and strings; two are scored for a pair of horns and strings, a combination first encountered in the Op. 2 Symphonies and one Beck clearly favoured, and one, Op. 3, No. 5, for strings alone. Additional bassoon, trumpet and timpani parts for Op. 3, No. 4 (Callen 16) are preserved in the archiepiscopal library at Kroměříž but these are almost certainly spurious as is the timpani part for Op. 3, No. 6 found in the Basel University library.

The most obvious point of difference between these works and the symphonies of Opp. 1 and 2 is the adoption of a four-movement ground plan. Although the four-movement symphony was already becoming increasingly common in the 1750s, both in Manheim and elsewhere, many composers continued to favour the traditional three-movement pattern. Beck’s inclusion of the Minuet is an interesting development but one that is open to different interpretations. As he must have been well aware of the existence of four-movement symphonies from his years in Mannheim (Stamitz composed many symphonies of this type), it might be more relevant to consider why the earlier works were composed in three movements rather than four. One reason might be that these symphonies reflect Beck’s recent experiences in Italy, where the three-movement symphony reigned supreme, whereas those of Op. 3 were composed for audiences for whom four-movement symphonies were now the norm.

Although the inclusion of the Minuet increases the length of the work and materially changes its dramatic flow, it does not necessarily follow that four-movement symphonies are more technically sophisticated works than their three-movement counterparts; that quality is determined by the internal musical organization and musical interest of each of the movements. One of the most important structural characteristics of Op. 3 is Beck’s avoidance of internal repeats in all of the movements bar the pairs of Minuets. Although the movements unfold as a continuous whole, major internal divisions are demarcated by changes in tonality and the use of contrasting thematic material. It is quite clear where the middle section of the movement begins since Beck launches it in the conventional manner with a statement of the opening theme in the dominant: what is surprising to the listener familiar with the symphonies of Beck’s Viennese contemporaries is that this theme does not reappear in the tonic to signal the beginning of the recapitulation. While there is no ‘double return’—the recapitulation of both thematic groups in the tonic in the last part of the movement that constitutes one of the hallmarks of the mature classical style—Beck’s musical thinking is anything but primitive. Some distinctive thematic material returns in the tonic but much of the second half of the movement represents a kind of exploration of the musical consequences of the tightly organized first half.

Contrast and drama are essential elements in Beck’s symphonic style. He favours the use of strongly contrasted thematic material particularly in the outer movements. The first movements of all of the Op. 3 set have a breadth and sweep about them that immediately grips the listener. He achieves this in part through his skilful handing of the orchestra but mainly by virtue of the strong harmonic direction of the music and his capacity for writing rhythmically vital themes. The second group typically opens with the melodic line carried in the upper parts accompanied by the viola. These gentle, thinly scored and harmonically simple ideas are generally followed by further vigorous outbursts from the full orchestra. These are characterized by the use of tremolo upper strings or rushing figures in the violins, driving bass lines, harmonic filling from the horns and frequent use of chromatic inflections to enrich the tonal palette. Slow movements provide contrast rather than repose. Like their counterparts in Beck’s earlier symphonies, these movements frequently feature intricate webs of interlocking melodic lines, employment of startling harmonic progressions and occasional use of unsettling rhythmic disruptions. The seriousness of expressive purpose encountered in these movements, perhaps more than in the others, are a tribute to Richter’s influence on Beck’s development as a composer.

Like Richter, Beck makes frequent use of sequential patterns built around the contrapuntal interplay of voices. There is a good deal of imitative writing in the symphonies but little or nothing in the way of strict counterpoint. The rhythmic independence of the voices serves both to animate the texture and to provide another level of contrast. In this it is analogous to Beck’s handling of the orchestra in which he makes frequent use of antiphonal effects between the wind choir and the strings. This is also encountered on the structural level in the Minuet movements where Minuet II (the ‘trio’) often has its thematic material assigned to the wind instruments with the strings relegated to a simple accompanying rôle.

It is natural to single out the G minor Symphony, Op. 3, No. 3, as the most impressive work in the set yet the other works are no less impressive in their own way. Considered as a set, the works of Op. 3 display a rare level of compositional finish and expressive intensity that elevates them above all but the very greatest symphonies of their time.


Allan Badley


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