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8.554071 - BECK, F.I.: 6 Symphonies, Op. 1 (New Zealand Chamber Orchestra, Armstrong)
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Franz Ignaz Beck (1734–1809)
Six Symphonies, Op. 1

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, The most famous exponent of the symphony, Johann Stamitz, director of the famous Mannheim court orchestra and, coincidentally, Beck’s teacher, 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 like 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 him. 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 Marseilles 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 with the present set which appeared in 1758. The title page of the six Op. 1 Symphonies (‘Sei Overture’) describe him as ‘Chamber Virtuoso to the Elector Palatine and pupil of Johann Stamitz’; the Op. 3 title page adds ‘and currently first violin of the Concert in Marseilles’.

Beck moved from Marseilles 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.

The Six Symphonies, Op. 1, published by Venier in 1758, owe a great stylistic debt to Beck’s older Mannheim colleagues and in particular to Johann Stamitz and Franz Xaver Richter. The composition date is uncertain and it is not possible to determine whether the works were composed in Mannheim, Venice or even in France. The title page of the edition - ‘SEI OVERTURE / A PIÙ STROMENTI / COMPOSTE / DA FRANCESCO BECK / Virtuoso di Camera di Sua / A. S. L’ELECTOR PALATINO, / & Disepolo di Gioan Stamitz. / OPERA PRIMA. / Fait Gravé par Venier...’- suggests that Beck was still connected with the Mannheim court, irrespective of where the works were composed. This may indicate that his move to Venice had the Elector’s sanction and that Blanchard’s sensational account of his flight is unreliable.

In some respects the Op. 1 Symphonies are rather conservative, glancing back to the style of Stamitz’s symphonies written in the early and middle 1740s. It is curious that there are few traces of influence from later works like the impressive Op. 4 Symphonies, and it is tempting to conclude that Beck was unfamiliar with them. Stamitz spent much of 1754-1755 in Paris and it was perhaps during this period that Beck left Mannheim for Venice. There are, however, certain stylistic similarities with Richter’s works particularly in respect of their rich harmonic vocabulary, the employment of startling harmonic progressions and their atmosphere of emotional intensity. The signature Mannheim style is hardly in evidence although the dramatic writing for the violins clearly demands first-class players.

The Op. 1 Symphonies, or Overtures as they are styled in the original edition, are short, three-movement works in the conventional fast-slow-fast cycle. The use of a Minuet as a finale in the second symphony is relatively uncommon but by no means unknown in works of this period. Its vigour is somewhat surprising and serves as a reminder that for all its apparent regularity the Minuet was frequently treated in very unconventional ways. The most striking work in the set is the G minor Symphony with its powerful, driving outer movements and unsettling middle Andante. Beck included minor key works in his first three published sets of symphonies (Op. 3 includes two) but surprisingly not in the fourth. These turbulent works have won many admirers among scholars but still remain largely unknown. The other works, however, are no less impressive and display a compositional finish rare among mid-century symphonies. Some of the movements are very short - the finale of Op. 1, No. 6 is a mere 35 bars – but all of them are impressively organized and musically memorable. The opening Allegro of the Symphony in A, Op. 1, No. 3, with its chains of rising suspensions, exudes a fascinating tension about it while retaining a sense of warmth and gentle lyricism. While Beck does not venture into the realms of strict counterpoint his part-writing is always inventive, his textures varied and even in these very early works he displays an unerring sense of orchestral colour.

This recording was produced by Stephen Managh, founder of the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra. Sadly he died before seeing this final project through to completion.

Allan Badley

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