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8.570597 - RICHTER, F.X.: Grandes Symphonies (1744), Nos. 7-12 (Set 2) (Helsinki Baroque, Hakkinen)
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Franz Xaver Richter (1709–1789)
Six Grandes Symphonies (1744): Nos. 7–12 (Set 2)


Although Franz Xaver Richter’s name is invariably connected with the famous Mannheim court orchestra he cannot be considered a typical representative of that celebrated band of musicians that Dr Charles Burney later described as ‘an army of generals.’ He played an important rôle in the musical life of the court as one of its most respected and prolific composers but in his compositions he resisted many of the new formal and stylistic developments pioneered by the orchestra’s famous music director, Johann Stamitz, preferring instead to root his works in an older tradition. As a consequence, his works are far richer harmonically than those of his colleagues and also more imaginative—or conservative, depending on one’s notion of progress—in their part-writing. In some respects Richter was a conservative and even reactionary figure but his later works, and especially those written for the church, possess a level of technical finish and expressive power which elevates them far above the routine productions of many of his contemporaries.

Richter was of Moravian-Bohemian descent and may have been born in Holleschau. Little or nothing is known about his early education and musical training although the accomplished technique he displays in all of his works is evidence of a thorough professional training. It is believed that he was taught in Vienna by the Imperial Kapellmeister Johann Joseph Fux, a prolific composer and author of the influential counterpoint treatise Gradus ad Parnassum, and thus shares a teacher with another important composer of symphonies during the mid-eighteenth century, Georg Christoph Wagenseil. In April 1740 Richter was appointed vice-Kapellmeister to the Prince-Abbot Anselm von Reichlin-Meldegg in Kempten, Allgäu, where he probably remained for the next five or six years. By 1747, however, his name appears among the court musicians of the Elector Palatine Carl Theodor in Mannheim. Although Marpurg (1756) listed him as a second violinist in the court orchestra, there are no other contemporary references to Richter as an instrumentalist. He was by profession a singer and descriptions of him as a virtuoso di camera presumably refer to this rather than any additional duties he may have undertaken as a violinist.

As a member of the Mannheim Kapelle Richter naturally composed a large number of symphonies but he also produced an important body of sacred music. In 1748 he composed an oratorio for Good Friday, La deposizione dalla croce, at the invitation of the Elector. Coming as it did in the first year of Richter’s appointment, this invitation may indicate that Carl Theodor engaged him to strengthen this particular area of music at court rather than as yet another composer of symphonies for his burgeoning orchestra. Richter was also active as a teacher and between 1761 and 1767 he wrote a composition method, based on Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum, which he dedicated to Carl Theodor. Among his most important pupils were H.J. Riegel, Carl Stamitz, Ferdinand Fränzl and the exceptional Joseph Martin Kraus. In 1768 Richter was appointed a court chamber composer and thereafter his name disappears from the list of court singers.

Richter made tours to the Oettigen-Wallerstein court in 1754 and later to France, The Netherlands and England where his compositions found a ready market with publishers. These tours were undertaken in part because Richter was becoming increasingly displeased with the preoccupation with fashionable virtuosity at Mannheim. It was clear to him that even gifted composers such as Johann Stamitz were falling into an easy over-reliance on stock devices and musical effects. Nonetheless, he remained in Mannheim until April 1769 when he succeeded Joseph Garnier as Kapellmeister at Strasbourg Cathedral.

During the remaining twenty years of his life Richter’s professional activities turned increasingly to sacred music. These years saw the composition of some exceptional works which for the moment remain virtually unknown. In the mid-1780s—the exact date is unknown—Ignaz Pleyel, Haydn’s former pupil and now one of the most popular and successful composers in Europe, was appointed Richter’s deputy. Pleyel’s years in Strasbourg were the most prolific of his career but his tenure as Kapellmeister following Richter’s death in 1789 was cut short by the Revolution and its aftermath.

Dr Charles Burney considered Richter one of the foremost Mannheim composers even though he consciously eschewed the fashionable style prevalent there. His early works, with their strong Austrian Baroque flavour, found a much warmer reception in musically conservative centres such as London and Berlin than in the south of Germany. His instrumental counterpoint, both in the strict fugal style and also in its freer forms, was much admired in his day and is often deployed with great skill to invigorate otherwise predominantly homophonic movements. Burney’s reservation that he occasionally weakened his melodic lines by overuse of the sequence is certainly justified but his enthusiasm for Richter’s inventive approach to thematic construction based, as it is, on rather old-fashioned motivic manipulation, is typically astute.

The Six Grandes Symphonies were composed ca 1740 and published in Paris by Duter, Boivin and Le Clerc in 1744 as the second of a set of twelve symphonies issued in two groups of six. The hallmarks of Richter’s mature style are already evident in these works. Fast movements have a driving intensity and owe much of their power to the frequent employment of contrapuntal devices, while slow movements are rich in expressive harmonies and unexpected melodic twists. These works all belong to Richter’s pre-Mannheim period and may have played a part in his appointment to the Electoral court. It is interesting to note that the works themselves are very dissimilar in style to those of his younger Viennese contemporary Wagenseil. While Wagenseil’s symphonies embrace the new galant style with few reservations, Richter’s works remain firmly rooted in the Baroque tradition while giving just a hint from time to time that he was aware of the great stylistic ferment around him.

If the Mannheim style came to be typified by the symphonies of Johann Stamitz, Carl Toeschi, Anton Filtz and others, Richter’s works were certainly not without their admirers. The harmonic complexity and contrapuntal ingenuity of the symphonies of Stamitz’s pupil Franz Beck owe a far greater stylistic debt to those of Richter than to his teacher’s works. It might also be argued that the origins of Kraus’s highly concentrated and intense style can also be found in the works of Franz Xaver Richter.

Allan Badley

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