About this Recording
8.573323 - BECK, F.I.: Symphonies, Op. 2 (Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra, Mallon)

Franz Ignaz Beck (1734–1809)
Symphonies: Op 2


When Franz Beck composed his first symphonies—sometime 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 localized 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 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 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 in 1758 with the six Symphonies, Op 1 (‘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 2 symphonies appeared in 1760 Beck appears to have severed his connection with the Mannheim court but he is still described on the title page of La Chevardière’s print as ‘Dissipolo d’Stamitz’, proof of the older composer’s enduring reputation in France.

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-18th century. Their quality makes it all the more puzzling that Beck apparently lost interest in the genre as early as c. 1766. 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 2 were issued by the Parisian publisher La Chevardière in 1760, two years after the Op 1 symphonies. The works were evidently popular and still considered current enough for Breitkopf to advertise copies for sale in his 1775 thematic catalogue. Although the title page of La Chevardière’s edition which reads ‘SIX / SIMPHONIES / A QUATRE PARTIES / Et Cors de Chasses / ad Libitum / Dédiée / A MONSIEUR RÜA / PAR FRANCESCO BEK / Dissipolo D’Stamitz…OPERA II…’ implies that horns are used throughout the set, only two of the symphonies—Op 2, No 1 and Op 2, No 5—employ them in their outer movements; the remainder, like the ‘Sei Overture’ Op 1, are scored for strings alone. The string writing is again thrilling in the best Mannheim tradition but, as in the symphonies of Richter, there is a harmonic breadth and contrapuntal ingenuity which is absent from the works of many of his contemporaries. Beck’s sensitivity to the expressive possibilities of his limited forces can be seen especially in his skilful handling of texture. At times the writing is full and powerfully symphonic, at other times, delicately complex in its interplay of voices in the style that would later become characteristic of the string quartet. A favourite device—and one which features in many of his later symphonies—is the use of extended passages in which the basso is omitted and the lowest part is played by the viola. Beck also shows a fondness for deploying instruments in pairs, a notable example of this being in the finale of Op 2, No 6, which ends curiously with an exchange between the two violins and the viola and basso.

It is not only in their orchestration that the symphonies of Op 2 resemble Beck’s earlier works. In many aspects of their musical structure and syntax they bear a close kinship to the Op 1 set and perhaps more remarkably to some of the symphonies that followed. Indeed, the stylistic unity of Beck’s published symphonies seems to have encouraged the practice of interchanging movements. A copy of Op 2, No 1 (Callen 7), preserved in the University Library, Basel (ex Sarasin collection), includes a spurious timpani part and replaces the first and second movements of the work with those from Op 4, No 4 (Callen 22). In the same collection there is a mix-and-match pastiche of Op 2, No 2: the first and second movements are replaced by those of the G minor Overture, Op 1, No 1 (Callen 1). This practice continued into the 20th century when in Robert Sondheimer’s edition of Op 2, No 5 (Berlin, 1927) he substituted the first and third movements from Op 3, No 4 (Callen 16) and added a Minuet (from Callen 28). Unlike the symphonies of Opp 3 & 4, however, the Op 2 Symphonies are all cast in three movements with duple and triple metre finales distributed evenly throughout the set. There is no internal repeat in the first movement of Op 2, No 1, a structural characteristic which would feature in some of the composer’s later symphonies, and none of the first movements makes use of strongly differentiated secondary themes in the manner of Opp 3 & 4. Beck’s ability to create tightly organized musical structures is seen to particularly good advantage in the first movement of Op 2, No 2 with its clever referencing of the opening thematic material at important structural points rather in the manner of Haydn’s highly concentrated monothematic sonata form movements. Small in scale these works might be but they reveal at every turn the hand of an exceptionally gifted composer.

Allan Badley

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