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EXPLORING MUSIC:DELIGHTFUL The Ars Nova Quintet Performs Wind Quintets by ANTON REICHA

The MHS Review 384 VOL. 11, NO. 6 • 1987

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David M. Greene


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Antonin Rejcha was born into a musical family-at least his father was a Stadtpfeifer in Prague. But it probably made lit­tle difference, for before the kid reached his first birthday his parents had kicked the bucket. Ten years later, finding his career developing more slowly than he had hoped it would, he stowed away in the luggage compartment of a stagecoach and went to his paternal grandfather in Klatovy, bet­ween Pilsen and the Bavarian border.

Despite the affection of later operetta composers for this region, young Rejcha found he had made a dreadful mistake, and so hit the road again. Crossing the border, he became Anton Reicha and headed for W allerstein, some 135 miles from Klatovy. In Wallerstein Kraft Ernst, the enligtened prince of the former county of Oettingen-Wallerstein, had got together a court orchestra that was the envy of other princes for miles around. Its first cellist was none other than Josef Reicha, Anton's uncle. Consequently the boy learned several instruments, German, and French at the avuncular knee. (Frau Reicha was French and refused to learn the local tongue.)

In 1785 the elector of Cologne summon­ed Josef to his palace in Bonn. Anton, of course, went with him and was installed in the orchestra as flutist while his uncle quickly rose to be commander-in-chief of the elector's musical forces. These, accor­ding to Beethoven's biographer Alexander Thayer, included Beethoven himself (born in the same year as Anton) on viola, Chris­tian Gottlob Neefe on piano, the Romberg brothers on violin and cello, and Nikolaus Simrock, the future publishing tycoon, on horn.

Of his relationship with Beethoven, Reicha later wrote: ''We spent fourteen years together united in a bond like that of Orestes and Pylades, and were continually side by side in our youth.'' That last phrase may, however, be more literal than figurative, for Berlioz, Reicha's pupil, says in his memoirs: ''Reicha had been a fellow-student of Beethoven's in Bonn; but I do not think they were ever very close.''

The Reicha-Berlioz link was the indirect result of the French invasion of the Rhineland in 1794. The Bonn court scattered and, after many vicissitudes, our hero settled for the rest of his days in Paris in 1808, where he was known as Antoine-Joseph Reicha. He had hoped to get on the opera bandwagon in Paris, but in the end, considering himself fortunate to have seen three of his efforts staged to no great ac­claim, he contented himself with the pro­fessorship of counterpoint at the Conser­vatoire, where he taught such up-and-comers as Liszt, Franck, Gounod, and Berlioz.

Reicha was a true intellectual: a brilliant if controversial musical theorist and a crackerjack mathematician. He claimed that he owed his musical success to his application of strict scientific principles. Berlioz had his doubts, saying: ''It may have given him his taste for theoretical permutations and elaborate musical jokes. He loved solving problems; but this sort of thing can be the enemy of art.'' But he also notes that when Reicha composed, he did so by the book, arguing that that was what everyone did!

Remembering that Reicha is generally credited with ''inventing'' the standard woodwind quintet, Berlioz's rernark that he taught him nothing about instrumenta­tion seems odd. And even more astonishingly, he adds that ''Reicha knew the individual Scope and possibilities of most of the wind instruments, but I do not think that he had more than rudimentary ideas about grouping them in various numbers and combinations.'' These two delightful examples of Reicha's rudimentary ideas are part of an ongoing effort to make the lot available. Neither of them is presently listed in American, German, or English catalogs.

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