A concert of music for piano and wind quintet celebrating the 250th birthdays of Beethoven and Reicha.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Quintet in E♭ major for Piano and Winds, Op. 16
György Ligeti (1923–2006)
Antonín Reicha (1770–1836)
Quintet in C minor, Op. 91, No. 6
The year 2020 marks the sestercentennial (250th anniversary) of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. And even though Beethoven’s works never lack for performances, musical organizations around the globe have already embarked on Beethoven festivals, in spite of the fact that Beethoven’s 250th birthday does not actually occur until December 2020. (The Seattle Chamber Music Society recently began a survey of the composer’s string quartets and the Seattle Symphony will perform all nine symphonies in June.)
Undoubtedly lost among the Beethoven worship will be the fact that 2020 also marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Antonín Reicha, a Bohemian-born composer educated in Germany who spent much of his life teaching and composing in Paris. Although he worked in a variety of genres, Reicha is today remembered principally as the “father of the wind quintet,” so it will likely fall to wind players to honor the Reicha sestercentennial.
Reicha and Beethoven shared more than a birth year, however. When a teenaged Reicha began playing second flute in the Bonn court orchestra, Beethoven was a member of the ensemble’s viola section. They enrolled at the local university at the same time and remained friendly after Beethoven relocated to Vienna and Reicha to Hamburg.
Beethoven is justifiably considered arevolutionary composer, but Reicha was even more adventurous: he composed a fugue in 5/8 time in 1803 (and an orchestral overture in the same time signature a couple decades later), explored the use of quarter tones, and experimented with bitonality. So why is Reicha so little known outside of his wind quintets? He was likely too far ahead of his time with his more experimental adventures in music theory, and he was reluctant to advocate for the performance of his own works. Over the course of his life he earned very little money from the publication of his music, but supported himself by becoming a renowned teacher: his notable students included Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, C$eacute;sar Franck, Louise Farrenc and Charles Gounod.
This program opens and closes, respectively, with music by Beethoven and Reicha. Sandwiched in between is one of the masterpieces of the wind quintet literature, the Six Bagatelles of Hungarian composer György Ligeti. This may seem a bit incongruous (we originally began rehearsing this piece at the urging of our clarinetist, Jenny Ziefel, because she has been lobbying to perform it ever since we first began playing together) but Beethoven also famously composed a number of bagatelles (“a short piece of music in light vein,” according to Grove’s Dictionary), which include one of his most beloved compositions: Für Elise.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Quintet for Piano and Winds in E♭ major, Op. 16
Beethoven was born in Bonn on December 16, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He composed this work for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon in 1796. It received its first performance in Vienna on April 6, 1797.
Beethoven traveled from his hometown of Bonn to Vienna in November 1792. It was intended to be a temporary pilgrimage, underwritten by the Elector of Bonn, but when the young composer’s father died the following month, he decided to remain in Vienna permanently. He began studying counterpoint with Franz Joseph Haydn (who had promised to take on Beethoven as a pupil when the two met in Bonn during one of Haydn’s journeys to London) but their relationship quickly soured.
Although Beethoven had begun writing music in Germany and continued to do so in Vienna (principally chamber music, some involving wind instruments), he was far better known at the time for his keyboard prowess than his early compositions. A concert tour was a rite of passage for any budding virtuoso, so in 1796, he embarked on just such a journey with stops in Prague, Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin.
At a concert in Prague, Beethoven heard a performance of Mozart’s quintet for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon (K. 452) that inspired him to write a work for the same combination of instruments. He began sketching a quintet in G major, but soon abandoned it. By the time he reached Berlin, he was at work on a new piece for these forces, this time in the same key (E♭ major) as Mozart and closely modeled on that earlier work in several other ways.
These Mozart and Beethoven quintets stand as the twin pinnacles of chamber music for piano and wind instruments written during the Classical period. Beethoven subsequently arranged his work for piano quartet (violin, viola, cello and keyboard) but himself only ever performed the piano-and-winds version.
Beethoven’s Op. 16 opens with an extended slow introduction marked Grave and modeled after the French overture style of Baroque music, complete with notated double-dotting. This leads to the main Allegro (in 3/4 time and sonata form).
The piano begins the B♭-major slow movement (Andante cantabile in A–B–A–C–A form and 2/4 time), with each instrument subsequently receiving opportunities for expressive solo passages. A rollicking 6/8 rondo concludes the work, featuring sparkling piano passages.
Beethoven’s friend and colleague Ferdinand Ries attended the premiere (at which Beethoven played the piano part) and described what happened when the composer surprised the wind players with an impromptu cadenza during a fermata in the finale: “It was comical to see the other players waiting expectantly, ready every moment to go on, continually lifting their instruments to their lips, and then quietly putting them down again. At last, Beethoven was satisfied and dropped back into the rondo. The entire audience was delighted.”
György Sándor Ligeti was born May 28, 1923, in Transylvania, Romania. He died in Vienna on June 12, 2006. Ligeti composed these pieces for piano beginning in 1951, arranging them for wind quintet in 1953. The first five had their premiere in Budapest in 1956; the Stockholm Philharmonic Wind Quintet gave the first complete performance on October 6, 1969.
Ligeti was raised in Romania by Hungarian parents, both of whom were sent to Auschwitz during World War II. Ligeti himself was conscripted into a forced-labor brigade. After the war, he resumed his musical studies in Budapest, graduating in 1949. His early works were influenced by the legendary Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.
“About 1950 I realized that further development of the post-Bartók style was not the way forward for me,” wrote Ligeti. “I was 27 years old and living in Budapest, completely isolated from all the ideas, trends and techniques of composition which developed in Western Europe . In 1951, I started to experiment with simple structures of rhythm and sound in order to build up a new music from nothing. I asked myself: ‘What can I do with a single note? What can I do with its octave? What with one interval? What with two intervals? What with definite rhythmic relationships which could form the foundation of a whole based on rhythm and interval?’ In this way several small pieces were composed, chiefly for piano.”
These small piano pieces included a set of 11 titled Musica ricercata, a ricercar being “an elaborate instrumental composition in fugal or canonic style, typically of the 16th to 18th centuries.” The first employed only two notes (A and D) over several octaves, the next three notes, and so on until the final movement used all 12 tones in the chromatic scale. At the behest of flutist Zoltán Jeney and the Budapest Wind Quintet, Ligeti selected six of these pieces and transcribed them for wind instruments. The political climate made the performance of such experimental music not without risk. When Jeney and his colleagues gave the first performance in 1956, they omitted the final movement due to its “dense chromaticism and frenzied expression.”
The first, fourth and sixth movements are indeed frenzied with occasional strident dissonances, while exhibiting the obvious influence of Hungarian folk music. The second and fifth are slower and more somber in character, the latter being a memorial to Bartók. The third floats high-register legato phrases over a repeated septuplet pattern and calls for the use of mutes by the horn as well as the bassoon.
Quintet in C minor, Op. 91, No. 6
Reicha was born in Prague on February 26, 1770, and died in Paris on May 28, 1836. This work was first published in 1819 or 1820, although details of its composition and first performance remain unclear.
Antonín Rejcha (he later changed the spelling of his surname, and went by Anton and Antoine later in life) spent his first 11 years in Prague (his father had died when he was 10 months old) before traveling to Germany to live with his uncle Joseph, a cellist, composer and conductor. “My uncle’s wife,” wrote Reicha, “spoke French only, thus making it impossible for us to understand one another and for me to win her good graces. To pursue my studies and to make friends with my aunt, it was necessary for me to learn German and French. My native language was completely forgotten.” He also began his musical studies at this time, becoming proficient on flute, violin and piano.
In 1785, Joseph Reicha moved to Bonn, having been appointed conductor of the municipal orchestra by Emperor Joseph II. Antonín accompanied him and soon won a place in his uncle’s orchestra. “A passionate desire to create took possession of me,” he wrote, but “my uncle disapproved, thinking me lacking in talent. My ambition was too strong. I studied secretly day and night.” His hard work paid off with the premiere of a symphony at age 17.
When Reicha enrolled at the local university, “literature became a passion, but especially the abstract sciences. Algebra and the philosophy of Kant were of the most interest to me. I made great progress in solving algebraic problems, which was to be of great service to me later in gaining great insight into my art.”
Reicha hoped to take over for this ailing uncle, “but the French Revolution put an end to all my plans.” He traveled alone to Hamburg, never to see his family and friends again, “excepting Louis van Beethoven, whom I met in the latter part of 1794 in Vienna.” During his five years in Hamburg, Reicha devoted the bulk of his time to composing music, also teaching harmony, composition and piano. He subsequently spent three years in Paris, in an unsuccessful attempt to compose and stage an opera, before moving to Vienna, where he studied informally with Haydn (whom he had previously met in Bonn and Hamburg) and was again unsuccessful at mounting an opera. There he produced over 50 works, including a dramatic cantata (Léonore) and a set of 36 fugues for piano “composed in a totally new manner” and dedicated to Haydn, but many of these never saw public performances during Reicha’s lifetime. In 1808, Reicha returned to Paris, where he eventually became renowned for his “large number of pupils, instruction books I published, and especially the 24 quintets for wind instruments that I composed there and had performed.”
The first known music for the modern wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon) dates from around 1802, a set of Trois Quintetti Concertans by the prolific Italian-born Giuseppe Maria Cambini, who lived in Paris for at least a quarter century (including 1773–1810). Reicha composed the first of his 24 wind quintets around 1811, publishing them in four annual groups of six beginning in 1818. (Franz Danzi followed with nine quintets of his own, after which the medium fell out of favor for half a century.)
“At that time, there was a dearth not only of good classic music but of any good music at all for wind instruments,” Reicha wrote in his memoirs, “simply because the composers knew little of their technique.” His first six quintets were played far and wide. “Encouraged by the success of these performances I wrote 18 more, bringing the number to 24. They created a sensation throughout Europe.”
Reicha’s quintet in C minor — the only one of his 24 quintets in that key — opens with a funeral march, somewhat reminiscent of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. (Although Reicha composed this quintet several years after Beethoven’s symphony, Beethoven may have modeled his Eroica march in part after the Marche funébre from Reicha’s Musique pour celebrer la memoire des grands hommes, a grand memorial symphony for wind band.) The bulk of the first movement consists of a sonata form in quick 3/4 time, with the first subject in C minor and the second a jolly tune in E♭ major. After these are repeated, Reicha introduces no fewer than six additional themes (“each one more engaging than the preceding one,” in the words of Charles-David Lehrer). The movement concludes with a magnificent Sturm und Drang coda.
Solo oboe presents the opening theme of the Larghetto slow movement (in 2/4 and C major). Various instruments get a turn in the spotlight during the episodes that follow, most notably the horn. After a reprise of the opening theme, the oboe once again holds forth in an extended coda.
As is typically the case in Reicha’s quintets, the Menuetto is more akin to a breathless Beethoven scherzo than a Haydenesque minuet. The tempo slows in the middle trio section, modeled after the Austrian Ländler dance form.
The brilliant finale offers multiple surprises, shifting back and forth from C minor to C major and on several occasions switching from a quick duple meter to a slow 3/8. Once again, Reicha supplies a wealth of thematic material alongside virtuoso opportunities for the players.
— Jeff Eldridge