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Anton Reicha (1770-1836)
Overture in D
Allegro un poco vivo
Anton Reicha was born in Prague in the same year as Beethoven. From the age of nine he sang in the choir in the Prague Church of the Knights of the Cross, and received his early musical education from his uncle, Josef Reicha, cellist in the court orchestra of Count Oettingen-Wallerstein in Bavaria. Through his uncle’s contacts he was engaged as a flutist in the Electoral band and also for the theatre orchestra in Bonn. It was in this latter ensemble that he soon befriended a young viola player – one Ludwig van Beethoven. The two of them enrolled at Bonn University studying philosophy and mathematics, and in his memoirs Reicha wrote that he and Beethoven soon became “inseparable companions”
After the occupation of Bonn by French revolutionary forces, Reicha initially moved to Hamburg. After a six-year stay in Vienna, where he renewed his contact with Beethoven and met Haydn, Salieri and Cherubini, he settled in Paris for good in 1808. On the recommendation of Cherubini he was appointed professor of musical theory and composition at the Paris Conservatoire, where his pupils included Berlioz, Liszt, Frank and Gounod.
Reicha was an extremely prolific composer. His output included ten operas, a great deal of piano music and an equally large volume of chamber music for string and wind instruments, together with symphonies and overtures and concertos. He was also a master of counterpoint, as witnessed by his thirty-six fugues for piano, dedicated to Haydn and held in high regard by Berlioz. Many of his works were stylistically diverse and experimental. As Reicha himself explained: “Once started, my verve and imagination were indefatigable. Ideas came to me so rapidly it was often difficult to set them down without losing some of them. I always had a great penchant for doing the unusual in composition. When writing in an original vein, my creative faculties and spirit seemed keener than when following the precepts of my predecessors.” Berlioz too noted his partiality for the unconventional, described him as having “a taste for abstract permutations and elaborate musical jokes. He loved solving problems, but this kind of thing can be the enemy of art, by diverting it from the main purpose which it should always be striving to achieve.”
Full of Mozartian dash and high spirits, Reicha’s Overture in D is perfectly ordinary except one thing: it steadfastly sticks to having five beats in every bar. This is something that would be considered unusual even now; back then it was almost unthinkable. Seventy years before Tchaikovsky’s famous 5/4 waltz from the Pathétique, Reicha was confirming his position as an innovator.
© Stephen Strugnell