Biography of

Anton Reicha

26 feb 1770 (Prague) - 28 may 1836 (Paris)
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Portrait of Anton Reicha made in 1815 by M.F. Dien.

Anton (Antonín, Antoine) Reicha (Rejcha) (February 26, 1770 – May 28, 1836) was a Czech-born naturalized French composer. A contemporary and lifelong friend of Beethoven, Reicha is now best remembered for his substantial early contribution to the wind quintet literature and his role as a teacher – his pupils included Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz. Reicha was also an accomplished theorist and wrote several treatises on various aspects of composition. Some of his theoretical work dealt with experimental methods of composition, which he applied in a variety of works such as fugues and études for piano and string quartets.

Reicha was born in Prague into a family of a town piper. His father died when Reicha was just 10 months old, and his mother was uninterested in the boy's education. At the age of 10 the young composer ran away from home, and was subsequently raised and educated in music by his uncle Josef Reicha. When the family moved to Bonn, Josef secured for his nephew a place at the Hofkapelle, but for Reicha this was not enough. He studied composition secretly, against his uncle's wishes, and entered the University of Bonn in 1789. When Bonn was captured by the French in 1794, Reicha had to flee to Hamburg, where he made his living by teaching harmony and composition, and studied mathematics and philosophy. Between 1799 and 1801 he lived in Paris, trying to achieve recognition as an opera composer, without success. In 1801 he moved to Vienna, where he studied with Salieri and Albrechtsberger and produced his first important works. His life was once again affected by war in 1808, when he had to leave Vienna. Reicha settled in Paris, where he spent the rest of his life teaching composition; in 1818 he was appointed professor at the Conservatoire.

Reicha's output during his Vienna years included large semi-didactic cycles of works such as 36 Fugues for piano (which explored Reicha's "new method of fugal writing"), L'art de varier (a set of 57 variations on an original theme), and exercises for the treatise Practische Beispiele. During the later Paris period, however, he focused his attention mostly on theory and produced a number of treatises on composition. Works of this period include some 25 wind quintets, some of the earliest important music for wind ensembles. Ideas he advocated in his music and writings include polyrhythm, polytonality and microtonal music; none were accepted by the composers of the time. Due to Reicha's own attitude towards publishing his music, he fell into obscurity immediately after his death; his life and work remain poorly studied.



1770–1805: Early years, first visit to Paris and the Viennese period

Reicha was born in Prague. His father Šimon, the town piper of the city, died when Anton was just 10 months old.[1] Apparently Reicha's mother was not interested in her son's education, and so in 1780 Reicha ran away from home following a sudden impulse – as is recounted in his memoirs, he jumped onto a passing carriage[2]. Reicha went to Klatovy to his grandfather first, and then was adopted by his uncle Josef Reicha, a virtuoso cellist, conductor and composer, who lived at Wallerstein, Bavaria.[1] Josef and his wife did not have children, and apparently the young Anton had their full attention: Josef taught him violin and piano, his wife insisted that the boy learned French and German, and Reicha also received instruction in flute.[3]

In 1785 the family moved to Bonn, where Reicha became a member of the Hofkapelle of Max Franz, Elector of Cologne, under the direction of his uncle, playing the violin and the second flute.[1] The young Beethoven became a viola player and organist in the Hofkapelle in 1789 and Reicha befriended him; the two became lifelong friends. Christian Gottlob Neefe, who was one of the most important figures in the musical life of the city at the time, might have instructed both Reicha and Beethoven in composition, and possibly also introduced them to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, such as the Well-Tempered Clavier.

From about 1785 Reicha studied composition secretly, against his uncle's wishes, yet already by 1787 he composed and conducted his first symphony. In 1789 he entered the University of Bonn. Reicha was studying and worked as performer until 1794, when Bonn was attacked and captured by the French forces. Reicha managed to escape to Hamburg,[1] vowed never to perform again, and started earning his living by teaching harmony and composition, as well as the piano. He also occupied himself with composition, studied mathematics, philosophy and, significantly, methods of teaching composition. In 1799 Reicha moved to Paris, hoping to achieve success with his operas. These hopes were dashed, however: he could neither get his old librettos accepted, nor find suitable new ones, despite support from his friends and influential members of the aristocracy. In 1801 Reicha left Paris for Vienna.

In Vienna he began studying with Antonio Salieri and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger.[1] Both were renowned teachers whose pupils included Schubert (Salieri) and Beethoven (both), and Albrechtsberger was also an important theorist. Reicha visited Haydn, whom he already met several times in Bonn and Hamburg during the 1790s, and renewed his friendship with Beethoven, whom he had not seen since 1792, when the latter moved from Bonn to Vienna. Reicha's move to Vienna marked the beginning of a more productive and successful period in the composer's life. Reicha himself reflected on this time in his memoirs: "The number of works I finished in Vienna is astonishing. 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."[4] In 1801 Reicha's opera L'ouragan, which failed in Paris, was performed at the palace of Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowicz, Beethoven's patron. Empress Maria Theresa commissioned another opera after this performance, Argine, regina di Granata, which was also performed (although privately). Reicha's studies in Hamburg came to fruition here with the publication of several semi-didactic, encyclopedic works such as 36 Fugues for piano (published in 1803, dedicated to Haydn)[1] and L'art de varier, a large-scale variation cycle (composed in 1803-4 for Prince Louis Ferdinand), and the treatise Practische Beispiele (published in 1803), which contained 24 compositions.

1806–18: Departure from Vienna and life in Paris

Reicha's life and career in Vienna were interrupted by Napoleon's military activities. In November 1805 the city was occupied by French troops. In 1806 Reicha travelled to Leipzig to arrange a performance of his new work, the cantata Lenore (stopping at Prague to see his mother for the first time since 1780), but because Leipzig was blockaded by the French, not only was the performance cancelled, but Reicha could not return to Vienna for several months. When he did return, it was not for long, because by 1808 the Austrian Empire was already preparing for another war, the War of the Fifth Coalition, so Reicha decided to move, once again, to Paris.[1] This time three of Reicha's many operas were produced, and all failed to attract attention; nevertheless, his fame as theorist and teacher increased steadily, and by 1817 most of his pupils became professors at the Conservatoire de Paris. Reicha himself was appointed professor of counterpoint and fugue at the Conservatoire in 1818.

Anton Reicha's gravestone at Père Lachaise, Paris.

This second Paris period produced several important theoretical writings. Cours de composition musicale, published by 1818, became the standard text on composition at the Conservatoire; the Traité de mélodie of 1814, a treatise on melody, was also widely studied. Another semi-didactic work, 34 Études for piano, was published by 1817. It was also in Paris that Reicha started composing wind quintets, which proved to be his most enduring works[1] (but which were far removed from the experimental writing of the Vienna period fugues). Reicha's personal life also improved: he got married in 1818 to Virginie Enaust. The couple had two daughters.

Reicha stayed in Paris for the rest of his life. During the last decade of his life, Reicha was fully accepted in France: he became a naturalized citizen in 1829 [5], then a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur in 1835, and also in 1835 he succeeded François-Adrien Boieldieu at the Académie française. He published two more large treatises: Traité de haute composition musicale (1824–6), which dealt with composition, and Art du compositeur dramatique (1833) on writing opera. Reicha's ideas expressed in the former work sparked some controversy at the Conservatoire. In 1826 Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, and Henri Cohen became Reicha's students, Charles Gounod followed some time later. Frédéric Chopin considered studying with him in 1829, but decided not to. In June 1835 César Franck started studying with him, although only did so for 10 months, until Reicha died in May 1836. He was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery.


It is difficult to present a coherent list of Reicha's works, because the opus numbers assigned to them at the time of publication are in disarray, some pieces were supposedly lost, and many works were published several times, sometimes as part of larger collections. Reicha's surviving oeuvre covers a vast array of genres and forms, from opera to piano fugues. He is best known today for his wind quintets – 25 works composed in Paris between 1811 and 1820, which were played all over Europe. Reicha claimed in his memoirs that his wind quintets filled a void: "At that time, there was a dearth not only of good classic music, but of any good music at all for wind instruments, simply because the composers knew little of their technique."[6]. Indeed, Reicha's experiences as a flautist must have helped in the creation of these pieces, in which he systematically explored the possibilities of the wind ensemble and invented an extended sonata form that could accommodate as many as five principal themes.[7]

The wind quintets represent a more conservative trend in Reicha's oeuvre, however, especially when compared to his earlier work, namely the compositions of the Viennese period. Technical wizardry prevails in compositions that illustrate Reicha's theoretical treatise Practische Beispiele of 1803, where techniques such as bitonality and polyrhythm are explored in extremely difficult sight reading exercises.[8]36 fugues for piano, published in 1803, was conceived as an illustration of Reicha's neue Fugensystem, a new system for composing fugues. Reicha suggested fugal answers could be placed on any scale degree (rather than the standard dominant) to widen the possibilities for modulation and undermine the tonal stability of the fugue.[9] The fugues of the collection not only illustrate this point, but also employ a variety of extremely convoluted technical tricks, such as polyrhythm (no. 30), combined (nos. 24, 28), asymmetrical (no. 20) and simply uncommon (no. 10 is in 12/4, no. 12 in 2/8) metres and time signatures, some of which are derived from folk music, an approach that directly anticipates that of later composers such as Béla Bartók.[10] Number 13 is a modal fugue played on white keys only, in which cadences are possible on all but the 7th degree of the scale without further alteration. Six fugues employ two subjects, one has three, and number 15 employs six subjects. In several fugues Reicha establishes a link with the old tradition by using subjects by Haydn (no. 3), Bach (no. 5), Mozart (no. 7), Scarlatti (no. 9), Frescobaldi (no. 14) and Handel (no. 15). Many of the technical accomplishments are unique to fugue literature.

The études of op. 97, Études dans le genre fugué, published in Paris by 1817, are similarly advanced. Each composition is preceded by Reicha's comments for young composers who choose to study the work. Thirty of thirty-four études included are fugues, and every étude is preceded by a prelude dedicated to a particular technique or compositional problem. Again an exceptionally large number of forms and textures is used, including, for example, the variation form with extensive use of invertible counterpoint (no. 3), or an Andante in C minor based on the famous Folia harmonic progression. Reicha's massive cycle of variations, L'art de varier, uses the same pedagogical principle and includes variations in the form of four-voice fugues, program music variations, toccata-like hand-crossing variations, etc., foreshadowing in many aspects not only Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, but also works by Schubert, Wagner and Debussy.[11]

Many of Reicha's string quartets are similarly searching, and too foreshadow numerous later developments. The eight Vienna string quartets (1801–5) are amongst his most important works. Though largely ignored since Reicha's death, they were highly influential during his lifetime, and left their mark on the quartets of Beethoven and Schubert[12], much like Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was ignored by the public but well-known to Beethoven and Chopin. Reicha also wrote prolifically for various kinds of ensembles other than wind quintets and string quartets: there are violin sonatas, piano trios, horn trios, various works for wind or string instrument accompanied by strings, works for voice, etc. He also wrote much large-scale music – at least eight symphonies are known, seven operas, choral works including a Requiem, and many more.

Much of Reicha's music remained unpublished and/or unperformed during the composer's life, and virtually all of his work fell into obscurity after his death. This is partly explained by Reicha's own decisions which he reflects on in his autobiography: "Many of my works have never been heard because of my aversion to seeking performances [...] I counted the time spent in such efforts as lost, and preferred to remain at my desk."[4] It must also be noted that Reicha frequently advocated ideas, such as the use of quarter tones, that were too far ahead of his time to be understood by his contemporaries.[13]


Reicha's major theoretical and pedagogical works included the following:

  • Practische Beispiele: ein Beitrag zur Geistescultur des Tonsetzers ... begleitet mit philosophisch-practischen Anmerkungen (1803), a didactic work that includes 25 sight-reading exercises of extreme difficulty, some of which were later published separately or in collections such as the 36 fugues. The exercises are divided into three groups: one for polyrhythm, one for polytonality and one that included exercises written on four staves and so required knowledge of the alto and tenor clefs.
  • Traité de mélodie (Paris, 1814), on melody, translated into German by Czerny
  • Cours de composition musicale, ou Traité complet et raisonné d’harmonie pratique (1818), on composition, translated into German by Czerny
  • Traité de haute composition musicale (2 vols. 1824–1826), translated into German by Czerny around 1835. In this late treatise Reicha expressed some of his most daring ideas, such as the use of quarter tones and folk music (which was almost completely neglected at the time).[14]
  • L'art du compositeur dramatique (4 vols., 1833), on the writing of opera. Provides an exhaustive account of contemporary performance techniques and is supplemented with examples from Reicha's own operas.

In addition to these, a number of smaller texts by him exist. These include an outline of Reicha's system for writing fugues, Über das neue Fugensystem (published as a foreword to the 1805 edition of 36 fugues), Sur la musique comme art purement sentimental (before 1814, literally "On music as a purely emotional art"), Petit traité d’harmonie pratique à 2 parties (c. 1814, a short "practical treatise" on harmony), a number of articles and the poem An Joseph Haydn, published in the preface to 36 fugues (which were dedicated to Haydn).

Notable recordings

  • Complete Wind Quintets (1990). The Albert Schweitzer Quintet. 10 CDs, CPO 999 022-2 to 999 031-2
    Awarded the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis prize. Also includes Andante arioso, Andante and Adagio for wind ensemble.
  • 36 Fugues Op. 36 (1991–92). Tiny Wirtz (piano). 2 CDs, CPO 999 065-2
  • 36 Fugues (2006). Jaroslav Tůma (fortepiano Anton Walter, 1790). 2 CDs, ARTA F101462, see [5]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Černušák, Gracián (ed.); Štědroň, Bohumír; Nováček, Zdenko (ed.) (1963). Československý hudební slovník II. M–Ž. Prague: Státní hudební vydavatelství. p. 415.  (Czech)
  2. ^ a b Hoyt, Peter A.; Sotolova, Olga; Viney, Deryck (March 1993). "Review of Olga Sotolova's 'Antonin Rejcha' (Deryck Viney, translator)". Notes, 2nd Series (Music Library Association) 49 (3): 996–8. doi:10.2307/898945. Retrieved 29 October 2008. 
  3. ^ Demuth, 2 (166)
  4. ^ a b Reicha's autobiography, Notes sur Antoine Reicha, quoted in Ron Drummond, "Program Notes for a Performance of Antonín Rejcha's C Minor String Quartet". See [1]
  5. ^ Demuth, p. 167.
  6. ^ Reicha's autobiography, Notes sur Antoine Reicha, quoted in Bill McGlaughlin's "A World Of Winds: Making Your Own Quintet — The Father of the Wind Quintet", see [2]
  7. ^ Ron Drummond. "Anton Reicha: A Biographical Sketch", see
  8. ^ Demuth, 7 (171)
  9. ^ Walker, Alan (1987). Franz Liszt: Volume One, the Virtuoso Years, 1811–1847. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. p. 94. ISBN 0-8014-9421-4. 
  10. ^ Václav Jan Sýkora. Preface to an edition of 36 fugues for piano, Kassel: Bärenreiter catalogue numbers 19117–119. 1973
  11. ^ Jan Racek. Foreword to the critical edition of "L'art de varier", Praha: Státní hudební vydavatelství, 1961
  12. ^ See Ron Drummond's articles on Reicha for an extensive discussion of his quartets: [3]. The first modern edition in score and parts of Reicha's Vienna quartets was published in June 2006 by Merton Music of London, see [4].
  13. ^ Demuth, 5-6 (169–70)
  14. ^ Demuth, 8 (172)

External links

General reference


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