BECK: Six Symphonies, Op. 1 (Donald Armstrong/ NZSO Chamber Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.554071)
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Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809)
Six Symphonies, Op. 1
When Franz Beck composed his first symphonies, sometime around the mid-1750s, the genre was in its infancybut it was by no means primitive. The most famousexponent of the symphony, The most famous exponentof the symphony, Johann Stamitz, director of the famousMannheim court orchestra and, coincidentally, Beck'steacher, had not only raised it to new levels of technicalsophistication but, together with a number of his giftedcolleagues, had also evolved a new and distinctive styleof writing for orchestra. Stamitz's symphonies wereimmensely popular, particularly in France. Theycirculated in both printed editions and in manuscriptparts, exerting a profound if localised influence on thedevelopment of the symphony. The presence of Stamitz,Richter, Holzbauer, Filtz and others at the Mannheimcourt created a unique musical environment that musthave been intoxicating to a young and ambitiouscomposer like Beck.
Beck began his musical studies with his father,Johann Aloys, Rektor of the Choral School at thePalatinate Court in Mannheim. He studied violin, doublebass and organ, among other instruments, and displayedsuch impressive talents that the Elector Carl Theodorundertook responsibility for his education. If the accountof Beck's pupil Blanchard is to be believed, the youngmusician had to flee Mannheim after fighting a duelwith a jealous rival and believing that he had killed him.
Many years later, the story goes, he learned that he hadbeen the victim of a hoax - his opponent had onlyfeigned death. This version of events is not universallyaccepted and it has also been claimed that Beck leftMannheim in rather less sensational fashion in order tostudy with Baldassare Galuppi in Venice. Whatever thecircumstances of his departure, Beck certainly did live inVenice for several years, for it was from there that heeloped to Naples with Anna Oniga, his employer'sdaughter. After his eventful sojourn in Italy Beck movedto Marseilles and became leader of a theatre orchestra.
Although the date of his arrival in France is uncertain hemust have been well-known by reputation at least by thelate 1750s since four sets of symphonies were publishedin rapid succession by Parisian firms, beginning with thepresent set which appeared in 1758. The title page of thesix Op. 1 Symphonies ('Sei Overture') describe him as'Chamber Virtuoso to the Elector Palatine and pupil ofJohann Stamitz'; the Op. 3 title page adds 'and currentlyfirst violin of the Concert in Marseilles'.
Beck moved from Marseilles to Bordeaux, where hewas appointed conductor of the Grand The?ótre. Histheatre duties were combined with composing andteaching. Among his most prominent pupils were PierreGaveaux, Blanchard and Boscha. In October 1774 hewas appointed organist at St Seurin, Bordeaux, wherehis improvisations were widely admired. Among themost important works of the pre-Revolutionary period isthe magnificent Stabat Mater, which was given its firstperformance at Versailles. Like a number of otherprominent composers Beck appears to have had littledifficulty adjusting to the new regime and produced asubstantial number of patriotic works including a Hymne?á l'?¬tre supr?¬me. In 1803 he was appointedcorrespondent of music composition for the Institute ofFrance.
Beck's symphonies have long been regarded asamong the most striking works of their kind from themid-eighteenth century. Their quality makes it all themore puzzling that Beck apparently lost interest in thegenre as early as the mid-1760s. Had he brought hisformidable talents to bear on the symphony for anothertwenty years or so he might have left a body of workequal in stature to that of Wanhal or Kraus. Even theearliest of his symphonies are remarkable for theirdramatic flair, rich harmonic language and fluid,inventive part-writing.
The Six Symphonies, Op. 1, published by Venier in1758, owe a great stylistic debt to Beck's olderMannheim colleagues and in particular to JohannStamitz and Franz Xaver Richter. The composition dateis uncertain and it is not possible to determine whetherthe works were composed in Mannheim, Venice or evenin France. The title page of the edition - 'SEIOVERTURE / A PI?Ö STROMENTI / COMPOSTE / DAFRANCESCO BECK / Virtuoso di Camera di Sua / A. S.
L'ELECTOR PALATINO, / & Disepolo di GioanStamitz. / OPERA PRIMA. / Fait Grave par Venier...'
-suggests that Beck was still connected with theMannheim court, irrespective of where the works werecomposed. This may indicate that his move to Venicehad the Elector's sanction and that Blanchard'ssensational account of his flight is unreliable.
In some respects the Op. 1 Symphonies are ratherconservative, glancing back to the style of Stamitz'ssymphonies written in the early and middle 1740s. It iscurious that there are few traces of influence from laterworks like the impressive Op. 4 Symphonies, and it istempting to conclude that Beck was unfamiliar withthem. Stamitz spent much of 1754-1755 in Paris and itwas perhaps during this period that Beck left Mannheimfor Venice. There are, however, certain stylisticsimilarities with Richter's works particularly in respectof their rich harmonic vocabulary, the employment ofstartling harmonic progressions and their atmosphere ofemotional intensity. The signature Mannheim style ishardly in evidence although the dramatic writing for theviolins clearly demands first-class players.
The Op. 1 Symphonies, or Overtures as they arestyled in the original edition, are short, three-movementworks in the conventional fast-slow-fast cycle. The useof a Minuet as a finale in the second symphony isrelatively uncommon but by no means unknown inworks of this period. Its vigour is somewhat surprisingand serves as a reminder that for all its apparentregularity the Minuet was frequently treated in veryunconventional ways. The most striking work in the setis the G minor Symphony with its powerful, drivingouter movements and unsettling middle Andante. Beckincluded minor key works in his first three publishedsets of symphonies (Op. 3 includes two) but surprisinglynot in the fourth. These turbulent works have won manyadmirers among scholars but still remain largelyunknown. The other works, however, are no lessimpressive and display a compositional finish rareamong mid-century symphonies. Some of themovements are very short - the finale of Op. 1, No. 6 isa mere 35 bars - but all of them are impressivelyorganized and musically memorable. The openingAllegro of the Symphony in A, Op. 1, No. 3, with itschains of rising suspensions, exudes a fascinatingtension about it while retaining a sense of warmth andgentle lyricism. While Beck does not venture into therealms of strict counterpoint his part-writing is alwaysinventive, his textures varied and even in these veryearly works he displays an unerring sense of orchestralcolour.This recording was produced by Stephen Managh,founder of the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra. Sadlyhe died before seeing this final project through tocompletion.Allan Badley