The Classical Avant-Garde

I'm always on the look out for interesting composers out of the mainstream and Anton Reicha (1770-1836) definitely fits the bill. In my very limited free time I've taken a peek at some of his experimental fugues. While having great respect for J.S. Bach, Reicha, ever attracted to the fantastic in music, sought to expand the possibilities of the genre and give it a new flexibility for a new era. Published in 1803, his 36 Fugues for piano, Op. 36 breaks just about every rule in terms of traditional fugal writing: any melody (no matter how unwieldy or florid or difficult or folksy) can serve as a fugue subject, answers enter on any scale degree (most common is the third), complex, mixed, or irregular meters, pieces without key signature that end in a different key from which the begin... Madness!

We don't know what the set's dedicatee Joseph Haydn thought about these bizarre creations, but Reicha's lifelong friend from Bonn, Beethoven, bluntly called them "non-fugues." Nonplussed, Reicha seems to have continued his experiments (quarter-tones!) and even got a job as a counterpoint and fugue professor at the Paris Conservatoire.

I'm particularly excited about his fugues built on themes by other composers: for example, No. 5 uses J.S. Bach's theme from his WTC2 G Major Fugue, No. 7 the opening motif from Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony, and No. 9 Domenico Scarlatti's "Cat" Fugue. Having spent some time on the above mentioned Bach piece, it is a lot of fun to see Reicha's reinvention: in my opinion a little longwinded, but definitely discursive and exciting. Subjects enter in a seemingly haphazard way and in all imaginable keys, and the formal layout is emphasized by pregnant half cadences and mysterious pauses.

Here's the Bach fugue (starting at 2:21) performed by Andras Schiff.

And then the Reicha performed by Jaroslav Tuma.

Happy November!


  1. Reicha is pedantically quirky! Interesting stuff, though. Thanks! Kendall

    1. Those adjectives are very apropos! It's definitely not a well-behaved fugue, like my dog when you return to the house after about thirty minutes.


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