Symphony No 4

in C Minor, Op. 12, No. 4, Henri-Joseph Rigel

Mozart manqué…

Chicago Tribune

To be sure, Henri-Joseph Rigel is not familiar to many audiences as one of the major classical composers. However, he is receiving merited attention not only in this concert but also by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Labadie, who played his Fourth Symphony in May, 2014. At that time the Chicago Tribune reviewed,“..the audience was introduced to two obscure late eighteenth century symphonies by German composers the CSO has never played before …these compact, three movement symphonies—“missing links” between late Haydn and early Beethoven—[were performed as] no dusty historical curiosities, but rather, music of quality that deserves wider attention… the CSO strings were playing with little or no vibrato making for leaner texture and crisper articulations. The extra kick he gave the rhythms threw the exchanges between the first and second violins into crackling relief.  Such was their energy and elegance that you would never have guessed the musicians had never touched this music before.” This is the first time for ISO musicians as well.

Henri-Joseph Rigel (also spelled Riegel) lived from 1741 to 1799. He was a German pianist and a classical composer who lived most of his lifetime in Paris, where he wrote 14 operas, numerous harpsichord pieces, string quartets and symphonies.  He was a respected, well-loved composer during his time, listed as one of the “ten contributing composers to the Concert Spirituel,” and in 1787–88 became head of the resident orchestra. However, the fate of French symphonists was grim. The number of French symphonists presented in performance dropped from six in 1781 to one in 1789. The Concert Spiritual (1725–1790) was one of the first public concert series, located at the Tuileries Palace. Rigel was also a teacher and in 1783 was appointed Professor of Solfege at the Ecole Royale de Chant, as well as teaching at the recently founded Paris Conservatory.

The success of Haydn, however, “nearly dealt a death blow to French symphonists” (Eighteenth Century Music, Volume 7, Cambridge) and Rigel quit writing symphonies entirely, having written  twenty (some say fourteen) between 1765 and 1785. The competition was just overwhelming. From the preface to the score of Etienne-Nicolas Mehul’s Symphony Number One, it is noted by David Charlton that: In 1781, there were five performances at the Concert Spiritual of Haydn symphonies; in 1786 there were 26; there were 39, in 1789. Additionally, Haydn’s popularity was reflected  in a commission (1786) to write six symphonies by the Concert de la Loge Olympique  which became the famous “Paris Symphonies” set. Parisian audiences found Haydn’s music “remarkable for melodic grace as well as orchestral splendor and compositional sophistication… although it is not possible to document that Haydn had a detailed knowledge of the musical taste of his Parisian public…and by the late 1780’s his works dominated the symphonic repertory in the city (Haydn: The Paris Symphonies by Bernard Harrison).

In contrast to Haydn’s well-behaved, poised music, Rigel has been noted for his “Sturm und Drang” style (popular with Parisian audiences who favored big orchestras) evidenced in his Fourth Symphony in C minor. Jean Benjamin de Labored, Rigel’s biographer, wrote, “All his effects are clear: his greatest symphonic pieces consistently have a natural melody.”

Opus 12 contains three movements: fast, slow, fast.  The first opens dramatically, moving swiftly into a presentation of the cheerful themes, typically classical in their clarity and balance.  However, notice the bright sforzandi (sudden accents) which add unexpected surprises.  Notice also the coloration provided by the horns which are assigned a significant portion of the first movement, often chiming in at the close of phrases, sometimes conversing, and often adding chiseled rhythmic emphasis.

The monothematic second movement begins slowly, immediately presenting a lyrical, reflective theme in 6/8 meter. It’s relaxed, fluent character testifies to Rigel’s “natural”  melodic formulation noted by Jean de labored. Again, horns add coloration, accompanying the strings with discretion and sometimes having a gentle hand in the display of the theme.

Rigel’s last movement springs to life from rapidly paced strings. From time to time the momentum of its major genial idea is reigned in, but the strings insist on continued energy with virtuosic stimuli. Notice the many dynamic contrasts which animate and propel the music. The close is as brisk as the opening— quick and precise.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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