A Friend of Beethoven, Now Rediscovered in His Own Right

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Anton Reicha’s music is “eccentric and esoteric,” a pianist says.CreditCreditFine Art Images/Heritage Images, via Getty Images

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Until recently, the place you’d be most likely to encounter the name Anton Reicha was in the footnotes of books about Beethoven. The two met as teenagers when they played in the same orchestra in Bonn, Germany: Reicha as second flute, Beethoven on viola. Reicha’s name also pops up in the biographies of composers who studied counterpoint with him at the Paris Conservatory: Berlioz, Liszt, Franck, Gounod.

But an ambitious recording project by the American-Serbian pianist Ivan Ilic suggests it’s time to finally give Reicha’s music a listen. This week brings the release of the second in a planned five-disc series, accompanied by documentary videos posted online. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will include works by Reicha in two programs in November. But it’s particularly in the piano music of Reicha, who was born in Prague in 1770 and died in Paris in 1836, that Mr. Ilic sees affinities with some idiosyncratic figures of 20th-century music. In an interview ahead of a recital in Hamburg, he said Reicha’s music was “eccentric and esoteric. He was big on imagining different possibilities.”

Some of Reicha’s most outré ideas were confined to his imagination. After unsuccessful attempts to make it as an opera composer, he focused on teaching and writing theoretical treatises. In these, he advocated for quarter tones and dreamed up a double concerto for two soloists playing in different keys — a century before Ives. He questioned the convention of the time that confined musical statements or phrases to four measures, arguing that listeners were perfectly capable of absorbing ideas that took five or six bars to express.

And long before Bartok, he wrote music in compound meter, overthrowing the tradition that subdivided musical time into multiples of twos and threes. One such fugue, written in 1803 in the knock-knee time signature of 5/8, will appear on Mr. Ilic’s third Reicha disc next year.

“I was fascinated by the way he broke the rules,” Mr. Ilic said. “He has a musical style that’s pretty close to Haydn in terms of the surface, but then he modulates in really weird ways and it’s in 5/8.”

What’s especially strange about Reicha is that this unconventional streak was embedded in a sober, even pedantic personality and a compositional work ethic rooted in the past. His voluminous writings for solo piano — Mr. Ilic estimates that his five albums will cover about a third of the output — are related in spirit to those of Bach. Fugues were an obsession.

As a theorist, Reicha was driven by a desire to bring the same structure and logic to music education that he saw in other sciences. Louise Bernard de Raymond, a musicologist in Paris, said in a phone interview that in Reicha’s work “there is also the desire to understand music through other fields: mathematics, Kantian philosophy. There is a general desire to forge a form of musical education that is systematic and rational — a belief in progress.”

To his students, Reicha appears to have been a wonderfully open-minded teacher. “Nothing offends him,” Gounod wrote in his memoirs, “everything amuses him; everything is of interest; and what I like best about him is that he always wants to know why.”

Sometimes the quirkiness of Reicha’s mind is strikingly audible, as in a Chaplinesque fugue (Op. 36, No. 12) that, in the space of just over a minute, starts in A and skips through five other keys before landing, incongruously, in G.

Harmonic oddities are often hidden inside pieces of easy, approachable charm. The first track of Mr. Ilic’s first disc, from the collection “Practical Examples,” sounds a bit like Haydn walking arm-in-arm with Philip Glass.

A dreamy, shy étude seems to sleepwalk through remote keys.

Mr. Ilic, who studied mathematics and music at the University of California at Berkeley, said he was fascinated by the empirical way in which Reicha isolated and questioned different elements of music. “That seemed to me really close to the music I was obsessed with at that moment, which was Morton Feldman and the New York School,” he said.

This pianist is taking a gamble by devoting a sizable chunk of his career to a largely unknown composer. But, he said, “I just need this music right now. And I need to connect with people who get this music: the humor, the stops and starts, the way that he’s winking at the audience all the time with respect to what expectations are.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C6 of the New York edition with the headline: A Friend of Beethoven’s, in His Own Right. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe