Inventing the string quartet in the 18th century

Richter's string quartets are lovely entertaining pieces. © Charles Thibo
Richter’s string quartets are lovely entertaining pieces. © Charles Thibo

Elegance – that’s the first word coming to my mind when I listen to Franz Xaver Richter’s Seven Quartets Op. 5. Lightness is another immediate association with this music. It’s entertaining in the best way, not too intellectual, but not trivial either. And the quartets have a few surprises, like the Spanish flavor of the second movement of Quartet No. 5 in G major, where Richter uses castanets. Intrigued? Try the recording of the Casal Quartett.  It will be well spent money. The Swiss ensemble used period instruments for the recording and was nominated for the Grammy Awards last year…

From Vienna to Mannheim

Richter lived between 1709 and 1789, but few details are known about the early years. He spent some time in Vienna and in Italy, but in 1746 he joined the Hofkapelle of a German nobleman in Mannheim as a bass. In Mannheim he worked closely together with another composer, Johannes Stamitz, they both are exponents of the so-called Mannheim School*.

Prior to this assignment in Mannheim, Richter had already composed six symphonies in a Baroque style. Between 1760 and 1767 he wrote a treatise on counterpoint and harmony and in 1768 he published the Seven Quartets. With this publication he ranks among the inventors of the string quartet as such. Some scholars believe, Richter published his quartets as a reaction to Boccherini’s quartet collection, his Op. 2. He achieved a certain fame in Mannheim with his instrumental compositions, but as he was denied promotion in Mannheim, he looked for alternatives.

Moving to Strasbourg

A year later he was appointed director of the music ensemble of the Strasbourg Cathedral.  If up to then he had composed both secular and church music, he devoted himself now to church music exclusively.

According to the database of Oxford Music Online, while Richter was still in Mannheim, he “changed from a late Baroque sound to a tonal language which reached the threshold of the classical style.” But style elements from Italy can be found, and once he was in Strasbourg, he reverted to older composition techniques – fugues – which is hardly surprising, when you consider that he chiefly composed music for liturgical services and the church not necessarily being inclined to musical innovations.

The quartets are so far the only music composed by Richter that I know. I listen to them quite often, when I want to enjoy something light.

© Charles Thibo

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