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ClassicsOnline Home » RIES, F.: Flute and Piano Works - Flute Sonatas / Introduction and Polonaise / Variations on a Portuguese Hymn (Grodd, Napoli)
Like most of his contemporaries, Ferdinand Ries was a prolific composer of variations, polonaises and other small-scale works for piano or piano and solo instrument. Intended primarily for the cultivated amateur, these works were composed with the care one would expect from a former pupil of Beethoven and abound in attractive melodic ideas and brilliant instrumental writing. His works for flute and piano include sparkling gems such as the Variations on a Portuguese Hymn (Adeste fideles) and the impressive Sonate Sentimentale, Op. 169, one of the finest works for flute of its time.
By Lance G. Hill
The Classical Music Guide Forums
Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838)
Works for Flute and Piano
As one of the greatest pianists in Europe of his time and a composer of exceptional ability, it is surprising that the name Ferdinand Ries is not better known today. Indeed, the neglect of most of his major works is even more inexplicable given his long association with Beethoven.
Ries’s connections with Beethoven began in Bonn where his father Franz, a professional violinist and pianist, taught Beethoven. In October 1801, after several months of study in Munich with Peter von Winter, Ries left for Vienna where Beethoven, now well-established as a pianist and composer, agreed to take him on as a pupil.
During Ries’s three years of study with Beethoven he acted frequently as his secretary and copyist which, of course, leant great credibility to his later published reminiscences. Beethoven did not teach Ries composition— for that he went to Albrechtsberger, Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s Cathedral—but his influence on Ries’s development as a composer nonetheless was profound. Beethoven also smoothed his introduction into Viennese musical circles and organized his début (as Beethoven’s pupil) on 1 August 1804, at which he gave a performance of the C minor Piano Concerto, Op. 37, with cadenzas of his own composition.
Ries’s career suffered periodic disruptions due to the Napoleonic Wars but it finally seems to have taken off in 1809. During the next four years he toured extensively throughout Europe, reaching Russia in 1812. He was appointed a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music in 1813 and the following year published an impressive set of variations for piano and orchestra based on Swedish national airs. The next eleven years of Ries’s life were spent in London where he enjoyed a successful career as a celebrated virtuoso, teacher and composer. Ries featured prominently in the Philharmonic Concerts, where he gave premières of many of his most important chamber works. In 1824 he returned to his native Rhineland, living initially in Bad Godesberg, near Bonn, before moving to Frankfurt three years later. Although nominally retired, Ries took an active part in the Lower Rhine Music Festivals and his works formed a major part of their repertory during the 1830s. He was also appointed head of the town orchestra and the Singakademie of Aachen in 1834. During these last years he collaborated with Fritz Wegeler in the seminal Biographische Notizen über Ludwig van Beethoven published in the year of his death.
Solo works for pianoforte, and chamber works based around the instrument, understandably occupy a central place in Ries’s substantial body of work. Many of the smaller compositions were unashamedly popular in style. As a freelance composer, performer and teacher, Ries was aware of the dangers of ignoring the market for such pieces and, like Hummel and others, he cheerfully composed fantasies, sets of variations on popular operatic tunes and other works alongside larger and more serious works. This pattern holds as true for Ries’s music for flute as it does for his numerous piano works. Among these compositions are substantial works such as the Trio, Op. 63, and the Sonate sentimentale, Op. 169, and smaller works with flute ad libitum such as the Rondo Le garçon volage, Op. 85 No. 3, and a set of fantasias on themes from Rossini’s Armida, Op. 133. The four works featured on this recording represent a cross—section of Ries’s compositions for flute.
Beginning with the two Piano Sonatas, Op. 1, which were dedicated to his teacher Beethoven, Ries frequently paid tribute to musicians he liked and admired, among them Haydn, Clementi and Moscheles. It is disappointing then that none of his works for flute was dedicated to a famous flautist and doubly so in the absence of any clues in his letters as to whom he had in mind when composing them. Nonetheless, it is possible to speculate in the instances when we have an idea of where and when the works were written. Ries composed the Trio, Op. 63, in Bath in 1815 where he was visiting at the invitation of Andrew Ashe (1759–1841), who, during the years 1810–1820 was Director of Concerts there. Ashe was a friend of Johann Peter Salomon who earlier in his career had taught Ries’s father and more recently had helped Ries to establish himself in London. Ashe, who made his London début performing a flute concerto of his own composition, enjoyed a very successful career, playing in Salomon’s famous concerts in the Hanover Square Rooms in 1792 and later becoming a founding member of the Philharmonic Society. These circumstances all suggest that Ries may have composed a number of works for Ashe but no corroborative evidence has yet come to light. Similar claims might be made for Louis Drouët (1792–1873), who made his first appearance at a Philharmonic Society concert in March 1816, Charles Nicholson (1795–1837), one of England’s most outstanding flautists, and Anton Fürstenau (1792–1852), through whom Ries attempted to secure Weber’s post in Dresden and for whom he may have composed the three quartets WoO 35; in each case, however, there is an absence of documentary evidence to prove the connections. Ries may have composed works for any of these flautists or indeed none of them. The evidence does suggest, however, that he did not write any music for flute prior to his arrival in England in 1813 although the record may well be incomplete.
The four works on this recording were composed to the best of our knowledge during Ries’s time in England (1813–1823) or soon after his return to Germany following his retirement. Of the two sonatas the more impressive work is unquestionably the Sonate sentimentale, Op. 169. The place and date of its composition is uncertain in spite of apparently conclusive evidence to the contrary: Ries’s autograph score is headed “7me Sonata pour le Piano Forte avec une Flute obligée composée par Ferd: Ries. Godesberg 1814 / op. 169”. Many of the composition dates found on Ries’s autographs were added in the mid-1820s when he compiled a list of all his works. Ries’s memory frequently proved to be faulty, so much so that when Cecil Hill compiled his thematic catalogue of Ries’s complete works he did not use Ries’s own list as a primary means of establishing composition dates preferring instead to turn to verifiable external evidence. The Sonate sentimentale, Op. 169, was the last work that Ries entered into his catalogue and characteristically his memory failed him when he came to giving its date and place of composition. It is extremely unlikely that the work was composed in Godesberg in 1814 as by that time Ries was living in London. Although he may have made a trip back to Germany it seems more likely, on the evidence of so many other mistakes, that he misremembered the exact details of the work’s genesis. The date of composition could well be correct but it appears more likely that Ries composed this fine sonata in England. One of the most intriguing aspects of this work is the difference between Ries’s original conception and the work as it appeared in its first published edition in 1834. The extent of the changes points to a substantial authorial revision of the work made prior to publication rather than a garbled transmission of the original text. Among the most striking of these changes is the inclusion of a brief introduction to the first movement; but other passages are extensively rewritten and in some instances lengthened by the inclusion of additional material.
Although the other works on this recording differ in length and complexity, all of them bear the stamp of the skilful and experienced composer. This is evident both on the large structural scale, and in the finer compositional detail. Ries’s thematic material is attractive and interesting, his harmonic language varied and colourful and his control of balance and texture masterly. The two instruments are not treated as strict equals since the piano offers the composer a far greater range of expressive possibilities than the flute. Nonetheless, the flute is not restricted to presenting thematic material or to gilding the music with dazzling arabesques; it is also employed to strengthen the musical texture or add discreet washes of harmonic colour.
Ries’s flute writing is idiomatic and at times brilliant in style but it is does not transcend the technical capabilities of the gifted amateur player. Like many of his smaller keyboard works, pieces such as the Introduction and Polonaise and the Variations on a Portuguese Hymn (the theme itself is Adeste fideles—O Come All Ye Faithful) were written for the cultivated middle-class market. Contemporary reviews of Ries’s compositions of this kind stress their soundness of harmony and structure, the absence of harsh, grating dissonances even when the composer employs chromatic harmonies, and their suitability for only the most proficient players. They may not represent the best of Ries’s works but they do serve to illustrate the consummate professionalism he brought to everything he wrote.
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