A European walk through Bordeaux 21
35, Rue Huguerie.
The exact contemporary of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), but younger than Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) born twenty years earlier, composer and conductor Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809) lived until 1801 in these twin houses, built by the architect Lhôte. He was born in 1734 in Mannheim, where his father, a musician of the Electoral Palatinate, instilled in him the rudiments of music, notably the bass. The title page of the Symphonies Op. 1 published in 1758 indicates that Franz Beck was also the “disciple” – as he liked to be called – of Johann Stamitz, the founder of the Mannheim school.
We can be sure about very little of Franz Beck’s life before Bordeaux. If we are to believe his student and first biographer Henry Blanchard, writing for the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, his adventurous youth echoed that of Barry Lyndon’s Memoirs and Casanova. In about 1750, Beck is thought to have hurriedly left the Palatinate (he was 16) to travel to Italy. Having become the favourite of the Elector, he had been the subject of jealousy and malice. He was the victim of a conspiracy designed to make him leave Mannheim, and which took the form of a duel. From the first blow delivered by Beck, his partner used theatrical blood to feign his death. Convinced he had killed his opponent, a practice strictly prohibited by the Prince, Beck hastened to leave the Palatinate and take refuge in Italy, where he probably studied with Baldassare Galuppi. In Venice, Franz Beck was hired as a private music teacher for a secretary to the doge. He took off with his daughter to flee with her to France, through Italy to Naples where they boarded a ship to Marseilles.
For several years, Beck worked as a conductor in Marseille. At least this is what it says in the frontispiece of his Symphonies Op. 3 published in Paris in 1762. It is believed that he stayed in Paris and Brussels. We know that he ended his journey as a wandering musician in Bordeaux, but we do not know the exact date at which he arrived. In 1762, when he published his symphonies, it was under the title of First Violin of the Concert of Marseille. In 1798, an administrative report indicated that he had been faithful to the city for “thirty-two years.” Which meant he must have arrived between 1762 and 1765.
Shortly after his arrival, he was appointed music master at the opera. In 1774, he became an organist at the church of Saint-Seurin, where his ability to improvise fugues stunned the inhabitants of Bordeaux. He assumed a sufficiently prominent place to become, in 1780, the first conductor of the newly built Grand Théâtre, which he inaugurated with incidental music and choruses of his own composition for Racine’s Athalie.
Twenty-eight of his symphonies were published in Paris between 1758 and 1766. We do not know either where or when most of them (Op. 1 to 4) were composed, but they kept being rediscovered. Today they are still performed, with an almost brutal energy in Germany, or sentimentally in New Zealand. In Bordeaux, he played his symphonies rarely, preferring to take a backseat, especially in the latter part of his career, to humbly reveal to the inhabitants of Bordeaux the full wealth of those of his exact contemporary, Joseph Haydn.
But it was in Bordeaux that he wrote his two masterpieces. First, his Stabat Mater with its large chorus and symphony, created in 1782 in Bordeaux then played successfully in 1783 in Paris, at the spiritual concert and at the court of Versailles. The work was not a success at the Opéra de Paris. There, he experienced the saddest moment of his life, and for two reasons. First, the first horn of the Opéra gave a disastrous performance, which affected the interpretation and aroused the public anger of Franz Beck. Second, it was at this concert that he saw his duellist opponent reappear, the same man who had feigned death in Mannheim and whose spectre, now very much alive, chose this moment to reveal the conspiracy that had decided his fate. Yet Beck was convinced. In Bordeaux, he had composed a masterpiece. And in 1806, three years before his death, already retired, he sent another autographed copy of his Stabat Mater to Napoleon.
In 1784, for the first performance in Bordeaux of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, he composed his own Death of Orpheus overture, which became very successful among spectators in Beck’s lifetime. At their request, his prelude accompanied Gluck’s work until at least the year 1797.
With the Revolution, having first become François Beck, then merely a citizen Beck, he changed his style and became the ineluctable composer for all the events held in Bordeaux in 1789, for the Thermidor and the Consulate. Probably lacking conviction, but not without interest, Beck, originally a foreigner, arrested in the early winter of 1793 before being acquitted on 5 January 1794, composed for over ten years for the Temple of Reason and for all the events of the Champ-de-Mars, from Anthems and the Te Deum of the National Guard through to the celebrations of calm and gratitude. The music and its composer, who wished to demonstrate a flawless patriotic zeal, put music to all the most tragic events and the most unexpected reversals of fortune. In 1790, he composed a hymn to celebrate the sovereignty of peoples. In 1796, a hymn in honour of the victorious Bonaparte. And in January 1799, a cantata for the anniversary of the death of Louis XVI. Then, after being pushed aside from the rostrum of the Grand Théâtre, he stopped all public activity. In 1801, sick and ruined, he retired to live with his son in Rue des Religieuses (Rue Thiac) and stopped composing.
When he died on 31 December 1809, at the age of 75, his wife, the pious daughter of the secretary to the doge, destroyed the countless occasional musical scores thanks to which citizen Beck had ensured her survival. Nothing remains, except a Hymn to Reason.
A final solemn tribute was paid to him in his church at Saint-Seurin. There was a fermata for the deceased organist, but the musicians of the Société philomathique and those of the Grand Théâtre grouped together to interpret not only Gluck’s De Profundis, but also one of his Bordeaux masterpieces as a final tribute to the artist. The inhabitants of Bordeaux gathered in the basilica and, chilled to the bone in the cold January weather, listened one last time not to the final bars of the Stabat Mater largo, Quando corpus morietur, but to the Death of Orpheus overture, through which the deceased musician had wanted to hold his own against the illustrious Gluck. The chronicler Bernadau writes: “Never before had this overture been performed, even when conducted by the author, with as much precision and as much passion as on that day.” The date was 23 January 1810.
Since then, time has passed. In both Mannheim and Bordeaux, Beck was forgotten. Moreover, Franz Beck was punished for wanting to replace the music of the famous Gluck with his own overture at the insistence of the Bordeaux spectators. Gluck’s mannas were to take their revenge two hundred years later. In 1980, to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the inauguration of the Grand Théâtre, Racine’s Athalie was performed again. But without … …