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Friday 23 February 2018

He was in the shadow of Beethoven, but Ferdinand Ries still shone

George Hamilton

Ferdinand Ries is not a name that jumps out of musical history, but he has a place in it that's worth recalling. For the story of Beethoven would be lacking a chapter or two were it not for the family Ries (it rhymes with the French Riviera city of Nice).

Ferdinand's father Franz taught the young Beethoven and looked out for him as his career took off as a youngster. Beethoven's family circumstances weren't the best. His father, a professional singer in the choir in Cologne, was an alcoholic who ruined his voice with his drinking. His mother died when he was only 16.

Franz Ries stepped in. He helped Beethoven make sure there was enough from the old boy's pension to keep him, and later that there was a proper payout when the father died.

Beethoven never forgot. Even in Vienna, Europe's musical capital of the time, where he'd established himself as a formidable figure. The teenage Ferdinand arrived there with a letter from his father, seeking assistance in getting the young man started. It was a debt Beethoven was happy to repay.

Ferdinand became his protégé. He gave him piano lessons and for tuition in composition introduced him to the highly regarded Austrian Johann Albrechtsberger, who had taught Beethoven.

Ries flourished on both fronts. Beethoven rated him highly, not highly enough to have him premiere his piano compositions, but he did promote him as a performer.

His debut under Beethoven was a performance of the Piano Concerto No 3, with Ries providing his own cadenza, the virtuosic flourish of improvisation that's all the performer's own work.

As Ries's output increased, Beethoven is said to have complained: "He imitates me too much."

Whatever about the accuracy of the quotation, there is no doubt that Ries's style was modelled on his mentor's. How could it be otherwise?

But there's also evidence in a sizable catalogue that extends from symphonies and concertos to cantatas and other choral music that he was most definitely his own man.

Unfortunately the passage of time has been unkind to Ferdinand Ries, and there's little of his heard any more. Beethoven's formidable shadow has seen to that.

Still, Ries's place in the Beethoven story is secure. He was a pupil who turned PA, taking care of mundane matters like lodgings for the master. And the devastating effects of the composer's deteriorating hearing were alleviated by the practical involvement of Ries in the realities of Beethoven's everyday life.

When Ries struck out on his own, eventually moving to London, he championed the music of Beethoven. In fact, as a member of the Philharmonic Society that promoted performances of the best of instrumental music, he was involved in the commission that led to the composition of perhaps the greatest symphony of them all – Beethoven's Ninth.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.


Irish Independent

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