Born: February 20, 1734; Mannheim, Germany
Died: December 31, 1809; Bordeaux, France
German composer Franz Ignaz Beck is a controversial exception to almost all of the standard rules regarding eighteenth century musicianship. Born in Mannheim and educated by Johann Stamitz, Beck's orchestral music retains the technical know how expected from a student of Stamitz, but otherwise his stormy and stylistically fearless symphonies show no resemblance to what one normally associates with the "Mannheim School." Standard references showRead more Beck, initially nurtured under the patronage of Elector Carl Theodor, as traveling from the Mannheim court to study with Galuppi. However, the reminiscences of one of Beck's students reveal the composer fled Mannheim after believing he'd killed a man in a duel -- the victim turned up, decades later, alive and well at Beck's door. Although Beck's symphonies begin to appear toward the end of his Italian period, little is known of his time in Italy other than that he spent much of it in Venice and later Naples, where in 1760 Beck was forced once again to flee to Marseilles after secretly engaging his patron's daughter in marriage.
The rest of Beck's life was centered in France, residing in Bordeaux and traveling to Paris on occasion to perform and publish his works, which were known throughout Europe. In addition to the symphonies, apparently all produced between 1757 and 1762, Beck was renowned for his solo keyboard music and abilities as an improviser on the organ, and he held for a time post of organist at Cathèdrale St. Seurin in Bordeaux. None of Beck's organ music survives; likewise, most of the operas and ballets he composed for the Grand Théâtre in Bordeaux have disappeared. The calculable triumphs of Beck's later years include his superb setting of the Stabat Mater (Paris, 1783) and his Hymne à l'être Suprème, a Revolutionary-era barn-burner that earned him appointment to the Instituit de France, a professorship Beck held until his death at age 75 on the last day of 1809.
Franz Ignaz Beck is an almost exact contemporary of Franz Josef Haydn, but his symphonies are strikingly advanced for their time. Beck was already utilizing four-movement structures by 1760, and his symphonies are rich with the violent contrasts and explosive effects associated with the Stürm und Drang phase found in Haydn's middle symphonies and those of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Nevertheless, Beck's work was completely forgotten until published studies on his work were put forward by musicologists Hugo Riemann in the early 1900s and Robert Sondheimer in the 1920s. Although Sondheimer made the strongest case to restore Beck to the active repertoire, he also made claims on behalf of Beck that went a little too far, awarding Beck developments in Western orchestral music that clearly belong to Beethoven. Sondheimer's editions of Beck's symphonies, published in the 1950s, are heavily edited, even to the extent of adding parts not in the original scores. Artaria Editions of Hong Kong has published authoritative and accurate editions of Beck's symphonies since the 1990s, yet there remains some dispute about their total number. Grove's gives the number of Beck symphonies conservatively at 19, but by of the end of 2006 Artaria had published 27 symphonies under his name with presumably more to follow; some held in manuscript sources are believed inauthentic. Read less