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Ries, Ferdinand (1784-1838)
steel engraving by Carl Mayer

Ferdinand Ries

born: 28 November 1784 (date of baptism)
died: 13 January 1838
country: Germany

Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) has long been lurking in the shadows of musical history, his place in the footnotes assured through his role as Beethoven’s student, amanuensis and de facto agent. Indeed, it is largely to Ries that we owe the existence of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, for it was he who secured this commission on behalf of the Philharmonic Society of London in 1822. Yet his position by Beethoven’s side has probably limited most historical assessment of Ries himself. Our Beethoven-centric view of music history over the last two centuries has left little scope for imagining Ries’s existence as anything more than a support act in the overall story, with barely any consideration afforded him as a composer in his own right.

Who, then, was Ferdinand Ries? Born to a family of musicians in Bonn in 1784, Ries originally looked destined to follow his father and grandfather as a violinist into the Hofkapelle (court orchestra). This changed in 1794, though, when the dissolution of the electoral court meant the dismissal of its orchestra. Approaching the end of his teens and with few remaining employment prospects in Bonn, in 1801 Ries decided to travel to Vienna, where he hoped to study with Beethoven. (In a sense Beethoven would be returning a favour, as lessons with Ries’s father had been a formative part of Beethoven’s own education when he was growing up in Bonn.) Beethoven received him warmly, admitting him as one of his only two students during this period, the other being Carl Czerny. Three years of intensive tuition ensued, Ries meanwhile making himself an indispensable aid to his teacher, whose encroaching deafness was beginning to cause ever greater difficulties.

The years from 1805 saw an increasingly itinerant existence for Ries, as he took to the road both to fulfil professional commitments performing in cities across Europe and to avoid military conscription during this turbulent period. This pattern of constant travel continued throughout most of his twenties, until April 1813, when he arrived in London. Here he was welcomed and supported by the ageing Johann Peter Salomon, the musician and entrepreneur behind the success of Haydn’s London trips some two decades earlier. (Again, the connection was already established through teaching: Salomon also originally hailed from Bonn, and long before had taught Ries’s father.) Ries remained in London for eleven fruitful years, composing, performing and teaching. He ensconced himself in the life of the Philharmonic Society, and was soon elected one of its directors. It was during this highly productive period in London that all the works on this recording were probably composed.

Contemporaneous records indicate the high level of esteem in which Ries was held as both a composer and pianist. A ‘Memoir of Ferdinand Ries’ in The Harmonicon of March 1824 explains that as a composer ‘his productions shew an originality of composition, and a vigour of execution, that rank him with the great masters of the age’. Moreover, ‘Mr. Ries is justly celebrated as one of the finest piano-performers of the present day. His hand is powerful, and his execution is certain.’ Ries’s popularity and entrepreneurial spirit earned him a considerable fortune in London, which was aided by his marriage to the wealthy Harriet Mangeon. He returned to Germany in 1824, ostensibly to retire, although opportunities continued to present themselves and he composed a number of new works during this time. His heyday was by now past, though, and his death in 1838 occasioned little notice or remark.

Ries’s compositions span all the main genres, including eight symphonies, three operas and some twenty-six string quartets. Yet it is his repertoire for piano that is his most extensive and surely his most accomplished writing. As well as numerous sonatas, fantasias, variation sets and rondos, he composed various works for chamber combinations that include the piano. In many cases he would have been seated at the instrument for the first performances of these works, and they offer ample indication of his virtuosity at the keyboard. Indeed, the Harmonicon ‘Memoir’ shows the extent to which Ries’s dual identities as composer and pianist were fused inextricably: ‘By means of strong contrasts of loud and soft, and a liberal use of the open pedals, together with much novelty and great boldness in his modulations, he produces an effect upon those who enter into his style.’ The public saw a composer seated at the piano when he performed.

from notes by Joseph Fort © 2022


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