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The date and circumstances surrounding Beck’s departure from Mannheim are uncertain. Several sources suggest that he went to Venice to study with Galuppi, but his student Blanchard also advanced the theory that he hurriedly fled Mannheim after a duel in which he had killed his opponent; further piquancy is added to the story by the assertion that in Paris many years later Beck encountered his supposed victim, who had actually feigned death as part of a malicious hoax.
Either way, we know that at some point in the 1750s Beck travelled to Italy, playing the violin in several of the leading cities and settling in Venice for several years before eloping to Naples with his employer’s daughter. In his mid-twenties he moved to Marseilles, where he became the leader of the theatre orchestra, and in the early 1760s he settled in Bordeaux, becoming organist at the church of Saint Seurin and music director of the theatre company that in 1780 was to move to the newly constructed Grand Théâtre. In the second half of his composing career he focused more on keyboard and sacred music, and he also established an excellent reputation as a teacher. Always his own man, he was brought to trial in his night-shirt during the French Revolution for mocking some over-zealous partisans of the new spirit, but he survived, composing some patriotic music to help his cause, and in 1803 the new government honoured him by appointing him correspondent of music composition for the Institut de France. He died in Bordeaux on New Year’s Eve 1809.
Beck’s twenty-four surviving symphonies were all published (in groups of six) within a decade in the early part of his career—Op 1 in 1758, Op 2 in 1760, Op 3 in 1762 and Op 4 in 1766. They are quirky and highly individual works, characterised by a volatility and unpredictability that look forward more to Beethoven than to Mozart or Haydn. This is exemplified by the extraordinary G minor symphony, Op 3 No 3, which despite being scored for only strings and a pair of horns has a power and intensity which might suggest a considerably later date of composition.
The opening allegro con spirito displays all the visceral hallmarks of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ style, with extreme contrasts of range, texture and dynamic. Beck controls and develops his motivic ideas with consummate skill and flair, and the music’s febrile intensity is unrelenting. Anguish gives way to pathos and resignation in the lilting andante un poco adagio that follows, the music tinged with an air of sorrowful reflection despite being set in the relative major key of B flat. The third-movement minuet returns to the home key of G minor, the sombre austerity briefly thrown into relief for the central ‘trio’ section in G major, and the work ends with an exhilarating presto in which first and second violins contend the opening theme with all the vigour and élan of a sword fight. These disputes are soon being waged fugally across the whole orchestra, and the music propels forward with a dizzying impetuosity. Towards the end, the tension is suddenly augmented by a whispered bass pedal of repeated pianissimo quavers on a low D, before the horns raucously launch us into a tempestuous final flurry.
from notes by Ian Page © 2020