Discovering Ferdinand Ries and his piano and orchestral works
It is quite surprising that Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) sounds unfamiliar to our ears in the 21st century, as in the early 19th century his name might have been even more popular and prestigious than his teacher Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Ries was one of the greatest pianists and composers in the early 19th century in Europe. There should be a reason why Ries has become a lesser-known name today.
Born into a musical family in Bonn, Ries became a student of Beethoven with the help of a recommendation letter written by his father, and later became Beethoven’s personal assistant. Although he spent part of his time supporting the lifelong musical career of his teacher, Ries had a considerable career in his own right. Like other musicians of the time, he travelled extensively to various countries across Europe in search of an artistic career, which included a short tenure as a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and a 13-year residence in England, successfully evading regimes of political turmoil in central Europe.
Apart from composing a set of impressive symphonies, being a piano virtuoso himself, Ries composed several works for piano and orchestra. Before embarking on his lengthy tour across Europe, he had already written the second and fourth piano concertos. It is interesting to note that the sequence of his published piano concertos was not related to actual dates of composition, mainly because he delayed the publication of works that were still unknown to audiences. Ries’s concertos seem to intend to shake off Beethoven’s influence while keeping his typical compact structure and sophisticated orchestration. Ries specifically avoided using motives in the way that Beethoven often did, although he maintained rich and lyrical melodic writing while greatly expanding the tonal and harmonic structure of the concertos. All of his concertos end on a high note after showing a dramatic mix of brilliant virtuosic, delicate, and vigorous display. Other features of his concertos include the use of different tempo markings and cross-rhythms and the insertion of cadenzas. For the latter, Ries put the cadenzas in the middle of the movement instead of using them to link up two movements.
In the final stage of his career, Ries switched to composing independent piano pieces with orchestra. His previous valuable experience gained from composing the two theme and variations works, Swedish National Airs with Variations, Op.52 and Grand Variations on 'Rule, Britannia', Op. 116, helped him further examine the possibilities between the piano and the orchestra. Unlike his eight piano concertos, Ries made use of themes and motives throughout the pieces in the complete set of four Introduction and Rondo/Variations. The constant change of metre, tempo and tonality in the Rondo/Variations section keeps the music highly entertaining and full of variety.
Good compositions do not guarantee fame and fortune. Ferdinand Ries’s fame declined immediately after his death. He became lesser-known to the next generations – later students, music academies and even musicologists were simply unaware of him until recent decades.
Most of the works composed by Ries have not been well-documented and explored. Some of them were not even published before his death. There is not even a single book that completely chronicles the undiscovered side of Ries's musical journey. Nevertheless, we are now happy to give you a special opportunity to enjoy the sound of Ries and discover his sheet music.
A new 5 CD boxed set of his complete works for piano and orchestra has just been launched. We hope you will find his music alluring and enticing and we invite you to explore his every creative musical note at the same time. Happy listening!