Ferdinand Ries

The name Ries was connected with music in Bonn from 1747, the year Ferdinand's grandfather, Johann Ries (1723-1784), was appointed court trumpeter to the Elector of Cologne at Bonn. Ferdinand's aunt, Anna Maria, was a singer at the electoral court, and his father, Franz Anton Ries, was renowned as a child prodigy on the violin, competent enough to join the court orchestra at the age of 11.

Ferdinand Ries is the most celebrated member of the family, and is remembered today largely because of his close acquaintance with Beethoven, who had studied music with Ferdinand's father. Ries was baptised in Bonn on 28 November, 1784, and showed musical promise from an early age, studying both violin and piano with his father, and the cello with Bernhard Romberg. The upheavals following the French Revolution affected the careers of many musicians at this time and Ferdinand was no exception. The electoral court in Bonn was dissolved by the French in 1794, and as a result, Ferdinand failed to receive a position in the orchestra he had been promised. Most of his teenage years were instead spent at home under the tutelage of his father who had been forced to scratch a living after losing his job in the elector's orchestra. In 1801 Ries spent a few months in Munich with Peter von Winter, earning money by copying music. He managed to save enough to go to Vienna, and he arrived there in October 1801, armed with a letter of introduction from his father to his former student, Beethoven.

Over the next five years or so, Beethoven helped Ries enormously, teaching him the piano, and putting him in contact with some of Vienna's leading musicians, including the elderly Albrechtsberger, who agreed to teach Ries harmony and composition. Through Beethoven's influence, Ries secured a position as pianist to Count Browne in Baden, and in the summer of 1805, Beethoven's recommendation was again sufficient to encourage Prince Lichnowsky to offer him a similar position at his country estate in Silesia.

In July 1804, Ries made his public debut as Beethoven's pupil, playing the Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 37 with his own cadenza at the Augarten. The performance was greeted with enthusiasm — the review published in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung commented that Ries "showed a very poetic, expressive style, as well as unusual skill and sureness in the easy overcoming of the most difficult passages."

In return for Beethoven's assistance, Ries often acted as his secretary and copyist, quickly becoming one of the elder composer's closest friends and advisers. Beethoven entrusted Ries with the delicate task of negotiating publication terms with the various publishers interested in publishing his works. A whole series of letters from Ries to the Bonn publisher, Simrock, dating from 1803-4, and concerning such works as the Op. 31 Piano Sonatas and the Kreutzer Sonata, Op. 47, furnish ample proof of the trust that Beethoven placed in the young Ries.

These happy times soon came to an end, however. As a citizen of Bonn, Ferdinand was liable for conscription into the French army, and in September 1805 he was forced to leave Vienna. In the end, he was rejected since he had lost vision in one eye after a dose of smallpox as a child. Instead of returning to Vienna, he continued on to Paris where he eked out a rather precarious existence for two years, before returning to Vienna in 1808 for another one-year sojourn.

From the summer of 1809 Ries seems to have spent four years on tour throughout Europe, with visits to Kassel, Hamburg, Copenhagen and Stockholm as well as even further east, to St Petersburg where he met up with his former cello teacher, Bernhard Romberg. By the end of April 1813 Ries was in London where he was to spend the next 11 years of his life. There he became acquainted with Sir George Smart and the violinist Johann Peter Salomon, the great friend and patron of Haydn, and teacher of his father. Salomon arranged for him to appear in the Philharmonic concerts, and Ries made his first appearance there on 14 March, 1814; thereafter his works appeared frequently on their programmes. An indication of the high esteem in which Ries was held by London audiences is to be found in a contemporary report published in the Harmonicon:

Mr Ries is justly celebrated as one of the finest piano-performers of the present day. His hand is powerful, and his action is certain, often surprising. But his playing is most distinguished from that of all others by its romantic wildness.... He produces an effect upon those who enter his style, which can only be compared to that arising from the most unexpected combinations and transitions of the Aeolian harp.

Ries's contact with Beethoven continued during these London years, and indeed from about 1815, Ries appears to have represented Beethoven's interests with the various London publishers striving to publish his works. In time Ries became a key figure in the London publication of many of Beethoven's late compositions. Moreover, Ries's efforts on Beethoven's behalf resulted in various commissions going Beethoven's way, including one in 1822 from the Philharmonic Society for a symphony. Two years later the score of the Choral Symphony was delivered to the Society. In a letter written in July 1825 Beethoven himself acknowledged the role Ries had played in these matters: "Since my friend Ries is no longer in London, I don't send anything there myself, as the correspondence and arrangements take up too much of my time."

In 1824 Ries decided to retire, and left London to return to a quieter existence in his native Rhineland, living for almost three years in Godesberg, a village a few miles south of Bonn. He then decided to move to Frankfurt am Main where he became involved with several of the Lower Rhine Music Festivals as composer and conductor. In 1834 he was appointed head of the city orchestra and Singakademie in Aachen. Ries died at the age of 53 on 13 January, 1838.