Henri-Joseph Rigel: Symphony in C Minor, Op. 12, No. 4

Program notes for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, March 16–17, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

For those who assume obscure works are justly forgotten, or offer only a pale comparison point for the canonical masterpieces, Rigel’s Symphony No. 4 will be a pleasant surprise. It fits neatly in the familiar 18th-century symphonic mold, but is a strong piece with a distinctive voice of its own.

Henri-Joseph Rigel was born Heinrich Joseph Riegel in Wertheim in 1741; he was older than Mozart but younger than Haydn. He studied with well-regarded music teachers in Stuttgart and Paris and had settled permanently in the French capital by 1768.

Paris was an important musical city, arguably superior even to Vienna before the 1780s. It was home to some of the first organizations to offer public concerts outside a religious or aristocratic setting, much like the modern symphony orchestra. Rigel worked closely with these groups, including the Concert des Amateurs and the Concert Spirituel, which he led as conductor between 1782 and 1786. His Fourth Symphony was premiered by one of these ensembles sometime around 1774, the year he published it in a collection of six symphonies.

The first movement opens strikingly, seemingly in medias res, with operatic Sturm und Drang. The slow movement is a pastorale with long melodies layered luxuriantly with woodwinds and horns. The finale restores the intensity of the first movement, with urgent counterpoint and stormy strings.