Franz (Czech: František) Xaver Richter, known as François Xavier Richter in France (December 1, 1709 – September 12, 1789) was an Austro-Moravian singer, violinist, composer, conductor and music theoretician who spent most of his life first in Austria and later in Mannheim and in Strasbourg, where he was music director of the cathedral.
From 1783 on Haydn’s favourite pupil Ignaz Pleyel was his deputy at the cathedral.
The most traditional of the first generation composers of the so-called Mannheim school, he was highly regarded in his day as a contrapuntist. As a composer he was equally at home in the concerto and the strict church style.
Mozart heard a mass by Richter on his journey back from Paris to Salzburg in 1778 and called it charmingly written. Richter, as a contemporary engraving clearly shows, must have been one of the first conductors to actually have conducted with a music sheet roll in his hand.
Richter wrote chiefly symphonies, concertos for woodwinds, trumpet, chamber and church music, his masses receiving special praise. He was a man of a transitional period, and his symphonies in a way constitute one of the missing links between the generation of Bach and Handel and the Viennese classic.
Although sometimes contrapuntal in a learned way, Richter’s orchestral works nevertheless exhibit considerable drive and verve. Until a few years ago Richter “survived” with recordings of his trumpet concerto in D major but recently a number of chamber orchestras and ensembles have taken many of his pieces, particularly symphonies and concertos, in their repertoire.
Franz Xaver Richter was probably born in Holleschau, now Holešov), Moravia (then part of Habsburg Monarchy, now the Czech Republic), although this is not entirely certain.
There is no record of his birth in the Holleschau church register. In his employment contract with the Prince Abbot of Kempten it says that he hailed from Bohemia, the musicologist Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg has Richter being from Hungarian descent and on his Strasbourg death certificate it says: “ex Kratz oriundus”.
Although his whereabouts until 1740 are nowhere documented, it is clear that Richter got a very thorough training in counterpoint and that this took place using the influential counterpoint treatise Gradus ad Parnassum by Johann Josef Fux; Richter may even have been Fux’s pupil in Vienna. Richter’s lifelong mastery of the strict church style which is particularly evident in his liturgical works but also shines through in his symphonies and chamber music, is testimony to his roots in the Austrian and south German Baroque music.
On April 2, 1740 Richter was appointed deputy Kapellmeister (Vize-Kapellmeister) to the Prince-Abbot Anselm von Reichlin-Meldeg of Kempten in Allgäu. Reichlin Meldeg as Prince Abbot presided over the Fürststift Kempten, a large Benedictine Monastery in what is now south-western Bavaria.
The monastery certainly would have had a choir and probably a small orchestra (rather a band, as it was called then), as well, but this must have been a small affair. Richter stayed in Kempten for six years but it is hard to imagine that a man of his education and talents would have liked the idea of spending the rest of his life in this scenically beautiful but otherwise completely parochial town.
Twelve of Richter’s symphonies for strings were published in Paris in the year 1744. In February 1743 Richter married Maria Anna Josepha Moz, who was probably from Kempten. It is assumed that Richter left Kempten already before the death of Reichlin-Meldeg in December 1747.
In 1770 Marie Antoinette, future queen of France, on her way from Vienna to Paris passed through the Alsatian capital, where she stayed at the Episcopal Palace, the Palais Rohan. Richter, who almost certainly directed the church music when Marie Antoinette went to mass the next day, witnessed the earliest stages of historical events that would later contribute to the downfall of the French monarchy.
The prelate who greeted Marie Antoinette on the steps of the cathedral, probably in Richter’s presence, was the same Louis Rohan who would later, duped by a prostitute impersonating Marie Antoinette, trigger the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Several historians and writers think that this bizarre episode undermined the trust of the French in their queen and thus hastened the onset of the French Revolution.
But Richter did not live to see this. What he saw was Strasbourg all dressed up to greet the Dauphiness:
“The city of Strasburg was in gala array. It had prepared for the dauphiness the splendours it had displayed 25 years before for the journey of Louis the Well-beloved. (…) Three companies of young children from twelve to fifteen years of age, habited as Cent-Suisses, formed the line along the passage of the princess.
Twenty-four young girls of the most distinguished families of Strasbourg, dressed in the national costume, strewed flowers before her; and eighteen shepherds and shepherdesses presented her with baskets of flowers. (…)
On the following day (May 8, 1770) Marie Antoinette visited the cathedral.
By a strange coincidence the prelate who awaited her with the chapter at the entrance to felicitate her, and who greeted her “the soul of Maria Theresa about to unite itself to the soul of the Bourbons”, was the nephew of the bishop, that prince, Louis de Rohan, who was later to inflict upon the dauphiness, become queen, the deadliest of injuries. But in the midst of the then so brilliant prospect who could discern these shadows?”
Both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father Leopold knew Richter. Mozart would have met him still as a boy on his Family Grand tour in 1763 when the Mozart family came through Schwetzingen, the summer residence of the Elector Palatinate.
Mozart met him once again in 1778 on his way back from Paris when he was headed for the unloved Salzburg after his plans to gain permanent employment in Mannheim or Paris had come to naught.
In a letter to his father, dated November 2, 1778, Mozart seems to suggest that the by then elderly Richter was something of an alcoholic:
“Strasbourg can scarcely do without me. You cannot think how much I am esteemed and beloved here. People say that I am disinterested as well as steady and polite, and praise my manners.
Everyone knows me. As soon as they heard my name, the two Herrn Silbermann [i. e. Andreas Silbermann and Johann Andreas Silbermann] and Herr Hepp (organist) came to call on me, and also Kapellmeister Richter.
He has now restricted himself very much ; instead of forty bottles of wine a day, he only drinks twenty! … If the Cardinal had died, (and he was very ill when I arrived,) I might have got a good situation, for Herr Richter is seventy-eight years of age.
Now farewell ! Be cheerful and in good spirits, and remember that your son is, thank God ! well, and rejoicing that his happiness daily draws nearer. Last Sunday I heard a new mass of Herr Richter’s, which is charmingly written.”
However, Mozart was not one to laud lightly. The epithet “charmingly written” can be taken at face value and from someone like Mozart this was high praise indeed.