Ignace Joseph Pleyel



Some quartets have just appeared, by a certain Pleyel, a pupil of Joseph Haydn. If you don’t know them, try to get hold of them, it’s worth the trouble. They are very well written and very agreeable; you will immediately recognize the hand of his teacher. Well, it will be a lucky day for music if, when the time comes, Pleyel should replace Haydn.

So wrote Mozart, never lavish in his praise of other composers, to his father on 24 April 1784. Pleyel can hardly be said to have replaced Haydn, but he was successful and prolific: Rita Benton, to whose monumental thematic catalogue (Pendragon Press, New York, 1977) I am much indebted, has shown that during his lifetime Pleyel’s works were issued in some two thousand editions by about two hundred and fifty publishers in over fifty cities in England and North America, and Charles van den Borren, writing in 1927, asserted that around 1800 Pleyel was ‘undeniably’ the most popular composer in all Western Europe. His works include forty-one symphonies, fourteen concertos and symphonies concertantes, numerous smaller orchestral pieces, and a huge amount of chamber music: sixteen string quintets, over seventy string quartets, fifty trios, and over sixty duos with piano.

Ignaz Josef Pleyel, later changing this to the French equivalent, Ignace Joseph, was born in Ruppersthal, near Vienna, on 18 June 1757, and died in Paris on 14 November 1831. He is said to have studied with the Bohemian composer Johann Baptist Vanhal (who lived in Vienna more or less permanently from 1761 until his death in 1813) and about 1772 became Haydn’s pupil and lodger in Eisenstadt. Pleyel’s marionette opera Die Fee Urgele was performed at Eszterháza in 1776, and he composed the overture for Haydn’s marionette opera Die Feuersbrunst, produced at Eszterháza at about the same time. He also probably composed the Feldparthie for wind octet previously ascribed to Haydn, whose second movement, a set of variations on a theme entitled ‘Corale St Antonii’, Brahms chose as the basis of his famous Variations, Op. 56a.

Pleyel’s first appointment seems to have been that of Kapellmeister to his early patron, Count Erdödy (a relation of Haydn’s employer, Prince Nicolaus Esterházy). In the early 1780s he went to Italy, and his opera Ifigenia in Aulide was produced for the first time on 30 May 1785 at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. In 1784 he was appointed assistant to Franz Xaver Richter, Kapellmeister at Strasbourg Cathedral, and succeeded him on his death five years later. He stayed there until December 1791, when he went to conduct William Cramer’s ‘Professional Concerts’ in London, where he remained until May 1792 and met again his old friend and teacher, Haydn. He returned to Strasbourg that year, and, with the proceeds of his London concerts, bought the Château d’Itenwiller at Eichhoffen, some twenty miles south-west of the city. Early in 1795, however, he settled in Paris and opened a music shop; established a publishing house which issued a beautifully engraved edition of all Haydn’s string quartets (with a dedication to Bonaparte) in 1801 and published some four thousand other works before its closure in 1834, three years after the death of its founder; and opened a piano factory, the management of which was later taken over by his son Camille.

Symphony in C major, Op. 66 (Ben 154)

1. Adagio – Allegro
2. Adagio
3. Menuetto e Trio: Allegretto
4. Tempo giusto

The first of the three symphonies recorded here, the Symphony in C major, dates from 1803 (the year of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony!) and was published, as Op. 66, for the first time in 1829 by André of Offenbach; it is scored for strings, flute, and pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani. A spacious Adagio, permeated by imposing dotted rhythms, prefaces the first movement. This is a busy Allegro ostensibly in conventional sonata form, with two main themes, both of which are introduced with delicate scoring. However the modulating development section is so taken up with the first subject and its continuation, that the recapitulation begins with the second subject (hitherto ignored) and the jaunty first subject only makes a token reappearance twenty bars before the end. The slow movement, in F major and without trumpets and drums, is based on a shapely, ceremonial theme, presented by muted strings, which is repeated in different settings rather than in a series of true variations. The two remaining movements are a springy, Haydnesque, Minuet with a waltz-like Trio, in F major, featuring the flute, and a colourful rondo finale that is not quite so innocent and carefree as its jolly refrain suggests, notably in its central episode begun in A minor by the flute.

Symphony in G major, Op. 68 (Ben 156)

1. Allegro vivace assai
2. Adagio
3. Menuetto e Trio
4. Rondo: Allegro

The Symphony in G major was written in 1804 and first published in 1838 by André as Op. 68; it is scored for strings, two flutes, two oboes, bassoon and two horns. The first movement’s airy main theme is set off by an elegant second subject, in D major. Both themes (especially the initial phrase of the first subject) are used in the long development section, which is followed by a considerably varied recapitulation. The Adagio in C major is in two sections, the second of which elaborates (rather than develops) the material presented in the first; the movement is notable for its warm, lyrical character, and for the prominence given to the five woodwind instruments, which are even provided with an elaborate written-in cadenza. Next comes a purposeful Minuet, with a Trio which (like the one in the Symphony in C major) features a solo flute – here mostly with pizzicato string accompaniment. The finale is a rondo, whose refrain is in the style of a country dance (in 6/8 and complete with drone bass) that could almost have come out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta; there is a beguiling minore episode featuring the first oboe, linked to a return of the refrain by a dramatic transition, to which reference is made towards the end of the movement.

Symphony in D minor (Ben 147)

1. Maestoso – Allegro con spirito quasi presto
2. Adagio
3. Menuetto e Trio: Allegretto
4. Rondo: Allegro

The Symphony in D minor was written in 1791 and performed at one of the ‘Professional Concerts’ in the Hanover Square Rooms in London; it was published a year later by André and is scored for strings, flute, two oboes, bassoon, two horns, two trumpets and timpani. The first movement is prefaced by a short but tense slow introduction reminiscent of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787); the Allegro which follows is cast in D major (which is really the symphony’s basic key), yet it carries more than a hint of D minor gravity and drama; an urgent first subject – it can hardly be called a theme – briefly finds contrast in a lyrical second subject introduced by the first violins; both elements play their part in the development. The Adagio (without trumpets and drums) contrasts an elegiac statement in D minor with an ingratiating one in F major, rather in the manner of a slow rondo. The dashing Minuet, in D major, frames an unusually elaborate and extended Trio in the same key, and is followed by an ebullient concluding Rondo, with a Haydnesque refrain in D major and a minore episode beginning delicately with prominent woodwinds and ending with a vociferous tutti, followed by a return of the refrain rather like a miniature flute concerto.

Robin Golding (1997)