Ignace Joseph Pleyel



In the early years of the nineteenth century Haydn’s former pupil Ignaz Pleyel was the most popular composer in Europe. He was also a leading music publisher, and from 1807 his firm in Paris began manufacturing instruments. This part of the business and the Salle Pleyel, the concert hall he founded in 1830, survive to this day.

From the ages of fifteen to twenty Pleyel lodged in Eisenstadt with Haydn, as his pupil. His patron, Count Erdödy, was so satisfied with his progress that he presented Haydn with a carriage and two horses as a measure of his gratitude. Although nothing is known about Pleyel’s studies we can assume that he undertook a systematic course of contrapuntal studies based on Haydn’s own annotated and revised version of Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum and received supervision in his exercises in free composition, During his time with Haydn, Pleyel’s marionette opera Die Fee Urgele received its première at Eszterháza (November 1776) and it was also performed at the Nationaltheater in Vienna. Haydn’s marionette opera Die Feuerbrunst (Hob. XXIXb:A) was also performed in 1776 or 1777 with an overture now believed to be largely by Pleyel.

Pleyel’s first professional position was probably Kapellmeister to Count Erdödy, although there is no extant documentation to confirm it. In appreciation of his ‘generosity, paternal solicitude and encouragement’, Pleyel dedicated his String Quartets Op. 1 to Erdödy, and, in a similar vein, his highly-accomplished Op. 2 Quartets to Haydn.

Pleyel travelled to Italy in the early 1780s and while in Naples he secured commissions to write pieces for lira organizzata for the King and an opera, Ifigenia il Aulide, which received its première at the Teatro San Carlo on 30th May 1785.

Around this time Pleyel was appointed assistant to Franz Xaver Richter at Strasbourg Cathedral. He succeeded to the position on Richter’s death in 1789, shortly after the Revolution broke out, but before long, both the religious services and Pleyel’s public concerts were cancelled. In spite of these difficulties the Strasbourg years were the most productive musically for Pleyel; most of his major compositions date from the years 1787 to 1795.

With his professional circumstances in Strasbourg so uncertain in the aftermath of the Revolution, Pleyel accepted an invitation to conduct the Professional Concerts in London and stayed there from December 1791 until May 1792. To his surprise and embarrassment he found himself in direct competition with Haydn who was the star or the rival concert series organized by Johann Peter Salomon. Pleyel and Haydn resumed their easy relationship in London. They met frequently, dined together and even played each other’s music. While Haydn was clearly the man of the moment, Pleyel’s concerts were well attended and his symphonies concertantes and quartets in particular received generous praise in the press.

With the establishment of his music business in Paris in 1795 Pleyel began to scale down his activities as a composer. Much of his later output seems to have been tailored to Parisian tastes, although his music proved phenomenally popular everywhere. The urgent, taut athleticism of his early works written in the shadow of Haydn is rarely to be heard. As early as 1789 Dr Charles Burney commented that this ‘ingenious and engaging composer [was] drawing rather more from the fountain of his invention’ than it would bear. He also expressed the view held by many connoisseurs that Pleyel’s imitation of Haydn’s style had developed into mere affectation, evidence that ‘his fancy, though at first so fertile, is not so inexhaustible’.

Pleyel’s legacy as a publisher is immense. In the course of its thirty-nine year life Maison Pleyel issued over 4000 works including compositions by Boccherini, Beethoven, Clementi and Haydn. Among the historically most important publications issued by Maison Pleyel were the first miniature scores and, in 1801, a Collection complette des quatuors d’Haydn, dédiée au Premier Consul Bonaparte.

Symphony in C minor, Ben 121

1. Adagio – Allegro molto
2. Adagio
3. Minuetto – Trio
4. Finale: Presto

These three symphonies were written during Pleyel’s most fertile period as a composer. The earliest of them is the remarkable Symphony in C minor (Ben 121), in reality a C major symphony with an imposing introduction in the minor. Written in 1778 when the composer was 21, it is a work of quite precocious genius. Of course, much of its intensity and technical assurance can be attributed to Haydn’s influence, but a distinctive and original voice emerges nonetheless, particularly in the fine opening Adagio and in the thrilling Finale. The outer movements are powerful and energetic and, like Haydn, Pleyel proves adept at maintaining momentum and, on a more subtle organizational level, imposing a strong degree of musical unity, through clever manipulation of thematic cells.

Symphony in F minor, Ben 138

1. Allegro con spirito
2. Andante grazioso
3. Minuetto: Allegretto
4. Finale: Rondo

The F minor Symphony (Ben 138) was composed in 1786 and published in Paris by Imbault the following year under the title ‘12e / SINFONIE / PÉRIODIQUE / Composée / par / Mr lgnace Pleyel / Maître de Chapelle de la Cathédrale de Strasbourg ...’ The work as a whole draws its inspiration from Haydn’s magnificent series of minor key symphonies written during the late 1760s and early 1770s. While one could perhaps accuse Pleyel of adopting a few too many of Haydn’s most characteristic fingerprints in the first movement, it would be churlish to dismiss the symphony as entirely derivative. Impressive though the outer movements are – and once again Pleyel also succeeds in writing a lovely Minuet and Trio – the most entrancing movement is the central Andante grazioso with its muted strings and gently rocking accompaniment figure in the second violins.

Symphony in C major, Ben 128

1. Allegro molto spiritoso
2. Adagio
3. Minuetto: Allegretto
4. Rondeau: Allegro

Like the F minor Symphony, the Symphony in C (Ben 128) dates from 1786 and was published by Imbault in 1787. It was also issued in a bewildering number of arrangements by eighteenth-century publishers, including Pleyel himself. Versions exist for quintets, quartets, trios and duos as well as for keyboard solo. Such was the popularity of the work that a vocal arrangement was also published during the composer’s lifetime. Imbault’s edition calls for horns and timpani rather than the more usual trumpets (clarini) and timpani. It is possible that the parts were intended to be played by horns in C alto, a favourite device of Haydn, but the substitution of trumpets for horns in such a dazzling symphony was surely a very common occurrence. There are no weak movements in Ben 128. The opening Allegro molto spiritoso has a great sense of space and a relaxed, genial power. Its well-argued development section makes some unexpected and delightful tonal excursions in the course of a rigorous examination of the movement’s principal thematic material. The expressive Adagio is one of Pleyel’s most haunting symphonic slow movements. It has a distinctly Haydnesque quality to it, as does the jaunty Minuet and Trio which follows, The Finale, cast once again in the fashionable rondo form of the period, has an irresistible main theme and a long drawn out coda of impressive breadth and power.


All three symphonies exhibit a strong kinship with the latest symphonies of Haydn but they are also compositions of great artistic integrity. While Burney was doubtless correct in fearing that Pleyel was aping his master’s works a little too c1osely, these symphonies reveal a composer of formidable gifts and are possessed of real powers of invention. They bear a similar relationship to Haydn’s symphonies of the 1780s as Beethoven’s first two symphonies do to the London Symphonies. They are the assured, confident creations of a young, gifted and ambitious composer.

Dr Allan Badley