Ignaz Joseph Pleyel

1757 1831

Ignaz Joseph Pleyel



Ignace Joseph Pleyel was the protégé and later musical ‘rival’ of Franz Joseph Haydn. Pleyel was a talented and sought-after pianist and composer in addition to later expanding his interests to publishing music and making pianos.

Born to a poor schoolteacher in the summer of 1757, Pleyel was the 24th of 38 children. As a young boy, Pleyel studied music with Vanhal before attracting the attention of the Hungarian nobleman by Count Ladislaus Erdődy who ensured that the boy received a thorough musical education with Haydn. With his help, Pleyel was able to live and study with Haydn at Eisenstadt, beginning in 1772.

Pleyel’s time with Haydn was very rewarding as he made stunning progress and enjoyed a friendship with his mentor. Four years into Pleyel’s study, Haydn programmed his student’s marionette operaDie Fee Urgele (‘The Fairy Urgele’, 1776) at the Esterháza palace; it also received performances at the Vienna Nationaltheatre. In a gesture of gratitude to Haydn, in response to Pleyel’s rapid progress, Count Erdődy provided the composer with a carriage and two horses while Prince Esterházy provided the coachman and fodder.

It is likely that Pleyel first worked for Count Erdődy after completing his studies with Haydn, though documentation from this period is lacking. Both men belonged to the masonic lodge ‘Zum goldenen Hirschen’ which greatly valued music. Pleyel dedicated his String Quartets op. 1 (1782-3, b 301-6) to the Count for his ‘generosity, paternal solicitude and encouragement’.

The next phase of Pleyel’s career took place in Italy, where he travelled extensively and composed hurdy-gurdy pieces for King Ferdinand IV of Naples. His operaIfigenia in Aulide was composed during this period and premiered successfully at Naples’ major opera house, Teatro San Carlo, leading to a number of follow-up performances. In addition to his achievements as an opera composer, Pleyel was also appointed assistant to the KapellmeisterFranz Xaver Richter at the Strasbourg Cathedral. After Richter’s death in 1789, Pleyel was made Kapellmeister. The majority of Pleyel’s compositions from this time consist of accompaniments for Scottish songs and a set of piano trios. It was in Strasbourg that Pleyel was most productive.

During the French Revolution, both the religious functions and the secular concerts were discontinued at the cathedral, leading Pleyel to seek work elsewhere. He accepted a position with the Professional Concerts in London, which he conducted between 1791 and 1792. At this time, Haydn was also in London giving performances with Johann Peter Salomon. It is because of this crossing of paths that the two composers have been named rivals, though nothing could be further from the truth. Pleyel was unaware of this conflict when he accepted the position and both concert series were well-attended. The two remained friendly with one-another and were often seen dining together and performing each other’s music. Though Haydn’s concerts were more popular and received more praise, Pleyel’s were also well-attended and his symphonies concertantes and quartets received much attention. A testament to Pleyel’s success in London is the Château d'Itenwiller at St. Pierre near Strasbourg, which he bought after returning to mainland Europe.

Things get interesting at this point in Pleyel’s story in regards to his pro-Revolutionary hymn La révolution du 10 août 1792, ou Le tocsin allégorique (‘The Revolution of August 10, 1792, or The Allegorical Alarm’, b 706). This larger-than-life work is comparable to Tchaikovsky’s1812 Overture in terms of instrumentation—they both require canons! While it is sure that Pleyel composed this hymn to appease the Revolutionary authorities, it cannot be verified if this action was of his own free will. Rumours suggest that Pleyel was arrested on various occasions in 1793 by the Revolutionary authorities on suspicions of pro-Austrian or aristocratic sympathies. It is said that he was freed after writing the hymn while under guard. This is quite a fascinating story, but unfortunately it cannot be verified. 

Pleyel departed for Paris in 1795, where he opened a piano factory and a music publishing house. His publishing house became one of the most prominent in Europe, publishing more than 4,000 compositions in 39 years by composers such as Boccherini, Beethoven, Clementi, Haydn and his son Camille Pleyel. Pleyel began the important practice of mutual reissues between publishing firms and was the first to issue miniature scores.

During a brief period of peace between Napoleon and Austria, Pleyel travelled to Vienna with his son Camille to visit his aging mentor. In addition, they saw Beethoven perform and were in awe of his brilliant improvisational skills. He also arranged performances of his own string quartets, which were warmly received in the city.

Back in France, Pleyel retreated to a large farm outside of Paris, indulging himself in the rural lifestyle. His publishing firm began to flourish as its output changed from the more serious symphonies, sontatas and quartets to operatic airs, fantasias and variations in addition to the more popular romances, chansonnettes and other lighter styles by composers such as Bayle, Bizot and Pauline Duchambge. The publishing house ceased its activities in 1834 after selling its plates and works to other Parisian publishers.

As seen with his publishing firm, Pleyel was not afraid to pursue the lighter forms of music. He composed and arranged a number of songs and movements from symphonies and quartets, which were very popular among amateur musicians at home. Using his business sense, Pleyel often re-used much of his material and always provided alternative parts to his concertos for other instruments; for example, one concerto could have parts for three different instruments. He also transformed his piano trios (b 465-70) into flute quartets (b 38 7-92) and string trios (b 410-15). Pleyel’s duets for violins and flutes (which can of course be used by other instruments) became, and have remained, a standard teaching tool.

While Haydn’s legacy has continued in a grand fashion, the charming works of his most successful student, Ignace Joseph Pleyel, are certainly still very worthy of performance.