ClassicsOnline Home » PLEYEL, I.J.: Symphonies in B-Flat Major and in G Major / Flute Concerto (Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla, P. Gallois)
During his long and energetic life, Ignaz Joseph Pleyel distinguished himself as a composer, publisher and piano manufacturer. His versatility, one of the keys to his survival in the turbulent years of the French Revolution, is also to be found in abundance in his vast musical output. This recording features two scintillating symphonies and Pleyel’s only authentic concerto for flute; all three works amply illustrate the reason why he achieved such an unprecedented level of popularity in the last two decades of the 18th Century.
Ignaz Pleyel (1757–1831)
Symphony in B flat major (Benton 125) • Symphony in G major (Benton 130) • Flute Concerto in C major (Benton 106)
During his long and energetic life Ignaz Joseph Pleyel distinguished himself as a composer, publisher and piano manufacturer. His versatility was one of the keys to his survival in the turbulent years of the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath. Had he lived in a more peaceful time he might well have continued to compose into his old age but it is unlikely that his legacy to the musical world would have been as great.
That Pleyel enjoyed tremendous success as a composer of instrumental music is hardly surprising given the fact that he studied with both Wanhal and Haydn during his formative years. The four years he spent as Haydn’s pupil (1772–1776) equipped him superbly for the future. Under his careful instruction he not only acquired an impressive technical command as a composer but he also benefitted enormously from observing the way in which Haydn carried out his duties as Kapellmeister to Prince Nicolaus Esterházy.
After the success of his marionette opera Die Fee Urgèle (1776), which was later staged at the Nationaltheater in Vienna, Pleyel was clearly considered ready to take up his first professional appointment, as Kapellmeister to Count Ladislaus Erdödy. Pleyel no doubt threw himself into his new duties with energy and considerable good will since Erdödy had paid all of the costs associated with his studies with Haydn, yet within the space of a few years he felt restless and requested permission to undertake a trip to Italy in order to immerse himself in the latest Italian music. It says a great deal for Erdödy’s generosity that in spite of his initial reluctance to let Pleyel go, he agreed to allow him to travel and also provided him with the financial means to do so.
Pleyel’s motivation for wanting to travel to Italy is unclear but it is possible that it was sparked by the realisation that he needed to distance himself from Haydn’s influence if he were to develop his own voice as a composer. Very few of Pleyel’s extant compositions can be dated to the earliest years of his professional career but those than can show a remarkably strong kinship with Haydn’s style and in one case at least, the Symphony in C (Benton 121), the work is clearly modelled on a specific Haydn work. The clarity, brilliance and lyricism of the music Pleyel encountered in Italy came as a revelation to him and he quickly assimilated its more obvious characteristics into his own music. The distinctive style that Pleyel created for himself combined the structural sophistication of the Viennese style with the elegant simplicity of the Italian. He sacrificed Haydn’s technical complexity for melodic richness and as a result established himself almost overnight as one of the brightest musical stars in the European musical firmament. Within a decade he was the most published composer of his time and by the end of the eighteenth century over 2000 separate editions of his works had appeared. Five years later, however, Pleyel retired from composition in order to devote himself to his flourishing business interests. Although his music continued to be published and was still played, the rage for his music was past and by the time he died in 1831 it was seen as the relic of a distant age.
The three works featured on this recording come from two distinct periods in Pleyel’s life. The symphonies were composed during the 1780s when he was at the peak of his productivity, and the flute concerto in 1797 when he was becoming increasingly preoccupied with his fledgling publishing company. Between the two periods lies the dark shadow of the French Revolution and the Terror, both of which he was extremely fortunate to survive.
When Pleyel returned from his trip to Italy he found himself no more able to settle down than before. After presumably terminating his contract with Count Erdödy (the details of this are uncertain) he set off south once again and spent the latter part of 1782 and much of 1783 in Italy. During this period he composed his first set of string quartets which he dutifully dedicated to Erdödy in recognition of his long and generous patronage. By the end of 1783 he had moved to Strasbourg where he took up the position of deputy to Franz Xaver Richter, Maître de Chapelle at the cathedral. Although Pleyel composed some very fine church music in Strasbourg, including several Masses and a Requiem, his principal interest as a composer lay in the field of instrumental music. In the space of barely five or six years he composed dozens of symphonies, string quartets, string quintets, piano trios and other works, all of which were published, republished and pirated in a frenzied manner as his reputation grew.
The first of the symphonies on this recording, the Symphony in B flat (Benton 125), was composed before 1784. The authority for its composition date comes from its appearance in Supplement XV (1782–1784) of the Breitkopf Catalogue but this only establishes a convenient terminus ante quem for the work: while it cannot have been composed after 1784 it might very well have been written before 1782. It is possible then that the work was composed for Erdödy between the first and second Italian journeys but it might equally have been written in Italy. Stylistically, the work shares certain characteristics with the earliest of Pleyel’s symphonies and it is unsurprising then to find that it also inhabits a similar expressive realm to many of Haydn’s symphonies from the late 1770s and early 1780s. Pleyel’s mastery of the genre is at once evident in his deft handling of large-scale structure and in his command of the orchestra. Impressive though the first movement is, it is in the later movements in the symphony that Pleyel’s special gifts as a composer are more obviously on display. The slightly quirky Andantino, with its imaginative use of wind instruments, the sturdy Minuetto with its lilting trio, and above all, the driving, energetic Rondo finale that bristles with energy, good humour and intellectual concentration, are the epitome of the style that made Pleyel the most popular composer of his time. The G major Symphony (Benton 130) was composed during the same period and exhibits many of the same qualities. Oddly, both symphonies have 3/4 first movements which is not particularly common, but the metre serves to highlight the elegance of Pleyel’s thematic writing. The beautiful Andante once again combines a gravity of expression with exquisite orchestration; the lovely writing for solo oboe with high horns in the central section of the movement shows Pleyel at his absolute best and it is unsurprising that this movement, like so many of his slow movements, was arranged for all sorts of instrumental combinations. The Finale of Benton 130 again has that sense of fun and breathless excitement about it that his adoring public found irresistible. Ultimately, the popularity these movements and many more like them proved damaging to Pleyel’s reputation since he found it difficult to resist the temptation to parody himself and write in the style that had won him such extraordinary fame. But that lay in the future and because his music is no longer as popular as it was, we have the good fortune to be able to hear it with fresh ears.
The problem Pleyel faced in his early career in trying to shake off Haydn’s powerful influence resurfaced in 1792 when the two men met again in London, where they were appearing as guest artists in rival concert series. While Pleyel enjoyed considerable success in London, it was obvious to everyone that it was Haydn who had conquered the hearts and minds of the critics, connoisseurs and the public with an unbroken series of towering masterpieces. Pleyel must have recognized this as well as anyone and it is perhaps for this reason that his productivity tailed off sharply after his return to France. He may have intended to meet the challenge head on but the phenomenal success of his own music appears to have persuaded him unwisely to leave well alone.
The foundation of Maison Pleyel in 1795 marks a watershed in the composer’s life. Until that point, Pleyel’s formidable energy had been directed solely towards composition. From 1795, however, he began to display a clear attitudinal shift from being a composer who published to a publisher who composed. One of the most obvious manifestations of this is the interest he showed in extending the utility of works by publishing them in parallel versions. The idea for this may have come from the avalanche of illicit arrangements and adaptations of his works that had appeared all over Europe for the past decade. Rather than seeking legal redress (which would have been virtually impossible in the absence of modern copyright law), Pleyel sought instead to outflank the pirates by playing them at their own game: he concentrated on composing and publishing small chamber works in multiple versions.
The Concerto in C (Benton 106) is a rare example of a large-scale work by Pleyel composed during the late 1790s, but characteristically it was issued simultaneously in versions for flute, clarinet and violoncello. Like his other concertos, Benton 106 is rich in melodic invention and the orchestral writing is as skilled as ever. Pleyel’s unerring sensitivity to tone colour and idiom, a characteristic he shares with Mozart, is at once apparent in his writing for the solo instrument in each of the parallel versions. While all of the movements are impressive in their technical control, it is once again in the finale that Pleyel displays the qualities for which he was so deservedly famous. The rondo theme is memorable, the episodes inventive and colourful, and throughout the movement there are deliciously unexpected turns of phrase and changes in orchestration that reinforce the high opinion that Mozart, among others, had of him.