Joseph Ignaz Pleyel was born in Austria in 1757. That he was precociously successful is shown by the fact that he found patronage in Count Ladislaus Erdödy, a family related to the Esterhazys, who paid for lodgings and lessons with Josef Haydn in about 1772. Pleyel is thought to have had a close relationship with Haydn, including both professional esteem and real affection. Indeed they even collaborated on Haydn’s puppet opera Das abgebrannte Haus (first performed in 1776-7). After early years in career spent as a kapellmeister to the Count Erdödy and mason, Pleyel then set off to travel through Italy (early 1780s). In Naples, Pleyel composed for the Sicilian king, Ferdinand IV and had his first opera, Ifigenia in Aulide performed at the San Carlo theatre on 30 May, 1785. Simultaneously, Pleyel was taken on as assistant Kapellmeister at Strasbourg Cathedral, replacing the Kapellmeister in chief on the latter’s death in 1789. He was very active during this period organising concert series and composing prolifically. He also married Gabrielle Lefebvre, the daughter of a furniture maker who bore him four children, the eldest being Camille Pleyel.
The Revolution brought an end to Pleyel’s religious job and so he accepted an invitation to conduct a concert series in London, staying there from December 1791 to May 1792. It was here that he met up again with Haydn. And it is clear that Pleyel’s time in England was successful, since on his return to the continent he was to buy the château d’Ittenwiller near Strasbourg on the proceeds. This period was not without it’s difficulties, and the (undocumented) story runs that he was imprisoned and then forced to compose Revolutionary music in order to get out, the result being his (massively scored) La révolution du 10 août 1792 ou Le tocsin allégorique, which included part for cannon and church bells. Early in 1795, with the Terreur now over, Pleyel took the step which was to establish his family in the world. In Paris, he opened a music shop and founded a publishing house. During its thirty-nine year existence, Pleyel was to produce nearly 4000 scores, some by renowned composers of the period such as Boccherini, Beethoven, Clementi and Cramer. His two publishing milestones were the invention of the miniature score in 1802 and the publication of the complete (80) string quartets of Haydn in 1801 – subscribers to this magnum opus included (inter alia) Dussek, Grétry, Kreutzer and Méhul. After an unsuccessful attempt to set up a branch publishing office in 1805, Ignaz then set up his piano making business in 1807. He was however to suffer a great deal over the following six years from litigation, so much so that Pleyel made a serious attempt to sell the business in 1813. In the 1820s he indulged his love of the rural life on an estate about 15 km from Paris at Saint-Prix, finally handing the company over to his son in 1824. During this period Pleyel publishers changed from producing high-brow symphonies and sonatas to bringing out romances, chansonettes and other ‘popular’ music. The Maison Pleyel was to fold entirely in 1834, selling its stock of plates and printed works to other Parisian music publishers.
Pleyel’s own compositions were enormously popular, particularly in ‘polite’ society, and his habit of re-arranging his works for multiple different combinations led to his pieces being performed in drawing rooms the world over, some still being used today. His tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery (set amongst other famous musicians namely, Mehul, Bizet, Cherubini and Bellini) reads as follows (Division 13):
IGNACE PLEYEL 14. Novembre 1831
Concession a Perpetueté Nr. 40906
The Austrian region of his birth had added to his funeral monument in 1998 the following words:
“NÉ À RUPPERSTAHL (AUTRICHE) 1757”.
Author: Peter Hicks, May 2007