Pleyel Writes “Better Music” for the Colonists

Summer music. © Charles Thibo

Occasionally my research for this blog uncovers information that truly makes me laugh out loud. Here’s a delightful detail. The 18th-century composer Ignaz Joseph Pleyel was an extremely business-orientated man, and, unlike many of his colleagues, very successful at that. He did not only get rich by publishing and printing other composers’ work and by selling pianos built in his own factory. He wrote some of his concertos in different versions, each time for a different solo instrument. Very efficient. I wonder whether he had also had a discount policy, something like: “Buy the concert versions for clarinet and flute and get the cello version for free!”

Popular all over Europe

Pleyel was an extremely popular composer during his lifetime. Copies of his scores were abundant in households and libraries all over Europe and in the United States. In 1822, nine years before Pleyel’s death, a Pleyel Society was founded in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Nantucket! A whaling station! The purpose of the society was to introduce its members to “better music”, despite the fact that they had neither instruments nor a room to practice or to give concerts.

Later generations of music amateurs must consider themselves quite lucky that being an excellent salesman did not prevent Pleyel from writing beautiful music. I have retraced the composer’s life in an earlier post, and today I would like to focus on two pieces I have grown fond of: Clarinet concerto No. 1 and 2, both recorded by the Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester. Let me say only so much about his talent: He was taught by Joseph Haydn. Haydn would not have spent time on a student unwilling to excel. And how could Pleyel not absorb the lessons of his masters? Haydn was the authority of the time.

C clarinet or B flat clarinet?

Pleyel wrote the original version of Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in C major and not in B-flat major, around 1797. The part of the clarinet could also be performed by a flute, a violin, or a cello. The clarinetist Dieter Klöcker performing the part on the mentioned recording transposed it to B-flat major, allowing him to perform it on the more traditional clarinet. Clarinet concerto No. 2 was written as a cello concerto in C major in 1788, rewritten later as a clarinet concerto and transposed again to B-flat major.

Both compositions do not stand out for their originality or extravaganza, quite to the contrary, Pleyel intended to write pieces that would suit the fashion of the day. Not too difficult to play, not too far from what the audience expected. Pleyel wanted to sell the scores after all! And more than 200 years later, these pieces can still give the audience a bit of fresh air in the concert hall. They are light, joyful, they evoke a lazy summer afternoon and a refreshing mint julep at hand. See you at the beach in Nantucket!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.