“Some quartets have just appeared by a certain Pleyel, he’s a pupil of Joseph Haydn”, a certain Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote in a letter to his father in April 1784. “If you don’t know them, try to get hold of them; they are worth it. They’re very well written, and very enjoyable […] It’ll be good – and fortunate for music if in due course Pleyel is able to replace Haydn for us!” Pleyel did not quite replace Haydn however. He would move abroad, Haydn would outlive Mozart and Vienna’s next rising star would be Ludwig van Beethoven.
Nevertheless Ignaz Pleyel’s quartets are fine pieces and one of my favourites is the String Quartet in E flat major, Ben. 336. It was written in 1786 and is part of the series of “Prussian Quartets”. It is written in two movement for two violins, viola and cello. It has been published a year later with eleven other quartets, all of them dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia. The quartets to which Mozart referred were the pieces Pleyel wrote between 1782 and 1783 for his first employer, Count Johannes Erdödy, his Op. 1, whom he thanked for his “generosity, paternal solicitude and encouragement”.
Composing in Haydn’s shadow
When Pleyel wrote the String Quartet in E flat major he was the assistant to Franz Xaver Richter, Kapellmeister of the Strasbourg Cathedral; he succeeded to the post when Richter died in 1789. From 1786 on he also conducted and organized a series of public concerts. It was one of Pleyel’s most productive period and his quartets enjoyed a widespread popularity.
However Pleyel did not have either Haydn’s or Mozart’s genius and he did write for the amateur not for the expert musician, which explains that violin students often are just as familiar with Mozart as with Pleyel for Pleyel’s work are used as training material even today. Thus a comparison of his quartets with those of Mozart and Haydn would hardly be fair. According to the scholars Josef Klingenbeck and FRiedhelm Krummacher, Pleyel’s cultural merits consists in the popularisation of the classical form, as it has been cast by the Vienna masters.
String Quartet in E flat major has been recorded by the Pleyel Quartett Köln and here is what a critic has to say: “The astonishing thing about listening to this recording is how well the Cologne quartet is able to infuse the recording with its conviction about Pleyel’s quality as a composer. […] The technically demanding tone-color dramaturgy typical of him is made to shine so brightly by the virtuoso artistry of ‘his’ quartet that not the slightest thought of pleasant functional music suggests itself.” Talk about a recommendation!
© Charles Thibo