Upbeat Melodies For the King of Prussia

Light! © Charles Thibo

Relief – that’s what I felt over the past two or three weeks, actually since the first morning a crossed our garden to get to my car in daylight. The darkness of the last winter month made me feel a little depressed at times and I longed for light. I was glad when this dark period was finally over. Light – there’s a lot of light in Ignaz Pleyel’s String Quartet in F Major, B. 338, one of his Prussian Quartets”, about which I have written already in an earlier post. I particularly like this string quartet because of its upbeat joyful mood and its elegant, catchy melodies. More spring music!

Like Pleyel’s other quartets dedicated to the King of Prussia, this one was written in 1787. And like most of his earlier quartets, they were very popular during the composer’s lifetime, considered equal to those written by his teacher and later friend, Joseph Haydn. However they were much easier to play than Haydn’s works, as the musicologist Friedhelm Krummbacher notes. They were universally praised as excellent pieces for amateur musicians, and even today, they are used extensively as exercise material in the field of chamber music.

The Pleyel Quartett Köln has recorded Pleyel’s String Quartet in F Major and offers an adequate description: “[The Prussian Quartets] convey a clear picture of [Pleyel’s] versatility in chamber composition. Concertante episodes, distributed in fair shares among the four instruments, play the dominant role in Pleyel, and here his inclination toward an idiom of clearer Italian orientation is reflected.” The Pleyel Quartet drew on historical sources for its interpretation, “fascinating us with their dramatic harmony and many tonal surprises”.

The Italian influence does not come as surprise. Italian composers had shaped the music style for decades. According to Rita Benton, author of the Pleyel works catalogue, Pleyel traveled during the early 1780s  through Italy, which gave him many occasions to pick up new ideas. “Through Norbert Hadrava, an ardent music lover and part-time composer attached to the Austrian embassy in Naples, Pleyel was asked to compose lyra (hurdy-gurdy) pieces for performance by Ferdinand IV, the ‘Lazzarone’ King of Naples”, Benton writes. “In 1784 Hadrava engineered the commissioning of an opera: Pleyel’s Ifigenia in Aulide.”

Unfortunately, Pleyel’s later quartets enjoyed less popularity. The fame of Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had grown, the two composers dominated the music scene of Vienna. Pleyel recognized that his abilities had limits and stepped back. He was aware that he could not compete with such giants on the long run. Instead he chose to make a lot of money by publishing music written by better composers and selling pianos. There was a market to conquer, and that’s what Pleyel did. A clever man!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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