Dussek de webJohann Ludwig Dussek (1760-1812): Works for Fortepiano

Fortepiano solo (one hour programme with commentary)

The list of publishers who issued Dussek’s works during his lifetime reads like a “Who´s who” of publishing history around 1800. In London as well as in Paris – the Bohemian musician’s main places of activity – some twenty different publishing or music houses, large and small, offered piano works by Dussek to the public. But particularly the Breitkopf & Härtel Publishing House in Leipzig rendered outstanding services for the dissemination of his works. Almost all other publishers, many still known today and back then at the beginning of their corporate histories, scrambled to obtain his works, for example, Simrock in Bonn, C.F. Peters and Hoffmeister & Kühnel in Leipzig, Schott in Mainz, Johann André in Offenbach, Artaria and Diabelli in Vienna, Nägeli in Zurich, and Ricordi in Milan, not to mention those as far afield as St. Petersburg, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Numerous publications naturally also appeared in his own publishing house, or rather that of his father-in-law Domenico Corri, whose business he joined as a partner in 1792 after marrying Corri’s daughter Sophia, a successful singer, pianist, and harpist. After several years, however, the business went bankrupt, and in 1799 Dussek had to flee London to escape his creditors, just like ten years previously he had evidently fled the French Revolution from Paris to London. Most of his works were reprinted a number of times. Some particularly well-known sonatas appeared on the market in up to ten different editions by various publishers. And an honor accorded only a very few composers, such as Haydn, Mozart, and Clementi, was bestowed on him shortly after his death: in 1813–17 Breitkopf & Härtel issued a twelve-volume “complete edition” of the most important piano works. The composer, who died on 20 March 1812, is supposed to have helped in the preparation of the printing. That after his death this so famous composer was so quickly forgotten numbers among the phenomena of musical history that are difficult to understand. His name does not appear even once in the letters of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, or Moscheles.

            The reasons for this immense popularity during his lifetime are many. An important aspect was certainly the reciprocal publicity of Dussek’s activities a) as a traveling piano virtuoso and b) as a composer. The documents concerning his legacy are full of euphoric descriptions of his playing. For example, in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (AmZ) from December 1802, one reads: “In the concerto written by him, full of character (G Minor), he overcame the greatest difficulties, so it seemed, without any struggle, and displayed, besides the most excellent dexterity, a precision and delicacy of execution that are often not conjoined with the former.” Or: “... an often truly extravagant, luxuriant imagination and demands on the performer that, to completely satisfy, one would have to be exactly the kind of virtuoso like Dussek himself (even with such large hands)” (AmZ, May 1810). Or: “Dussek’s playing is astonishingly polished, is confident, fiery, altogether full of fervor; it is definitely what one currently calls grand playing, to distinguish it by means of this name from gallant, daintily weak [playing] (for example, Himmel’s); and Louis Ferdinand’s playing was similar – only less pure and clean than D’s” (AmZ, August 1807). His fame as pianist and as glass harmonica player – the latter was a kind of “specialization” on a then particularly popular instrument – naturally aided the dissemination of his compositions to a large, partly aristocratic, partly middle-class public for whom it was considered “good form” to play piano and to participate in the production of the music of the day. Conversely, his widely distributed compositions were no less effective in making this audience curious to hear the master himself on the piano. In addition, there were his teaching activities and his numerous compositions for pedagogical use. As a “counterpoint,” so to speak, to his challenging concertos and sonatas (which very frequently took the form of program music: La Chasse, La Matinée, Les Adieux, The sufferings of the Queen of France – a musical composition expressing the feelings of the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, Le Retour à Paris, Die Seeschlacht und gänzliche Niederlage der grossen holländischen Flotte durch den Admiral Duncan den 2ten Oktob: 1797– A characteristic sonata for the piano forte, Élégie harmonique sur la Mort de Son Altesse Royal le Prince Louis Ferdinand de Prusse in F-sharp Minor, and many more), Dussek also tried his hand at the “lighter” genres for educational purposes: Sonatines Faciles, Sonates non difficiles, Duos faciles et agréables, Leçons progressives, Variationen über bekannte Volkslieder, Rondeau militaire, Anglaise, Romance, etc. Also deserving mention in this context is the piano method Instruction of the Art of Playing the Piano Forte or Harpsichord (London 1796), which was translated into French and German. All of these pedagogical activities understandably contributed to his prestige as a traveling concert pianist, as which he celebrated triumphs in Prague (where in 1802 Vaclav Jan Tomaschek was impressed by his playing), in London (where he appeared at the Salomon Concerts together with Haydn, who wrote to Dussek’s father: “I consider myself fortunate to assure you that you have as a son the most virtuous, most mannerly, and in music the most excellent man. I love him just as you do, because he is entirely deserving of it”), in Paris, and in nearly all European musical centers.

            That what was new about this widely traveled virtuoso-composer was undoubtedly his “grand playing” (see above) and his expansive nature paired with nuance-rich characterizations. The brilliance, the full-voiced piano writing, the full sound owing to modern piano construction, a certain sense of drama on the one hand, but also lyricism on the other, a wide modulation framework, the most varied passage work, Bohemian-folkloristic final movements, an unbelievable inventiveness in terms of melody and harmony – these are some of the catchwords concerning his style with which he enthralled connoisseurs and aficionados alike, and, in the direction of early Romanticism, was ahead of his time. He not only wanted to “entertain,” but to “conquer” his audience. In order to do this, he exploited all of the possibilities of his instrument. He understood the essence of the piano like hardly anyone else, with the possible exception of Clementi before him or Chopin after him. The press, on the other hand, pointed out the sometimes sprawling nature of this excessive figurative style, for example, a reviewer in the AmZ of August 1811: “We count among these weaknesses” that “the feeling for strict rhythm does not stir decisively enough within D to always sufficiently rein back the heated powers of imagination,” “that precisely the warmth of the latter while spinning out once embraced figures not seldom even drives him too far out in breadth, and at times undoubtedly also into the void, although to the ear there is nowhere unpleasant playing.”

            A part of his “grand playing” were instruments that provided just as many “new things” in terms of sonority as did his works. Presupposed here is a volume of sound that far exceeded that of the rather traditional piano of Viennese manufacture. Representative of this modernization was the firm of Broadwood with whom Dussek maintained close connections and for whom he was even active as a sales agent – he was apparently able to substantially supplement his income with the commissions. The English instruments had a thicker soundboard than the Viennese instruments with which Dussek had grown up, heavier hammers, a broader, rounder sound, and a growing keyboard compass – initially to five and a half, then to six octaves – a process in which Dussek was decisively involved. It is difficult to say whether it was the compositions that brought about a new type of piano, or if the new sound made possible music that was more dynamic and rich in contrast. A laconic notice in John Broadwood’s business book from 13 November 1793 throws some light on this: “We have made some [i.e., ‘Grand Pianofortes’ with a compass of five and a half octaves] so for these three years past, the first to please Dussek, which being much liked Cramer Jr. had one of us so that they are now become quite common.” It is known that in later times Beethoven preferred Broadwood instruments, particularly due to his deteriorating hearing.

On the strength of all the reports and the preserved letters, one can easily imagine that as a character and a musician, Dussek was a stimulating, imposing, warmhearted friend and colleague, both for the members of polite society as well as for his fellow musicians. He played for Marie Antoinette. Napoleon heard him. From 1804 to 1806 he was Prince Louis Ferdinand’s chapel-master, teacher, friend, composer, and apparently nothing less than his “pal,” as Louis Spohr reported in his autobiography about the relaxed life at the prince’s court. After Louis Ferdinand’s death in the battle against Napoleon’s army near Saalfeld, Dussek was employed from 1807 until his death in 1812 by Prince Talleyrand, the French foreign minister: successes were not lacking in Dussek’s life.

Dr. Peter Reidemeister/ translated von Howard Weiner