The Sad Fate Of Ignace Pleyel

The odds are that you have never heard of Ignace Pleyel, like anyone else whose sad fate I would reflect on [1]. I would not have heard of him either, had it not been for listening to a cd of music owned and played by Jane Austen [2]. Jane Austen really liked to play the music of Ignace Pleyel, so much so that his sonatas made up a large part of the music on the cd. And there is something interesting in that fact, that we would have little reason to remember a once-famous composer except that his music was beloved by a famous writer who also happened to enjoy playing the pianoforte. It is likewise intriguing to note that during her life, Jane Austen was a relatively obscure member of the gentry who happened to be an officially anonymous lady writer, while Ignace Pleyel was well-off and feted by the rich and famous, his music accessible to a large audience and often played, and yet Jane Austen’s reputation as a writer soared after her early death while Pleyel, towards the end of his long life, saw his approach to music repudiated and his own style eclipsed by a later generation of romantic composers like Beethoven whose reputations were much more lasting than his own.

There are many ways that one can have a sad fate. The fate of Pleyel was sad not because he died young, because he lived from 1757 to 1831. It was not sad because he died a pauper like, say, his contemporary Mozart, because he was a successful businessman, selling pianos and sheet music in addition to being a composer of note. He was a student of Josef Haydn, and his music was not only found in the music collection of Jane Austen, but it even reached the United States, where there was once, hard as it is to believe, a Pleyel society in New England [3]. Contemporaries noted that his music was amazingly popular and that he was a popular composer of great contemporary fame. Yet even before he died he had become much less well-known, to the point that I had never heard of him before despite playing sonatas and symphonies for many years, regularly playing Mozart and Haydn pieces, it should be noted. While rock musicians and movies honor Mozart, Pleyel isn’t even remembered as Antonio Salieri was, for being a bad guy. He is simply not remembered much at all.

What is it that led to Pleyel being forgotten so completely? There is some evidence of expedience in the approach that Pleyel had to music that was likely held against him. For example, his music is known to be particularly easy, focusing on the charm of simplicity and feeling and being far less intricate than his master Haydn. His music is commonly used today in teaching children on the violin and flute, probably the only way his music is remembered, and that not proudly [4]. Other areas of his life that demonstrate his expedience include the fact that although Austrian-born and initially popular with aristocratic French audiences, he became a naturalized French citizen and survived the Terror by writing patriotic songs for the French republican regime. It is likely that writing undemanding music for bourgeois audiences and pandering to brutal revolutionary regimes harmed his reputation later on after the return of the ancient regime to France and other nations. It was likely his lack of credibility either in appealing to restored aristocrats who would have remembered his betrayal of the aristocracy in decades before or his lack of national identity as an Austrian-born Frenchman that kept him from being able to ride the trends of 19th century music with its romanticism and nationalism, two trends that Pleyel was simply not well-placed to capitalize on.

And so Pleyel was nearly completely forgotten. Even if his music was shockingly easy, according to Jane Austen’s own niece, who was somewhat amazed that her talented aunt would play music that may have been misjudged as being from a talentless hack, he had surely done enough to be remembered, one would think. His family business made pianos that were performed by Chopin, but his music lacked the sort of artistic credibility that would have kept his music in the repertoire of later generations of classical musicians. Yet his music was beloved by the pianists of his time, who appreciated music with sensibility that was not too difficult to play, and because so much of it was in Jane Austen’s library, those who want to listen to the music that Jane Austen practiced for herself and played for her friends and family, we have Ignacio Pleyel to thank, even if he was living and working in France while Jane Austen was living and writing in contemporary England. If Pleyel needs people like Jane Austen to be remembered today, so that people might play his simple and undemanding music on the piano in the future. In fact, let us hope that the fondness of Jane Austen for his music helps Pleyel be remembered today—we can always use music that is easy to play and pleasant to listen to, whatever time period we happen to live in.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

[4] Zuckermann, Wolfgang (1969) The Modern Harpsichord. New York: October House, p. 162.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Music History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Sad Fate Of Ignace Pleyel

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