Pleyel’s baptismal certificate in the parish office names his father Martin, a schoolteacher, and his mother Anna Theresia (Maria Christina Theresa in MGG1). He is said to have studied with Vanhal while very young, and in about 1772 he became Haydn’s pupil and lodger in Eisenstadt, his annual pension being paid by Count Ladislaus Erd?dy, whose family at Pressburg was related to Haydn’s patrons, the Esterházys. The count showed his pleasure at the progress of his protégé by offering Haydn a carriage and two horses, for which Prince Esterházy agreed to provide a coachman and fodder.
Little is known of the daily activities of Haydn’s several pupils. A few incidents concerning Pleyel’s apprenticeship are recounted in Framery’s Notice sur Joseph Haydn, in which the author claimed that ‘these various anecdotes were furnished me by a person who spent his entire youth with him and who guarantees their authenticity’. That person is generally identified as Pleyel, living in Paris when the Notice appeared there in 1810. The assumption is strengthened by the manner in which the narrative favours Pleyel, always emphasizing the closeness of his relationship with Haydn and the master’s affection and esteem for him.
During this period Pleyel’s puppet opera Die Fee Urgele was first performed at Eszterháza (November 1776), and at the Vienna Nationaltheater. Haydn’s puppet opera Das abgebrannte Haus, or Die Feuersbrunst, was also first performed in 1776 or 1777, with an overture (or at least its first two movements) now generally accepted as being by Pleyel.
Pleyel’s first position seems to have been as Kapellmeister to Count Erd?dy, but again that period of his career is undocumented. He and the count were members of the masonic Lodge ‘Zum goldenen Hirschen’, founded by the count’s brother Ludwig, and located from 1778 in the town of Fidisch, near Eberau in Burgenland. The musical importance of the count’s chapel is affirmed in the notice published after his death on 13 July 1786: a variety of instruments as well as several hundred symphonies, concertos, quintets, operas, masses and other works were to be sold two years later in Vienna for the benefit of the poor (Wiener Zeitung, 9 Aug 1788). Pleyel’s String Quartets op.1 (1782–3, b 301–6) are dedicated to Count Erd?dy for his ‘generosity, paternal solicitude and encouragement’.
During the early 1780s Pleyel travelled in Italy. 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; Hadrava had instructed the king in an elaborate version of the instrument, and also procured commissions for Haydn and Sterkel. Two of Pleyel’s works for the hurdy-gurdy survive in autographs (b 202 and 202.5). In 1784 Hadrava engineered the commissioning of an opera: Pleyel’s Ifigenia in Aulide had its première at the S Carlo theatre on the king’s nameday, 30 May 1785, and there were 18 further performances that summer.
Meanwhile (probably in 1784) Pleyel had become assistant to F.X. Richter, Kapellmeister of Strasbourg Cathedral, and he succeeded to the post when Richter died in 1789. From 1786 he also conducted and organized a series of public concerts in collaboration with J.P. Schönfeld, Kapellmeister of the Strasbourg Temple Neuf. On 22 January 1788 he married (Franziska) Gabrielle (Ignatia) Lefebvre, daughter of the tapissier Stephen Laurence Lefebvre, with whom Pleyel was later involved in a variety of business investments. Four children survived the union, the eldest of whom was (2) Camille Pleyel. The Strasbourg period was Pleyel’s most productive musically (fig.1); most of his compositions date from the years 1787–95. His pupils of that time included Ferdinand Fränzl, who dedicated his op.1 to Pleyel, and P.-J. Pfeffinger.
The Revolution having abolished the cathedral’s religious functions and the city’s secular concerts, Pleyel accepted an invitation to conduct the Professional Concert in London, and stayed there from December 1791 until May 1792 (thus, contrary to some sources, he cannot have composed the Marseillaise, which had been written in Strasbourg by Rouget de Lisle in April). There is no evidence for the assertion that Pleyel let himself be used by the entrepreneur Wilhelm Cramer of the Professional Concert to draw listeners away from Haydn’s concurrent series with the impresario Salomon, nor even that he was aware of Haydn’s plans when he accepted the invitation. The composers remained unaffected by the rival publicity, expressing mutual affection, dining together, performing each other’s music and attending each other’s concerts. Haydn generally received more critical and popular acclaim, but Pleyel’s concerts were also well attended; and his compositions, especially the symphonies concertantes and quartets, were highly praised in the press.
During Pleyel’s London stay, George Thomson of Edinburgh asked him to compose the introduction and accompaniments for a series of Scottish airs and to write a set of piano trios. Thomson’s remarks in a letter to Kozeluch about having been ‘juggled, disappointed and grossly deceived by an eminent musical composer with whom I entered into an agreement some years ago’ and his decision to use Kozeluch’s settings for the second volume of Scottish songs have been construed to mean that Pleyel had in some way behaved dishonourably. But Thomson evidently retained no animosity, for during a trip to Paris in 1819 he paid a friendly visit to Pleyel’s shop and in a letter home praised his publications extravagantly.
After returning to the Continent, Pleyel bought the large Château d’Itenwiller at St Pierre, near Strasbourg, probably with the considerable earnings of his London concerts (the last, on May 14, had been the usual ‘benefit’). According to a dramatic story (which remains undocumented despite searches in Strasbourg archives, and varies in each telling) Pleyel was repeatedly arrested during 1793 by Revolutionary authorities who suspected him of pro-Austrian or aristocratic sympathies; he was released only after writing (while under guard) the rather banal patriotic hymn La révolution du 10 août 1792, ou Le tocsin allégorique (b 706). This includes references to the popular Ça ira and to several works by Grétry, and requires a large ensemble of voices and instruments, including church bells and cannons. The première in Strasbourg Cathedral (on 10 August 1793) used bells chosen by Pleyel from those requisitioned from churches of the region no longer holding services. The last of subsequent performances occurred in 1799 at the inauguration of the concert hall of the city’s Réunion des Arts.
Early in 1795 Pleyel settled in Paris, opened a music shop and founded a publishing house, which issued some 4000 works during the 39 years it existed, including many by Boccherini, Beethoven, Clementi, Cramer, J.L. Dussek, Haydn and other friends of Pleyel and his son. Some of them (e.g. Dizi, Kalkbrenner, Méhul, Rossini) were involved in the firm by financial investment. Pleyel established agents for the sale of his publications all over France, and maintained an active exchange of letters and music with some of the foremost European music publishers (e.g. Artaria of Vienna, Böhme of Hamburg, Breitkopf of Leipzig, Hoffmeister of Vienna, Hummel of Amsterdam and Simrock of Bonn), sometimes arranging for reciprocal engraving of their issues.
The most important achievement of the Maison Pleyel was probably its issue of the first miniature scores, a series entitled Bibliothèque Musicale. It began in 1802 with four of Haydn’s symphonies, and continued with ten volumes of his string quartets, followed by chamber works by Beethoven, Hummel and Onslow (the last in 1830). In 1801 Pleyel also issued a Collection complette des quatuors d’Haydn, dédiée au Premier Consul Bonaparte, the title-page beautifully engraved by Aubert (fig.2), the separate parts engraved by Richomme and probably edited by the violinist Baillot. The prefatory material includes a handsome portrait of Haydn by J. Guérin and a thematic catalogue ‘of all Haydn’s quartets, sanctioned by the author and arranged in the order in which they appeared’. This statement and Haydn’s earlier relationship with Pleyel have involved the edition in the debate concerning the authenticity and order of certain quartets generally attributed to Haydn. The edition also includes two pages of subscribers’ names, many of them notable musicians (e.g. Cherubini, Dussek, Grétry, Kreutzer, Méhul, Salomon, Viotti) or aristocracy centred on Vienna (e.g. Erd?dy, Esterházy, Golitsïn, Harrach, Lobkowitz, Rasumovsky, Swieten, and Thurn and Taxis). The first edition contained 80 quartets, subsequent editions adding two, then one, as Haydn composed them.
In 1805 Pleyel travelled with his son (2) Camille to Vienna, where his string quartets were warmly received. They also paid several visits to the aging Haydn; they heard Beethoven play the piano and were greatly impressed by his brilliant improvisational technique. But one of the primary reasons for the visit, the establishment of a branch publishing office, failed despite the support of local friends. The firm had been plagued since its inception by a series of legal contests that were not exceptional but sapped Pleyel’s energy and financial resources. In 1813 he made a determined effort to sell the publishing enterprise, describing his stock in a letter to a prospective buyer as 48,000 plates of pewter (fin étain) or copper, printed music he had published or for which he was agent, instruments (violins, violas, double basses, trumpets, trombones, bows, strings etc.), manuscripts not yet engraved and unused paper. ‘In the last two years I have published more than 200 new works, of which 29% to 30% have not yet been put on sale … Most of my editions have been engraved by Richault, Lobry, Petit and Marquerie, the best engravers in Paris’.
During the 1820s Pleyel indulged his love of rural life by spending increasing amounts of time on a large farm about 50 km from Paris. During the same period the firm’s output became more predominantly popular, as symphonies, sonatas and quartets were replaced by romances, chansonnettes and similar genres by Bayle, Bizot, Georgeon, Panseron and (especially) Pauline Duchambge, whose songs were always issued with alternative piano and guitar accompaniments. The firm also issued many fantasias, variations, rondos and potpourris of operatic airs by Adolphe Adam, Carulli, Duvernoy, Mayseder, Pixis and others. In 1834 the Maison Pleyel ceased its publishing activities entirely, selling its stock of plates and printed works to various Paris publishers, among whom were Lemoine, Prilipp, Delloy, Richault and Schlesinger.
The enormous popularity of Pleyel’s music during his lifetime is reflected in the testimony of contemporary journals and of early writers like Gerber and Fétis. The small town of Nantucket, Massachusetts, then still a whaling port, formed a Pleyel Society in 1822 ‘to chasten the taste of auditors’, according to a newspaper announcement. The most telling evidence of the appeal of his music lies in the thousands of manuscript copies that filled the shelves of archives, libraries, churches, castles and private homes and in the thousands of editions produced in Europe and North America (fig.3). In quality the works vary greatly, although most show considerable facility and a thorough technical grounding. The earlier works in particular display thematic originality and ingenious developments that make them fresh and attractive. After about 1792 his talent seems to have diminished; his inventiveness waned and he occasionally succumbed to routine procedures.
An insufficiently recognized aspect of Pleyel’s production is the extent to which whole works, movements or parts of movements were re-used. Some of the borrowing was obviously by the composer, but much was perpetrated by publishers, probably without his knowledge or consent. Most of the songs with keyboard accompaniment, for example, which were highly popular around the turn of the 19th century especially in English-speaking countries, are settings of movements from symphonies or quartets (e.g. Henry’s Cottage Maid, from b 137; Time a Favorite Sonnet, from b 327A; Fanny’s Worth, from b 350; and the ubiquitous German Hymn, from b 349). Nevertheless many of the songs have considerable charm. Certain categories of the instrumental works consist entirely of arrangements: the quartets for keyboard and strings, the four-hand keyboard works and all ensembles that include guitar or harp. Working in an age when music was considered a commodity to be put to the widest possible use, Pleyel did not hesitate to issue a concerto with alternative solo parts for flute, clarinet or cello (b 106), or to transform a set of piano trios (b 465–70) into flute quartets (b 387–92) or string trios (b 410–15) by ‘scrambling’ the original 18 movements into an almost entirely new juxtaposition of movements in transposed keys. Such procedures reflect Pleyel’s total acceptance of the tastes and values of contemporary music lovers, which may explain his widespread popularity. The duets for violins, flutes or other combinations have never lost their appeal as teaching pieces. Many works of other genres merit resuscitation for study and performance.