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8.557496 - PLEYEL: String Quartets, Op. 2, Nos. 1-3
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Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831)
String Quartets, Op. 2 Nos. 1-3

The string quartets of Ignaz Pleyel occupy a central place in his prolific musical output. Pleyel’s interest in the medium is unsurprising given that he studied with Joseph Haydn for several years in the 1770s. What is more surprising in a composer routinely dismissed as derivative and largely content to ape the style of his teacher is that Haydn’s influence on his approach to quartet composition was rather less marked than one might expect. Pleyel, clearly, was not convinced that Haydn had all the answers and this doubt manifested itself very early in his career.

In 1776 Pleyel completed his studies with Haydn and enjoyed a great personal triumph with the successful staging of his marionette opera Die Fee Urgèle at the National Theater in Vienna. An appointment as Kapellmeister to Count Erdödy soon followed and for a time at least Pleyel seemed set to pursue a similar professional path to Haydn. The musical resources at his disposal were excellent and Erdödy himself was an exceptionally generous and cultivated patron. Nonetheless, much to his surprise, Pleyel requested extended leave of absence as early as 1778 on the grounds that he needed to undertake further studies to perfect his art. After prolonged discussion Pleyel was granted leave and headed off to Italy where he spent much of the next few years travelling extensively, composing and experiencing Italian musical life at first hand. Pleyel’s Italian experiences exerted a powerful influence on his evolution as a composer. Like Mozart he possessed an uncanny ability to assimilate stylistic influences and his profound understanding of the nuances of the Italian style is nowhere more evident than in his opera Ifigenia in Aulide composed in 1785 for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. While one might reasonably expect to see such influences in the realm of opera – for opera so dominated Italian musical life that to ignore its styles and conventions would be to court disaster – Pleyel’s fascination with Italian music ran far deeper and it left indelible traces in many of his instrumental works including the string quartets.

We do not know when Pleyel first began to compose string quartets although in at least one early biographical sketch it is claimed that he took several manuscript quartets with him to Italy. These works, which remain unidentified, may have been composed during his years with Haydn or perhaps during his time as Kapellmeister to Count Erdödy. Whichever the case, Pleyel’s earliest quartets were composed during Haydn’s so-called ‘Quartettenpause’, the nearly decade-long interval between the composition of the epochal Op. 20 Quartets and the brilliant quartets of Op. 33. With the completion of the Op. 20 Quartets in 1772 Haydn recognized that he had reached a major artistic impasse. He had immeasurably expanded the emotional and intellectual horizons of the medium but he had done so using means that he felt offered limited potential for further development. His response was to stop composing quartets until he had found a way forward. Mozart, who had quickly written a set of six quartets in imitation of Op. 20, famously followed suit. Pleyel, then, found himself in an unusual position. He had studied with the most famous composer of quartets in Europe and yet was aware, as probably no one else was, that Haydn himself was unconvinced that his finest works to date represented the best way to compose string quartets. With no answer forthcoming from Haydn (Mozart would not have figured in his thinking at this time) Pleyel turned to other models, notably Haydn’s earlier quartets, and in particular the Op. 17 Quartets of 1771, the quartets of his first teacher, Johann Baptist Wanhal, and, less obviously, to the works of Italian composers whose clarity, elegance and lyricism he found captivating. Above all, Pleyel looked to himself to find a solution, one in which his own musical voice would be heard over that of his teacher. That he succeeded in large measure was recognized by Mozart who, on seeing a set of recently published quartets [probably the Op. 1 set which was issued in 1784], commended them enthusiastically to his father:

You will find them worth the trouble. They are very well written and most pleasing to listen to. You will also see at once who was his master. Well, it will be a lucky day for music if later on Pleyel should be able to replace Haydn.

Pleyel composed the majority of his 57 authentic string quartets in less than a decade. Unsurprisingly, there is a high degree of stylistic consistency within the series and a number of important characteristics can be seen. The most obvious of these is Pleyel’s preference for a three-movement rather than a four- movement cycle. This represents a radical departure from Haydn’s model although three-movement quartets – and symphonies for that matter – were extremely common during the late eighteenth century. Another interesting tendency in Pleyel’s quartets is the reduction in the length of the development section in sonata-form movements in the later quartets. This contraction and the growing emphasis on lyricism rather than thematic manipulation represents a conscious rejection of Haydn’s approach to large-scale musical construction but one that is also inextricably linked to Pleyel’s fondness for concertante writing with its demand for simpler musical textures and his cultivation of an intensely lyrical style.

The six String Quartets Op. 2 were first published in 1784 by the Viennese publisher Graeffer with a dedication to Haydn. Haydn’s opinion of the works is not known but he must have been impressed by their rich variety of thematic material and the flexibility and imagination with which Pleyel handled his musical structures. The first movement of the fifth quartet, for example, contains a false reprise that forces substantial recomposition in the recapitulation and there are at least two examples of mirror recapitulations where the main theme resurfaces only during the closing stages of the movement (the first and second movements of the first quartet). Significantly, all but one of the works are in three movements: the exception is the fourth quartet in E flat which adds a brief 29-bar Minuet between its slow movement and finale. The slow movements are directed to be played con sordini, a favourite device of Pleyel and one he would have encountered on numerous occasions in the music of his teacher. They are very Italianate in flavour with their beautiful first-violin cantilena and one can imagine Luigi Tomasini, the leader of Haydn’s orchestra and the man whom he considered the best interpreter of his quartets, playing these movements with relish. The most interesting structurally of the slow movements is that of the sixth quartet. The first fifty odd bars of the movement suggest variation style and structure (as do the sectional headings in the source), but the main theme is not really varied at all despite its obvious thematic promise. Instead, the movement unfolds as a series of couplets, each focusing on a different instrument, only the first of which stays in the tonic. With the reprise of the theme in between (minus repeats) and the gradually diminishing surface rhythms typical of the variation style, the movement becomes an extended variation-cum-rondo structure, a derivative perhaps of Haydn’s characteristic alternating or double variation form. Pleyel’s harmonic language is also striking at times with some lovely chromatic shadings and also a number of unexpected modulations including the juxtaposition of third-related keys which was to become one of the most important hallmarks of Haydn’s late style.

The ghostly presence of Haydn can be heard throughout all these splendid works but there are passages too that seem to look forward to the quartets of Beethoven. They are a remarkable achievement for a young composer and it is one of the cruel quirks of fate that works of such vitality and imagination could be forgotten for so long.

Allan Badley

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