In the years immediately following Haydn’s retirement his former pupil Ignaz Joseph Pleyel (1757-1831) was probably the most popular composer in Europe in addition to being an important music publisher and piano maker.
Little is known about the nature of Pleyel’s studies with Haydn, which began around 1772, but evidently his progress was pleasing enough for his patron Count Ladislaus Erdödy to express his gratitude to Haydn by offering him a carriage and two horses for which Prince Esterházy agreed to provide a coachman and fodder. If Pleyel’s studies resembled Beethoven’s then we can assume that he undertook a systematic course of contrapuntal studies with Haydn, based on the composer’s own annotated and revised version of Fux’s influential treatise Gradus ad Parnassum, and supervision of Pleyel’s exercises in free composition. During his studies with Haydn Pleyel’s marionette opera Die Fee Urgele received its premiere at Eszterháza (November 1776) and was also performed at the Nationaltheater in Vienna. Haydn’s marionette opera Die Feuerbrunst ( Hob. XXIXb:A) was also performed in 1776 or 1777 with an overture now believed to be largely by Pleyel.
Pleyel’s first professional position seems to have been as Kapellmeister to Count Erdödy although there is no documentation extant from this part of his career. Erdödy’s musical establishment appears to have been quite substantial if the evidence of the material offered for sale by auction after his death in 1786 which included several hundred symphonies, concertos, quintets, operas and masses, is any indication. Pleyel dedicated his String Quartets op.1 to Count Erdödy in appreciation of his ‘generosity, paternal solicitude and encouragement’.
Pleyel travelled to Italy in the early 1780s and through the offices of Norbert Hadrava, a part-time composer attached to the Austrian embassy in Naples, he secured commissions to write pieces for lira organizzata (hurdy-gurdy) for performance by the King of Naples and in 1784 Hadrava arranged the commissioning of an opera, Ifigenia in Aulide, which received its premiere at the Teatro San Carlo on the King’s nameday, 30 May 1785.
Around the same time Pleyel was appointed assistant to Franz Xaver Richter, Kapellmeister of Strasbourg Cathedral, and upon Richter’s death in 1789 he succeeded to the first position. From 1786 he also organised and conducted a series of public concerts in collaboration with the Kapellmeister of the Strasbourg Temple Neuf, J. P. Schönfeld. The Strasbourg years were the most productive musically for Pleyel and indeed most of his compositions date from the years 1787-1795.
With his professional circumstances uncertain in the aftermath of the French Revolution Pleyel accepted an invitation to conduct the Professional Concerts in London and stayed there from December 1791 until May 1792. Although much was made of the rivalry between the Professional Concerts and Johann Peter Salomon’s concert series of which Haydn was the great draw card, there is no evidence - and indeed much to the contrary - that relations between the two composers were strained. Haydn and Pleyel met frequently, dined together and even played each other’s music. Haydn received the lion’s share of the critical acclaim but Pleyel’s concerts were well attended and his symphonies concertantes and quartets in particular were highly praised in the press.
Early in 1795 Pleyel settled in Paris, opened a music shop and founded a publishing house which, over the 39 years it was in existence, issued over 4000 works including compositions by Boccherini, Beethoven, Clementi, Haydn and others. The enterprising Pleyel established agents for the sale of his publications all over Europe and sometimes arranged for reciprocal engraving of works by other leading publishers such as Artaria in Vienna and Breitkopf of Leipzig with whom he was in close contact. Among the historically most important publications issued by the Maison Pleyel were the first miniature scores and, in 1801, a Collection complette des quatuors d’Haydn, dédiée au Premier Consul Bonaparte. The first edition contained 80 quartets, subsequent editions adding two, then one, as Haydn composed them.
Pleyel travelled to Vienna with his son Camille in 1805 to establish a branch publishing office. In spite of strong support from his local friends the venture failed, the victim of a series of resource-sapping legal disputes. He tried unsuccessfully to sell the Maison Pleyel in 1813 and over the last twenty years of its life the firm shifted its emphasis away from symphonies, quartets and sonatas in favour of more popular repertory.
The enormous popularity of Pleyel’s music in his own lifetime made him arguably the most famous composer in the world. As a measure of this, a Pleyel Society was founded in the whaling port of Nantucket (Mass.) in 1822. The most compelling evidence of this fame, however, is to be found in the staggering number of prints and manuscript copies of Pleyel’s compositions which survive today. Like a number of composers with business acumen, Pleyel’s best work was done relatively early in life before the distractions of extra-musical commitments took him away from full-time composition. Many of the works written in the shadow of Haydn in the 1780s are of exceptional quality, harmonically rich, structurally inventive and with highly original themes.