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Dreyschock, Alexander (1818-1869)

Alexander Dreyschock

born: 15 October 1818
died: 1 April 1869
country: Bohemia

In May 1839, the Revue et gazette musicale announced the imminent arrival of Alexander Dreyschock as a new star in the pianistic constellation, assuring the Parisian public that ‘as far as mechanism and prodigious digital facility are concerned, he is the most astonishing player and that when he arrives in Paris he will prove a dangerous rival for Liszt, Thalberg and Döhler’.

Heine was on hand to deliver his verdict on this phenomenon when Dreyschock finally made his debut at the Érard rooms in Paris early in 1843. ‘He makes a hell of a racket [höllischen Spektakel]. One does not seem to hear one pianist Dreyschock but three-score [drei Schock] of pianists. Since on the evening of his concert the wind was blowing south by west, perhaps you heard the tremendous sounds in Augsburg. At such a distance their effect must be agreeable. Here, however, in this Department of the Seine, one may easily burst an eardrum when the piano-pounder thumps away. Go hang yourself, Franz Liszt! You are but an ordinary wind god [Windgötze] in comparison with this God of Thunder!’

Whatever his shortcomings as a musician, Dreyschock the pianist amazed audiences with his extraordinary technique, dazzling one reviewer into talking of a new trinity of pianists ‘of which Liszt is the father, Thalberg the son, and Dreyschock the holy ghost’. Many believed he was unequalled in digital dexterity with his arsenal of octaves, sixths and thirds, while the renowned critic Eduard Hanslick thought Dreyschock ‘completed the succession of those virtuosi whose bravura was capable of attracting and fascinating a numerous public which admired technical magic and was happiest in astonishment’.

Dreyschock was born in Záky (sometimes given as Zack or Zachotin), then in Bohemia and now in the Czech Republic, on 15 October 1818. Like Döhler he was a child prodigy and was playing in public from the age of eight. At fifteen, he took off to Prague to study with the renowned pedagogue Václav Tomášek (his father had died young and his somewhat simple-minded mother apparently thought he had gone there to study medicine). In December 1838 Dreyschock embarked on his first professional tour, spending the best part of the next two decades startling audiences all over Europe.

The greatest sensation was caused by his various pieces for the left hand alone of which the most famous was his Grande Variation sur l’air: God Save the Queen (written sometime before 1854 and published by André in 1862). If music tells us something about its creator, then just a glance at this piece reveals that if Dreyschock played it up to tempo he must have had a staggeringly good left hand. Pieces for one hand were novelties, and would have contributed towards public enthusiasm towards Dreyschock; indeed to hear the fearsome left hand of Chopin’s Op 10 No 12 played in octaves and at tempo would produce astonished gasps in any age. ‘The man has no left hand’, raved the elderly Cramer; ‘they are both right hands’. For six weeks, Dreyschock worked twelve hours a day to master the task.

But Dreyschock must have had more to offer than mere acrobatics and stunts. Why else would Anton Rubinstein have appointed him in 1862 to the prestigious post of professor of piano at the newly opened Conservatory of Music in St Petersburg? Sadly the Russian climate did not agree with Dreyschock’s delicate health and after six years he retired to Italy. He died of tuberculosis in Venice on 1 April 1869, aged fifty.

from notes by Jeremy Nicholas © 2013

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