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Dussek, Jan Ladislav (1760-1812)

Jan Ladislav Dussek

born: 12 February 1760
died: 20 March 1812
country: Czech Republic

Born in Čáslav, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812) was a late classical /early romantic piano virtuoso and composer whose career manifests one of the first examples of the ‘international musician’. Born a decade after the death of J S Bach, emerging a generation after Haydn, four years Mozart’s junior, and a decade older than Beethoven, Dussek travelled, concertized, composed and taught across the European continent at the end of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century.

Following student years spent near his home, and later in Prague, Dussek migrated (before he was twenty) to northern Europe. He spent the late 1770s and early 1780s in the Netherlands, and then in Hamburg, where he may have studied with C P E Bach. He journeyed to St Petersburg in 1783, where he played at the court of Catherine the Great, subsequently becoming Kapellmeister to Prince Radziwill in Lithuania. In 1784 he began a long concert tour of Germany, performing on glass harmonica as well as piano. By 1786 Dussek arrived in Paris, where he became a favourite of Marie Antoinette, and where he remained until 1789 (he also undertook a trip to Italy during this period).

With the onset of the French Revolution, Dussek fled to London, where he remained for eleven years. Here he became a popular concert performer (and piano teacher), scheduled frequently at the Hanover Square Rooms and the Salomon concerts, appearing with Haydn during that composer’s two London visits. In 1792 he married Sophia Corri, who became known as a singer, pianist and harpist. He went into the music publishing business with his father-in-law, Domenico Corri. While in London he also worked with the Broadwood piano manufacturing firm to extend the range of the piano from five to five-and-a-half octaves, and later to six. With little business acumen, he subsequently became insolvent and in 1799 he fled to Hamburg (leaving his wife and daughter, whom he would never see again). In Germany he met and became friends with the young Louis Spohr, with whom he performed and travelled.

The new century found Dussek returning to his Bohemian home, in 1802, and giving a number of highly regarded concerts. His younger fellow countryman, the composer and pianist Václav Tomášek, reported that Dussek was the first concert pianist to place the instrument sideways (in profile), so that the audience could see the pianist’s fingers strike the keys. In 1804 Prussian Prince Louis Ferdinand hired Dussek as Kapellmeister. With the Prince’s death on the battlefield in 1806, Dussek returned to Paris, where he remained until his death six years later.

Although he wrote a number of trivial rondos and variations on popular tunes of the day (as did most composers), Dussek also composed a significant number of more important piano sonatas, concertos and chamber works (including several duos, trios, a quartet, a quintet, and many other works with various combinations of instruments, with and without piano; the piano concertos, somewhat curiously, are his only orchestral works). Many of these have been unjustly neglected. Contemporaneous reviews praised the expressiveness and originality of his compositions, as well as his impressive keyboard virtuosity.

Dussek’s early works are Classical in style, and the works after the turn of the century reveal, as Howard Allen Craw notes in The New Grove, definite Romantic characteristics, ‘in the expression markings, the use of altered chords and non-harmonic notes’. Craw goes on: ‘His harmony includes a wider variety of chords and is considerably more chromatic than that of Mozart, Haydn and even Beethoven. His piano music is in general fuller in texture than that of C P E Bach, Mozart or Haydn … As has been frequently observed, much of Dussek’s music resembles that of other composers. Most often, however, these composers are later than Dussek, and such resemblances show him to have been very much ahead of his time.’

from notes by Stephan D Lindeman © 2014


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