"There was ... something magical about the way in which Dussek with all his
charming grace of manner, through his wonderful touch, extorted from the
instrument delicious and at the same time emphatic tones. His fingers were like
a company of ten singers, endowed with equal executive powers and able to
produce with the utmost perfection whatever their director could require.”
Jan Vaclav Tomasek (Autobiography, 1802)
Failed student. Failed businessman. Failed lover. Brilliant musician. Jan Ladislav Dussek’s ability and range contributed inspiration to innovations in the very workings of the pianoforte and the way music was performed. Dussek traveled all around the world, changing lives for better or worse as he went. Accused of plotting against Catherine the Great, becoming a darling of Marie Antoinette, abandoning his business partner to debtor’s prison, and granting his wife the separation she longed for only upon his death. A visionary of romantic works who lived during the Classical period.
While demonstrating a range in compositional styles, Dussek clearly favored the piano and harp. A prolific body of work and much of it either prominently featuring or exclusively for the pianoforte, or in later years, the 6 foot piano. It is the romantic style of his piano works that interest me most. Hailed as a genius wherever he went despite composing music that was not yet in fashion; breaking with tradition before culture was ready. Few artists will receive acclaim for their natural or hard-won talents, so to achieve recognition (even celebration in Dussek’s case) while composing and performing in an avant-garde way (in relation to the style of the time).
“Elegie Harmonique” was the first song that led to my interest in Dussek, morose delicacy in a plaintiff minor key only to pick up speed, lending to a feeling of a changeable mood. The larger part of his body of his work fell more in line with the zeitgeist of the Classical period; that thick-textured, building polyphony that demonstrates so artfully the abilities of both orchestra and instrument. Listening to it several times through, I was able to reinterpret each time. That is something I deeply appreciate in music. Not being forcibly lead but left to draw my own conclusions about the meaning and emotion of the work. “The Farewell” was the second of his works that drew my interest. It has the feeling of driving forward, as does much of classical music I have heard but it still leaves to the imagination, reinvention.
In modern times Dussek has become a lesser known composer, though certainly not forgotten. His works are purported to have influenced Beethoven, his range to have led to the addition to chords in the pianoforte, and not least of his contributions and perhaps the most far-reaching, was his performing for audiences so that they were presented with his profile and a side-view of the piano.
Compared to other composers and musicians of the medieval, Baroque and Classical periods, Dussek had little to do with Catholic or Protestant churches. Though he performed as organist and choir boy, he did not receive any significant assistance or advancement in his field from his compositions for the church. Secular pieces and his gentlemanly behavior gained favor with royals and gave him the necessary propulsion to maintain a brilliant career with successful receptions all over Europe. This too would become less unusual as time passed but he was one of the first to have been blessed with such fame (in his day) without the direct promotion of the church.
I found studying Dussek’s body of work entertaining, making efforts to notice the “romantic” elements within the otherwise Classical music. Though sadly, few of his works are available online, free to the public and many can only be accessed through extraordinary efforts, proving only to be worth it after closer inspection.