Fame and Fable | Composer Ignaz Pleyel’s Forgotten Legacy

On composer Ignaz Pleyel and a tiny museum less than an hour from Vienna.

It’s a story that sounds like sardoodledom – a contrived plot, improbable characters and a good measure of melodrama. That’s the life and legacy of Ignaz Pleyel, the Austrian village schoolmaster’s son who was celebrated during his lifetime as one of Europe’s most popular composers. But today, he languishes in obscurity – not forgotten, but usually relegated to dusty shelves of music that is considered “passé.”

Just a year younger than Mozart, Pleyel was a student of Haydn from the tender age of 15. He had a stellar career, earning enough from an invited 12-concert series in London to buy a château outside Strasbourg. After nearly finding his neck under a guillotine during the French Revolution for alleged collusion with the Church, he managed to prove his loyalty to the republic by writing a couple of stirring patriotic songs (and maybe even the Marseillaise?).

Innovator and entrepreneur, he established a music publishing house in Paris (in part to prevent plagiarism of his own works) as well as a piano manufacturer. His instruments soon became the preferred choice for the greatest, including Chopin. His Salle Pleyel, which he founded in 1839, is still (in its art deco incarnation of 1927) one of the most prestigious concert halls in Paris today.

In contrast, Pleyel’s Austrian beginnings were humble. He was born in 1757 in the village of Ruppersthal in Lower Austria, in a one-room building next to the church. It now houses a small museum. But its size is deceptive: it has become the epicenter of an international movement to revive Pleyel’s overlooked legacy. The energy behind it is Ruppersthal native “Adi” Ehrentraud, most likely the world’s most dedicated Pleyel fan. With great aplomb and a personal commitment that is downright infectious, he is more than an expert on “our master” – he is a walking encyclopedia.

Unearthing a Legacy

As Ehrentraud was well aware, a museum is only half the act: To revive a composer, performing his music is essential. So in addition to saving Pleyel’s birth house from being demolished, he founded the International Ignaz Joseph Pleyel Society as well as the Pleyel Kulturzentrum, rounding up funding from sponsors and the state of Lower Austria (and also spending an appreciable amount of his own savings).

The society’s website is gradually offering scholarly editions of pieces by Pleyel for free download. To date, it has released more than 50 CDs of Pleyel works and produces regular (and excellent) concerts in the Benton Saal, up the hill from the museum. Opened in 2016, this pleasant little chamber music hall is named after Rita Benton, an American musicologist who published the first catalog of Pleyel’s complete works in 1977.

Back to the Marseillaise: Was Pleyel really its composer? While a recurring rumor, it must remain a fable until documents are found. But the work’s historically attributed poet and composer, Claude Rouget de Lisle, was indeed a friend of Pleyel and had collaborated with him on other songs. And although it seems that Pleyel was in London that fateful April night in 1792 when the Marseillaise was written, it is not absolutely certain…

And is Pleyel’s music really dusty and old-fashioned? His name is still known in English-speaking countries, but mostly because his music is used for teaching. In fact, I met him as a little girl through his keyboard method. But a recent visit to the Kulturzentrum opened my ears to remarkable and stirring music that foreshadows Beethoven, music unquestionably worth hearing.

Ruppersthal is easy to reach: A 45-minute drive from Vienna, it is just up the road from Tulln. With vineyards spreading in all directions from the hill where Pleyel’s family once grew its own grapes, a concert at the Pleyel Kulturzentrum will quench more than one kind of thirst. With 41 symphonies, 70 quartets, 2 operas and more, there is still a great deal of Pleyel to discover.

Pleyel Museum & Kulturzentrum 3701, Ruppersthal 137 Sat 14:00-18:00 Mon-Sun 9:00-13:00 Next concerts: May 6, 17:00; May 13 and 27, 11:00 & Jun 3, 19:00. pleyel.at

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Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.

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