Bohemian Romantic

                                  François Boucher, Shepherd's Landscape with a River, 1741

                                                                                              Alte Pinakothek Munich 

One of the great Bohemian Romantics, Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812) came of age in the Netherlands and North Germany where he may have taken lessons from C.P.E. Bach; in St Petersburg where, in 1783, he became implicated in a plot against Catherine II; and in Berlin where, in 1784, he formally presented himself as a pianist. In 1786 he went to Paris, in 1789 London. His celebrated return to Prague in 1802 was recalled by Tomášek in his Autobiography (1845-50):

‘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. I never saw the Prague public so enchanted as they were on this occasion by Dussek's splendid playing. His fine declamatory style, especially in cantabile phrases, stands as the ideal for every artistic performance - something which no other pianist since has reached […]’

Interestingly, Tomášek says, it was Dussek - not Liszt - who ‘was the first [to place] his instrument sideways upon the platform, in which our pianoforte heroes now all follow [...] though they may have no very interesting profile to exhibit’.

Dussek’s piano sonatas used to be available in a Musica Antiqua Bohemica edition (1960-63, Vols. 46, 53, 59, 63 - scarce to find these days though the British Library holds a reference set).* ‘Antique’ embellishment/lingua classica/‘modern’ pianism aside, what’s striking about them is the progressiveness of their harmonic language, their frequently unorthodox approach to tonality (prophetic at times of Chopin, Schumann and Brahms), and their structuring – beckoning/influencing as much Beethoven (discussed famously by Harold Truscott in Arnold & Fortune’s 1971 Beethoven Companion) as Weber, Liszt, Smetana ...

The daring and gracious ... Tunes and turns one’s somehow always known ... The fragment of a motif reaching from the finale of Beethoven’s Op. 101 a decade later to Brahms’s E minor Cello Sonata fugue via the scherzo of Schumann’s Op. 11 lurking in the opening (1:26) of the ‘grand, noble, sublime [...] magnificent’ (Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, Leipzig 1810) Op. 64… The Allegro of Beethoven’s recently published Op. 7 teasing around the second group (1:12) of the first movement of Op. 44 – like Op. 64 a sub-titled but otherwise non-representational work, dedicated to Dussek’s London friend, publisher and rival, Clementi ... Schubert, fifteen years on, never far away ... The late 19th century accused Dussek of ‘diffuseness of design’ (Macfarren). Yet admired his final sonatas (Opp. 64, 75, 77 [1807-12]) as ‘amongst the best of his day [...] the indifference now shown to them [1895] – so far, at least, as the concert platform is concerned – is proof of ignorance, or bad taste’ (Shedlock). CPO’s objective revival lets us re-judge.

            Henri-Pierre Danloux, portrait of the composer, 1795

                                             Royal College of Music, London

Most often recorded of the canon, the ‘dark key’ Élégie harmonique [...] en forme de Sonate was written on death of Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, killed by a French hussar at the Battle of Saalfeld (October 1806), aged thirty-three. Spohr tells us that Dussek’s association with the soldiering post-Frederican (dedicatee of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto), whose service he entered in 1804, was ‘wild and reckless’. LF, ‘capital pianist’ and composer, got to share his aspirations with empathetic companion; JLD got to travel the Napoleonic killing-fields. Opening with a quotation from Haydn’s Seven Last Words, it’s an obsession-poem, a sonata quasi una fantasia in all but name, profoundly tensioned. In his thoughtful booklet essay, Lorenz Luyken comments on the stark oppositions of the first movement tempo agitato. All, he suggests, ‘lack a periodic rounding; they have the effect of incompleteness, temporariness’, in their ‘caesura-less’ succession ‘like a series of unconsoled and restless emotional states, like fleeting episodes of a dream’. The breathless, syncopated, vacant staring of the finale he sees as a ‘symbol of despondent, hopeless mourning’.

Becker - better than Novotný on Supraphon - has the aristocratic measure of the style, pathos and wit, the innocent finger-work and delirious virtuosity, natural to Dussek. In something like the gravely felt Adagio of Op. 44 - presaging the B major-within-E flat parallel of the Beethoven Emperor/Weber Second Concerto slow movements - he shows how to paint an eloquent scene. And where others might lose the thread in repetitious forms or figurations, he doesn’t: the rondo of the A flat Op. 64 is a miracle of dexterous charm, colour and variety, the folk-like refrain irresistible in phrasing and rubato.

* The reliability of this edition has been questioned by Frederick Marvin, 'In the Footsteps of Jan Ladislav Dussek: An Interview by Paul Archambault', Syracuse Scholar, Vol. 1 (1979). Dussek, he reminds us, 'was the first composer that we know of to write out exact pedal indications' - omitted by the Czech editor, V. J. Sýkora.

Adapted by kind permission of

MusicWeb International, April 2006

© Ateş Orga 2021

not to be reproduced without permission

Sonata No 18 in E flat major, Op 44


The Farewell

Sonata No 24 in F sharp minor, Op 61 


Élégie harmonique sur le mort de son Altesse Royale le Prince Louis Ferdinand de Prusse

Sonata No 26 in A flat major, Op 64


Le retour à Paris

Markus Becker

23-25 October 2003

Sendesaal Radio Bremen, Bremen

 CPO 777 020-2