Today we say happy birthday to Czech pianist and composer Jan Ladislav Dussek - born this day in 1760. For once I won't be complaining about a composer being neglected, because Dussek's reputation reminds intact. His sonatinas are often seen on student piano stands, and though not performed as often as they should be, the larger scale pieces (there are some 34 piano sonatas for a start...) do feature on recordings and on concert platforms. The young Dussek cut quite a dashing figure and was one of the first (some say the first pianists to play side-on to the audience, apparently to give them a good view of his beau visage. Overindulgence and a fondness for alcohol changed Dusk's appearance later in life, and in late portraits he really is quite enormous, but it's fair to say he was something of a pianistic poster-boy in late-eighteenth century musical circles.
Dussek's life was an eventful one. Drama seems to have followed him wherever he went, be it escaping the Russian secret police after a 'misunderstanding' over a piece of jewellery, running away from failed business dealings which ruined his business partners/investors, becoming acquainted with Marie Antoinette and escaping to to England just in time to avoid the French Revolution, or indeed enjoying "musical orgies" with his employer and friend, Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. As a musician, Dussek was held in high regard and enjoyed success. A virtuoso of the piano as well as the glass harmonica, he was praised by Haydn, and was instrumental in working with piano manufacturer John Broadwood to expand the range and capabilities of the piano. As a teacher he commanded high fees and was very much in vogue. Following the premiere of his opera 'The Captive of Spillberg' the European Magazine wrote: "the music, by Mr. Dussek, was such as to intitle him to rank with the first composers of the time'.
Dussek's Opus 19/20 Sonatinas are perhaps his most accessible piano pieces, though a browse through
his page on the wonderful IMSLP website reveals some other small-scale pieces, like his 12 Progressive Lessons, which give a useful insight into his style. His personal and business connections with the Corri family linked Dussek with Edinburgh, and there are some interesting pieces for piano based on Scottish melodies, including Within a Mile of Edinburgh and the Countess of Sutherland. The serious pianist could do a lot worse than study some of Dussek's sonatas, though. At times you hear Haydn, at times Mozart. There's some Clementi in the style, too, and at times you'd be forgiven for thinking you were playing Beethoven. But there are turns of musical phrase that don't quite fit with the above, that sound quite unique - and these are unmistakably Dussek. Having said his music is still played and recorded (especially his substantial output for harp), I would like to hear more of his piano sonatas in recital programs - watch this space.