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Jan Ladislav Dussek (1731-1812)
Piano Concerto in G minor Op 49
Rondo: Allegro non troppo
Dussek was a colourful character, whose remarkable life might make a very successful novel about the early years of the Romantic age. Born in what was then Bohemia, he travelled widely and was at different times a favourite of both Catherine the Great and Marie Antoinette; he was in Paris right before the Revolution and then in London when Haydn came visiting. While there he worked closely with Broadwood on the development of the piano as an ever larger and grander instrument. Vain, he was among the first to perform side on to his audience, the better for them to admire his profile. Following the break down of his marriage (a remarkable tale in its own right) he returned to Paris and ended his days there a widely respected teacher as well as composer and teacher. Remarkable.
Dussek wrote 16 piano concertos, yet, in most histories of the genre he is something of a footnote. Most writers trace a line from the Bach sons to Mozart and (to a lesser degree) Haydn; Beethoven, of course, and then (after a short bald patch) Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt and onwards to Brahms. It is a narrative that works well – but Dussek’s piece suggests that it is not enough. The reason that this piece makes one sit up and pay attention is that it was written in 1801 – by which date Beethoven had completed his first 2 concertos and was at work on the 3rd. Beethoven’s first concertos extend a Mozart/Haydn idea of a concerto, but only in the 3rd concerto did he increasingly explore the Romantic possibilities of the form: the concertos grow longer, more rugged; they acquire more expressive massiveness and weight and a heroic rhetoric to match. All those characteristics are already here in Dussek’s 1801 concerto. Even in the relatively unassuming opening bars, Dussek signals his quasi-symphonic intent in the broad phrases of his melody. His choice of key, dramatic dark G minor colours it further, adding heft.
We cannot say that Beethoven heard a Dussek concerto and immediately felt include to follow in his footsteps. Rather, it may be that both Dussek and Beethoven shared expressive intentions (perhaps widely with other composers in the early 19th century: Hummel and Clementi). Yet we fundamentally understand Beethoven’s concertos in relation to Mozart and Haydn simple because those are the composers whose piece are most often heard today. Perhaps we could all do with hearing a little more Dussek, Hummel and Clementi.
© Svend Brown