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  • Born

    12 February 1760

  • Born In

    Kutná Hora, Středočeský kraj, Czech Republic

  • Died

    20 March 1812 (aged 52)

Jan Ladislav Dussek or Jan Ladislav Dusík (baptized as Václav Jan Dusík) (February 12, 1760 in Čáslav-March 20, 1812 in St.-Germain-en-Laye) was a Czech composer and pianist. The Dussek family has an extraordinarily long history as professional musicians, starting at least as early as Jan Ladislav's grandfather, and lasting in the Moravian branch of the family at least into the 1970s. Of them, Jan Ladislav is often known as "Dussek the Great". Jan Ladislav's mother was a harpist, and he composed much music for the harp as well as for the piano. Great as his music may be, his personal life (in which harpists figured prominently) was the stuff of which movies are made.

After early studies in Bohemia, Dussek traveled to the Netherlands and Germany, where he may have studied with C. P. E. Bach. From there, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he was, for a time, a favourite of Catherine the Great. However, after a while, he fled St. Petersburg just ahead of Catherine's secret police, who accused him of involvement in a plot to assassinate Catherine. Given Dussek's lifelong royalist sympathies, his well-attested personal good looks, and Catherine's proclivity for beautiful young men, a different explanation seems more probable.

After Dussek left St. Petersburg, he took a position as music director for Prince Radziwill in Lithuania for a year, after which he toured Germany in the mid 1780s as a virtuoso performer on the piano and on the glass harmonica. Later he went to France where he became a favourite of Marie Antoinette, who tried to dissuade him from taking a performing tour to Milan in 1788. On the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, Dussek fled France for England, going to London. Continuing his romantic exploits, he took with him the harpist wife of the composer Jean-Baptiste Krumpholtz, who drowned himself into the Seine as a consequence.

In London Dussek continued his blossoming career as a virtuoso performer, gaining great praise from Joseph Haydn, who wrote a glowing note to Dussek's father after one of the Salomon concerts which featured works by both composers. In London, Dussek joined forces with a music publisher named Corri to form a company which later went bankrupt. Dussek soon abandoned Madame Krumpholtz in favour of Corri's young daughter, Sophie, whom he married. Sophie Dussek was a singer, pianist, and harpist who later became known in her own right. Together, they had a daughter, but the marriage was not happy, involving liaisons by both parties.

Apart from his own music, Dussek is important in the history of music because of his friendship with John Broadwood, the developer of the "English Action" piano. Because his own music demanded strength and range not available in the then current pianos, he pushed Broadwood into several extensions of the range and sonority of the instrument. It was a Broadwood instrument with Dussek's improvements that was sent to Beethoven. And it was while Dussek was having dinner with John Broadwood that his wife left with her lover, though she later returned to Dussek when her lover rejected her. When the firm of Dussek and Corri went bankrupt, Dussek left England for Germany, leaving behind his family, and with his father-in-law in a debtor's jail.

In Germany, initially, he became one of the first "glamour" touring pianists, preceding Franz Liszt. According to Louis Spohr, Dussek was the first to turn the piano sideways on the stage "so that the ladies could admire his handsome profile." Before long, however, he took up a position with Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who treated him more as a friend and colleague than as an employee. Together, they sometimes enjoyed what were called "musical orgies." When Prince Louis Ferdinand was killed in the Battle of Saalfeld, Dussek wrote the moving Sonata in F sharp minor, Elégie harmonique, Op. 61 (C. 211).

In 1807, despite his earlier affiliation with Marie Antoinette, Dussek returned to Paris in the employ of Talleyrand, the powerful French foreign minister. He wrote a powerful sonata (Sonata in A flat major, Op. 64, C. 221) called Le Retour à Paris (The Return to Paris). This imposing sonata also received the nickname Plus Ultra in heated response to a piano sonata by Joseph Woelfl, said to be the last word in pianistic difficulties, entitled Ne Plus Ultra. The remainder of his life he spent performing, teaching and composing in Prussia and France. His personal beauty had faded and he became grossly fat, in fact being unable eventually to reach the piano keyboard, and unfortunately he had developed a fondness for strong drink which hastened his death.

Dussek was an important predecessor of the Romantic composers for piano, especially Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Many of his works sound strikingly "modern," especially when compared with the late Classical style of other composers of the time; yet it remains a controversial point whether or not the later composers were influenced by Dussek, since his works were out of fashion by the time they were writing. Dussek may have been an independent line of development without followers, somewhat in the manner of Gesualdo. Stylistically Dussek has much more in common with the Romantic era than the Classical era, even though most of his work preceded the commonly accepted beginning of the Romantic era by at least two decades.

Some of his more famous and notable works include many solo piano pieces, many of which have programmatic titles, such as The Sufferings of the Queen of France (1793), a series of episodes of varying lengths, with interpolated texts relating to the Queen's misfortunes, including her sorrow at being separated from her children and her final moments on the scaffold before the guillotine. He also wrote 34 piano sonatas, many piano concertos, sonatas for violin and piano, a musical drama, and various works of chamber music, including a Trio for piano, horn and violin, a combination not repeated until Johannes Brahms, and the highly unusual sonata for piano, violin, cello and percussion entitled The Naval Battle and Total Defeat of the Dutch by Admiral Duncan (1797), which is an extremely rare example of pre-20th century chamber music which includes percussion.

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