PIANIST, COMPOSER, TEACHER

PAUL COOKE EXAMINES THE LIFE OF MOSCHELES

Ignaz Moscheles c1860. Image: Alamy


Ignaz Moscheles’ career spanned much of the 19th century, and it was spent in the important musical cities of Vienna, London and Leipzig in regular contact with other influential musicians. It was a time when the piano developed from a ‘flimsy, delicate contraption’ into an expressive and powerful instrument. Moscheles is, however, largely missing from literary works devoted to great musicians. Was it because his compositions were often intended to serve his performing career? Was it because his talents as a virtuoso were not as irresistible as those of the all-conquering Liszt? Was it because he devoted himself increasingly to teaching?

Moscheles was born in the Jewish quarter of Prague in 1794. Ten years later he was studying piano with Friedrich Dionys Weber, the founder of the Prague Conservatory and a strict disciplinarian who insisted upon a solid grounding in the works of Bach, Mozart and Clementi. In response to Moscheles’ attempts to learn Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, Weber countered that ‘Beethoven, clever as he is, writes a lot of hare-brained stuff, and leads pupils astray’.

It is not surprising that in 1808 Moscheles moved to Vienna in order to be within Beethoven’s orbit and studied with two of Beethoven’s own teachers, Salieri and Albrechtsberger. While in Vienna, he was involved, playing cymbals, in the premiere of Beethoven’s Wellington’s victory (Meyerbeer played the bass drum and Hummel directed the cannonade). A year later, in 1814, Moscheles was commissioned to prepare a piano reduction of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, which was received positively by the composer. Moscheles’ performance of it saw him become one of Vienna’s most popular virtuoso pianists, a celebrity reinforced by his own composition of 1815, La marche d’Alexandre. Moscheles would later go on to conduct the London premiere of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis in 1832, and translate Schindler’s biography as The life of Beethoven in 1841.

From 1815 to 1825 Moscheles pursued a career as a travelling recitalist, giving concerts throughout Germany and in Paris, London and Prague. Many of his compositions at this time were, as a result, display pieces and piano concertos. His Piano concerto no 2 in E flat major has been praised for its elegant reticence, cultivated technical precision, clear phrasing and lightness of touch. The Piano concerto no 3 in G minor was held in high esteem by Robert Schumann, who was of the opinion that it was one of two works ‘through which alone he has secured for himself a place in the first row of contemporary piano concertos’. Both works, probably composed about 1822, melded Classical form with Romantic idiom and can be seen as providing a bridge to the music of Mendelssohn. Moscheles met Mendelssohn in 1824 and gave him some piano lessons. He was also present at Fanny Mendelssohn’s 19th birthday celebrations in November and was eloquent in his praise of both. Of Fanny he wrote that she was ‘also extraordinarily gifted, played by ear, and with admirable precision Fugues and Passacailles by Bach’, and he signed her album, with a mark of his most ‘deep esteem’ and referencing her expertise in double counterpoint. Of her brother he wrote: “Felix, a boy of fifteen, is a phenomenon. What are all prodigies as compared with him? Gifted children, but nothing else.”

New horizons beckoned for Moscheles in 1825, with his marriage to Charlotte Embden and their subsequent move to England. Until 1846 he taught piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London, his pupils including Henry Litolff and Sigismond Thalberg. His compositions at this time were often piano works of a lightweight or ephemeral nature designed for salons or amateur markets, although he also managed to write a few more piano concertos. He maintained his friendship with Mendelssohn: together they played the latter’s Concerto in E for two pianos and a Mozart double concerto, and Moscheles in turn went to Leipzig in 1835 to take part in Mendelssohn’s first Gewandhaus concerts. Mendelssohn was a frequent guest at the Moscheles residence at 3 Chester Place, Regent’s Park, where the first rehearsal of his Elijah was held on 10 August 1846. Other visitors at various times in the 1830s and 1840s were Paganini, Meyerbeer, Ole Bull, Czerny, Liszt and Joachim.

During his time in London he conducted the Philharmonic Society, and met and played duets with Chopin, a composer whom he admired for his creativity and virtuosity, but whose improvisations he thought to be too showy and decorative (he had similar views about Liszt). Like Mendelssohn, he too was beguiled by earlier music. He edited and interpreted music by Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Clementi, and instituted a series of ‘historical soirées’. The first of these in 1837 included sonatas by Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber, music by Bach, Scarlatti and Handel played on a 1771 harpsichord, and vocal music by Purcell, Mozart and Mendelssohn.

In 1846 he moved to Leipzig to take up the position of Principal Professor of Piano at the Conservatory recently established there by Mendelssohn. Even though Mendelssohn died the following year, Moscheles remained there until his own death on 10 March 1870, teaching piano to, and encouraging, a new generation including Grieg, Sullivan and Bruch. While in Leipzig he published compositions including songs and works for cello and piano, as ever displaying restraint and classical balance.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of his death, we celebrate the music of Ignaz Moscheles in Sunday Special on 8 March at 3pm.

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