Marie Pleyel:

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Marie Pleyel was easily one of the most celebrated pianists of the early nineteenth century, and perhaps the only female virtuoso-pianist who was consistently ranked with Liszt.  Her concert career, which spanned approximately forty years, was one of the most brilliant of the century.  She blazed through France, Belgium, Austria, Russia, Germany and England, leaving a trail of rave reviews and delirious fans.  Heine evidently included Pleyel in the mighty ensemble of the reigning European piano virtuosos when he called, “Thalberg a king, Liszt a prophet, Chopin a poet, Herz an advocate, Kalkbrenner a minstrel, Mme Pleyel a sibyl, and Döhler a pianist.”  The music critic François-Joseph Fétis, who eventually invited Pleyel to become the first head of the piano department at the Brussels Conservatory, wrote: "I have heard all the celebrated pianists from Hullmandel and Clementi up to the famous ones of today [ca. 1870] but I say that none of them has given me, as has Mme. Pleyel, the feeling of perfection."

Pleyel was associated with some of the most renowned and influential figures of her time.  Her talent and magnetism compelled Robert Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Liszt to sing praises, Clara Schumann to agonize, Berlioz and Gérard de Nerval to lose their hearts (both later wrote short stories based on their turbulent experiences with Pleyel), and numerous prominent composers to dedicate their works to her.  She was also a personal friend of the writers Alexandre Dumas père and Victor Hugo, as well as the Baron de Trémont, a patron of the arts.  She was married to, albeit briefly, Camille Pleyel, who owned one of the most successful piano firms in Europe.  Marie Pleyel was an important and active member of the European circle of artistic elites during the mid-nineteenth century.  In fact, Peter Bloom wrote that Pleyel “may be the real key to understanding the inner workings of musical Paris in and around 1830.”

Despite all of Pleyel’s triumphant achievements, history has not treated her kindly.  Her achievements and place in history have been merely skimmed over and belittled, if not altogether overlooked.  In a dictionary of piano concert programs, Pleyel is inadvertently listed twice, once under her common name, Camilla, and a second time under her proper name, Marie Félicité Denise.  Such grave carelessness shows how little research was made on her after her death.  While numerous biographies have been written on so-called “forgotten pianists” during the past few yearsincluding Clara Schumann, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Hans von Bülow, and Nikolai MedtnerMarie Pleyel escaped attention.

Although contemporary letters, articles, and reviews were consistently favorable toward the genial virtuosa, her portrayal was altered after her death in 1875.  Her great successes as a musician were overshadowed by her colorful personal life; she came to be characterized as frivolous, shallow, calculating and immoral.  Ernest Newman mockingly wrote: “the pretty little Camille seems to have cultivated, besides the piano, the more realistically profitable business of her feminine charms.”  Barzun likened her to a siren, the mythical beast, half woman and half bird, whose sweet singing lured seamen to their deaths.  Pleyel has generally been depicted as “a superficially fascinating but brittle, vulgar, self-seeking nymphomaniac.”

Many other writers seem to smirk while depicting Pleyel as a tease.  An article from the Musical Times in 1894, nearly twenty years after her death, illustrates the inequitable manner in which biographers continued to portray Pleyel:

Marie Felicité Denise Moke (Madame Pleyel), whom the annexed portrait shows in the plenitude of her early charms [. . .] had a personal history scarcely less interesting than that which musical lexicographers have written about her artistic career.  For many years her life was a striking illustration of the fascinating power which a gifted and beautiful woman can exercise, if she please, upon the opposite sex.  The incident which Berlioz describes in a famous chapter of his autobiography shows how early, and with what force, she began her witchery. [. . .]  [N]o doubt remains that when Mlle. Moke jilted her absent lover he was profoundly moved [. . .] the poor moth was badly singed by the fickle flame of the candle which attracted him.  Mdlle. Moke, not long after, married Camille Pleyel, eldest son of Ignaz Pleyel, the composer and founder of the still existing pianoforte manufactory.  But the lady by no means settled down to matronly duties.  Both as artist and woman she had the world at her feet, and the position was one to be enjoyed. [. . .]  She came to England (1846) and met with equal success, dazzling the eyes of the critics as much by personal charm as by executive skill.  Some of them appear to have lost their hearts when I read their passionate eulogies.  In all this there is nothing new.  The magnetism of sex under certain conditions is a very old story. 

[. . .] If genius be “the faculty of taking pains,” then Madame Pleyel undoubtedly had genius.  Anyhow, the clever Parisienne possessed talents and ambition which, in alliance with an all-subduing personality, carried her to the highest pinnacle of fame.

What can the reasons be for such negative remarks?  Are they justified in any way or merely malicious?  Research will show that there is surprisingly little evidence to validate such comments; on the contrary, contemporary documents lean in favor of Pleyel, both as a pianist and as a person.  Why then did Pleyel’s reputation deteriorate to the point of neglect?

Happily, a number of writers have given Pleyel a more objective appraisal.  She is probably most familiar to readers of Berlioz’s Memoirs, as his “distraction violente” of 1830-31.  All major biographies on Berlioz include this major event, which profoundly influenced himand, as usual for Berlioz, his music.  David Cairns, in a recent biography of Berlioz, devotes a significant portion of the book to Pleyel.  It is certainly the most sympathetic view she has received in recent times.

Attacks on Pleyel can be explained in part, because much of the readily available information about her is found in sources on her more renowned (and mostly male) colleagues, such as Berlioz, Liszt, or Clara Schumann.  As the position of these individuals to Pleyel was either that of rival or jilted lover (the latter group included Camille Pleyel, Nerval, and Hiller), their letters and, in the case of Berlioz and Nerval, short stories, obviously portray her in an unfavorable light.  Many biographers of these contemporaries have accepted at face value these rather unreliable, subjective (considering their relationship to Pleyel) comments on Pleyel, without considering the possibility of jealousy, bitterness, or male pride (and also insanity, in the case of Nerval) clouding their views.

Another vital reason for the recent disregard toward Pleyel is her gender.  Although there were many successful female pianists in Europe during the mid-nineteenth century, very few of their names are remembered today.  Most certainly, Pleyel’s striking beauty contributed to her success.  Reviews nearly always described her good looks, in addition to her playing. Biographers of Pleyel’s contemporaries always remember to point out her physical assets, even when as a musician, she is often simply depicted as merely a “very talented pianist.”  It was important for female musicians to be visually appealing in order to be accepted by the public and the critics; yet, female artists using their visual appeal led the same group of people to decry the shallowness of women and their incapacity for profound art.  This “Catch-22” for women made it nearly impossible for them to be accepted as respected, “serious” musicians.

Pleyel, who lived during a time when repertoire and performance style and attitudes differed greatly by gender, astonishingly managed to leap above all the rules, gaining her repute not only as merely a beautiful pianiste, but as a virtuosa and artist of true worth.  Her concert reviews assert her success in combining her femininity with dazzling virtuosity.  An unidentified reviewer for Dwight’s Journal of Music amusingly wrote that, “Madame Pleyel [. . .] is, beyond question, the queen of pianists, since, with all her power and skill, she is still feminine.”

My goal in this work is to bring together for the first time existing sources on Pleyel, including her letters and those of her contemporaries, reviews and articles, short stories and other historical documents, in order give a more detailed picture of her life and legacy.  In doing so, not only will a most fascinating figure finally be given her due, but also some of the major artistic figures of her time will be discussed, and, it is hoped, some of the inner workings of European cultural life will be better understood.

As most of the information found on Marie Pleyel is from reviews, letters and biographies of her contemporaries, rather than documents by her own hand, we can only see her through the eyes of others.  Therefore, the titles of most of the following chapters are the various nicknames and images of her by others.  Though she was best known as Marie Pleyel during her years as a touring pianist, she will be referred to hereafter by her common name, Camille, in order to avoid confusion with her daughter, also named Marie.

I will close this chapter with a quote from the remarkable article by Katherine Ellis on women pianists viewed by contemporary critics, in which she concludes by explaining the basis of Marie “Camille” Pleyel’s exceptional success:

Only Pleyel, who came closest to the male paradigm of the virtuoso-composer, is known to have actively sought to turn such assumptions to her own advantage and to have manipulated her own reception.  Indeed, perhaps the most astounding aspect of the professional lives discussed here, and one worthy of further study, is the sureness with which Pleyel diagnosed and treated the male sexism surrounding her.  Her breathtaking success in the 1840s, repeated on every return to Paris, was due to her self-advertisement as the embodiment of the impossible: the poetic, manly, coquette. 

Marie Pleyel