Encore: Jan Ladislav Dusik - a truly pan-European Czech composer


In this week's Encore we're going to be talking about a fascinating late eighteenth century Czech composer, who led a colourful life in various European cities: Jan Ladislav Dusik, also known as Dussek. He was born in 1760 not far from Prague, and in a life that spanned fifty-two years he worked in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Saint Petersburg, Paris, London, and even Lithuania. At the time his compositions were extremely popular.

I'm joined by the pianist Patricia Goodson, who is a great fan of Dusik's work. Patricia, Dusik had a special interest in the harp. That wasn't just a coincidence, was it?

"No, his mother was a harpist, and he later married two harpists - in succession of course - and his daughter was also a harpist. He grew up in a musical family. His father was a well-known musician, who had a school, which must have been quite famous, because it attracted the attention of the English music historian, Charles Burney, who travelled extensively through Europe to compile a history of European music. He visited the Caslav home of the Dusiks - where they also had a school - and wrote this about his visit:"

I went to visit a school, which was full of children of both sexes between six and eleven years of age. The children read and wrote and played violins, oboes, bassoons and other instruments. The school's organist had four clavichords in a small room in his home, and four boys were practicing on the instruments at the same time. His nine-year-old son was a good piano player.

And of course, that nine-year-old son was the Dusik who grew up to be the Jan Ladislav Dusik we are talking about today.

"That's right. Actually he was twelve at the time, which may be why he made such a striking impression on Burney."

Jan Ladislav Dusik was one of the first great touring virtuosi, wasn't he? What accounted for his success?

London in the 18th century
"First of all, he was a superb pianist, who had a particular expressive power and could really draw in an audience. It didn't hurt that he was very handsome. In fact his contemporary and countryman, Tomasek, wrote these words about his appearance in Prague:

There was something magical about the way that Dusik, handsome as he was in appearance, employed his admirable touch to produce tones that were at once tender and virile.

"Another account says that at a concert in Prague, when he returned in 1802 to visit his family and to give concerts, a listener described the audience giving a collective sigh, just as he began to play, as it was so beautiful. He also, as I've said, was notably handsome, and he was particularly proud of his profile. In fact it was he who originated the practice of performing sideways to the audience, so that he could make the most out of his good looks."

You've already mentioned that both Dusik's wives were harpists. In fact, his second wife was a very well-known musician in her own right, wasn't she?

"Yes, her name was Sophia Corri. She was an Englishwoman of Italian descent, and she was famous in her day as a singer, as a pianist, as a harpist, and as a composer. They married in 1792 in England. Prior to that Dusik had been living in France, and in fact had been a favourite of the court of Marie Antoinette. He seemed all his life to have a knack of getting along with the well-connected, with the aristocrats, and for most of his life that served him well. But after the French Revolution it was a very bad thing, so he had to flee France and like many people in his position he ended up in England. It was there that he met and married and performed with Sophia Corri."

We've talked about Dusik's musical partnership with his wife, Sophia. I gather that he also entered a rather ill-advised business partnership with her father - his father-in-law.

"Yes, they had a music shop together and they had a publishing business, but neither man was a businessman, and the business went bankrupt. His father-in-law was sent to debtor's prison, but Dusik escaped and fled to Hamburg, abandoning his wife and child. He corresponded a while with his wife, but there's no evidence to suggest that they ever saw each other again."

So he was a bid of a cad in his private life.

"Yes" [both laugh].

Putting his private life aside and turning to Dusik as a musician, he really was quite important and influential in his time, wasn't he?

"He was very famous as a performer and his compositions were widely known, and in many ways they foreshadowed the romantic period, which was to follow the classical period. He was a member of the so-called English school of piano composition. At that time there were two centres of piano manufacturing, one in Vienna, one in London. Viennese pianos encouraged a very light touch and clear articulation. The English pianos were more sonorous and resonant. The sound was fuzzier and fuller and larger. It was these things that led Dusik and his contemporaries in London, such as Clementi and Cramer, to experiment with sonorities and harmonies. So much of his music was quite daring harmonically. He liked to modulate frequently - to far, foreign keys. Some of his piano music really went on the edge - so to speak - and in its expressive ideal, which was meant to conjure up emotion and speak directly to the individual, he prefigured romantics such as Schubert, Schumann, Chopin and Mendelsohn."

Dusik fled London in 1800 and I gather that eventually he ended up back in Paris.

Prince Talleyrand
"Yes, he did. He was in the service of Prince Talleyrand, and for a while he was appointed by Napoleon to supervise the musical activities of the Spanish nobility, which he had locked up in a chateau somewhere. It was quite a bleak period for Dusik. He complains of being bored out of his mind by being made to improvise on Fandangos and Boleros all day long."

Dusik died young. It has been said that he was an alcoholic, but I gather that most people today think that it's more likely that he suffered from some kind of depression.

"They called it in those days melancholia, and he was certainly fond of drink. There are certain accounts of rowdy times he spent in the service of one prince, for example, out with the soldiers from one battlefield to the next, carousing and having a pretty good time. So I don't think he was shy about living life to the fullest. But by the time he was in his fifties, he was quite overweight and suffering terribly from gout, and apparently from this depression that kept him pretty much confined to his bed. So the causes of his death are listed both as gout and as melancholia.

Magic Carpet - world music in the heart of Europe

Petr Doruzka
Magic Carpet is Radio Prague's monthly music magazine that looks at music from Czech, Moravian and Silesian towns and villages. The programme covers a wide selection of genres, from traditional folk to the exotic and experimental.

It is presented by Petr Doruzka, one of the Czech Republic's foremost music journalists.


25.4.2004:The six-member group Quakvarteto, led by the violinist Dorothea Kellerova, relishes moving between different musical styles with wit and irony, mixing piano and violin with woodwind, tuba and vocals. In Petr Doruzka's Magic Carpet we hear from their latest CD, adapting Chick Corea's Children's Songs.

23.5.2004:At the beginning of May the Czech nation celebrated joining the European Union. In Prague a big festival was held: The United Islands, with live music played on the 10 islands on the course of the Vltava River in the city. Yet the final concert took place on the mainland, with the Gypsy Kings, the world famous band from Southern France topping the bill, plus two promising local Roma bands as support, Gulo Car and Bengas. Why are the Gypsy bands so popular? Is this just a short lived fashion, or are Czech audiences bored with the non-Roma mainstream? And what can the Roma bands offer to international audiences?

Link: www.bengas.cz

20.6.2004:For generations the zither was one of the best loved instruments in Czech households. But now the delicate wooden box with a generous array of strings looks more like an antiquity than an instrument people play. The decline of zither in the Czech lands started with independence from the Habsburg Empire. The instrument was often identified as a German import, and the next generation choose to play guitar instead. Now the zither is coming back. One of the most gifted Czech players, Michal Müller, chose to study the instrument at the Vienna conservatory. He graduated 3 years ago, and now he's the one and only Czech zither teacher with a diploma - and also an adventurous and prolific musician.

Link: www.michal-muller.cz

For copyright reasons we are unable to archive the programmes in audio, but here at least are a few words about some of the recordings featured recently in the programme.


28.3.2004:With village music in decline, Petr Doruzka introduces us to one of the Czech Republic's most original and imaginative groups bringing new life to traditional folk songs - the Moberg Ensemble.

29.2.2004: The gypsy settlements in Slovakia are probably the nearest place to the Czech Republic where Roma are still able to maintain their lifestyle untouched by urban life. In past years, the Slovak song collector Jana Belisova from Bratislava made several field recording trips to these villages, produced two CDs, and two books (in Prague you'll find them in the Romen Shop, Nerudova Street 32). In the programme: a Gypsy Christmas song from Slovakia, plus Zuzana Navarova with Mario Bihari, the blind Gypsy accordion player, and The Devil Fiddlers from Bratislava meet Andalusian flamenco.

1.2.2004: Up in north-eastern part of the Czech Republic, close to the Polish border, lies the city of Ostrava, formerly a heavy industry centre, now developing a new identity. One of the most important artists of this region is Jaromir Nohavica - a singer, songwriter and poet. His latest CD, titled Babylon, was one of the most successful and also most interesting albums of past year. Also in the programme: Salute Zappa, a homage to the American composer Frank Zappa by Czech bands.

4.1.2004: Petr looks at some new releases by Czech independent labels. Well be hearing the Czech guitarist Pavel Richter as well as the amazing Romany musician Iva Bittova, with the re-release of a fantastic recording from 15 years ago with her half-sister, Ida Kellarova. Listen out as well for the new album of the band Gothart, entitled "Rakija 'n' Roll". Gothart are a group of Czech musicians who've become enamoured of the Balkans and draw from Serbian, Greek, Macedonian, Bulgarian, and Armenian tradition.

See also The History of Music.

Magic Carpet Archive.