Marie Pleyel (1811–1875)

Marie Pleyel, 1839 (engraving, cf. StadtMuseum Bonn, SMB 2018/412)

The pianist, piano teacher and composer Marie Pleyel, née Moke, was taught the piano from the age of four by Jacques Herz and later by Ignaz Moscheles and Friedrich Kalkbrenner. In 1825, she gave her first public concerts in Brussels, Ghent and Paris. She taught piano at the girls’ boarding school “Institut orthopédique” in Paris as early as 1830; Ferdinand Hiller, Hector Berlioz et al. also taught in Paris at the time. In 1830, she was briefly engaged to Berlioz but then married the pianist and piano manufacturer Camille Pleyel (1788-1855) in 1831, with whom she had two children, Henry (1832-1853) and Louise (1833-1856). During her four-year marriage, she continued to teach and also performed in the salons of Paris and in the concert hall “Salle Pleyel” of her husband’s piano company. After separating in 1835, she temporarily moved to Hamburg where she also performed several times in public. Between 1836 and 1838, Marie Pleyel withdrew from public life to further her music development. Her numerous and successful concert tours until 1874 took her throughout the whole of Europe, to Paris, London, St Petersburg, Vienna, Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin and Bonn, to name only a few. From 1841, the centre of her life became Brussels where she taught at the Royal Conservatoire between 1848 and 1872.

The concert reviews praised her brilliant technique and her clear and at the same time poetic playing; the audience was equally enthusiastic about her and, moreover, delighted by her grace and beauty, attributed to her in contemporary reviews and also in encyclopaedia entries. Liszt, Chopin, Kalkbrenner and other composers all dedicated works to her, and the pianist Antoine Marmontel (1816-1898) appreciated her as follows: “[Her interpretation possessed the clarity of Kalkbrenner, the exquisite sensitivity of Chopin, the spiritual elegance of Herz, the beautiful and powerful sound of Thalberg, and the enchanting vigour of Liszt.]” (quoted after Mayer-Heimel, p. 5).

Robert Schumann also praised the pianist, although he found her composition Grand Fantasia on Themes from Carl Maria von Weber’s “Preciosa” less interesting: “[Miss Pleyel performed it [the Concert Piece, Op. 79, by Weber] most impressively and with the same warm passion with which she seems to equip all her music. And so, a joyful and communicative mood had soon spread across the audience as it only happens after the pleasure of witnessing the interaction of a masterpiece and its masterful playing. Concerning the piece with which the artist concluded this rich evening of music, we wish we could say the same; but there, the skill of the creating talent obviously lagged behind the performing one, as this was a composition by the virtuoso we would have wished, even by including themes by Weber, to be set and elaborated more beautifully. Still, it was exactly there that the applause was so rapturous that she had to repeat it.]” (Gesammelte Schriften [Collected Writings], Vol. 3, p. 170). Schumann himself was, however, absolutely delighted by her appearance, as he wrote to Clara Wieck in November 1839 that Marie Pleyel was “[definitely an artist in everything she does and speaks. She also has a habit of sometimes shutting her left eye and looking upwards with the other in a most gorgeous manner, and this is so sweet it can take your breath away.]” (quoted after Schumann-Briefedition [Schumann Letter Edition], p. 387).

In view of all these enthusiastic voices, it is not surprising that Clara Schumann saw Marie Pleyel, particularly around 1838/39, as a rival and “nemesis” (Klassen 2009, p. 149), especially since she was praised for very similar skills, that is, technical brilliance in combination with a poetic rendering, and was equally celebrated as a first-class pianist. From 1836, there are some diary entries by Clara Wieck on Marie Pleyel, mostly ironic remarks about Pleyel’s male admirers but also on concert reviews by which Clara was impressed and slightly intimidated. On 1st December 1839, Clara wrote in her diary: “[If I could only once hear and see this strange female. Each of her movements is apparently well-studied, after completing a piece she always stays with the orchestra, talks with the musicians, keeps bowing, very childlike, as if she did not know how she had deserved this applause, then sits down at the piano and plays another piece]” (Jugendtagebücher [Youth Diaries], pp. 354 f.). It was only in 1851, when Clara Schumann was on a concert tour in Belgium, that she met Marie Pleyel in person, and Clara Schumann noted in her diary: “[I was very pleased to meet her, since I had heard so much about her, and I was actually very surprised by her great amiability which seemed so perfectly natural]” (Litzmann, Clara Schumann, Vol. 2, p. 263).

Cf. Rita Benton: “(3) (Camille) Marie (Denise) Moke Pleyel”, in: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie, Vol. 19, 2nd edition, London/New York, 2001, p. 923.

Cf. Clara Wieck, Jugendtagebücher 1827‒1840, edited by Gerd Nauhaus and Nancy B. Reich, with the collaboration of Kristin R.M. Krahe, Hildesheim, 2019.

Cf. Jenny Kip: Article “Pleyel, Marie (Camille, Camilla) Félicité Denise, geb. Moke”, in: Europäische Instrumentalistinnen des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts. 2009. Online Encyclopaedia of the Sophie Drinker Institute, edited by Freia Hoffmann. Online at: [6.9.2020].

Cf. Janina Klassen: Clara Schumann. Musik und Öffentlichkeit (= Europäische Komponistinnen 3), Cologne et al., 2009, pp. 149‒151.

Cf. Katharina Mayer-Heimel: Article “Marie Pleyel”, in: MUGI. Musikvermittlung und Genderforschung: Lexikon und multimediale Präsentationen, edited by Beatrix Borchard and Nina Noeske, Hamburg University of Music and Theatre, 2003 ff. (as at 17.04.2018). Online at: [10.9.2020].

Cf. Schumann-Briefedition, Series I, Vol. 6: Familienbriefwechsel (Briefwechsel Clara und Robert Schumann, Vol. III: Juni 1839 bis Februar 1840), edited by Thomas Synofzik and Anja Mühlenweg, Cologne, 2014, p. 387.

for further information: Jenny Kip: Mehr Poesie als in zehn Thalbergs. Die Pianistin Marie Pleyel (1811‒1875) (= Schriftenreihe des Sophie Drinker Instituts 7, edited by Freia Hoffmann), Carl von Ossietzky University, Oldenburg, 2010.

(Theresa Schlegel, 2020, translated by Thomas Henninger, 2020)

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