Hidden Gems – Dussek: Sonatina in E-flat Major, Op. 20, No. 6

There’s a unique delight in playing sonatinas from the Classical period, since they essentially serve as introductory adventures in Classical sonata-allegro form. Certain sections might call to mind Mozart or Haydn, maybe Beethoven, but the rhetoric is more compact and simplified. The flow of the music tends to be fairly predictable, making it accessible to a young piano student and easily conquered by a more experienced pianist. Despite their pedagogical aims, many classical sonatinas contain personal touches from the composers.

Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812) was the first pianist to sit with his profile to the audience, earning him the nickname “le beau visage” (a nickname that likely faded as he became obese later in life). He toured all over Europe, from Bohemia to the Netherlands, Russia, Lithuania, France, Italy, and England. In a fascinating sidenote, he was suspected to be involved in a plot to assassinate Catherine the Great while in St. Petersburg, and he departed Russia abruptly.

Dussek’s name often enters discussions about teachable sonatinas, but only his G major sonatina, Op. 20, No. 1, seems to have real popularity. I recently played through all six sonatinas of the Op. 20 set (sometimes labeled as Op. 19) as part of research for a new collection, and No. 6 in E-flat really stood out to me.

The Allegro first movement opens in high spirits, with horn fanfares in the right hand over Alberti bass in the left hand. Dussek alternates cute neighbor-tone motives slurred to staccato with sixteenth-note runs, and some interesting harmonic byways that lead to the dominant to set up the repeat. In the development, an expected turn to minor mode leads to a delicate F minor melody that wouldn’t be out of place in Mozart. By the end of the movement, the fanfare motives have slightly overstayed their welcome (especially if both repeats are observed), but the slur-staccato motives are infectiously fun to play. In some cases the left hand crosses over the right to play these phrases. Throughout this movement, Dussek has written specific articulations and dynamic contrasts to ensure a performance full of style and sensitivity.

In the breezy second movement rondo, marked Allegretto, delicate counterpoint and sensitive voicing of chords support a melody in 6/8. Some Alberti-type figures return in the left hand, giving the player extra practice for that technique. After a restatement of the opening theme, Dussek gives us an A-flat melody of Schubertian grace with some earnest raised fourths. Then, in perhaps the most special moment in the piece, Dussek brings the Alberti bass figure up into the treble register, with a continued emphasis on the raised fourths in the melody. A transition leads to restatements of previous material until the coda.

It’s a charming piece, providing ample opportunities for an intermediate-level student to focus on articulation, contrast, and smooth sixteenths in a spirited, satisfying classical style. For an amateur or hobbyist, it’s predictable enough to be sight-readable, while still carrying a few surprises.

Note that I didn’t provide a YouTube video for this one. Go play it!

Where to find it:

50601133 35 Sonatinas by 10 Composers (Schirmer)

50252310 Dussek: 6 Sonatinas, Op. 20 (Schirmer)

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