Jan Ladislav Dussek (Czech family name Dusík) was the first truly important touring piano virtuoso and a highly popular composer, although his music rapidly fell into obscurity. It was somewhat revived in the late nineteenth century, and 100 years after that was recognized for its originality. Primarily for piano, it is brilliant in effect, with fast, exciting figurations and other elements intended to dazzle. He was one of the first to write specific pedaling instructions into his scores. His music anticipates many aspects of later Romantic piano composers, to a surprising degree.
He was the son of Jan Dussek (1738-1818), a well-known local musician in Bohemia. He studied piano from the age of five, and began playing the organ at nine. He also had a fine voice, joining the boy choir of the Minorite church in Iglau (Jihlava). In 1778 he attended the University of Prague for one term.
He almost always had a job as organist and made public appearances as pianist. An artillery officer, Count Männer, took him on a concert tour in Germany. In 1780, he was piano teacher to the stadtholder's children in The Hague. He met C.P.E. Bach in Hamburg, in 1782, who may have taught him for a while. Dussek pressed on east, playing before Empress Catherine II in 1783. He left Russia quickly, with rumors that he was implicated in a plot against the Empress, and found refuge in Lithuania as Prince Karl Radziwill's Kapellmeister for the next two years.
He then toured Germany and France, playing glass harmonica as well as piano, and again making a huge impression with his virtuoso playing. In addition to having remarkable finger fluency and power, Dussek was able to make a singing, legato tone out of what is essentially a percussion instrument. The secret was the detailed study of the sustaining pedals of the piano, unprecedented at the time. He was the first pianist to turn the piano so that instead of facing the audience across the long axis of the instrument, he sat with his right profile presented to the audience, allowing the piano lid to be opened to reflect and project the sound outward.
He appeared before the French court, playing for Marie Antoinette. With the Revolution, Dussek fled to London, anticipating that his aristocratic ties would be unpopular with the new regime. He spent 11 years in London, where he was praised by Haydn. He encouraged the English piano-maker Broadwood to adopt a longer keyboard, six octaves wide. He married Sophia Corri, whose father was a conductor originally from Naples. She was an accomplished singer, pianist, and harp player, and often appeared with her husband. They had one child, Olivia. Dussek and his father-in-law went into business as music publishers and failed spectacularly by 1799. Corri was thrown into prison, and Dussek fled the country, leaving wife and daughter behind.
He resumed his European concert career and in October 1804, was appointed Kapellmeister by Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who loved music so much, he took his musicians with him to the battlefields. Wild stories of these visits were told by Ludwig Spohr, the violinist and composer, who was also along. Dussek wrote his popular piano sonata, Elégie harmonique, Op. 61, after the Prince was killed in battle.
In September 1807, Dussek accepted a position with the French minister Talleyrand and remained in that job until death. Contemporary accounts suggest that his powers were in no way diminished until the final months of his life, when he was bedridden, suffering from gout and other ailments, including excessive drinking and extreme obesity.