Remembered mostly as Haydn's rival during his London journey of 1792, Ignaz Josef Pleyel was the 24th child (out of 38!) of an impoverished schoolteacher. He was admitted to the class of the composer Vanhal and came to the attention of a Hungarian nobleman who paid Pleyel's way to study and live with Franz Joseph Haydn at Eisenstadt. Pleyel made rapid progress, and he reported that he and Haydn enjoyed a close, friendly relationship. In 1776, Haydn placed Pleyel's marionette opera Die Fee Urgele (The Fairy Urgele) on the schedule for performance at Esterháza. It was also played at the Vienna Nationaltheater.
Pleyel probably worked briefly for the his noble patron, Count Ladislaus Erdödy, and in the early 1780s he traveled widely in Italy. He composed lira (hurdy-gurdy) pieces for King Ferdinand IV of Naples to play and wrote an opera, Ifigenia in Aulide, that was premiered at the Teatro San Carlo (Naples' major opera house) in 1785. Its success generated a further 18 performances. The previous year Pleyel had become the assistant to Franz Xaver Richter, Kapellmeister of Strasbourg Cathedral, and inherited the post when Richter died in 1789. He gave public concerts as well. During this period, Pleyel wrote accompaniments for Scottish songs and a set of piano trios. In general, the years 1785 to 1795 were his most productive period as a composer.
During the French Revolution, Pleyel moved to London, where he was invited to conduct the Professional Concerts from 1791 to 1792. This was the period when Haydn was also giving concerts in London, but the two composers personally ignored the rival publicity that their respective impresarios generated. As it turned out, there was room for both; while Haydn's concerts were better attended and got more attention, Pleyel's concerts were successes. The London tour did well enough, in fact, that in 1792 Pleyel bought the Château d'Itenwiller at St. Pierre, near Strasbourg. He immediately wrote a pro-Revolutionary hymn called La revolution du 10 août 1792 ou Le tocsin allégorique (The Revolution of August 10, 1792, or The Allegorical Alarm), which is certainly something of a potboiler (like Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture it calls for cannons in the score). No doubt he wrote it in part to cultivate the good graces of the revolutionary authorities, but there is no documentation for the often-told tale that he was arrested and released only after composing the hymn under guard.
In 1795 Pleyel also acquired a house in Paris, opened a piano factory, and founded a publishing house. This became one of the most important in Europe, publishing over 4,000 compositions during its nearly four decades of existence. Pleyel pioneered a system of mutual reissues between his own firm and other great publishers of the time, including Artaria, Breitkopf, and Simrock. He was also the first person to issue miniature scores for study. Among the composers Pleyel published were Beethoven, Haydn, Boccherini, Clementi, Méhul, and Rossini.
In 1805 (during a temporary peace between Napoleon and Austria) Pleyel returned to Vienna, was reunited with the aging Haydn, praised Beethoven's skill as an improviser, and arranged performances of his string quartets, which won favor with the Viennese. After his return to Paris, he gradually retired to a rural estate. In 1824 he retired and sold the assets of his still-successful firm. During his life, his tuneful music, often not too difficult for home music-making, was very popular.