The recent anniversaries of Chopin and Schumann in 2010 and Franz Liszt in 2011 inspire us to once again travel back in time and set focus on another tremendously important, yet almost forgotten virtuoso pianist from this golden era of pianism: Sigismond Thalberg.
Sigismond Thalberg was born in midwinter in 1812. Wednesday, 8 January 1812 saw not only the birth of Thalberg but also Wellington’s siege of Ciudad Rodrigo. Barely six months later, Napoleon would begin his ill-fated attempt to conquer Russia and James Madison would sign into law the American declaration of war against Britain. Thalberg was born into a world rife with conflict. The world knows remarkably little about Sigismond Thalberg before his mother brought him to Vienna in 1822 at the age of 10. That same year, Liszt, who was three months older than Thalberg, would also arrive in Vienna. Little did the piano world know that a rivalry would develop that would nearly equal the military conflicts of the day.
The first record of Thalberg’s education is from the spring of 1826, when Sigismond was 14 years old. Ignaz Moscheles took him under his wing, and Thalberg profoundly impressed him. In fact, Moscheles wrote to his good friend Mendelssohn, saying there was little else he could teach him. Very shortly thereafter, Thalberg gave his first public performance, playing Hummel’s Concerto in B-Minor. He then became a regular on the Vienna stage. Thalberg further developed his playing by befriending Clara Wieck. She was another very talented, young pianist in 1830s Vienna. Clara was slightly younger than Sigismond and may at the time have looked up to the dashing teenager. They would get together and share concertos they had learned or composed. Interestingly, Clara married Robert Schumann, who was an early Thalberg critic. At roughly this same time, Thalberg began studying counterpoint with Simon Sechter, a strict disciplinarian who demanded considerable attention to detail. Sechter was famous for a lack of elan, and it is his instruction that very likely inspired Thalberg’s nearly immobile, unemotional posture at the keyboard.
Thalberg in Paris
At 24, Sigismond Thalberg arrived in Paris. Taking it by storm, he began with a concert at the home of Count Rudolph Apponyi, the Austrian ambassador. He continued with concerts on nearly every stage in the French capital. Rossini, Meyerbeer, and Berlioz adored this newcomer, but Chopin did not. Berlioz even elevated him above Liszt and Chopin, saying he was the premier pianist in the world. Chopin countered, saying that, although Thalberg played splendidly, he was little more than a diamond-studded salon acrobat who had to use the pedals to play with dynamics. The public did not seem to care about the debate, however. They loved Thalberg, and the Swiss sensation raked in 10000 Francs for a single concert in April of 1836. It was at this time that Liszt became aware of his main rival. On Thalberg’s 25th birthday, Liszt published a scathing, highly controversial review of Thalberg’s compositions.
Italian refugees poured into Paris in the early spring of 1837. Italian princes drove many Italians to flee by hiring Austrian mercenaries to put down the many rebellions of that year. Both Liszt and Thalberg were sympathetic to their plight and agreed to stage a benefit concert for them. It became a “Duel of the Century” between the two titans of the keyboard. Critic Jules Janin, along with many other musicologists and historians, called it a draw. He noted:
“Never was Liszt more controlled, more energetic, more passionate; never has Thalberg played with more verve and tenderness…thus, two victors and no vanquished.”
Most modern Thalberg historians agree with this assessment. Most Liszt biographers, however, have Liszt trouncing his counterpart by exposing Thalberg as “Old Apreggio,” who had a “neat trick” of making two hands sound like three by playing the melody with the thumbs while embellishing it with scads of arpeggios up and down the keyboard. The debate is likely never to be settled since, obviously, no recording exists.
Read more about the duel:
The Battle Between “Il penseroso” and “The Old Arpeggio”
1838 and Beyond
Despite their intense rivalry and Liszt’s sometimes acidic comments to the press and public, they both remained friends their whole lives. Liszt was a frequent guest of Thalberg and his family, and Thalberg graciously promoted his friend to the King of Saxony in 1838 while on his own tour. Liszt, in turn, loudly cheered and applauded at Thalberg’s concert in Vienna ten years later. Additionally, in 1841 Fetis indicated that Thalberg influenced Liszt’s style in his Transcendental Etudes. Liszt himself agreed with this assessment.
Thalberg took a break from playing in 1840 to vacation in Germany’s Rhineland. He only wanted to relax as a tourist. The Tsarina of Russia persuaded him to play one concert for her, but that was it for nearly a year until he picked up where he left off with an 1841 concert in Frankfurt.
In 1843, Thalberg got married and settled into a routine of teaching lots and playing sporadically for the next decade or so. Thalberg developed a touch of Wanderlust in 1855 and decided to go to America to play. For three years straight, he played five or six concerts a week and made a fortune. Suddenly, in 1858, he and his family packed up lock, stock, and barrel and mysteriously moved back to Italy. No one knows why, even today. From then on, except for an 1863 Brazilian tour, Thalberg was silent at the keyboard until his death in 1871.
Because of his incredible style, Thalberg bred many imitators. Not all of them were worthy, and they have buried this virtuoso’s lasting influence under their mediocrity.
“From a composition point of view, the winning shot of Thalberg were the Fantasias on favourite opera arias, where he introduced a series of innovative and revolutionary technical formulas that made his pianism, during the first half of the nineteenth century, the only one capable to set itself against the supremacy of Franz Liszt…”
(Sigismund Thalberg biography, Il Centro Studi Internazionale Sigismund Thalberg)
Selected Piano Works by Thalberg
Thalberg’s piano method
Thalberg’s respected work L’art du chant appliqué au piano, Op. 70 (The Art of Song Applied to the Piano), published in 1853-54, was offered by music publishing houses throughout Europe and is seen as Thalberg´s contribution to the world of piano pedagogy. A fine baritone himself, Thalberg seeks to translate qualities of vocal music into piano playing honoring legato, cantabile, listening and inner hearing. The treatise, or method comprises twenty-five transcriptions of vocal works by other composers, primarily operatic material. Each piece usually included Thalberg’s own introductory comment, consisting of some remarks and instructions based on a set of rules which is beautifully summed up in Danny L. Hithcock´s words:
1. Eliminate all tension, especially in the forearms.
2. Avoid striking the keys; rather, depress them as an extension of arm and body movement.
3. Dynamic markings are relative, not absolute; make the vocal line predominate.
4. Subordinate the left hand to the right except when it carries the melodic responsibility. Convey the overall harmony of the chords rather than their specific elements.
5. Shun the affectation of delayed entries for melodies.
6. Hold notes for their full values; slow, careful practice of fugues will develop this.
7. Modify and vary the sound rather than merely executing the notes. Learn thoroughly the resources and correct usage of the two pedals. Honor scrupulously all tempo indications.
9. Refrain from gratuitous fast playing; steady tempi, accuracy and expression demand and display greater ability, again facilitated by the study of fugues.
10. Play close to the keys. Listen to the music as you play; work with the mind more than the fingers. Study vocal technique and repertoire; listen to fine singers at every opportunity.
More about Thalberg:
Centro Studi Internationale Sigismund Thalberg
Sigismond Thalberg – 200 Years | Classical Music Diary
The International Sigismund Thalberg Prize 2012
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 58 – Pixis & Thalberg