Sigismund Thalberg – Forgotten Master

Guest post by Andrew Wright

thalberg_s_2Sometimes it happens that an artist or musician achieves a stellar level of fame and success during his lifetime, only to vanish into the footnotes of history upon their death. The composer-pianist Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871) is one such figure. Lauded by royalty and critics alike, the one-time rival of Liszt is now only known to students of music history and pianophiles.

Let us begin by briefly examining his early life. Considerable doubt surrounds his birth and parentage: whilst his birth certificate lists his parents as Joseph Thalberg and Fortunée Stein of Frankfurt-am-Main, the general belief is that he was the illegitmate son of Count Moritz von Dietrichstein and Baroness von Wetzlar. It is perhaps no coincidence that Thalberg is one of the Dietrichstein family titles, nor that the Count’s middle name was Joseph. What we can be certain of is that the young Sigismund grew up in very comfortable surroundings and was duly sent to Vienna to prepare himself for a career in the military or the diplomatic corps.

However, music was to intervene – it is worth noting that the Baroness von Wetzlar was a distinguished amateur pianist – and before long his gifts had become apparent. We find him taking lessons with Hummel and Moscheles, making his public debut in London in 1826. His opus 1, a Fantasy on Weber’s Euryanthe (setting the tone, perhaps, for an output later characterised by a plethora of operatic paraphrases) was published a couple of years later, shortly followed by, as befitted the aspiring young virtuoso, his piano concerto, opus 5.

Over the next few years he continued performing in Germany and Austria, making the acquaintance of Chopin, Mendelssohn and the young Clara Wieck (later Clara Schumann), whilst developing his compositional style and technique. During this time, he made a pivotal discovery, one which was to have profound implications upon the development of pianistic technique and texture. The famous pedagogue Czerny wrote

“[Thalberg] conceived the idea of extending pedal effects which formerly occurred only in bass notes to the notes of the middle and higher octaves, and thereby produce entirely new effects […] When the notes of a melody are struck with energy in a middle position and their sound continued by skilful use of the pedal, the fingers can also perform brilliant passages piano, with a delicate touch; and thus arises the remarkable effect, as if the melody were played by another person, or on another instrument.” 

It is famously stated in contemporary reports that audiences, bemused by what they were hearing, stood upor on chairs, trying to see how this so-called “three-hand effect” was being produced.

In 1835, Thalberg arrived in Paris as one of the most famous musicians in Europe, having been appointed Kammervirtuos to the Emperor of Austria. 1830s Paris played host to a remarkable selection of piano virtuosi – Liszt, Chopin, Alkan, Kalkbrenner, Herz and Pixis amongst others, and Liszt had come to be seen as the Crown Prince of them all. Thus in many ways the timing of Thalberg’s arrival was fortuitous – Liszt had left earlier that year and moved temporarily to Geneva, not least to escape the controversy over his relationship with the married Countess d’Agoult.

Paris took to Thalberg with enthusiasm, not least his aristocratic demeanour and elegance. Thalberg was a believer in producing spectacular technical effects with an apparent minumum of physical effort and movement – the polar opposite of the flamboyant, even histrionic, Liszt. In other respects, too, Thalberg was the opposite of Liszt, a classicist par excellence – but one equipped with technical gifts and imagination that exceeded his predecessors, redistilled through the rapid development of the instrument itself (we must not forget that the 1830s grand piano had far more in common with the modern day instrument than the piano of Mozart’s time, or even that of mid-period Beethoven). Liszt was much more of a progressive modernist, experimenting to create orchestral and storm effects on the developing instrument.

With all these differences, it is perhaps unsurprising that critics took sides. A year later, Liszt returned to Paris, and a war of words broke out in the press, certainly not helped by a highly disparaging article critiquing Thalberg’s compositions, and published in Liszt’s name (although it is generally believed it was in reality written by the Countess d’Agoult). Mutual friends attempted to damp down the flames, suggesting a joint recital. Thalberg is reported to have replied “I do not like to be accompanied”. Finally a resolution was reached when the Princess Cristina di Belgiojoso arranged for both pianists to perform at the same musical event in her celebrated salon.

Both pianists performed flamboyant virtuoso paraphrases and arrangements: Liszt offering his Fantasy on Niobe (an opera by Giovanni Pacini, wildly successful in its time, but now almost forgotten) and a solo piano arrangement of Weber’s Konzertstück, whilst Thalberg contributed his Fantasy on God Save The King and his Fantasy on Moses in Egypt (the coda of which contains the most celebrated example of the “three-handed effect”: the melody being completely enveloped in rapid, sweeping arpeggiation whilst accompanimental harmonies appear in the bass). Liszt’s biographers have (unsurprisingly) tended to give Liszt the victory, but the supporting facts are less clear. The press reports of the time were inconclusive, and the Princess’s oft-cited quote is diplomatically ambiguous: “Thalberg is the first pianist in the world – Liszt is unique”. What we can infer is that, whilst Liszt was normally the considerable superior of rival pianists, Thalberg represented serious competition to his crown. This was to be the climactic moment of Thalberg’s career; certainly by far the most historically famous.

He and Liszt went their separate ways but remained certainly very much aware of each other. The connoisseur of their respective virtuoso fantasies may observe that a certain amount of compositionalcrossfertilisation took place after the event – we find Liszt cloning the climactic passage of Moses in his Norma Fantasy, and we find Thalberg utilising rapid interlocking chromatic octaves (which make their first appearance in Liszt’s Fantasy on La Juive) a few years later in his Fantasy on La Sonnambula.

Thalberg retired, a rich man, from the stage in the 1860s, having conducted two lengthy tours of the Americas, and lived out his final years cultivating vineyards at his new home in Posillipo (his Soirées de Pausilippe provide a gentle, but still classically-centred, counterpart to his virtuoso career). Strangely, there was no piano in his home.

And so we return to the observation of the first paragraph and ask “Why?” The truth probably lies in a combination of factors. Firstly, his music was rooted in the generation of his forebears; whilst his great rival sought to move forward and “throw his lance into the future”. Secondly, and more importantly, we must be objective and say “yes, he was a great pianist, but..” and realise that, for all that Thalberg’s best paraphrases are attractively and ingeniously constructed, Liszt was a far more protean and skilled composer, and that supreme technical excellence in one field does not necessarily confer the same level of excellence in another, even when they are closely related.
Recommended listening:

Fantasy on La Sonnambula (op. 46)

Fantasy on Moses in Egypt (op. 33) – second half, variations on Moses’ Prayer

Casta diva (arranged as part of L’art du chant, op. 70)


Further reading


andrew-wrightAndrew Wright was born in Dundee, Scotland, and showed an early interest in music, having his first piano lessons at the age of seven, and giving his first public performance at the age of eleven. Further lessons followed with Dr William Stevenson and latterly with Kenneth van Barthold and Nicholas Pope. In addition to his performing career, Andrew has an active interest in composition and improvisation, and has featured some of his own works in his recital programmes.

During his studies, Andrew acquired a conviction that much of the conventional repertoire is over-exposed, and that there are many hidden gems to be found in the works of lesser-known composers. This belief resulted in him making a detailed study of the minor figures of 19th-century and early 20th-century pianistic history.

This study culminated in 2013 with the release, to critical acclaim, of “A Night at the Opera”, an album of transcriptions and paraphrases taken from opera. Following these initial positive reactions, the album was re-released as “The Operatic Pianist” by the US-based record company Divine Art. The album included not only established arrangements by Liszt, but also lesser-known pieces by Thalberg, the world premiere of Martucci’s Concert Fantasy on Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, and a selection of three self-penned paraphrases. Of these paraphrases, MusicWeb International commented: “.. hyphenated Wright takes its place alongside hyphenated Liszt and Thalberg, and that represents something of a Himalayan challenge to Wright’s credentials. It’s a measure of his aplomb that his own transcriptions fail to wilt even in the glare of such declamatory historic precedent.”

Andrew has given a multitude of recitals featuring a wide variety of such operatic transcriptions and paraphrases. He also includes lesser-known etudes and compositions within his performance repertoire, and has given recitals at numerous venues throughout the United Kingdom.