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main index   © Jeff Matthews  entry Sept 2008


Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871)


I am obsessed with obscure musicians. (Click here for a separate series of items about them.) If you think that Sigismund Thalberg is not obscure, then you are no doubt a pianist and so erudite that you probably even pronounce that word correctly. There are many things I didn’t know about Thalberg. One is that there were—and maybe even still are—so many other persons named “Sigismund”—i.e. archdukes, and princes and even one totally fictitious character, Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein, a fictional king of Bohemia in the Sherlock Holmes tale, "A Scandal in Bohemia.” (The name has various spellings, and, indeed, the large marble statue in the Villa Comunale in Naples is of ‘Sigismondo Thalberg.’ The statue was dedicated in Sept. 1879; the work is by the prominent northern Italian sculptor Giulio Monteverde (1837-1917).

Also, I wasn’t sure where he lived. A number of sources say he moved to Naples in the last years of his life into a house he bought in the Posillipo section of the city, where he died. That is wrong. He lived and passed away in the building at viale Calascione n. 5 in the Pizzofalcone section of the city (there is a plaque—photo, below—on the building and a monument to Thalberg in the courtyard). It is not far from the Nunziatella military academy, nowhere near Posillipo. I also did not know of the Sigismund Thalberg International Study Center in Naples dedicated to his music. With that, I confess that what I really didn’t know was…who he was. (If you are a pianist and are furious at my ignorance, what can I say? Stop reading and go practice.)

Thalberg was born near Geneva in 1812, studied music in Vienna, was obviously a prodigy, and by 1830 had embarked on the challenging career of a touring concert pianist. All reports of his skill claim that he had no rival except Franz Liszt, the flamboyant genius who wrote music that only Franz Liszt could play. (And then Sigismund Thalberg.) (Both performers took full advantage of the great advances in piano construction around 1830 in Paris. They played passages that would have been physically impossible on the slower action keyboards of a few years earlier.) They even had a piano duel in Paris in 1837. Thalberg was not given to the histrionic gestures of Franz Liszt. Thalberg sat up straight and just played. If you believe the critics, Liszt won the duel. If you believe the public, Thalberg won.

Thalberg’s claim to any wisp of fame rests not just on his skill as a pianist, but apparently as an innovator in piano technique, uniting in his own original compositions (almost 100 of them) melody and accompaniment by keeping the melody centered with the thumbs and spreading arpeggios out to both sides, producing a highly technical effect. His admirers claim he invented it; rival Liszt said that pianists had been doing that for a long time before Thalberg and would still be doing it long after Thalberg. Even Robert Schumann said that Thalberg was all glitter and no substance, but Thalberg had his defenders—Mendelssohn, for example. I have just listened to Thalberg’s Grand Fantasy, op. 63, performed by that young Ukrainian angel of music, Valentina Lisitsa. It is in the form of a theme followed by variations, each more technical than the one before. At the end, you have the feeling that you have just heard/seen the world’s greatest display of fireworks, and I cannot imagine anyone playing it better than Lisitsa did. But I was strangely unmoved by the music.

For 25 years after the Liszt duel, Thalberg was adored by audiences in Europe and the New World (he played in both Brazil and the United States). From 1856-58, he played 56 concerts in New York, 13 in Philadelphia, 15 in Boston and some others in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Importantly, he put on free concerts for young people in the northeastern United States and arranged for affordable editions of his works to be made available. Especially well-liked were his variations on such popular chestnuts as "Home Sweet Home" and "Yankee Doodle." He was also the author of an influential method book for the piano. Opinion varies; he was either responsible for introducing quality piano music (often operatic music scaled down for his own “theme and variations” treatment) in the United States, or he delayed it by overselling his own pyrotechnical music at the expense of the masters of the past, such as Beethoven and Mozart. (That was a problem in Europe, as well. People really did like razzle-dazzle music, and grudgingly gave ground only because performers such as Liszt kept beating them over the head with great music from the past.) Be all that as it may, Thalberg’s own compositions have not withstood the judgment of history. (Not that such judgment is always correct—not by a long shot.)

Towards the end of his life, Thalberg moved to Naples with his wife, Francesca, who was the daughter of the famous Neapolitan operatic basso, Luigi Lablache. They moved into Daddy-in-law’s house for a while, out in Posillipo, which is where that part comes in. They then moved into town to be closer to the musical action (viale Calascione is a ten-minute walk from the San Carlo opera house). There was some talk of Thalberg becoming a professor at the Naples conservatory, but that never came to pass.


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