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 'erudite' 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 (image, right) 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 were doing that long before Thalberg and would 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 a theme followed by variations, each more technical than the one before. At the end, you have the feeling 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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This comes from Luciano Mangiafico, a friend of, and frequent contributor to, this website. jm
Here is some more on the piano duel between Liszt and Thalberg at the Paris residence of Princess Cristina Belgioioso n March, 1837. This is from my article on Hexameron, a set of variations on the aria "Suona la tromba intrepido" from Bellini's I Puritani. The piece was by Liszt with contributions by Thalberg, Chopin, and three other composers.
The new piece, Hexameron, could not be played at the March concert because it was not ready, but another event, a piano duel between Franz Liszt and composer and piano virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg (1812-87),
did, indeed, go on as planned.
Piano duels were nothing new. There was a famous one between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Muzio Clementi in December, 1781, with Austrian Emperor Joseph II in attendance. Officially, it ended in a draw. Then, in 1792 Beethoven and Abbe Joseph Gelinek (1758-1825) had it out in Vienna. Gelinek quit. He left the room in mid-duel, writing later that “Beethoven's playing is something new. No one else improvises like that. His aggressiveness, his skill, passion, and expressiveness are even better than Mozart.” Beethoven also dueled with composer/pianist Daniel Gottlieb Steibelt (1765-1823) in the early spring of 1800. It was in two parts: first at a private concert, then in public. They say Steibelt did better in the first part, but Beethoven, as recalled by his pupil Ferdinand Ries many years later, bested him in the second part by improvising at length on a cello theme from one of Steibelt's own pieces, but first putting the score upside down on the music stand. Steibelt felt so humiliated that he left the concert hall before Beethoven finished playing -- and Steibelt left Vienna, too.
Liszt and Thalberg were the same age, 26, and the two were rivals. Clara Schumann, Chopin, and Mendelssohn had
written favorably about Thalberg. Hector Berlioz reviewed one of Thalberg's concerts in Paris in January 1836 and
wrote: “Moscheles, Kalkbrenner, Chopin, Liszt and Herz are and will always be for me great artists, but Thalberg is the creator of a new art that I can't compare to anything before him. Thalberg is not only the premier pianist in the world, he is also an extremely distinguished composer.”
Liszt’s star was rising as a performer and composer for the piano, despite his youth. In April 1832 he heard Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) play the violin and made up his mind to be as great a pianist as Paganini was a violinist. Liszt worked on his technique by doing such things as transcribing for the piano Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, who was his friend and whom he admired. He also befriended Frederic Chopin, absorbing Chopin's romanticism. By 1837, Liszt was an extraordinary pianist.
At the piano duel for Princess Belgioioso, each of the two played several of his own pieces, including one each written for the occasion. At the end of the evening, the princess declared that, “Thalberg is the best pianist in the world; Liszt is unique.” Critic Jules Janin wrote in the Journal des Debats: “Never was Liszt more controlled, more thoughtful, more energetic, more passionate; and never has Thalberg played with greater verve and tenderness. Each of them prudently stayed within his harmonic domain, but they used all of their resources. It was an admirable joust. The most profound silence fell over that noble arena. And finally, Liszt and Thalberg were both proclaimed victors by this glittering and intelligent assembly. Thus, there were two winners. No one was defeated.”
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added April 2019
I am indebted to Clarissa Lablache Cheer who tells me of the existence of the Lablache Opera Archives. Cheer is a direct descendant of the opera singer Luigi Lablache mentioned in the main body of this entry and in the section directly below. She has written a biography of him (mentioned below). She also tells me of the grotesque act of desecration at the family tomb of Thalberg at the Poggioreale cemetery in Naples in March of 2017. The pianist's embalmed body was found strewn into a corner while the grave-robbers concentrated on what they could steal and sell —mainly urns for their value as brass.
Luigi Lablache (b.1794, Naples – d.1858, Naples) was an operatic basso and during the height of his fame (around the 1830s) was one of the best-known voices in European music and an important part of Neapolitan music from that period. He was most noted for his comic performances but had the gift of dramatic delicacy. He had a powerful, agile bass voice, a wide range, and fine acting skills. His father was French and his mother Irish; he was educated at the Conservatorio della Pietà de' Turchini in Naples (one of the original Neapolitan conservatories). At the age of 18 he started his meteoric career by opening at San Carlo. There followed a long career of engagements throughout Europe. Parts were written especially for him by Bellini and others; he gave voice lessons to Princess Victoria of the United Kingdom (the later Queen Victoria); he was a torchbearer at Beethoven's funeral. Lablache is buried at Maisons-Laffitte, near Paris.
For a good biography of Lablache, see The Great Lablache, Nineteenth Century Operatic Superstar, His Life and His Times by Clarissa Lablache Cheer.
image by Josef Kriehuber (1800 – 1876), a well-known Austrian lithographer and painter