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8.223365 - THALBERG: Fantasies on Operas by Donizetti

Sigismond Thalberg (1812–1871)
Fantasies on Operas by Donizetti


Some mystery surrounds the birth and parentage of the virtuoso pianist Sigismond Thalberg, popularly supposed to have been the illegitimate son of Count Moritz Dietrichstein and the Baroness von Wetzlar, born at Pâquis near Geneva in 1812. His birth certificate, however, provides him with different and relatively legitimate parentage, the son of a citizen of Frankfurt, Joseph Thalberg. There seems no particular reason, therefore, to suppose the name Thalberg an invention. Legend, however, provides the story of the Baroness proclaiming him a valley (“Thal”) that would one day rise to the heights of a mountain (“Berg”). Thalberg’s schooling took him to Vienna, where his fellow-pupil the Duke of Reichstadt, the son of Napoleon, almost persuaded him to a military career. Musical interests triumphed and he was able to study with Simon Sechler and with Mozart’s pupil Hummel. In Vienna he performed at private parties, making a particular impression when, as a fourteen-year-old, he played at the house of Prince Metternich. By 1828 he had started the series to compositions that were to prove important and necessary to his career as a virtuoso. In 1830 he undertook his first concert tour abroad, to England, where he had lessons from Moscheles. In 1834 he was appointed Kammervirtuos to the Emperor in Vienna and the following year appeared in Paris, where he had lessons from Kalkbrenner and Pixis.

Paris in the 1830s was a city of pianists. The Conservatoire was full of them, while salons and the showrooms of the chief piano-manufacturers Erard and Pleyel resounded with the virtuosity of Kalkbrenner, Pixis, Herz, and, of course, Liszt. The rivalry between Thalberg and Liszt was largely fomented by the press. Berlioz became the champion of the latter, while Fétis trumpeted the achievements of Thalberg. Liszt, at the time of Thalberg’s arrival in Paris, was in Switzerland, where he had retired with his mistress, the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult. It was she who wrote, under Liszt’s name, a disparaging attack on Thalberg, to which Fétis replied in equally offensive terms. The so-called “revolutionary princess”, Princess Belgiojoso, achieved a remarkable social coup when she persuaded the two virtuosi to play at her salon, in a concert in aid of Italian refugees. As in other such contests victory was tactfully shared between the two. Thalberg played his Moses fantasy, and Liszt answered with his new paraphrase from Pacini’s opera Niobe. The Princess declared Thalberg the first pianist in the world, while Liszt was unique. She went on to commission a series of variations on a patriotic theme from Bellini’s I Puritani from the six leading pianists in Paris, to which Liszt, Thalberg, Chopin, Pixis, Herz and Czerny contributed. This composite work, Hexaméron, remained in Liszt’s concert repertoire.

Musical journalism has created a legend of Thalberg’s defeat and departure and continuing rivalry between the two. An element of competition remained, although there seems to have been no open animosity and Liszt wrote a letter of condolence to Thalberg’s widow, after his death in 1871. Thalberg went on to enjoy a career of the greatest distinction, touring as far as the Americas, where Liszt never went, with recitals in Brazil and Havana and an extended stay, with the violinist Vieuxtemps, in the United States, where, in the space of two years, he gave 56 recitals in New York, with a repertoire chiefly but not entirely devoted to his own compositions. Liszt, meanwhile, included some of Thalberg’s operatic paraphrases and fantasies, which, through Marie d’Agoult, he had once publicly disparaged, in his repertoire.

In 1843 Thalberg had married in Paris the daughter of the famous bass Luigi Lablache, widow of the painter Boucher. Attempts at operatic composition proved unsuccessful, with Florinda, staged in London in 1851 and Cristina di Suezia in Vienna four years later. His career as a virtuoso continued until 1863, when he retired to Posilippo, near Naples, to occupy himself for his remaining years with his vineyards. He died in Posilippo in 1871.

Thalberg’s Grande fantaisie sur des motifs de la Norma, Op. 12, won praise from Schumann, who generally had little time for mere technical virtuosity. There was about Thalberg’s playing, and in consequence about his compositions for the piano, a certain element of classicism, and this certainly appealed to Clara Schumann and others who disliked the showmanship of Liszt and his habit of “improving” the music of others in performance. Thalberg exercised considerable discipline over his performance, his upright posture, he alleged, the result of smoking a meerschaum while practising technical exercises. Chopin, however, was not impressed, claiming that Thalberg used the soft pedal for his effects rather than securing a soft tone by touch, as he would have done. One particular effect used by Thalberg was displayed in the setting of a melody to be played by the thumbs of right and left hand, surrounded above and below by arpeggios, giving the impression of three hands rather than two. He achieved this in part by his subtle use of the sustaining pedal. Critics commented on his runs of pearl-like clarity and the singing tone of which he was capable is taught in his pedagogical work, L’art du chant appliqué au piano, in which he uses examples drawn from opera.

The Fantasy on Operatic Themes was in the 19th century a composition of importance in its own right, serving to delight audiences by the familiarity of its melodic material and the ingenuity and artifice exerted in its virtuoso presentation. Thalberg turned his attention for this purpose to many composers, to Mozart, Weber, Rossini, Spontini, Bellini, Auber, Hérold, Benedict, Verdi, Meyerbeer and Halévy. His fantasies on themes from operas by Gaetano Donizetti start with variations on the final Andante from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, first staged in Naples in 1835 and in Paris in a French version four years later. The opera was based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott, The Bride of Lammermoor, in which the heroine, Lucy, falls in love with the master of Ravenswood, Edgar, but tricked into believing him unfaithful is induced by her family to marry another. When she learns the truth she goes out of her mind and stabs her husband. When Edgar learns of the subsequent death of Lucy, he kills himself.

Thalberg again returned to Donizetti in his fantasy on themes from the opera Lucrezia Borgia, a work that had been mounted at La Scala, Milan, for the first time in 1833. The libretto was based on a novel by Victor Hugo, a historically improbable tale of the love of Gennaro for Lucrezia Borgia, and his fate at her hands, when she accidentally poisons him as well as his friends, although she claims to be his mother.

Two further fantasies on themes from Donizetti made use of elements drawn from the comic opera Don Pasquale and from La fille du régiment. The first of these operas was written in the winter of 1842 and performed early in January the following year in Paris. The elderly Don Pasquale attempts late marriage, with the purpose of siring children and thus disinheriting his nephew Ernesto. He is induced to see reason by what he supposes to be a real marriage to his nephew’s betrothed, disguised and behaving as an untamed shrew. All ends happily, when Don Pasquale agrees, with relief, to allow his nephew to marry the girl. Thalberg’s fantasy captures something of the spirit, humour and romance of its source La fille du régiment, later revised in Italian as La figlia del reggimento, was first performed in Paris and later in Milan in 1840. Marie, the daughter of the regiment, has been adopted by soldiers of the 21st Regiment. She falls in love with Tonio, who, to be allowed to marry her, enlists in the regiment, only to find that she has been claimed as the long-lost daughter of a Marquise, who has other plans for her. These are eventually abandoned, and she is allowed to marry her first lover.

The theme on which the variations on L’elisir d’amore are based is that of the second act barcarole, a duet for the quack doctor Dulcamara, whose alcoholic love-potion has caused much of the complication of the plot, and the heroine Adina, to the words “lo son ricco, e tu sei bella” (I am rich and you are beautiful). The words prove true for the hero Nemorino and for Adina, who are finally united.

Keith Anderson

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