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8.223366 - THALBERG: Variations on Operas by Rossini

Sigismond Thalberg (1812–1871)
Variations on Themes from Operas by Rossini


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 of compositions that were to prove an important and necessary concomitant of 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 show-rooms 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 from Paris and continuing rivalry between him and Liszt. 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 her husband’s 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 Posillipo in 1871.

Rossini had established his position in Italian opera in a remarkably short space of time. In eleven years he had written some 34 operas, with many of them enjoying very considerable success. Semiramide was the last of Rossini’s operas to be written for performance in Italy. Based on the play by Voltaire, it was staged in February 1823 at La Fenice in Venice. In the autumn, after a summer spent in Italy, Rossini and his wife, the singer Isabella Colbran, left for Paris. Semiramis, Queen of Babylon, conspires with Prince Assur to murder her husband, but instead of marrying her accomplice, turns her affections towards the young warrior Arsace, who is later discovered to be her son. In an attempt to ward off a sword thrust aimed by Assur at Arsace, she herself is killed, to be succeeded by her son, hailed as the avenger of his father’s murder. Thalberg’s Fantasia reproduces both the beauty of melodic line, a metamorphosis of operatic embellishment, and much of the drama.

La donna del Iago, first staged in Naples in 1819, is based on Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake, with the principal role of Ellen designed for Colbran, a romantic story concerning the love of the disguised James V of Scotland and the daughter of his enemy, Douglas, Earl of Angus. She is in love with Malcolm Graeme, but is promised to Roderick Dhu. Matters are brought to a happy conclusion, when Ellen’s father is pardoned by the King and she is united with Malcolm. Thalberg treats his chosen arias with perception, embellishing them in characteristic and often dramatic style, building Ellen’s ingenuous opening aria, a simple folk-song, into something much more elaborate.

The most consistently successful of all Rossini’s operas, II barbiere di Siviglia was first launched in Rome in 1816. The first performance was a disaster and the work was received coldly in Paris. In both cities the treatment of the same subject, drawn from the play by Beaumarchais, by the distinguished old composer Paisiello was preferred. The second performance in Rome, however, was successful enough and the opera has continued to hold a strong place in international repertoire. The plot concerns the finally successful attempts of Count Almaviva, with the aid of the barber Figaro, to outwit her guardian and marry Rosina.

The opera Moïse et Pharaon is a second version of the earlier Mosé in Egitto, revised for performance in Paris in 1827. The Italian original was first staged in Naples in 1817, opening with what later began the second act, the calling down of a plague of darkness on Egypt, after Pharaoh has revoked his decree by which he had set the Jewish people free. Other off-stage plagues are summoned in the third act of the Paris version, when an attempt is made to force Moses and his people to worship the god Osiris. The Israelites are expelled from Egypt in chains, avoiding Pharaoh’s treacherous attempt to attack them when the Red Sea opens before them. The Biblical narrative, in this operatic form, is further and essentially complicated by the love of Amenophis, son of Pharaoh, for Anaïs, the niece of Moses, and a consequent conflict of love and duty for the young lovers. Here, as always, Thalberg makes the most of the romantic element of the opera, transposing his chosen excerpts into a new and popular idiom.

Keith Anderson

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