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8.223367 - THALBERG: Fantasies on Operas by Verdi, Rossini and Bellini

Sigismond Thalberg (1812–1871)
Fantasies on Operas by Verdi, Rossini and Bellini


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 Thalberg 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 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 supposed rival’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 Posilippo in 1871.

Thalberg’s Grande fantaisie sur des motifs de la Norma, 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 himself 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. This last 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. The Grande fantaisie de concert on Verdi’s opera La traviata, based on La dame aux camélias of Alexandre Dumas fils, uses the best known themes of the work. Verdi’s opera deals with the love of Alfredo for the courtesan Violetta, who gives up her life of pleasure for him, to return to it at the request of his father, in an act of self-sacrifice. The lovers are only re-united at Violetta’s death-bed. Melodies used include Alfredo’s father Germont’s gently persuade Di Provenza il mar, in which he tries to persuade his son to return home, and Violetta’s farewell to life in Addia del passato. A bravura passage leads to an equally elaborate treatment of the first celebration of the love of Alfredo and Violetta in Un dì felice.

The fantasy on Verdi’s II trovatore, an opera based on a Spanish play by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez, again introduces the principal themes of the work. The plot of the opera concerns the troubadour of the title, Manrico, supposed son of the gypsy Azucena, but in fact the son of her persecutor, the old Count di Luna and younger brother of his heir, the young Count. Manrico and his brother are both in love with Leonora and the work ends with the death of Leonora by poisoning, having sacrificed herself in vain for the life of Manrico, who is executed on his brother’s orders. It is only then that Azucena reveals to the Count Manrico’s true identity. The fantasy uses the themes of Manrico and Leonora’s final scene and the dreams of her home mountains of the imprisoned gypsy Azucena in Ai nostri monti, with memories of what has happened. Manrico’s prison farewell to Leonora, Ah! che la morte is also heard.

Un ballo in maschera deals with regicide, the death at the hands of a wronged husband of Gustavus Ill of Sweden, improbably translated, at the demand of the Naples censors, to colonial Boston. Themes used include the music of the conspirators, the sound of the ball itself, at which the king is to be killed, and the music that accompanies the revelation to them of the disguise assumed by the king. As usual Thalberg makes no attempt to take material in the order in which it appears in the opera, so that material from the second act visit to the fortune-teller and the king’s light-hearted attempt to avoid the warning he has been given occur relatively late in the fantasy.

In Rigoletto Verdi transformed the play Le roi s’amuse of Victor Hugo. The hunchback court jester of the title helps the philandering Duke in his amours, mocking those whose wives and daughters are seduced and ruined, only to have his own daughter abducted and seduced by the Duke, whom he then plans to murder. A stroke of irony leads to the death instead of Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, who has attempted to protect the man who has seduced her. The Souvenir de Rigoletto opens with Gilda’s love song Caro name, in which she muses on the false name the Duke has given her, disguised as a student. The theme lends itself to embellishment, as does the love duet of the Duke and Gilda, E il sol dell’anima. The scurrying courtiers, plotting to abduct Gilda, are heard in Zitti, zitti and the Duke in his wooing of Maddalena, Bella figlia dell’amore, with the theme associated with the hired assassin Sparafucile.

Rossini’s II assedio di Corinto (“The Siege of Corinth”) is nowadays less familiar, apart from the overture, which is heard in concert programmes. The work is better known under its original French title Le siège de Corinthe, a reworking for the French operatic stage of his earlier Maometto II, a drama of love rather than of conquest. Thalberg again uses principal themes from the opera, but not in dramatic order.

Thalberg chose to write fantasies on themes from a number of operas by Vincenzo Bellini, the leading composer of Italian opera in the decade from 1825. Norma treats the characteristic operatic conflict between love and duty, here set in ancient Gaul, where the Druid priestess of the title, secretly married to an enemy of her people, the Roman officer Pollione, solves her dilemma by ensuring the death of both. The opera was first staged in Milan in 1831. The best know aria is Norma’s demanding Casta diva, in which she prays to the goddess of the moon to bring peace. This aria, the best known of all in Norma, is treated with all Thalberg’s ingenuity.

Keith Anderson

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