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8.223434 - HELLER: Preludes Opp. 81 and 150

Stephen Heller (1813–1888)
Preludes Opp. 81 and 150


Born into a Jewish family in Pest in 1813, and originally given the name Jacob, Heller was christened István when his parents became Catholics in 1826. As a child he showed the talent necessary to convince his father that he should be trained as a concert pianist and with this in mind he was sent to study in Vienna with Czerny, a teacher later replaced by a less expensive mentor. The strain of an extended concert-tour on which he had embarked in 1828 at his father’s insistence led to a breakdown and to his employment in Augsburg as music-master to the son of a cultivated noblewoman. Here there was a consequent opportunity to undertake the study of composition and to broaden his education, with the encouragement of Friedrich Count Fugger, of the well known banking family. By 1836 he had found a publisher, with the active encouragement of Robert Schumann, who enlisted him as a contributor to the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Two years later he moved to Paris, hoping to take lessons from the virtuoso pianist Kalkbrenner. The latter’s fees proved far too expensive, but Heller nevertheless remained in Paris, winning considerable fame with his book L’art de phraser and continuing to write and publish music for the piano and, like Berlioz, to work as a critic. Although not of a temperament to shine as a virtuoso in the Paris of the time, he occasionally played in public, and became a good friend of Berlioz, who described him in his Mémoires as a delightful humourist and learned musician, praising his melancholy spirit and devotion to the true gods of art. In 1862 he visited England with his friend Charles Hallé, with whom he performed piano duets. His short piano pieces had found there a ready market and his popularity in England was such that he was able to benefit from an annuity provided by English subscribers, assistance organised by Hallé, Robert Browning and Lord Leighton, when, in 1883, his sight began to fail. He died in Paris in the summer of 1888.

Heller enjoyed considerable esteem as a composer in his own time, sometimes at the expense of composers like Chopin. He was praised above all as the poet of the piano, and in this respect represented a movement away from technical virtuosity towards a more intimate and sensitive treatment of the instrument, leading directly to the piano music of Debussy and of Fauré. To many, of course, he was and is known as the composer of studies, for which there was a considerable demand after the success of his first pedagogical work on phrasing in 1840. Schumann in particular perceptively praised Heller for his natural emotions and the clarity of their expression, comparing the feelings aroused by his music to the strange aspect of otherwise definite figures in the half-light of dawn. Heller, in fact, was deeply respected by more sensitive musicians in his own time. The temporary eclipse of his reputation is due in part to the association of his name with pedagogy and in part to the prevailing tendency to favour the ostentation of technical virtuosity over the less pretentious and more intimate.

The 24 Préludes, Opus 81, were published in 1853, and were followed by a short group of three similar pieces in 1867, a set of 32 in the same year and a set of 20 in 1879. Opus 81 opens with a tranquil dedication, followed by a series of character pieces, a study of obstinacy leading to the caprice of a will-o’-the-wisp and a sombre and dramatic recitative. The gentle meditation of the fifth prelude leads to the passionate sixth and the lyrical serenade of the seventh. There is an energetic Affirmation, a Monologue and a delicate Arabesque, before the lively reproaches of the eleventh piece, followed by an elegy and dreaming. The fourteenth prelude of a series that represents a remarkable bridge between the German imagination of Schumann and French musical traditions is a transport of passion, dissolved by the succeeding cradle-song. Mourning offers a contrast with a lively may-song and two preludes that lack titles and consequent overt extra-musical associations. Dreaming in the twentieth of the set leads to fickle inconstancy, an unnamed but energetic prelude, a gentle landscape and a final sonnet.

The Opus 150 Préludes were published in 1879. This last substantial set lacks titles, allowing the music to stand on its own without obvious extra-musical associations. The pieces offer a variety of moods and textures, often of greater profundity than the Opus 81 set that had earned high praise from Heller’s friend Berlioz in Débats a quarter of a century before. Here there is the beginning of a new world, the age of Rachmaninov, with increased technical demands coupled with a parallel increase in the exploration of new harmonies and textures.

Keith Anderson

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