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8.223435 - HELLER: Nuits Blanches / Preludes pour M'lle Lili

Stephen Heller (1813-1888)

Stephen Heller (1813-1888)


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, Anton Halm. The strain of an extended concert-tour on which he had embarked in 1828, in spite of his teacher but at the insistence of his father, led to a breakdown and to his employment in Augsburg as music-master to the son of a cultivated noblewoman, with a consequent opportunity to undertake the study of composition. His studies had the encouragement of Friedrich Count Fugger, of the well known banking family, a patron whose influence broadened Heller's education, providing the foundation of his later reputation for unobtrusive erudition. 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 and as one of his own Davidsbündler, members of the League of David, champions of true art against the Philistines. Two years later Heller moved to Paris, hoping to take lessons from the virtuoso pianist Kalkbrenner. Although the latter's fees proved far too high, he remained in Paris, winning considerable fame with his collection of studies, L'art de phraser, and continuing to write and publish music for the piano. Although not of a temperament to shine as a virtuoso in the Paris of the time, he occasionally played in public and in 1862 visited England with his friend Charles Hallé, with whom he performed piano duets. 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 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 sensitive and intimate 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 the more sensitive musicians of 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 still prevailing tendency to favour the ostentation of technical virtuosity over the less pretentious and more intimate. The composer himself was well aware of his possible public, dividing pianists into three categories, those who played his works well, such as Charles Hallé, those who played them badly and the greatest number, those who did not play them at all. In the same letter to Hallé, Heller mentions a performance of his Waldstücke by Anton Rubinstein, comparing it to giving a salad to an elephant ("comme lorsqu'on donne à l'éléphant du cirque une simple saladière à engloutir"). In a later letter to Hallé he deplores "les grandes exhibitions de célèbres gymnastiques du piano", preferring instead "une belle scène, simple, naturelle, qui est puisée dans le coeur et rendue avec art". His close friend Berlioz admired Heller's works, his learning and his wit and found in him a man whose company he increasingly valued, as his life drew to a close.


Like Schumann and, in a different way, Berlioz, Heller frequently had recourse to literary reference in his music, although this was only in the form of general association rather than works with any detailed extra-musical programme. The Opus 82 Nuits blanches, a set of eighteen lyric pieces, appeared in Berlin in 1853 under the title Blumen-, Frucht- und Dornenstücke, a reference to the romantic novel by Jean Paul, a favourite writer of Schumann, on the subject of the poor man's lawyer Siebenkäs, his marriage, pretended death and subsequent wedding. The pieces vary in mood, a series of charming and finely crafted vignettes, passing from the energetic opening to a more melancholy impetuous piece, followed by gentle music in the manner of a Mendelssohn Song without Words. The whole series is a unified work, with necessary contrasts of key and feeling as it progresses, through the motor energy of the fourth piece and the calm lyricism of the fifth to a final happy ending.


The Préludes for Mademoiselle Lili, Opus 119, published in 1867, move from the world of Schumann to something suggesting the course that piano music was to take in France in the later years of the nineteenth century. The 32 Preludes, most of them short in length, are less conventional and even more varied in mood, although the set opens in the manner of Schumann, later turning to an operatic recitative and arioso, touches of both Florestan and of Eusebius, of Baroque figuration, fragments of musical dialogue and drama, increasingly adventurous in harmony and rhythm.


Jean Martin


Jean Martin, a pupil of Yves Nat, Pierre Pasquier, Pierre Kostanoff and Guido Agosti, divides his time between concert engagements and teaching, the latter as a member of the staff of the Versailles Conservatoire, after several years at the National Regional Conservatoires of Grenoble and of Lyon. His recordings include the music of Brahms and Schumann as well as the complete piano music of Weber, and, with his Trio, the Piano Trio of Lalo. His interest in contemporary music is represented by performances and recording of the work of the composer Claude Ballif.


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