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8.223807 - THALBERG: Soirees de Pausilippe (Les)

Sigismond Thalberg (1812–1871)
Soirees de Pausilippe (Les)


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 less distinguished but relatively legitimate parentage as the alleged son of a citizeri of Frankfurt, Joseph Thalberg and a certain and possibly pseudonymous Fortuné Stein. There seems, therefore, no particular reason 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, Napoleon’s son, almost persuaded him to a military career. Musical interests finally 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 Fetis 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 Paris 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, she said, 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, a project to which Liszt, Thalberg, Chopin, Pixis, Herz and Czerny contributed. This composite work, Hexameron, remained in Liszt’s concert repertoire.

Musical journalism has created a legend of Thalberg’s defeat and departure from Paris and of 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, alter 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 exclusively 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 seemed to disparage, in his own repertoire.

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

A major element in solo piano repertoire was the operatic paraphrase of fantasy and in this Thalberg excelled. In works of this kind performers could exhibit a high degree of virtuosity based on more or less familiar material in which an audience might take delight, while marvelling at the ingenuity and artifice with which well known melodies were treated. Thalberg relied, in works of this kind, very heavily on the operas of Rossini, who occupied an unrivalled position, having established himself during the second decade of the nineteenth century as a composer of wit and dramatic power.

Thalberg’s villa at Posilippo had belonged to his father-in-law Lablache, born of an emigre French father and an Irish mother in Naples, and was bought by Thalberg after the latter’s death in 1858. Here he introduced French vines and gave much attention to the production of a fine wine, while using the villa as a base from which he might emerge for occasional concert tours. In this final period of his life he was always glad to return to his house, his family and his vineyards. It was in 1864 that Thalberg and his wife established themselves at Posilippo and by 1867 he was able to exhibit the wines of his vineyard at the Paris Exposition Universelle, where he won prizes. He was able to give recitals in Naples and to receive pupils, although he refused an invitation to teach at the Real Collegio di Musica, from which, as a foreigner, the rules of the institution had earlier excluded him. In 1866, however, his pupil Beniamino Cesi became professor of piano at Naples Conservatory.

Les soirees de Pausilippe: Hommage à Rossini (Evenings at Posilippo: Homage to Rossini) are described in a secondary title as 24 Pensées Musicales (Twenty-four Musical Thoughts). Grouped in complementary pairs, they are in a form comparable to Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words or the Albumblätter of other nineteenth-century composers. As had been the case with Mendelssohn, Thalberg’s publisher urged that each piece should be given a title, a suggestion that he rejected with equal vigour, threatening to withdraw them from publication. Here Thalberg avoids the element of ostentation necessary in the earlier operatic fantasies and transcriptions, preferring a general elegant simplicity, in which the piano is allowed to sing, in accordance with the principles laid down in his L’art du chant appliqué au piano (The Art of Singing as applied to the Piano), in which he makes use of operatic arias as a means of piano instruction. The work couples, in its homage to Rossini, material that draws inspiration from Rossini, as it does from Posilippo itself.

The homage to Rossini starts with a charming A-flat Andantino, leading to a Mendelssohnian E natural Moderato, both allowing the singing quality of the piano to emerge. The third piece is an excited A minor Molto agitato, followed by a gently lilting D major barcarolle, marked Andantino. The true spirit of Naples returns in the fifth piece, in G minor and marked Tempo di Tarentella, evoking the spirit of the rapid dance of the South. The accompanying E-flat major Motto vivace, is a good example of Thalberg’s principle of breathing in piano phrasing, as in singing. The seventh piece offers a more grandly operatic melody in octaves, marked Lento con molta espressione, coupled with an ominous A minor Presto. The gentle Andantino of the ninth piece, in D major, gives way to a B-flat major Andante cantabile, an operatic duet. The first volume ends with an F major Allegretto moderato, its central melody set against a repeated accompanying rhythm. This is paired with a D-flat major Allegretto that finds place for the briefest display, in a descending cascade of notes, before the music moves forward to a dynamic climax and its whispered conclusion.

The second volume starts with a B-flat major Adagio, its singing melody accompanied by repeated chords. Paired with this is a D major Allegretto ma non troppo that starts with a right-hand interval of an eleventh as it embarks on its characteristic rhythmic course. Thalberg continues his homage to Rossini with a G minor Presto agitato, suggesting a toccata in its rhythmic accompaniment. This leads to a D-flat major Allegro vivace, characterised by the marked rhythm of its opening bar. The following piece, an F major Adagio, is a tranquil meditation, followed by a solemn D minor march, with its own brief grandiose climax. The nineteenth piece, in B minor, with a central B major section, is marked Motto vivace and is characterised by the rapid repeated notes of its accompaniment, a feature that suggests the Neapolitan mandolin. A sprightly B-flat major Allegro vivace follows with a light-hearted Scherzando buffa aria. The use of melody and swaying arpeggio accompaniment in the next piece, an A minor Allegretto moderato, is a further reminder that Chopin was not the only composer of the period to combine elements of operatic melody in an idiom that belongs entirely to the piano. This leads to a D minor Allegretto ma non troppo in a lilting 6/8 metre. The last pair of pieces starts with a B major Andantino, with a four-bar prelude before the singing melody is introduced. If before Thalberg had made musical rather than technical demands on the performer, he allows himself a certain technical indulgence in display in the final A-flat major Tempo di Polacca, a form only composer to lay claim.

Keith Anderson

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