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THE LISZT SOCIETY Newsletter No 146 – 2022 Q1


A letter: THALBERG - his rivalry and friendship with Liszt


(b. Paquys, near Geneva, 8 January 1812; d. Posillipo, near Naples 27 April 1871)  

An Austrian pianist and composer, Thalberg was the illegitimate son of Count Moritz Dietrichstein and the Baroness von Wetzlar von Plankenstein (an ennobled Jewish Viennese family), but his birth certificate states that his parents were Joseph Thalberg and Fortunee Stein, both of Frankfurt am Main. Although the certificate describes them as “married”, the wording rather suggests that each was married to someone else! It seems possible that Dietrichstein induced Joseph Thalberg to assume paternity and that the mother was the baroness in disguise!

His mother brought young Thalberg to Vienna at the age of 10 (the same year in which the 10-year- old Franz Liszt arrived there with his parents). According to Thalberg’s own account, he attended the first performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on 7 May 1824 in the Kaertnerthortheater. Baroness von Wetzlar, his mother, was a brilliant amateur pianist who gave him first piano lessons. In spring 1826 Thalberg studied with Ignaz Moscheles in London. In a letter to Felix Mendelssohn of 14 August 1836, Moscheles wrote that Thalberg had already reached a level at which no further help would be needed in order to become a great artist. Thalberg appeared as a salon pianist from the age of 14 and was a great success. Two years later his first works were published. Thalberg performed regularly in Vienna, mainly with concerts by Hummel and Beethoven. In 1830 Thalberg met Mendelssohn and Chopin in Vienna. Their letters show their opinion that Thalberg’s main strength was his astonishing technical skill. On 14 May 1830 he played his own Piano Concerto opus 5 and a fantasy of his own in Leipzig. Clara Wieck played the first movement of a four hand Sonata by Hummel with him, and she described Thalberg in her diary as “very accomplished”. His playing was clear and precise , also very strong and expressive.

In November 1835 Thalberg arrived in Paris. He performed at a private concert of the Austrian ambassador. On 24 January 1836 he took part in a concert of the Society of the Paris Conservatoire, playing his Grande Fantasie opus 22. Thalberg was praised by many of the most prominent artists, among them Rossini, Meyerbeer and especially Berlioz. Only Chopin didn’t share his fellow artists’ enthusiasm, writing: “He plays splendidly, but he’s not my man. He is younger than I and pleases the ladies - makes potpourris on La Muette - produces his piano and forte with the pedal, not the hand, and wears diamond shirt studs.”

In 1837 Liszt, returned from Switzerland to challenge Thalberg’s position as the leading virtuoso in Paris, and wrote an article in the Revue et Gazette Musicale harshly criticising his compositions. This article was the start of an animated controversy between Liszt and Fétis, the latter of which considered Thalberg the greatest living pianist and defended his compositions in the Revue. Berlioz joined the controversy on the side of Liszt, who pressed his claim in some very forthright articles and gave numerous concerts. It was in the spring of 1837, in Paris, that the great showdown took place. The elegant apartment of the Princess Cristina Belgiojoso was filled to overflowing with Parisians. They had come to find out who was, and who was not, the greatest pianist in the world! Princess Belgiojoso, an Italian exiled from her native country, was a very famous figure in Paris. She liked to throw parties, sometimes fainted at the opera, and was to be arrested for concealing the embalmed cadaver of an ex-lover in a closet. On this occasion she was giving a “musicale”, and charging admission to benefit her political cause in Italy. The performers included the two musical superstars. Liszt, formerly a darling of Paris, had been living in Switzerland, avoiding the malicious gossip surrounding his liaison with the married Countess d’Agoult. Word had reached him of a rival to his pianistic laurels, namely Thalberg. He decided to return to Paris to defend his crown. Thalberg had, in Liszt’s absence, been impressing the connoisseurs with a formidable pianistic arsenal. Chief among his powers was the innovation of playing melodies from operas with the thumbs of both hands in the middle register of the piano, while accompanying himself with swirls of notes to either side. While Liszt was known to thunder and inspire, Thalberg reputedly could send “washes of colour” to the back of the hall, and his singing tone and ease of execution was the wonder of those who heard him. A performance by Thalberg of his own Fantasy on themes from Rossini’s Moses at the Paris Conservatoire had recently stood musical Paris on its ears. A week later, Liszt responded by renting the Paris Opera House – all 3,000 seats of it – and playing his arrangement for solo piano of Weber’s Konzertstück. The time was ripe for a confrontation.

The afternoon of 29 March 1837 arrived. The Princess, in keeping with the custom of the day, preceded the main attraction with performances by lesser-known musicians and artists. When the big moment finally came, Liszt not wishing to be upstaged, insisted on playing last, and Thalberg, always the gentleman, agreed. Thalberg selected, not surprisingly, his Moses Fantasy. Jules Janin, writing later in the Journal des Debats, reported: “Never did Thalberg show greater refinement and ease at the piano.” The audience seemed overcome by emotion at the close of the performance. How, then, was Liszt to follow all this?

He did, and the same critic in reviewing Liszt’s performance of his own Grand Fantasy on Pacini’s Niobe, wrote: “Never did Liszt play with more verve and tenderness. It was an admirable joust. At the close of the duel, a profound silence fell over the noble arena. The two men were judged equals. Thus, two victors, and none vanquished.” The Princess diplomatically declared that Thalberg was the first pianist in the world, but Liszt was unique! The rivalry came to an end with this concert and the symbolic reconciliation was sealed by their agreeing to cooperate with other famous virtuosos in composing one variation each for Hexaméron (on a theme from Bellini’s I Puritani), as a tribute to the princess (the other composers were Pixis, Herz, Czerny and Chopin). Liszt orchestrated the work and maintained Hexaméron in his repertoire, and it has been recorded by the greatest Liszt specialist of our time, Leslie Howard, in his monumental complete collection of Liszt’s piano works.

Thalberg left Paris on 18 April 1838, travelling to Vienna, the very day that Liszt gave a charity concert there for the benefit of the victims of a flood in Hungary. Thalberg invited Liszt for dinner, and the two great pianists dined together on the 28th with Prince Moritz Dietrichstein, who told Liszt that he was delighted to have Castor and Pollux together in his home. During the evening, Thalberg remarked  to  Liszt with  admirable candour:  “In comparision  with  you,  I  have never enjoyed more than a succès d’estime in Vienna.” They dined again the next day, after Liszt’s concert on 29 April 1838. Liszt and Thalberg were both guests of Chancellor Metternich.

In spring 1848, in Vienna, Liszt met Thalberg once more. On 3 May 1848, Thalberg gave a benefit concert which Liszt attended. According to an account by his pupil, Liszt was sitting on the stage, carefully listening and loudly applauding. It was 11 years since he had first heard his rival playing.

Under the influence of his wife Francesca, Thalberg tried to have success as an opera composer. Florinda was presented in 1851 in London with a libretto by Scribe (translated into Italian by Giannone and Cristina di Svezia), and in 1855 in Vienna, both without great success. A parallel with the operas of Liszt: Don Sanche, 1825, composed at the age of 13 (!) under supervision of his teacher  Paer  and the  project  of  Sardanapalo  1848/50 (after  a  drama by  Lord  Byron) never completed and abandoned (the first act was recently orchestrated and recorded). The opera stages in the mid-nineteenth century were dedicated to the works of Meyerbeer, Verdi and Wagner. No one could compete with them, even Berlioz despite his great orchestration.

From that time Thalberg enjoyed great popularity throughout Europe and worldwide. In 1855 he travelled as far as Brazil and Havana, and lived for several years in the USA, where he gave successful concerts, taught and organised opera productions. He earned a huge amount of money and became very rich. He married the daughter of the opera singer Luigi Lablache in 1844, and in 1858 he bought a beautiful villa in Posillipo, near Naples. He continued to tour during the next five years, though with less frequency, and then retired to Posillipo, where he spent his last years as a vintner. After the death of Thalberg, Liszt sent to his widow a famous letter of condolence in which he expressed his esteem and love for his great musician friend.

Together with Liszt, Thalberg must be ranked as the greatest virtuoso pianist of the mid-nineteenth century, a view endorsed by Mendelssohn. Clara Schumann noted: “Thalberg visited us and played delightfully on my piano. An even more accomplished technique than his does not exist, and many of his piano effects must ravish the connoisseurs. He does not fail a single note, his passages can be compared to rows of pearls, his octaves are the most beautiful I ever heard”. Fétis admired Thalberg for his ability to combine the merits of brilliant technique, derived from Clementi, and the art of the  singing style of Hummel and Mozart; he combined dash and power with unfailing care for bel canto. Schumann, who was not at all favourably disposed towards virtuosos, made an exception for Thalberg praising him in his reviews for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

Thalberg and Liszt went their separate ways but remained certainly very much aware of each other. A specialist may observe that a certain amount of compositional cross-fertilisation took place after the event - we find Liszt cloning the climactic passage of Moses in his Norma Fantasy, and we find Thalberg utilising rapid chromatic octaves (which make their first appearance in Liszt’s Fantasy on La Juive) a few years later in his Fantasy on La Sonnambula. Why are Thalberg’s works almost forgotten? Firstly his music was rooted in the generation of his forebears, whilst his great rival sought to move forward and “throw his lance in the future”. Secondly, and more importantly, we realise that Thalberg was a great pianist, and his best paraphrases are attractively and ingeniously constructed. Liszt was a far more protean and skilled composer. Supreme technical excellence in one field does not necessarily confer the same level of excellence in another, even if they are closely related.

For lovers of romantic piano music, and especially for fans of Italian bel canto operas, I recommend the five Marco Polo CDs recorded between 1990 and 1993 in Bratislava and Budapest by Francesco Nicolosi: 1. Fantasies on operas by Bellini, 2. Fantasies on operas by Donizetti, 3. Variations on operas by Rossini, 4. Fantasies on operas by Verdi, Rossini and Bellini, and 5. Les Soirées de Pausilippe, 24 Pensées Musicales (a masterwork according to Robert Schumann). His pleasant Piano Concerto in F minor opus 5, composed at the age of 18, has also been recorded by Nicolosi, having earlier been recorded by Michael Ponti in 1974, and more recently in 2012 by Howard Shelley on Volume 58 of the Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto series.

Constantin Erbiceanu


The New Grove – Dictionary of Music &Musicians, Volume 18 – reprinted in 1995

Biographie Universelle des Musiciens – par F.J. Fetis – Tome huitieme, printed in Paris in 1865

Franz Liszt by Ernst Burger – French edition Fayard from 1988 with Preface of Alfred Brendel

CD booklet “Liszt vs. Thalberg”, an historical re-enactment of their 1837 musical duel

[Recorded 1991 at State University of New York by pianist Steven Mayer]Wikipedia

Two presentations and considerations about Sigismund Thalberg (two anonymous authors who

compiled about 60 old reviews, newspapers and memoirs of his famous contemporaries)