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Sigismond Thalberg (1812 - 1871):Fantasies on Operas by 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. Thalberg's birth certificate, however, provides him with different and relatively legitimate parentage, as 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 Sechter 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 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 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, after his 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, performing a repertoire chiefly but not entirely devoted to his own compositions. Liszt, meanwhile, included in his repertoire some of Thalberg's operatic paraphrases and fantasies, which, through Marie d'Agoult, he had once publicly disparaged.
In 1843 Thalberg had married in Paris the daughter of the famous bass Luigi Lablache. Attempts at operatic composition proved unsuccessful, with Florinda, staged in London in 1851 and Cristina di Svezia 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, Op. 12, 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, an 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, as 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 nineteenth 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. Thalberg chose to write fantasies on themes from a number of operas by Vincenzo Bellini (1801 - 1835), 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. Thalberg does not attempt to treat themes in the order in which they occur in the opera, making much, for example, of the march that follows the provocation in the first act to revolt against Rome by Normas father, the Archdruid Oroveso, which appears half way through the fantasy.
Bellini's opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi was first performed at La Fenice in Venice in 1830. The opera deals with the tragic love-story of Romeo and Juliet and their two feuding families, and the fantasy provides a dazzling series of variations on a well known melody.
Beatrice di Tenda, centring on the unfortunate wife of the unscrupulous Duke of Milan, met rather less success when it was first mounted in Venice in 1833, although it provides Thalberg with the material he needs. The 1829 opera La Straniera, set in an improbable medieval Brittany, was first performed in Milan, the complexities of its plot relieved by Bellini's treatment.
La Sonnambula was first staged in Milan in 1831 with Giuditta Pasta, who later created the part of Norma. Thalberg includes in his Grand Caprice the heart of the drama, where the heroine, Amina, revealed as a sleepwalker, is seen perilously crossing a rotten bridge, bearing flowers given her by her lover Elvino, who had suspected her fidelity. Her aria addressing the faded flowers follows, with other themes taken from the opera. Liszt also wrote a fantasy on well known themes from La Sonnambula and a characteristically titled work Réminiscences de Norma, while dedicating a similar souvenir of I Puritani to Princess Belgiojoso, who had taken piano lessons from Bellini. Thalberg's only treatment of I Puritani remained the variation contributed to Hexaméron.