The Kennedy Center

Sigismond Thalberg


Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871) was either a German or Austrian pianist and composer, although his skills as a pianist are much more highly regarded than his abilities as a composer. Together with Franz Liszt, Thalberg is ranked as the greatest virtuoso pianist of the mid-19th century.
At age 10, Thalberg was sent to Vienna for advance preparation in a career in the diplomatic service, but he studied music at the same time. From the age of 14, he had great success as a salon pianist, and two years later his first works were published. His international career began in 1830 when he toured in England and Germany and later in other European countries.
In 1836, Thalberg achieved considerable success and fame in Paris, and his prominence was further increased the following year when renowned pianist and composer Franz Liszt returned from Switzerland to challenge Thalberg's position as the leading piano virtuoso in Paris. Liszt wrote an article in a musical revue severely criticizing Thalberg's compositions. Acrimony between the two basically ended, however, after a celebrated "piano duel" in a princess's salon in 1837. At that concert, Liszt's tempestuous, emotional virtuosity was technically superior (as Thalberg himself acknowledged), but Thalberg's repose and careful gradation of tone appealed to many who were put off by Liszt's passionate musical persona. The joint concert was nevertheless a symbolic reconciliation and was sealed by the two agreeing to cooperate with other famous virtuosos (including Chopin) in composing one variation each on a piece of music, as a tribute to the princess.
The impact of Thalberg's playing mostly depended on his "three-handed technique," where a melody played by the thumbs in the middle register of the keyboard creates the illusion that three hands are required. This seemingly dazzling execution aroused admiration. Later it was realized Thalberg's basic compositional method was fairly simple: the center melody was simply ornamented above and below with elaborate counterpoint and chords. Nevertheless, an image of Thalberg as an amazing virtuoso composer had been created, and a popular cartoonist of the day portrayed him as having 10 hands.
Although the eminent composer Robert Schumann gave quite favorable reviews as a music critic to a number of Thalberg's works, his compositions lacked originality and inspiration and are of questionable value. However, a few minor pieces, such as the nocturnes, the Romances sans paroles, the piano studies, and the Ballade op.76 are appealing. The most interesting works are the long opera fantasias, keyboard arrangements skillfully and effectively written that are based on the popular operas of the day. These compositions helped bring to the art of piano playing the same kind of emotional feeling the great singers of the time inspired. Neither of Thalberg's own operas, Florinda and Cristina di Svezia, achieved success, however.
In 1855, Thalberg's popularity led him to travel as far as Brazil and Havana, Cuba to play. He then lived for several years in the U.S., where he gave successful concerts, taught, and organized opera productions. In 1858, he bought a villa near Naples, Italy. He continued to tour during the next five years, though with less frequency, then retired to the villa where he spent his last years as a vintner.
Sigismond Thalberg