Thalberg: Making the piano sensitive

Sigismund Thalberg’s piano performance tour of the United States prior to the Civil War came at a key point in the nation’s cultural emergence on the world scene.  By the 1830’s the United States’ cultural and social elite knew the musical works of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, but the acquired tastes of the refined classical tradition had not reached the American masses and European musical refinement was often caricatured.  While in New York City the Philharmonic had been organized as a voluntary association since 1842, even by the late 1850’s (on the brink of the Civil War) efforts to expand concerts into mid-day matinees struggled to find audiences.  It wasn’t until 1881 that “the Boston Symphony became the nation’s first permanent full-time orchestra” (Horowitz).  Meanwhile, as the director of the Parisian Opera had but it in the 1840’s, in language characteristic of the European prejudice:  “We look upon America as an industrial country – excellent for electric telegraphs and railroads but not for Art.”

The mismatch between American and European musical sensibilities created a mutual cycle of mistrust and disparagement that did not really begin to crumble until Anton Rubenstein’s tour of the states in the 1870’s.  Prior to his tour, European impresarios often appealed to their publics in ways more reminiscent of circus performers (as when Jenny Lind was debuted as an “angel,” descended from heaven, by P.T. Barnum), where publicity machines were wildly ramped up.  But the irony of the Paris Opera director’s comment is that it was precisely America’s midcentury industrialization that enabled its cultural transformation.  The frenetic pace of Thalberg’s American concertizing was only possible because he was able to perform in the evening and then often travel all night on the trains, on a rapidly expanded and precisely organized transportation system that gave predictability to one’s efforts to reach small towns like Kenosha and Sandusky and Natchez and Atlanta.

Thalberg’s tour – his first American concert was in November 1856 in New York City, his last, provoked by a sudden and still unexplained return to Europe, took place in Peoria in June 1858 – was a noticeable contrast to the earlier hype of Jenny Lind, partly because his reputation as a European master needed little exaggeration.  Training in piano had already emerged as a marker of middle-class respectability, and Thalberg’s sheet music was well known to American music students.  News of Thalberg’s status as the most credible European pianist, second only to Franz Liszt, had been long circulated by the time of his arrival (and of course Liszt’s refusal to tour the United States left the stage to Thalberg’s crowd-pleasing sensibilities).

The generally exuberant reaction Thalberg received from American audiences reiterated the enthusiasm Europe had shown for his virtuosity twenty years earlier.  Reacting to a Parisian performance given in 1836, one reviewer described Thalberg this way:  “From under his fingers there escape handfuls of pearls.”  As time passed, the early rapture was revved into a feud, where partisans of Liszt (most notably Berlioz) took sides against Thalberg partisans (most notably Mendelssohn).  The whole thing came to head in a famously reported Paris recital where both Lizst and Thalberg played.  The March 1837 event, where tickets sold for charity cost an extravagant $8 apiece, featured each playing one of their famous fantasias:  Liszt played his volcanic transcription of Pacini’s Niobe and Thalberg his subtler version of Rossini’s Moise.  The outcome, although historically dominated by Liszt, was judged a close call at the time.  Some viewed the contest a tie.  A 1958 account by Vera Mikol argued that the winner was, “in the eyes of the ladies, Thalberg; according to the critics, Liszt.”

Thalberg’s reputation, though sustained by sold out European performances, faded on the continent, even as his worldwide reach (with concert tours in Russia, Holland, Spain, and Brazil) expanded.  Robert Schumann was notoriously hostile, and in his writing used the term “a la Thalberg” as a slur to describe lightweight compositions.  Mendelssohn remained an admirer.  The sparkling romanticism of Thalberg’s compositions made them simultaneously popular (and stylistically imitated) and critically panned.  It is evidence of both impulses that when Jenny Lind launched her American tour, the concert opened with a two-piano performance of Thalberg’s transcription of Norma.

But what made Thalberg extraordinary was not necessarily best displayed in his compositions, and this is undoubtedly why his reputation has so seriously abated.  Even in his day his compositions were often criticized for their repetitive impulse to showcase technique.  The key, for his audiences, was a compositional trick popularized and perhaps even invented by Thalberg and imitated everywhere:  the melodic line was switched thumb to thumb while the other fingers ranged widely across arpeggios above and below in an effect that made the player sound as if he had three hands.  Audiences were so impressed with this illusion that in some cities they reportedly stood up to get a better glimpse of his hands on the keys.

The key for his admiring critics, meanwhile, lay in his technique.  For Mendelssohn, Thalberg “restores one’s desire for playing and studying as everything really perfect does.”  Ernest Legouve wrote that “Thalberg never pounded.  What constituted his superiority, what made the pleasure of hearing him play a luxury to the ear, was pure tone.  I have never heard such another, so full, so round, so soft, so velvety, so sweet, and still so strong.”  Arthur Pougin, memorializing Thalberg at his death, said it was he “who, for the first time we had seen, made the piano sensitive,” which was to say that in the eyes of other players, he had mastered the art of pressing against the limits of the instrument so as to make it sound most like the singing human voice.  It was this Thalberg himself was seeking to highlight when he entitled his own piano text, L’Art du chant applique au piano, or The Art of Song Applied to the Piano.

Academic debate continues about the role of Thalberg and the other early European virtuosos who toured the states.  Some defend him as representing the necessary first step in tutoring America in musical sophistication, all while softening the more difficult numbers with crowd pleasing fantasias that classed up songs like “The Last Rose of Summer” and “Home Sweet Home.”  Others render a harsher judgment – Mikol closed her 1958 essay on Thalberg with this highly negative assessment:  “we should not underestimate the part he played a hundred years ago in delaying our musical coming-of-age.”  Part of the sharp discrepancy relates to differing views of the emergence of high culture.  R. Allen Lott’s From Paris to Peoria credits the impresario experience as laying the groundwork for a richer American culture, where the audience experience of the classical repertoire was “sacralized” over time.  Contra Lawrence Levine and others, who have argued that this period shows how cultural norms were imposed by rich elites as a method of bringing the masses under disciplined control, Lott and Ralph Locke credit not elite control but a widely shared eagerness for intensive aesthetic experiences that transcended class divisions.  Still others point to the deeply gendered responses this sort of musical performance elicited – women were not allowed entry into the evening theatre without a male escort, and so Thalberg and others added afternoon matinees where women could attend unaccompanied.

Today Thalberg is mainly forgotten – my own interest in him came from seeing one of his works performed on campus two months ago by a Mississippi musicologist – but In towns across America he and the other touring virtuosos provoked both class antagonisms and the enthralled reactions of the spiritually “slain in the spirit,” which makes it difficult to judge either perspective uniquely correct.  In Boston a huge controversy erupted when Thalberg’s manager sought to limit ticket sales to the upper class (by briefly requiring patrons to provide a “correct address”); the papers had a field day about foreign snobbery and defended music for its democratizing potential.

Meanwhile, audiences were enthralled and carried to heights of emotional ecstasy by the actual concerts; the press accounts often noted that listeners wept.  Thalberg managed to achieve this response, amazingly, without resort to the usual theatrics apart from his pure technique; as a Boston reviewer put it, “no upturning of the eyes or pressing of the hand over the heart as if seized by a sudden cramp in that region, the said motions caused by a sudden fit of thankfulness.”  Others, sometimes in small towns but even in New York City, already the nation’s cultural capital, reacted with disdain, a fact that led one of the city’s preeminent critics to ask, “Why will mere glitter so far outweigh solid gold with the multitude?”  Still others attended not to hear the music but display their social status.

Such reactions persist to this day in the nation’s symphony halls, but even as audiences reproduce the prejudices of their time, it is hard not to be moved by the more singular reaction of that same New York correspondent who, upon hearing Thalberg play the opening of Beethoven’s Emperor, said that even as “it fell dead upon the audience, …I drank it in as the mown grass does the rain.  A great soul was speaking to mine, and I communed with him.”

SOURCES:  R. Allen Lott, From Paris to Peoria:  How European Piano Virtuosos Brought Classical Music to the American Heartland (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003); Vera Mikol, “The Influence of Sigismund Thalberg on American Musical Taste, 1830-1872,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 102.5 (20 October 1958), pgs. 464-468; Joseph Horowitz, online review of Vera Lawrence’s Strong on Music:  The New York Music Scene in the Days of George Templeton Strong, vol. 3 (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1999), at http://www.josephhorowitz.com; Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow:  The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1988); Ralph Locke, “Music Lovers, Patrons, and the ‘Sacralization’ of Culture in America,” 19th-Century Music 17 (Fall 1993), pgs. 149-173; E. Douglas Bomberger, “The Thalberg Effect:  Playing the Violin on the Piano,” Musical Quarterly 75.2 (Summer 1991), pgs. 198-208.

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