THALBERG AND THE ART OF SONG
by Danny L. Hithcock
…on Tuesday he played the Huguenots fantasia, with prodigious effect; also the fantasias on Masaniello, Sonnambula, and Norma.... But his transcription of Beethoven's Adelaide, and of the Quartet from I Puritani, (simply played from his book: L’Art du Chant appliqué au Piano,) gave us the most unalloyed delight. It was the perfect transfer of a vocal melody (without any of the personal drawbacks) to the strings of an instrument. We fear we shall never wish to hear Adelaide sung again, for it never sang itself so purely, so tenderly and sweetly as under Thalberg's fingers. (Dwight’s Journal of Music)
This review-typical of the response that Sigismund Thalberg drew from audiences and critics alike during his extended American Tour of 1856 to 1858 effectively demonstrates the value that he, himself, placed on his L'art du chant. By performing these more direct transcriptions of individual songs, operatic arias and ensembles on the same program as his more celebrated, dazzling, and complex fantasies, and sometimes even following them, he did not so much present selections from his méthode as reveal his musical philosophy.
The heart and soul of Thalberg's style, the very justification for his virtuosity, was his lifelong celebration of melody. It formed the core of virtually everything he wrote. What distinguished Thalberg as a virtuoso apart from the other, great piano virtuosos of his time was not that he was a consummate technician - Mendelssohn, Henselt, Chopin, Liszt, to name but a few, were all similarly great technicians - but that he employed all his performance and compositional skills to create the illusion of sustained, modulated tones on the keyboard of the piano. His innovations in effects achieved all the greater impact because the pianos of the earlier 19th century were not yet the sonorous instruments they were later to become. In a symbiotic relationship, the so-called Romantic pianists and the piano manufacturers together encouraged the development of stronger instruments with expanded and refined tonal possibilities.
The major part of Thalberg's works were devoted to the piano; their raison d'étre was more for the exploration and exploitation of textural effects than for the exposition of traditional musical forms. This seemingly narrow focus has left Thalberg vulnerable to sometimes severe criticism, but it is also the primary reason that he had so profound and lasting an influence on the literature for the piano and holds his special place in music history.
Thalberg's méthode or treatise, L'art du chant appliqué au piano, Op. 70 (The Art of Song Applied to the Piano) in its entirety comprised twenty-five individual transcriptions of vocal works by other composers, the majority coming from operatic contexts. In its final configuration, the collection was arranged into four series containing six numbers each (the first two Mozart transcriptions were assigned to one number), but it was originally released in instalments.
The seven selections of Series 1, distributed under six numbers, appeared at the end of 1853. Series 2 was published at the same time, initially with only four numbers. Early in 1854, the first two Weber pieces carried the qualified opus numbers of 70/a and 70/b, but soon became incorporated into the second series as items 9 and 11, or 11 and 12. Series 3 and Series 4 followed nearly a decade later in 1862 and 1863. Several music publishing houses throughout Europe concurrently offered L'art du chant. The twenty-five pieces were variously issued as single numbers, single series folios or as an integral collection. During the late 1860, Georges Bizet helped to edit simplified two - and four-handed as well as concert versions of Thalberg's respected work. Each format usually included Thalberg's own introductory essay, consisting of some prefatory remarks and eleven (or twelve, if number eight was subdivided) points or rules which may be usefully condensed:
1. Eliminate all tension, especially in the forearms.
2. Avoid striking the keys; rather, depress them as an extension of arm and body movement.
3. Dynamic markings are relative, not absolute; make the vocal line predominate.
4. Subordinate the left hand to the right except when it carries the melodic responsibility. Convey the overall harmony of the chords rather than their specific elements.
5. Shun the affectation of delayed entries for melodies.
6. Hold notes for their full values; slow, careful practice of fugues will develop this.
7. Modify and vary the sound rather than merely executing the notes. Learn thoroughly the resources and correct usage of the two pedals. Honor scrupulously all tempo indications.
9. Refrain from gratuitous fast playing; steady tempi, accuracy and expression demand and display greater ability, again facilitated by the study of fugues.
10. Play dose to the keys. Listen to the music as you play; work with the mind more than the fingers. Study vocal technique and repertoire; listen to fine singers at every opportunity.
Thalberg had previously written music of more conventional pedagogical value, but not with so explicit a mission. From the emerging young virtuoso of 1836-37, an obligatory set of twelve études, op.26, concentrating on finger dexterity, could reasonably have been anticipated. Five additional, separately published études appeared in later years. More to the point, and somewhat prefiguring L'art du chant, the ten extended pieces, or morceaux, of the Decameron musical, Op. 57 (1845-1851), were formulated as somewhat less demanding fantasies designed to develop the technique necessary for performing his well-known, advanced works in that genre.
Thalberg's L'art du chant stands apart as one of the earliest examples of piano pedagogy which directed the performer's attention toward tone production rather than virtuosic technique (which this music in reality presupposes), and as such becomes something of a precursor to that of Tobias Matthay (1858-1945), who treated the subject exhaustively in The Act of Touch (1926). Thalberg's twenty-five transcriptions, in comparison to his intricate and brilliant fantasies, present a deceptive simplicity while actually making sometimes even greater technical demands. The music eschews those virtuosic elaborations that can divert and fascinate the listener, and leaves the pianist's abilities and control more exposed. Accompaniments to the melodies may be thickened or modified for reasons of sonority, but nothing extraneous or unnecessary is added.
Thalberg does not place the melodic burden on one hand only. To an even greater degree than in his fantasies, the single melodies or different voices are distributed throughout the keyboard so that both hands must form, for all practical purposes, one seamless mechanism. Thalberg underscores his intentions by modifying the prevailing notational system: melodic notes are printed slightly larger, instrumental and vocal passages are differentiated, and the two pedals are given separate, precise indications (the damper pedal below the staff, the soft pedal between the staves) in order to accomplish the desired tonal, dynamic, and harmonic effects.
An overview of the literature for the piano during the middle years of the l9th century underscores that opera was the pre-eminent musical art form of the era. While the pianists who were primarily composers (Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, etc.) could sidestep its impact, the pianists who were performers (Thalberg, Liszt, et al) found it necessary to acknowledge its popularity through their compositions in order to succeed in their careers. Encouraged to expand his compositional horizons to opera, Thalberg's two efforts, Florinda (1851) and Cristina di Svezia (1855), fell short of enduring success. A projected third opera, Romilda (tentatively sketched around 1862), never came to fruition.
Thalberg, in his essay to L'art du chant, alluded to his own five years of formal vocal studies. Contrary to expectation, these were not taken with Luigi Lablache, the greatest basso of the age and the father of Thalberg's wife, but rather with the younger Manuel Garcia, a baritone, brother of the famous divas, Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot. Thalberg was reported to have possessed a fine baritone voice. Not surprisingly, the great pianist enjoyed dose friendship with many famous singers and especially with the great opera composer, Gioacchino Rossini. Herbert Weinstock, in his Rossini biography, recounts a felicitous example of Thalberg's participation at one of Rossini's famous Saturday soirées:
When Thalberg had finished playing, Rossini hastened up to him, embraced him, and said to the entire assemblage: Grant that Thalberg just now has given you a lesson in singing such as you never had before.