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3rd part - Musical duels: Liszt vs Thalberg
A third, superlative challenge remained memorable: the scene takes place in Paris. It is March 31, 1837; in the residence of Princess Cristina Trivulzio of Belgiojoso two stars of pianism compete for their laurels, true music stars, forerunners of today's stars, Franz Liszt and Sigismund Thalberg.

Twenty-five-year-olds and peers, they had already made a lot of talk about themselves for their extraordinary talent, their virtuosity and the magnetism they exercised on the public.

Franz Liszt, precocious musical prodigy, had known his first triumph when he was thirteen years old with a concert at the Théâtre Louvois in Paris, the press compared him to Mozart, Paris admired him, and the event started a brilliant concert career that would have brought to perform throughout Europe. He toured twice in England, playing in 1825 in Windsor in the presence of King George IV, then in France and Switzerland.

Sigismund Thalberg in turn had made his debut at the age of 14 in Vienna with enormous success, and he too had embarked on a tour in England; later he performed in Germany, Belgium and Holland. In 1834 the Emperor of Austria appointed him Kammervirtuose (virtuoso of the Imperial Chamber) when he was only 22 years old. In 1836 he made his debut in Paris at the Sala del Conservatorio, where he presented his Concerto for piano and orchestra in F minor op.5. The success is sensational and in a short time makes him famous throughout Europe.

As a composer Thalberg met the taste of the public in particular with his dramatic fantasies on opera themes, which were well known to all, and guaranteed the immediacy and pleasure of listening. He performed them by leveraging all the possibilities that his virtuosity, exceptional touch sensitivity, and his technical innovations offered him. He made extensive use of the pedals, enveloped the melodies of arpeggios, and associated a brilliant technique with songwriting and breadth of sonority. His was an incomparable one nice singing piano from which - thanks to his intense didactic activity in the years to come - the great Neapolitan Piano School would later spring.

Liszt for his part - inspired in this by Paganini - played in a single body with the piano. His touch full of energy makes the instrument vibrate, and the sound spreads, inhabits the space with plasticity. The reviews of the time enhance the brilliance, strength and precision of his piano style. Liszt moreover brings into play the whole spectrum of emotions and feelings that Romanticism is capable of, shows a full involvement, often with sudden changes from one mood to another. With an eye on the spectacular side of the concert and the applause of the audience, Liszt plays like a possessed person, has a very mobile facial expression, makes large gestures clearly visible in the large halls where he performs, throws his head back, makes his chin vibrate , rotates his torso, shakes his shoulders - in short, he creates a whole aesthetic of gesture and mimicry that is still reflected today in concert halls all over the world.

The rivalry between the two pianists was mounting. It finally resulted in open controversy in the first days of January 1837, when the Revue et Music Gazette de Paris published an article that crushed Thalberg completely and unreservedly. The piece is signed by Liszt, but the author is actually his partner Marie d'Agoult. The war continues in the newspapers, unleashing real partisanship between those in favor of one or the other of the contenders (for example between Berlioz, supporter of Liszt, and Heine or François-Joseph Fétis, founder of the Revue and professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory, which supported Thalberg).

The controversy does not stop at the printed word: after a month Thalberg is in Paris, where he arrives just in time to listen to his rival and witness his triumph in the concert at the Saloni Érard on February 4th. A few days later, Thalberg responds with a performance within the prestigious Soirées musicales by Pierre Zimmermann (February 16), and this time it is Liszt who is the spectator of his acclamation. Thalberg announces another concert, which however continues to procrastinate, deliberately, to make himself desired and create anticipation in the public. It's a real war of nerves - Liszt plays on March 9, Thalberg finally reappears and three days later gets another hit at the Conservatory Hall. He cannot finish his program, there are so many applauses, the press exalts him his pianism is exquisite, absolutely admirable, wonderful. '

Liszt goes on the counterattack: he rents the Opera House, a huge space with 3,000 seats, and only seven days after his rival's triumph, on the 19th he gives a matinee with the orchestra. A success, albeit with some cracks due to the size of the space and the positioning chosen for the piano.

The race is exciting and becomes the topic of the day in the Paris that matters. The match between the two artists is equal.

To proclaim a winner, nothing better than organizing a (piano) duel.

Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso - di Francesco Hayez, 1832
Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso - by Francesco Hayez, 1832

The right opportunity is at hand: Princess Cristina Trivulzio of Belgiojoso (1808 - 1871), a woman of great culture and charm, writer and patriot, who took refuge in Paris due to her commitment to the Risorgimento and the unification of Italy, organizes a musical evening with a fundraiser in favor of Italians in exile.

Liszt, like many other artists and intellectuals, is a regular guest in the Princess's drawing room. Cristina di Belgioioso therefore thinks of organizing the challenge between the two most famous pianists in the world in support of this noble cause. The evening promises to be the highlight of the season, tickets are selling fast.


On the evening of March 31 there is the whole beautiful world of Paris. The two pianists take turns throwing themselves on the piano and dragging the audience along. Too good both, impossible to decide a winner. The critic of the Journal des Débats, Jules Janin, comments:

“Liszt has never been so controlled, so measured, so energetic, so passionate; Thalberg has never played with so much grit and softness. Each of the two remained in their own harmonic sphere. It was a sublime tournament. In the noble arena there was a profound silence. And in the end Liszt and Thalberg were both declared winners by this brilliant and cultured assembly. [...] Two winners and no one defeated. "  (April 3, 1837)


Splendid and much cited the cryptic verdict of Princess Christina of Belgiojoso: "Thalberg is the first pianist in the world, Liszt is the only one".


In the years that followed, Thalberg and Liszt crossed their paths on several occasions. The two artists met in Vienna in the spring of 1838, in Paris in the spring of 1840, on the Rhine in the summer of 1840, in the spring of 1844 again in Paris, but they carefully avoided a new direct confrontation, avoiding the one from playing in the presence of the other.

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