Adolf von Henselt was one of the greatest virtuosi of the nineteenth century. His trail-blazing études – at once impossibly challenging for the performer and ardently lyrical for the listener – were to influence a generation of composers, especially in Russia where Henselt settled.
Having studied with Hummel in Weimar, the ‘Henselt piano technique’ is now regarded as the link between that of the older composer and that to be developed by Franz Liszt. Notorious for his ability to play unfeasibly wide-spreading chords while maintaining a miraculous legato line, Henselt’s fanatical devotion to technical pianistic exercises should come as no surprise. The two sets of études represent the codification of his diligence, yet their worth today derives as much from their musical value as their technical complexity.
Piers Lane, whose impressive discography reveals him to be something of an étude-ist himself, more than rises to the challenge.
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Adolf von Henselt (1814–1889) was one of the greatest virtuosos of the nineteenth century. Within the space of five golden years, between 1809 and 1814, a galaxy of pianist-composers was born into a world of the fast-developing grand piano with a new exciting outlook. The first of these to be born was Mendelssohn, followed by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Thalberg and Henselt himself. However, the greatest influence over Henselt was Carl Maria von Weber.
Henselt was born in Schwabach, Bavaria, a small manufacturing town south of Nürnberg. The Henselt family moved to Munich when Adolf was three, and at the age of five he commenced his music studies under the tutelage of the Geheimrätin von Fladt, who was in contact with King Ludwig I of Bavaria. In 1831 he bestowed upon Henselt a stipend which enabled him to study with the renowned Hummel, who had become Kapellmeister at the court of Weimar in 1819. Henselt’s stay in Weimar, which lasted for six months, culminated on 29 November 1832 with a highly successful public performance. Two years of study with Simon Sechter in Vienna were followed by a further two years of seclusion when Henselt evolved his unique system of extending the stretch of the hands. In 1836, after a nervous breakdown, he went to Carlsbad to recuperate and, according to La Mara, it was there that he met Chopin. In the same year he revisited Weimar and Hummel, staying there for some months, and this visit was the defining point in determining Henselt’s future. Firstly, he fell in love with the wife of a physician to the court, Rosalie Vogel (née Manger); she divorced, and Henselt married her on 24 October 1837 at Bad Salzbrunn in Silesia (now Szczawno Zdrój, Poland), an event reflected in Henselt’s Poème d’amour Op 3. Secondly, the presence in Weimar of the leading patron the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, a daughter of the Tsar and herself a pupil of Hummel, helped to seal Henselt as the ascending star in the Russian firmament. In 1838 he proceeded to St Petersburg where successful concerts overwhelmed an audience that up to that time had witnessed no comparable artist. Under these circumstances were the twenty-four études, Opp 2 and 5, introduced to the world.
Henselt was offered immediate employment in St Petersburg as court pianist and a teaching post at the School of Jurisprudence, which he retained until 1848. His appointment helped to establish Henselt not only as the leading figure in teaching establishments under the jurisdiction of the Tsar (the St Petersburg Conservatoire did not open until 1862) but also as a growing influence on a new and distinct school of Russian pianism. It has been pointed out by Natalia Zenzerova that Henselt’s Étude in D flat, Op 2 No 2, was an influence on Balakirev’s Grande Fantasie on Russian folksongs, Op 4, as early as 1852, only a few years after Henselt’s piece was heard in St Petersburg. It would appear that Balakirev’s knowledge of the Henselt studies derived from the great Russian critic V V Stasov, who was a pupil of Henselt and an ardent supporter of Balakirev and his followers. It was through Stasov that Henselt and Balakirev were introduced, though not until 1879. Another pupil of Henselt, A V Sverev, taught Rachmaninov, whose infamous Prelude in C sharp minor, Op 3 No 2, was greatly influenced by the slow movement of Henselt’s Piano Concerto, Op 16 (recorded on). This difficult work – reaching back to Hummel and Weber, sideways to Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, forward to Brahms and the new Russian school – is at the epicentre of European pianism for which it provided a springboard of far-reaching consequences. After the Piano Concerto (which was first performed by Clara Schumann) Henselt’s only works of major significance were the Piano Trio, Op 24 (1851), and the noble Ballade, Op 31 (1854), but his imprint on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russian music is indelible.
Some references are made in the following notes to the relationship of Henselt’s études to those of Chopin. Robert Schumann described Henselt as the ‘northern Chopin’, which, given that Henselt had developed a distinctive melodic idiom before he ever became acquainted with Chopin’s studies, is surely an exaggeration. The earliest known piano piece by Henselt is a set of slight variations on themes by Paganini, published in 1830 by Falter and full of the conventions of the day. The Rondoletto in D minor, a substantial work written in 1832 but not published until 1865, reflects the influence of the Piano Concerto in C sharp minor by Ferdinand Ries and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in D minor, Op 31 No 2. Though to this extent it derives initially from these composers, it developed in an individual manner and the contrasting second subject exhibits Henselt at his purest; so too does the enchanting Chant du printemps of 1833, published in 1883. The impression made by Chopin did not show itself until later, by which time Henselt was considered virtually without peer, as attested to by Wilhelm von Lenz: ‘The great piano virtuosos of the century may be compared with continents and countries. Liszt, Chopin and Henselt are continents. Tausig, Rubinstein, and Bülow are countries.’
Schumann was critical of the French epithets to the Op 2 set (he wanted them in German, from which some may have originated). The Op 5 set, in which the style of music is not materially different from that of Op 2, has German and Italian titles for all except two, which are untitled.
These twenty-four études traverse all the tonalities, major and minor, of the chromatic scale, but they do not follow a tonally related order, as does J S Bach’s ‘48’. One wonders if the nature of individual études demanded a particular key, for dramatic effect. Each is well contrasted with its neighbour, and each set of studies begins and ends in a minor key.
Douze Études caractéristiques de concert Op 2 The dedication on the title page of the first edition of the Douze Études caractéristiques de concert, Op 2, published by Hofmeister, is to ‘Sa Majesté, Roi de Bavière’. Presumed parallel editions are listed on the title page of this edition as ‘Milan, chez Jean Ricordi’ and ‘Varsovie, chez G Sennewald’. Certain copies add ‘St Petersburg, chez Fr Lee’. The Wessel edition, entered at Stationers’ Hall on 29 March 1838, divides the studies into two parts: Nos 1–6 (plate number 2343), and Nos 7–12 (plate number 2344). Each study in the Hofmeister and Wessel editions is headed by a short quotation in French, expressing the sentiments of the music. The Lemoine edition has no quotations. A later, undated, but still quite early edition by Girard, 211 Rue Toledo, Naples (plate numbers 7170/7173) varies six of the quotations.
The turbulent first étude (‘Orage, tu ne saurais m’abattre’/‘Storm, you will not fell me’) plunges without ado into wide-ranging arpeggio figures for the left hand, over which a simple melody is declaimed in octaves. A central section transfers these to the right hand over a sequence of descending diminished chords. The opening section is repeated in a modified manner and the storm is assuaged. From the whirlwind to the world of bliss, Henselt, defying all tonal considerations, symbolizes the change by stepping down a minor second for the second étude (‘Pensez un peu à moi, qui pense toujours à vous’/‘Think a little about me, who thinks always about you’), one of his most ardent outpourings. Technically, the more demanding right hand has to promote a legato between the second and fifth fingers over the span of an octave, whilst maintaining the melody with the third and fourth fingers – a severe test, but with poetic results.
No 3 (‘Exauce mes vœux’/‘Fulfil my desires’) features one of Henselt’s rather stern melodies in the right hand, over rapid descending broken chords paired between the hands. No 4 (‘Repos d’amour’/‘The repose of love’) is a leisurely moving ‘song without words’ featuring a characteristic melody in the tenor register shared between the hands. With the arrival of the middle section, the soprano voice, hitherto an accompaniment, develops its own little song which, over the tenor, burgeons into an effective duet. There is an obvious connection between this étude and the second of Clara Schumann’s Trois Romances pour le piano, Op 11 (Dresden, November 1838).
Formally and musically, the fifth étude (‘Vie orageuse’/‘Stormy life’) ranks amongst the finest in the collection. It deserves close attention for the manner in which it grows from its iambic opening two bars in the right hand to their inversion in the left hand in the central section. Its cascading end should not blind us to its probable origins in the keyboard works of J S Bach and Hummel. No 6 (‘Si oiseau j’étais, à toi je volerais’/‘If I were a bird, to you would I fly’) is the best-known of the studies. It follows the words of a German folk song: ‘Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär, und auch zwei Flügel hatt’, flog’ ich zu dir’, which were set by, among others, Schumann (Op 43 No 1 and Op 81 No 9) and Weber (Op 54 No 6/Jähns No 233). A glittering effect is obtained by the chords of fifths and sixths, with closely spaced alternating hands, perfectly placed over the black keys. This original effect was passed down to, among others, Brahms (the slow movement of the F minor Piano Sonata, Op 5), Rimsky-Korsakov (Op 11 No 3) and Arensky (Op 24 No 2). Godowsky’s arrangement augments the difficulties, distorting the feathery texture.
No 7 (‘C’est la jeunesse qui a des ailes dorées’/‘It is the youth who has golden wings’) is an endearing, swift-moving octave study. It opens with a rising figure, having a resemblance to a melody in Hummel’s Rondeau Brillant, Op 109, on which Schumann based his song Mit Myrten und Rosen, Op 29 No 9. Such fingerprints are pointers to a particular composer’s idiom and help to show how a specific piece of music relates to other works. A very different view is expressed by Gino Tagliapietra in his edition of Henselt’s Op 2 studies (Ricordi), where he suggests that the opening bars are a kind of rhythmic transformation of Chopin’s G flat Étude, Op 25 No 9. The connection can be better appreciated if one transposes Chopin’s opening bars into D major. In No 8 (‘Tu m’attires, m’entraînes, m’engloutis’/‘You attract me, you carry away, you engulf’) the right hand divides, with rapid triplets for the fourth and fifth fingers providing an overlay to the chromatic scales underneath. The left hand combines with its own material – an orchestra in itself. These effects are not well represented by others of the period and Henselt’s model may well be Hummel’s Étude in F major, Op 125 No 23. The concluding barrage of chords recalls Schubert’s songs, for example An Schwager Kronos and Aufenthalt.
No 9 (‘Jeunesse d’amour, plaisir céleste, ah tu t’enfuis, mais la mémoire nous reste’/‘Love’s youth, celestial delights; ah, you fly away, but the memory stays with us’) is a mellifluously flowing chordal/octave study. The direction innocente in the first bar belies formidable difficulties involved in maintaining a legato in the full writing for both hands. The opening section is followed by a slightly longer repeat which magnifies problems of execution by introducing repeated semiquavers an octave below the melody – a pattern that, as usual with Henselt, tests both hands. This device (also found in ‘Reconnaissance’ from Schumann’s Carnaval, Op 9) probably derives from Cramer’s Study in B flat, No 70 of his set of 84 studies. In No 10 (‘Comme le ruisseau dans la mer, se répand, ainsi, ma chère, mon cœur t’attend’/‘As the stream pours out into the sea, so my love, my heart awaits you’) the movement of the stream is depicted in rapid two-note cells, functioning chromatically within the confines of the key, which surge up and down the keyboard, passing between the hands. Under and over the perpetual motion, the yearning heart sings a slow-moving melody reminiscent of Mendelssohn. The piece evaporates in a most beautiful flurry of arpeggios, ending in the tonic major. A superficial connection with parts of Chopin’s Étude in C sharp minor, Op 10 No 4, may be felt, but it is evident that an earlier model of Hummel’s Concerto in A minor, Op 85, lies at the root of this music, as indeed it does with that of Chopin.
The beguiling melody of No 11 (‘Dors tu, ma vie?’/‘Do you sleep, my life?’), similar to that found in the F major Étude, Op 2 No 9, and elsewhere, is stated in the right hand throughout in bare octaves (except for the short coda). The constantly flowing, greatly stretched arpeggios in the left hand, and the ‘thumb-under’ activity, look forward to the slow movement of the Piano Concerto, Op 16. (Attention should be drawn to the piano piece Loreley by Han Seeling, 1826–1862, modelled on Henselt’s study and at one time widely played.) No 12 (‘Plein de soupirs, de souvenirs. Inquiet, hélas! Le cœur me bat’/‘Full of sights, of memories. Restlessly, alas, my heart beats’), written in Henselt’s favourite ‘Russian’ key of B flat minor, is an impassioned conclusion to Henselt’s lovelorn state, as expressed in the Op 2 studies. It is important how one interprets the rhythm, and how the notation is read: some editions give the time-signature of 2/4; that by Emil von Sauer in the late-nineteenth-century Peters edition revised the time-signature to 12/16. The regularity of the flow of the melody is displaced in the middle and the end of each bar, producing a kind of rocking effect. The motion, subject to certain accents, is the same as that in the conclusion of Henselt’s ‘Donizetti Variations’, Op 1, and rhythmically approaches that in Chopin’s F sharp minor Prelude, Op 28 No 8.
Douze Études de salon Op 5
Looking back to Beethoven and forward to Brahms and Balakirev, the first étude (‘Eroica’) commences with a slow distillation of the study which follows. It opens with a very Schubertian melody in the tenor (see Die Krähe), laid out in much the same way as in the B flat Étude, Op 2 No 4, before an amplification by both hands. It ends on a pause of the dominant seventh. (With the addition of a tonic chord, it could be played as a self-contained movement.) The study – characterized by an unremitting battery of pairs of repeated chords, into which the Die Krähe melody is woven – rises to a great climax, foretelling the thundering of the scherzo in Brahms’s Piano Quintet, Op 34 (even more telling in the version for two pianos, Op 34b), before sinking quietly into C major and a loud chord that signifies the end. The style of writing is also to be found in Henselt’s Piano Concerto, Balakirev’s Islamey (1869) and the last movement of the latter’s Piano Sonata (1900–05).
No 2 is an arpeggio study for the right hand, somewhat after the manner of Chopin’s Op 10 No 1, adding to the stretch of a tenth with further notes on the second half-beat of each group of semiquavers, thus enriching the texture, a feature of Henselt’s and of later Russian music. The third étude (‘Hexentanz’) is a fierce arpeggio study, resembling on paper Czerny or Cramer, even recalling early studies of Liszt in the same key. A stretch of an octave and a third above is required. The right hand is underpinned by a rhythmic figure in the bass which inverts much of this material in the middle section in the relative major. It is joined by the right hand, free to sing a pleasing little melody of its own. Following the recapitulation, the left hand in contrary motion joins the right hand in a formidable coda, precipitandosi.
Henselt’s Protestantism did not preclude his gentle incursions into the fringes of the Catholic Church. The seraphic peace, after the fury of the ‘Hexentanz’, is achieved in No 4 (‘Ave Maria’) by a flowing four-part chorale, artfully spaced. Henselt would no doubt have played without using the sustaining pedal. The descending augmented sixths towards the end are characteristic of Henselt’s idiom. It is quite likely that the study was suggested by No 71 and others of Cramer’s set of 84 studies. (Weak echoes, originating in Cramer or Henselt, or both, exist in certain studies by Theodore Döhler, 1814–1856.)
No 5 (‘Verlorene Heimat’/‘Lost home’) is a chordal study; for the most part the right hand sings a simple slow melody, unharmonized, but with three octave eruptions directly anticipating the brilliant octaves in the slow movement of Henselt’s Piano Concerto and, later, the Ballade, Op 31. The left hand, a kind of mirrored inversion of the right, is full of stretched chords. The music accelerates (agitato ed inconsolabile – affrettando) to its gloomy, exhausted conclusion. The Peters edition of No 6 (‘Danklied nach Sturm’/ ‘Thanksgiving after a storm’) opens lento, with a richly harmonized chorale, sixteen bars long. This is followed by a repeat of the melody in the right hand over rapidly flowing accompanimental scales in the left, to which are connected single bass notes at appropriate points, to give a solid pulse to the foundation. The central section, a beautiful variant of the opening chorale in D flat, is repeated, accompanied by rapid scales which merge into the increasingly elaborate restatement of the opening. One should note that the chorale section is omitted from the Augener Edition (but included on this recording).
No 7 (‘Elfenreigen’/‘Elves’ Dance’) is a spectacular tour de force whose difficulties derive from Chopin’s F major Étude, Op 10 No 8. The arpeggios have a wider sweep thanks to Henselt’s access to a keyboard with a larger compass, which enabled him to extend the torrents of semiquavers higher and lower, over a rhythmic three-note figure in the bass which provides a dance element. This is perhaps the most virtuosic of all the Henselt studies. The rather stern ‘Romance’, No 8, opens quietly with that type of four-part writing found in other Henselt studies. The ‘Chor-Refrain’ consists of a doubling of the soprano and bass voices, leaving the two inner voices to provide chordal accompaniment. The tension rises near the end (grandioso – imperioso, a favourite marking of Skryabin) as if Henselt were ordering his troops before sinking into silence.
The ninth étude is a rapid finger study for both hands. One can imagine Henselt sitting at his piano soon after he had seen Chopin’s Étude in F major, Op 10 No 8, seizing on bar 26, displacing it by half a beat and out of it developing his own variation – transferring the inversion of the central section to the left hand. No 10 (‘Entschwundenes Glück’/‘Lost happiness’) is a lovely study which embodies Henselt’s conceptions of arpeggios and broken chords. In the opening and closing sections, a mournful melody, full of woe, develops constantly over an undulating arpeggiated bass which has a distinctive way of turning the thumb under the index finger at the top of each arpeggio (Lyapunov employed a similar pattern in his Piano Sonata). The modulation to the key of D flat (the much-favoured flattened sub-mediant) is effected with the utmost grace, and the mournful opening statement is transformed into a hymn-like melody – later employed as such by C H Purdey (1860) – over which play figures reminiscent of Chopin’s Étude in E minor, Op 25 No 5, but greatly magnified in terms of stretch and colour. The return of the opening is followed by a quiet murmuring coda.
There is little difference between No 11, in B major, and the Étude in B flat, ‘Repos d’amour’, Op 2 No 4. Henselt’s skill at joining an inner part to the outer voice in the same hand and combining with the left hand and sometimes introducing a duet is first to be found in the fourth of the ‘Donizetti Variations’, Op 1. Some editions printed at the turn of the twentieth century were transposed into B flat, presumably for easier reading.
A demanding conclusion to the Op 5 studies, No 12 (‘Nächtlicher Geisterzug’/‘Nightly ghost-ride’) commences with a melody, high in the treble, displaced at the end of each group of rising broken chords which are paired between the hands. The procedure is modified and reversed in the central section. The return to the opening resembles a similar amplification of the descending thirds in bars 31–34 of Chopin’s Étude in G sharp minor, Op 25 No 6. The editor, Emil von Sauer, proffers the suggestion of transferring every second of the semiquavers of the right hand to the left. Godowsky or Wittgenstein might have seen the potential for creating out of this a study for the left hand. As it stands, it calls for a firm bass and speed for its message to be fully appreciated.
Richard Beattie Davis © 2005