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Herz, Henri (1803-1888)

Henri Herz

born: 6 January 1803
died: 5 January 1888
country: Austria

Heinrich Herz was born in Vienna on 6 January 1803 (some sources say 1806), the son of a musician who gave him his first lessons. After further studies in Coblenz with the organist father of the pianist–composer Franz Hünten, Herz entered the Paris Conservatoire. His teachers here were Louis Pradère, Anton Reicha and Victor Dourlen. In his first year, Herz carried off first prize for piano playing. A visit to Paris in 1821 by the great pianist, composer and pedagogue Ignaz Moscheles proved a strong influence on his own style.

Having become a Parisian, Heinrich became Henri. For the rest of his life the French capital remained the base from which he conducted a hugely successful career as a pianist, composer, teacher, inventor and piano manufacturer. From the early 1820s and for the next decade, Herz enjoyed a reputation that is hard to reconcile with the current neglect of his music and low critical reputation. Neither Liszt, Chopin, Thalberg nor any other pianist—with the exceptions of Moscheles and Kalkbrenner—rivalled Herz as the most fashionable and sensational pianist of the day. His music commanded three or four times the price of his nearest rivals, none of whom outsold him until the 1840s. As Sir George Grove observed: ‘Herz found out what the public liked and what would pay, and this he gave to them.’ Besides eight piano concertos, he wrote for the instrument in every recognizable form including an immense number of variations, more than 200 opus numbers in all. ‘Is Herz prejudiced’, asked Mendelssohn, ‘when he says the Parisians can understand nothing but variations?’

Schumann was beside himself at Herz’s success and lost no opportunity to poke fun at him in the pages of his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. The pages of the Revue et Gazette Musicale, owned by Herz’s sometime publisher Moritz Schlesinger, never referred to Herz except in the most slighting terms. The composer had, it is thought, asked for more money than the wily Schlesinger was willing to pay and the two conducted a lengthy feud. Schlesinger even fought a duel with a fiery Herz loyalist, wounded him and was subsequently fined fifty francs for defamation.

Herz might have restricted himself to playing little but his own music, yet there is no doubt of his prowess as a pianist, underlined by the hugely demanding solo parts of the present concertos written to exploit his particular gifts. He was praised not only for his bravura and power of execution but also for ‘that special kind of sensuously charming touch which differentiated the Parisian school from the brilliant playing of the Viennese and the emotional style of the English’ (Oscar Bie).

In the late 1830s, Herz teamed up with a Parisian piano manufacturer named Klepfa. The venture failed but, despite losing a large amount of money, Herz established a piano factory of his own with instruments that incorporated his valuable improvements on Erard’s revolutionary double-escapement action. He also built a concert hall on the premises in the Rue de la Victoire and though, in the beginning, some performers tried to rent it on condition that they did not have to play a Herz piano, by 1844 the business was a success, producing 400 instruments a year.

In 1845, in order to obtain more capital and recoup some of his earlier losses, Herz undertook the first American tour by an important European pianist, paving the way for Thalberg, Gottschalk (American-born but Paris-trained) and Anton Rubinstein. His journey, entertainingly described in his Mes Voyages en Amérique (published in Paris in 1866), took him through the United States, Mexico and the West Indies. By the time he returned home in 1851 Herz was a wealthy man. He was able to expand his piano factory, winning first prize with one of his instruments at the 1855 Exposition Universelle. In 1874 he relinquished his post as professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire, one he had held since 1842. He died in 1888.

from notes by Jeremy Nicholas © 2006


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