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Döhler, Theodor (1814-1856)  

Theodor Döhler

born: 20 April 1814
died: 21 February 1856
country: Germany

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The few reference books that dignify Döhler’s name with an entry seem all too keen to be as brief as possible before passing on to Dohnányi, Donizetti and other bigger fish. Here, for instance, is Waldo Seldon Pratt in the excellent New Encyclopaedia of Music and Musicians (1924): ‘Döhler, Theodor (Naples, 1814–1856, Florence). German-Italian pianist, pupil of Benedict, Czerny and Sechter, from 1831 pianist to the Duke of Lucca, but with many tours throughout Europe and long sojourns in Russia and France, and from 1848 living in Florence. He was a showy salon-player. Wrote the opera Tancreda, 1830 (Florence) and numerous graceful but superficial piano works.’ That, by and large, says it all.

Other encyclopaedias add little beyond telling us that Döhler’s father was a Kapellmeister in Naples and that he was a child prodigy, making his public debut at thirteen. (Julius Benedict, incidentally, who gave Theodor his first lessons and who himself had studied with Hummel and Weber, was only twenty-one when he arrived in Naples in 1825 as music director of the San Carlo theatre. His two piano concertos are on Volume 48 of this series.) Döhler moved to Lucca in 1827 when his father was appointed to the court there, and then studied in Vienna from 1829 to 1834. In 1846 he was ennobled by the Duke of Lucca. Thus elevated to the rank of baron, he was then able to marry the Countess Elise Sheremeteff, a Russian princess. The couple spent two years in Moscow before moving back to Italy. The last nine years of Döhler’s life were marred by illness: he is said to have died from ‘a disease of the spinal marrow’.

So what are we to make of Theodor Döhler and his place in the pantheon? The incomparable Heinrich Heine had no doubt, and drolly included him in his characterizations of the leading players of the day when he described ‘Thalberg [as] a king, Liszt a prophet, Chopin a poet, Herz an advocate, Kalkbrenner a minstrel, Mme Pleyel a sibyl, and Döhler a pianist’. Writing in April 1841 he tells his readers, tongue-in-cheek, that ‘the pianist had enchanted all hearts at his recent Marseille concert, especially because of his interesting pallor, the result of a recent vanquished illness’. He then expands: ‘Some say [Döhler] is among the last of the second-class pianists, others that he is the first among the third-class pianists. As a matter of fact he plays prettily, nicely, and neatly. His performance is most charming, revealing an astonishing finger-fluency, but neither power nor spirit. Graceful weakness, elegant impotence, interesting pallor.’

If Döhler the pianist sat below the salt, as a composer he was beyond the pale in the eyes of Edward Dannreuther writing in the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary. His fantasias, variations and transcriptions are variously ‘bedizened with cheap embroidery’ and ‘sentimental eau sucrée’, while his études are ‘reprehensible from an artistic point of view, and lacking even that quaintness or eccentricity which might ultimately claim a nook in some collection of musical bric-à-brac … His works, if works they can be called, reach as far as opus 75.’

from notes by Jeremy Nicholas © 2013

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