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Kalkbrenner, Friedrich (1785-1849)
Portrait by Henri Grevedon (1776-1860)

Friedrich Kalkbrenner

born: 1785
died: 10 June 1849
country: France

Friedrich Wilhelm Michael Kalkbrenner (1785–1849) was a German pianist and composer of colossal vanity. ‘After my death or when I stop playing’, he informed Chopin, ‘there will be no representative of the great pianoforte school.’ His pomposity made him a laughing stock among his younger peers. Heine lampooned him as ‘a bonbon fallen in the mud’ and reported of a concert given in 1843 that ‘on [Kalkbrenner’s] lips there still gleamed that embalmed smile which we recently noticed on those of an Egyptian pharaoh, when his mummy was unwrapped at the museum there’. Indeed, for his own epitaph Kalkbrenner might well have adopted the invocation of Shelley’s Ozymandias: ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Had he done so, he would have had to wait only a few years to see his legacy consigned to the same dusty fate as Shelley’s pharaoh, for ‘nothing beside remains … boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away’.

Yet in his day Kalkbrenner was someone to be reckoned with. He was a brilliant pianist, enjoyed a career of glittering celebrity, and was fabulously successful both as a musician and businessman. He was born in a post-chaise somewhere between Berlin and Kassel, in the heart of Germany, sometime between 2 and 8 November 1785. His father, Christian Kalkbrenner (1755–1806), of Jewish extraction, was a professional musician of some repute, whose own inflated sense of self-worth led him in 1803 not only to re-arrange Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the Parisian theatre but to interpolate fresh pieces into the opera.

Soon after Friedrich’s birth, Christian Kalkbrenner was appointed choirmaster at the Prussian Court (1788) and subsequently (1790–96) for Prince Heinrich, brother of Frederick II ‘The Great’, at his castle at Rheinsberg. It was in this exotic environment that the young Kalkbrenner grew up. By the age of five-and-a-half he was advanced enough to play a Haydn concerto before the Queen of Prussia. At eight, he spoke four languages fluently.

Having abandoned Germany in 1796, the Kalkbrenners travelled through Italy for two years, before visiting Vienna where, it is said, young Friedrich was among the violinists in the first performance of Haydn’s The Creation in March 1799. His father, having procured an engagement as choirmaster at the Paris Opéra, enrolled his son in the Conservatoire. Here Friedrich studied from 1799 to 1801 with Louis Adam and Nicodami (piano) and Catel (harmony), winning first prizes for piano and composition in a ceremony graced by the presence of Napoleon. Introduced by Haydn to Albrechtsberger, Kalkbrenner studied counterpoint in Vienna from 1803, striking up a warm friendship with Hummel, with whom he played piano duets, and passing his leisure time in the company of Beethoven and Clementi. The latter made a deep impression on him and he remained a firm adherent of Clementi’s methods for the rest of his life.

Kalkbrenner plunged into a dazzling career as a soloist, but only for a short while. His father’s death in 1806 affected him profoundly and, for several years, he turned his back on music, buying an estate at Praslin where, in the company of an unidentified lady, he turned his attention to agriculture. The estate speedily doubled in value. Unluckily, his banker became bankrupt and Kalkbrenner, perhaps already tiring of country life, sailed for England in 1814 in an attempt to recover his losses. Having opened his musical campaign in Bath, he settled in London where he lived for the next ten years. His success as a pianist and teacher was extraordinary. Pupils flocked to him (at a guinea for forty minutes, his fee was the highest in the capital); and in 1818 he added to his considerable earning power by buying into an invention called the ‘Chiroplast’.

Dreamt up by a German emigrant musician, Johann Logier, this contraption had two parallel mahogany rails attached to the instrument in front of the keyboard to restrict extreme vertical motion of the wrists and forearm. Kalkbrenner brought out his own simplified version, his ‘Guide-Mains’. It was said to be still available in England as late as the 1870s. Among those he put to work on it was his pupil Camille Stamaty, who in turn introduced it to his pupils Gottschalk and Saint-Saëns. The latter spoke up in favour of its use for ‘forming the young pianist in the execution of works written for the clavecin and earliest pianofortes, of which the notes spoke without effort on the player’s part’. Though insufficient for modern works and instruments, Saint-Saëns approved the benefits of the ‘Guide-Mains’, while underlining the necessity of progressively adding the weight of the forearm and arm. Its greatest benefit was for strengthening the fingers and producing a good quality of tone—‘a precious expedient that has become rare in our days’—with the finger only.

With his fortune and ego substantially inflated, Kalkbrenner returned to Paris in 1824 where he became a partner in the firm of Camille Pleyel, ‘a man famous for his pianos and his wife’s adventures’ as one contemporary wag put it (Marie Moke, the future Madame Pleyel, was among Kalkbrenner’s star pupils). Here he remained as a fashionable teacher and successful pianist until his death.

What was he like as a pianist? Much can be gleaned from listening to the two concertos on this disc, written specifically to show off every aspect of his technique—elegant execution, rapid, even finger-work, emotionally and dynamically limited, or, as Ernst Pauer put it: ‘As polished as a billiard ball … undisturbed, unexcited, with a gracious smile, he controlled his obedient fingers as a captain a company of well-drilled soldiers.’ Kalkbrenner exclusively played Pleyel’s instruments, of course; we also know that he sat not in the middle of the keyboard when playing but slightly to the right (one imagines it would have helped in the execution of the present concertos).

There is a remarkably vivid portrait of him in action supplied in 1836 by the young Karl Halle, known to posterity as Sir Charles Hallé, founder of the famous orchestra. Halle called on Kalkbrenner in order to play for him, and he launched into Kalkbrenner’s once-popular calling-card Effusio musica (his twenty-minute Grande Fantaisie, Op 68). After a few pages, Halle was stopped by the composer, who asked him why he played octaves with his arms and not from his wrists:

‘You are quite out of breath’, he said (which was the case); he could play scales in octaves for an hour without the least fatigue; and why had God given us wrists? He was sure, if the Almighty played the piano, He would play from the wrist! He made several other remarks. He said I held my fingers rather too high, I must hold them closer to the keys, especially in legato passages, to make them more finished and obtain altogether a rounder and more ringing tone … He then played part of the piece I had played, to make it clear to me. After this, he began another, and altogether played for me more than half and hour … In Kalkbrenner’s playing there reigns a clearness, a distinctness and a neatness that are astonishing. In octave scales he has an immense facility and precision, especially in the left hand; then he has a special mode of handling the piano, particularly in melodious passages, which made a great impression, but which I cannot describe to you; the reason of it lies mostly in that he keeps his fingers so closely over the keys.

This, however, was before Halle heard Chopin play later the same year. ‘That was beyond all words’, he wrote. ‘Kalkbrenner compared to Chopin is a child. I say that with the completest conviction.’ Yet curiously Kalkbrenner’s magic touch had already had the same effect on the twenty-one-year-old Chopin when he first heard him in 1831. Herz, Liszt, Hiller and everyone else were ‘all zero beside Kalkbrenner … If Paganini is perfection, Kalkbrenner is his equal, but in quite another style. It is hard to describe to you his calm, his enchanting touch, his incomparable evenness, and the mastery that is displayed in every note; he is a giant walking over Herz and Czerny and all—and over me.’ The Grand Seigneur auditioned the young Pole, praised his execution, made a few condescending remarks and then suggested that he might profit from three years intensive study with him. Fortunately for posterity, Chopin declined (Mendelssohn assured him that he had nothing to learn from Kalkbrenner and, in any case, played far better) but remained on friendly terms with the German, a fondness reflected in the dedication of his E minor Piano Concerto, Op 11, to Kalkbrenner.

Nevertheless, Chopin’s teaching method was far removed from that of Kalkbrenner, who advised his pupils to read a newspaper while practising technical exercises. Neither was Chopin an advocate of the ‘Guide-Mains’, commenting that ‘it is like learning to walk on one’s hands in order to go for a stroll … One cannot play everything from the wrist, as Kalkbrenner claims’.

Despite his much-mocked vanity, Kalkbrenner was a generous man. He was happily married to a wealthy heiress, a grand-niece of the Comte d’Estaing who had commanded the French navy against the British in the 1780s and who was subsequently guillotined in 1794 for his support of Marie-Antoinette. The couple entertained in some style. One writer records that ‘it is gratifying to learn that the needy musician or the obscure man of merit seeking an opportunity to rise did not knock at his door in vain’. He was instrumental in promoting the unknown Chopin in Paris, for it was the concert promoted by Kalkbrenner and Pleyel in February 1832 that launched Chopin’s mature career.

But for all that, he was adept at provoking the scorn of his contemporaries. Heine’s sketch admires him ‘for his faultless manners, for his polish and sweetness, and for his general air of something turned out by a confectioner, almost but not quite concealing Berlinisms of the lowest order’. Clara Schumann thought that he always looked as if he were saying ‘Oh, God, I and all mankind must thank Thee that Thou hast created a mind like mine’.

Gottschalk called on the great man the morning after his own Paris debut. (Chopin had gone backstage afterwards to congratulate the young American on his performance of his E minor Concerto; Kalkbrenner had thought it beneath his dignity.) He was politely received, Gottschalk’s fine technique credited completely to the ‘Guide-Mains’. Kalkbrenner then remarked: ‘But I don’t like the music you played—Chopin, Liszt, Thalberg. They’re not classical. You and Stamaty should have chosen my music. It is classical. And, besides, everybody likes it.’

Kalkbrenner was carried off by the cholera epidemic of 1849. He died at Enghien-les-Bains, near Paris (some sources say Deuil, Seine-et-Oise) on 10 June aged sixty-four. He is buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre, Paris.

from notes by Jeremy Nicholas © 2006


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