Henselt, Adolf von (1814-1889)

Biography


Adolf von Henselt was born on May 9, 1814, in the Bavarian town of Schwabach. Henselt was part of an extraordinary cohort of composers born in the decade after Felix Mendelssohn’s birth in 1809: Robert Schumann (1810), Frédéric Chopin (1810), Ludwig Schuncke (1810), Wilhelm Taubert (1811), Franz Liszt (1811), Ferdinand Hiller (1811), Jacob Rosenhain (1811), Sigismund Thalberg (1812), Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813), Theodor Döhler (1814), William Sterndale Bennett (1816), Henry Litolff (1818), Charles Gounod (1818), Theodor Kullak (1818), Alexander Dreyschock (1818), Clara Schumann (née Wieck) (1819). This generation significantly transformed piano technique.

While their predecessors relied primarily on piano techniques based on the classical era, many of this generation embarked on a new path. The impetus seems to have been provided by Frédéric Chopin’s Études opp. 10 and 25, which unleashed a revolution by combining the nature of technical studies with the musical content of a full-fledged character piece.

Henselt’s music exemplifies this trend, as he, a pioneer of piano technique, introduced his own technical innovations. He always used these for musical purposes and not to demonstrate his technical skills. Like Chopin, poetry and musical content always come first for Henselt.

The young Henselt began music lessons at the age of three and showed such formidable talent in his youth that, with support from Ludwig I of Bavaria, he was able to study piano with Johann Hummel (in Weimar) and theory with Simon Sechter, the later teacher of Anton Bruckner (in Vienna).

A tempestuous career seemed to start in 1832 in Munich, where Henselt’s performance was received with much acclaim. Although this established Henselt as a respected pianist, he suffered a severe nervous breakdown in 1836. He worked on his recovery in various German spas. During this period, Henselt visited his old teacher Hummel, who was concerned about the young pianist’s health. Hummel arranged a visit with the court physician, Dr. Vogel. Dr. Vogel, who also counted Goethe among his patients, facilitated Henselt’s recovery.

The Vogels were often present when Henselt resumed his performances. A spark flew between Henselt and Vogel’s wife Rosalie, and in 1837 she married Henselt after divorcing Dr. Vogel. In Weimar, Henselt also met members of the Russian aristocracy and, at their invitation, he left for Saint Petersburg.

In Saint Petersburg, he quickly made a name for himself. His technically gifted playing was of a kind and level rarely experienced there. Invited by Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, he was appointed court pianist. He enjoyed great success, but by the mid-1840s, Henselt developed crippling stage fright so severe that he retired from public life at the age of 33. Thereafter, he devoted himself to music education. He was appointed Inspector of Music Studies at the Imperial Institute for Female Education. There, Henselt became a key figure in the development of the Russian piano tradition. He applied his own techniques and teaching methods, which had a lasting impact on Russian piano playing. The characteristic features of Henselt’s piano playing are still associated with the Russian piano tradition today: strong legato playing, a large, singing tone, the ability to make the piano sing, but also a fondness for large grips and complex, polyphonic figurations. Nikolai Sergeyevich Zverev, a student of Henselt, later taught prominent musicians like Alexander Siloti, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, and Alexander Goldenweiser. Both Rachmaninoff and Scriabin performed Henselt’s piano concerto.

Personally, Henselt maintained ties with prominent figures in the music world, such as Felix Mendelssohn, Robert and Clara Schumann, and Ferdinand Hiller. His friendship with the Schumanns was particularly meaningful; Clara Schumann gave the premiere of his challenging piano concerto, and Robert Schumann assisted him in revising the orchestration.

Henselt died on October 10, 1889, in Cieplice Śląskie-Zdrój (then called *Bad Warmbrunn*). At the end of his life, Henselt reflected on how his once-promising career had not brought the success he had hoped for. The piano works he wrote in the first half of his life were extraordinarily original and surpassed the fads of the day in quality. But because Henselt had completely disappeared from the stage from 1847, they fell into oblivion. A small group of pianists continued to play his work until he was rediscovered in the second half of the twentieth century. Michael Ponti, Piers Lane, and Daniel Grimwood have recorded his études in their entirety. The Ballade was recorded by Rudiger Steinfatt and Daniel Grimwood, and numerous other works by Henselt, including most of the works in this volume, can now be heard on recordings.

Through this volume, we aim to reassess this remarkable composer, whose works, though technically challenging, are marked by their exceptional quality, poetic depth, and often sublime beauty.