Rethinking a Forgotten Maestro
He was considered the foremost pianist of his day, but you've probably never heard of him. He was one of the leading piano teachers in Europe in the 1820s and 1830s, but his popular method had faded into obscurity. He was an innovator, one who became wealthy through piano-manufacturing deals and who is considered one of the first pianists to incorporate (later commonplace) musical textures such as rapid double octaves into his work. Yet even his most innovative and interesting compositions rarely make it onto the piano stand, let alone into the modern recital room. Chopin (who almost became a student...) and Marmontel praised him, but he had many detractors. He styled himself as the last great Classical composer after Beethoven, Haydn and Hummel, but his name doesn't crop-up in musical discussion or writing. Indeed the perceived arrogance of the latter is partly responsible for his being forgotten.
His name was Friedrich Michael Kalkbrenner, and I believe it is time we reappraised the man and his music - but most especially the music. Kalkbrenner was born in 1785 near Kassel in Germany, but is often regarded as a French pianist and composer owing to his making Paris his base for much of his career, as was fashionable for leading pianists in the early nineteenth century. If Kalkbrenner is remembered for anything these days, it is his vanity - his apparent dismissal of upcoming young musical pioneers like Liszt has given him a reputation as a conservative musician, and his assertion that he somehow represented the last in a line of great Classical musicians won him few friends. He proudly wore the medals and honours bestowed upon him by the French ruling class and he delighted in rubbing shoulders with aristocracy. These days Kalkbrenner would perhaps be described as climbing the social ladder at any cost, but it is perhaps kinder to call him a 'go getter'. He possessed a remarkable talent and work ethic, and he made use of both not only as one of the leading concert performers of his time (before the young lions like Liszt and Thalberg, only Hummel was Kalkbrenner's pianistic rival) but also in his business dealings. Through the publication of his piano method and the sheer industry of his studio (the so-called 'factory for aspiring virtuosos') he became a very wealthy man. We tend not to like to think of our classical musicians as having been fabulously successful 'stars' of their day, and I think it is also a shame that Kalkbrenner's social success is seen solely as the product of a lifetime of 'schmoozing' rather than as a move to elevate the humble musician from a state of servitude and patronage to independence and near social equality. Ironically, musicians a generation later such as Franz Liszt would be heralded for their elevation of the role of the artist. He, too, wore his medals...
Kalkbrenner even married an aristocratic lady much younger than himself. He must have been hated.
Musical arguments for the decline in Kalkbrenner's popularity include the ever-contentious 'guide rail' he insisted his students used and a tendency to focus on show and brilliance rather than musical substance. In future blog posts I'm sure I will focus more on these musical issues and present a case for rethinking the worth of Kalkbrenner's music on our piano stands, but finally in this post I'd like to mention Chopin. It is well-known that the brilliant young Polish pianist, who was largely self-taught, seriously considered taking up the offer of studying with Kalkbrenner in Paris. We should be thankful that Chopin forged his own path, instead, but it is worth noting that Chopin thought very highly of the older pianist. Chopin's first piano concerto was dedicated to Kalkbrenner, and the latter was instrumental (no pun intended) in helping establish Chopin as a performer in Paris. Chopin had this to say:
"You would not believe how curious I was about Herz, Liszt, Hiller and so on. They are all zero besides Kalkbrenner. I confess that I have played like Herz, but would wish to play like Kalkbrenner. If Paganini is perfection, Kalkbrenner is his equal but in quite another style. It is hard to describe to you his calm demeanour, 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."
If Kalkbrenner was good enough for Chopin, he's certainly good enough for me.