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Friedrich Kalkbrenner - the forgotten man of French music


Friedrich Kalkbrenner

Friedrich Kalkbrenner

Friedrich Kalkbrenner

Some of the greatest music for keyboard stems from the time when Paris was the undisputed piano capital of Europe. Chopin, Liszt and Debussy are the perfect embodiment of the era.

The fact that only one of them was actually French is neither here nor there - Chopin was a Pole in exile, Liszt came from Hungary - but all three musical musketeers have another outsider to thank for the trail that was blazed.

Friedrich Kalkbrenner is his name. He counts as a German by dint of the fact that he was born in a stagecoach en route to Berlin. His father was there, progressing an artistic career of his own. Over time, he spotted the youngster's potential and moved the family to Paris. The boy was enrolled in the Conservatory, the father became choirmaster at the Opéra.

Friedrich did well - first prize in piano and harmony - but he'd also developed a teenage infatuation with the emperor Napoleon and his army. Old Kalkbrenner reckoned any musical ambition would soon be buried, so took him off to Vienna where Haydn got him back on track.

Friedrich launched a career on the concert stage. All thoughts of a military career vanished as success followed success.

It was safe to return to Paris, but the family had only been back a short while when the old boy died.

Friedrich - just 20 at the time - seemed to lose his focus. He took up with a woman and moved to the country where he more or less disappeared from view. Then Napoleon fell, and the German reckoned France was no longer the place for him.

So it was off to London where he certainly got his mojo back. He returned to the concert stage and became hugely popular. His development as a composer as well was confirmed with the release of his first piano concerto, which was rapturously received.

A successful decade in England had made him wealthy, and he headed back to Paris with his reputation secure. Audiences loved him.

He was very much the showman, taking to the stage in ostentatious costumes, bedecked with medallions. His music reflected this, full of ornamentation and virtuosity.

Still, he didn't go down that well with some of his contemporaries. Mendelssohn thought he was a chancer. Clara Schumann poked fun at the great welcome he always had for himself.

Kalkbrenner could afford to rise about it all. When Chopin made his move to Paris, he had no doubts. Introduced to Kalkbrenner, he talked of meeting "the number one pianist in Europe".

Kalkbrenner, highly thought of as a teacher as well, suggested the young Pole sign up with him for three years' study. Chopin was tempted. But with the voice of Mendelssohn in his ear, he declined.

Mendelssohn's motives may have been clouded, but it turned out to be the best advice he could have given. Chopin flourished, took Kalkbrenner's crown, and banished him to the margins.

Friedrich Kalkbrenner, a pianist with a clear and lucid style, a composer of music with a sparkling flamboyance all its own, is now largely forgotten.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

Indo Review