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The day music's first 'rock star' finally met his match

Among the many musical anniversaries on this date -- from the births of Joseph Haydn and Sergey Diaghilev, the impresario who brought Russian ballet to the west, to the premieres of works as diverse as Dvorák's opera Rusalka and Schumann's First Symphony -- there's one that stands out for its quirkiness.

We're back in 1830s Paris, then the artistic capital of Europe, and at the heart of music's Romantic movement. The pianist Franz Liszt was taking the place by storm.

He was probably the original rock star, the man who invented the solo performance as we know it today. He was the first to turn his instrument side-on to the audience so they could properly see him play.

His music was different too, everything from the quintessentially Romantic sequence Liebesträume (Dreams of Love) to transcriptions of Paganini.

Very much the showman, he'd come on stage wearing green silk gloves. During the performance, they'd be ostentatiously removed, as would his pocket handkerchief. Like today's big names who throw trinkets into the adoring crowd, he'd leave his bits and pieces behind to be fought over by female fans.

But Liszt had a rival. Sigismond Thalberg was his name -- the same age, the Paul McCartney to Franz's Freddie Mercury, though Thalberg did do a natty line in dressing. Diamond shirt studs were his style.

The competition between the two had become intense, not least because Liszt had gone off on tour, and Thalberg, with Paris all to himself, had claimed the mantle of favourite.

He thrilled the crowds with a unique style. He'd put the melody in the middle of the range and use his thumbs to play it. With his other fingers, he'd embark on ornate ornamentation. It made him sound as if he'd three hands. The flitting up and down the keyboard earned him the nickname 'Old Arpeggio'.

Thalberg's success brought Liszt back to Paris to claim what he felt was his due. He put on a show featuring his own material and a performance of Beethoven's notoriously challenging Hammerklavier sonata. The boy was back in town.

Tension mounted between both camps. Thalberg's attempt to upstage an evening recital by Liszt by putting on a matinée on the same day in the intimate surroundings of the Conservatory came unstuck when Liszt moved his show to the Paris Opera House and filled all 3,000 seats.

The whole business came to a head on this day in 1837 when Cristina Belgiojoso, an Italian emigrée, put on a charity concert in her Parisian mansion, and got them both to perform.

In a heady atmosphere in a packed salon, the pair played out a pianistic duel. The audience couldn't separate them. It ended in a draw.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.


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