Stephen Heller, at the tender age of nine, performed a concert of Jan Ladislav Dussek with his teacher F. Brauer at the Budapest Theater, and generated a storm of enthusiasm. His talent had been discovered, and the young "Istvan" Heller of Pest — today’s Budapest — was sent off to Vienna to study the piano. Lessons with the prestigious Franz Liszt were prohibitively expensive, so Heller soon switched to study with Anton Halm instead. His subsequent debut in Vienna was a success, and his father seized the opportunity to organize a grand concert tour through Hungary, Poland and Germany for the fifteen-year-old. The ongoing craze for talented young performers opened many doors for Heller. He had a special gift for spontaneous improvisations on a musical theme provided by the audience, and impressed everyone with his able performance of brilliant concert pieces by Moscheles, Ries, Hummel and Kalkbrenner. Yet some critics pointed out that, regardless of his remarkable talent, Heller lacked a proper education and still hadn’t entered the upper echelon of musicianship. He had been sent out into the world too early, with but a few brilliant concert pieces and his talent for extemporization. But audiences still showered him with praise, and he might have been corrupted by vanity had not a severe illness in the summer of 1830 in Augsburg put an end to these "journeyman years."
As happens so often in life, an apparent mishap turned out to be a lucky twist of fate. Heller found a generous sponsor in the wealthy Count Fugger, who took him in and supported him in every possible way. He spent many an hour in the well-equipped library of the Count, and the door to the miraculous world of the works of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn was cast open for him. He soon discovered the works of Mendelssohn, and he was the first to perform Chopin’s compositions in Augsburg. Heller matured greatly when he was able to receive his first serious instruction in composition with the manager of Augsburg Opera, Hippolyte Chelard, and soon the young, technically brilliant concert pianist had developed into an artist with a broader vision. In 1836 Heller sent his op. 6 and 7 (composed at Augsburg) to Schumann, who was at the time trying to raise the general standard of composition through reviews in his publication the "Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik". Schumann favored the works highly, and promptly arranged for their publication with the editor Kistner in Leipzig. It was the start of a friendship and a correspondence that would last for many years.
In 1837 in Augsburg, Heller met Kalkbrenner, who was ranked as the most famous pianist and piano teacher besides Hummel in all of Europe. This proved to be a fateful encounter and marked a turning point in Heller’s hitherto relatively carefree life (outside of his illness). At the same time his sponsor died unexpectedly. Heller was devastated by the death of Count Fugger, and so it became easier for him to accept Kalkbrenner’s invitation to Paris. The decision led to bitter disappointment. Kalkbrenner turned out to be a shrewd businessman, and the stipulations he demanded of his pupils were severely oppressive.
Heller’s pride and commitment to independence forbade him from serving his way up into the prominent circles of Paris society. Instead of schmoozing his way round the respective salons to secure his career, Heller preferred to walk alone, finding his own artistic path with no outside help. He paid a high price for this decision, but kept his head high; though Heller spent the rest of his life in Paris, his fate was that of the prophet unhonored in his own country. If he couldn’t find a publisher, he would simply self-publish at his own expense. In Paris he performed only in private circles, and soon stopped performing altogether; he lived a very secluded life, and just barely made a living teaching piano. Heller stayed true to his own ideals as a musician and composer into old age, and thus left a surprisingly comprehensive oeuvre. At the age of 72 Heller went blind, and in the last stages of his life he depended completely on charity and subsidies. He died an unknown pauper on the 14th of January, 1888, in Paris.
Those few who found their way to his pieces, which were known to be "difficult to interpret," became outspoken admirers of his art and solid craftsmanship. He also received a modest amount of critical acclaim for concert performances, including a series of favorable reviews in the journal "British Musical World". A comprehensive biography published in his lifetime by Hippolyte Barbedette puts him in line with the outstanding pianists and composers of his time. The last work mentioned in that biography (published in 1876) is op. 138, giving reason to assume that op. 144 was written around 1877. The two caprices on themes of Mendelssohn belong to a larger group of Heller’s works, those in which he transcribes, paraphrases, or varies well-known melodies of other composers (operas, songs, operettas, and others). Mendelssohn personally experienced the unique wonder of nature that is Fingal’s cave on the Scottish island of Staffa, and was inspired to paint this landscape into music in his Hebrides Overture op. 26 (1830). The circle closes as we remember Heller’s years of travel as a child prodigy, when he delighted audiences with his extraordinary talent for extemporizing on any theme given. Today the caprices cast a light on the precious and high art of performing "ex tempore" — in free improvisation on a given theme — and thus offer a welcome addendum to piano instruction, inviting the revitalization of this art almost forgotten among classical pianists.
Reviews of Caprice-Etude über die Hebriden - Ouvertüre
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