Stephen Heller (1813-1888)
Born into a Jewish family in Pest in 1813, and originallygiven the name Jacob, Heller was christened István when his parents becameCatholics in 1826. As a child he showed the talent necessary to convince hisfather that he should be trained as a concert pianist and with this in mind hewas sent to study in Vienna with Czerny, a teacher later replaced by a lessexpensive mentor. The strain of an extended concert-tour on which he hadembarked in 1828 at his father's insistence led to a breakdown and to hisemployment in Augsburg as music-master to the son of a cultivated noblewoman.
Here there was a consequent opportunity to undertake the study of compositionand to broaden his education, with the encouragement of Friedrich Count Fugger,of the well known banking family. By 1836 he had found a publisher, with theactive encouragement of Robert Schumann, who enlisted him as a contributor tothe Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Two years later he moved to Paris, hoping totake lessons from the virtuoso pianist Kalkbrenner. The latter's fees provedfar too expensive, but Heller nevertheless remained in Paris, winningconsiderable fame with his book L'art de phraser and continuing to write andpublish music for the piano and, like Berlioz, to work as a critic. Althoughnot of a temperament to shine as a virtuoso in the Paris of the time, heoccasionally played in public, and became a good friend of Berlioz, whodescribed him in his Mémoires as a delightful humourist and learned musican,praising his melancholy spirit and devotion to the true gods of art. In 1862 hevisited England with his friend Charles Hallé, with whom he performed pianoduets. His short piano pieces had found there a ready market and his popularityin England was such that he was able to benefit from an annuity provided byEnglish subscribers, assistance organised by Hallé, Robert Browning and LordLeighton, when, in 1883, his sight began to fail. He died in Paris in thesummer of 1888.
Heller enjoyed considerable esteem as a composer in his owntime, sometimes at the expense of composers like Chopin. He was praised aboveall as the poet of the piano, and in this respect represented a movement awayfrom technical virtuosity towards a more intimate and sensitive treatment ofthe instrument, leading directly to the piano music of Debussy and of Fauré. Tomany, of course, he was and is known as the composer of studies, for whichthere was a considerable demand after the success of his first pedagogical workon phrasing in 1840. Schumann in particular perceptively praised Heller for hisnatural emotions and the clarity of their expression, comparing the feelingsaroused by his music to the strange aspect of otherwise definite figures in thehalf-light of dawn. Heller, in fact, was deeply respected by more sensitivemusicians in his own time. The temporary eclipse of his reputation is due inpart to the association of his name with pedagogy and in part to the prevailingtendency to favour the ostentation of technical virtuosity over the lesspretentious and more intimate.
The 24 Préludes, Opus 81, were published in 1853, and werefollowed by a short group of three similar pieces in 1867, a set of 32 in thesame year and a set of 20 in 1879. Opus 81 opens with a tranquil dedication,followed by a series of character pieces, a study of obstinacy leading to thecaprice of a will-o' the-wisp and a sombre and dramatic recitative. The gentlemeditation of the fifth prelude leads to the passionate sixth and the lyricalserenade of the seventh. There is an energetic Affirmation, a Monologue and adelicate Arabesque, before the lively reproaches of the eleventh piece,followed by an elegy and dreaming. The fourteenth prelude of a series thatrepresents a remarkable bridge between the German imagination of Schumann andFrench musical traditions is a transport of passion, dissolved by thesucceeding cradle-song. Mourning offers a contrast with a lively may-song andtwo preludes that lack titles and consequent overt extra-musical associations.
Dreaming in the twentieth of the set leads to fickle inconstancy, an unnamedbut energetic prelude, a gentle landscape and a final sonnet.
The Opus 150 Préludes were published in 1879. This lastsubstantial set lacks titles, allowing the music to stand on its own withoutobvious extra-musical associations. The pieces offer a variety of moods andtextures, often of greater profundity than the Opus 81 set that had earned highpraise from Heller's friend Berlioz in Débats a quarter of a century before.
Here there is the beginning of a new world, the age of Rachmaninov, withincreased technical demands coupled with a parallel increase in the explorationof new harmonies and textures.
Jean Martin, a pupil of Yves Nat, Pierre Pasquier, PierreKostanoff and Guido Agosti, divides his time between concert engagements andteaching, the latter as a member of the staff of the Versailles Conservatoire,after several years at the National Regional Conservatoires of Grenoble and ofLyon. His recordings include the music of Brahms and Schumann as well as thecomplete piano music of Weber, and, with his Trio, the Piano Trio of Lalo. Hisinterest in contemporary music is represented by performances and recording ofthe work of the composer Claude Ballif.