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Adolf Henselt. Reproduction of the lithograph by A. Kneisel after a drawing by C. Brandt.

Adolph HENSELT (1814-1889)

May 2014

(b.9 May 1814, Schwabach, Bavaria; d.10 October 1889, Warmbrunn, Silesia [now Cieplice Slaskie Zdrój])

Henselt was 3 when his father became manager of a calico factory in Munich. He learned the violin and piano from the ages of 6 and 7 respectively and gave his first concert on 12 March 1829, playing works by Mozart and Kalkbrenner and a fantasy on Weber’s Der Freischütz. Through his teacher’s court connections he received a grant from King Ludwig I of Bavaria to study with Hummel in Weimar; this was for eight months in 1832 and was followed by two years of further study in Vienna. Here he befriended, and was strongly influenced by, Thalberg, with whose name, and those of Chopin and Liszt, his own soon began to be compared.

The two years from 1836 to 1838 mark the peak of Henselt’s playing career and the beginning of friendships with Chopin, Liszt and Schumann. His early works were published internationally and were taken up with enthusiasm by other pianists, including Clara Wieck. This success was crowned by a visit to Russia in March 1838, where sensational concerts in St Petersburg and Moscow led to his appointment as court pianist to the Tsarina and teacher to the imperial children. In 1839 he was made Inspector to the Imperial Girls’ Schools, a post which he held until the end of his life, and thereafter his performing, although developed and refined through constant practice, was confined almost entirely to private circles. Spending the summer months in his wife’s native Silesia where he eventually purchased a villa, he remained based in St Petersburg and is recognised as the fundamental influence on what became the Russian school of piano playing. Henselt’s Studies, Op.2 and Op.5, survived for longest in the standard teaching repertoire and were regarded as secondary only to those of Chopin.

‘His playing was glorious, faultless. For a German, Chopin is difficult … yet Henselt was a German, and Chopin never had a finer interpreter.’
A.J.Hipkins, 1867.

‘Henselt’s ways at the keyboard may be taken as the link between Hummel’s and Liszt’s … With Hummel’s strictly legato touch, quiet hands and strong fingers, Henselt produces effects of rich sonority something like those which Liszt gets with the aid of the wrist and pedals.’
Edward Dannreuther, 1878.

‘His playing is truly magnificent – a consummate mastery over the most intricate technical difficulties, combined with a noble and manly expression, producing a singularly rich and euphonious effect without the slightest effort and without any risk of injury to the instrument, or of straining its limits of endurance.’
Ernst Pauer, 1880.

‘Henselt’s touch suggested … a dipping deep, deep down into a sea of tone, and bringing up thence a pearl of flawless beauty and purity; something, too, there was of the exhalation of an essence – so concentrated, so intense, that the whole being of the man seems to have passed for the moment into his finger-tips.’
Bettina Walker, 1890.