A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Henselt, Adolph

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HENSELT, Adolph, born May 12, 1814, at Schwabach in Bavaria, and since 1838 resident at St. Petersburg, had lessons from Hummel, but can hardly be called Hummel's disciple, since his method of treating the pianoforte differs as much from Hummel's as our concert-grands differ from the light Viennese instruments of 1820. Henselt's ways at the keyboard may be taken as the link between Hummel's and Liszt's; that is to say, 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 wrists and pedals. But as such sonority, apart from any rhythmical accentuation, depends in the main upon the widespread position of chords and arpeggii, the component notes of which are made to extend beyond the limits of an octave, Henselt's way of holding the keys down as much as possible with the fingers, over and above keeping the dampers raised by means of the pedals, does not seem the most practical; for it necessitates a continuous straining of the muscles such as only hands of abnormal construction or fingers stretched to the utmost by incessant and tortuous practice can stand. We have the testimony of Mendelssohn[1] that his speciality in 1838 was 'playing wide-spread chords, and that he went on all day stretching his fingers over arpeggios played prestissimo.' And even up to the present time, he is said to waste an hour daily upon mere Dehnungs-studien, i.e. studies of his own invention for extending the stretch of the hand, and training the fingers to work independently. Nevertheless, be his method of touch needlessly cumbrous or not, if applied to effects à la Chopin and Liszt, the result under his own hands is grand; so grand indeed, that though his appearances in public have been fewer than those of any other celebrated pianist, he has been hailed by judges like Robert Schumann and Herr von Lenz as one of the greatest players. His representative works are two sets of twelve Etudes each, op. 2 and 5, which, though not so surprisingly original, deserve to be ranked near Chopin's, inasmuch as they are true lyrical effusions of considerable musical value, over and above their setting forth some specially characteristic or difficult pianoforte effect. Henselt has also published a Concerto (in F minor op. 16), likely to survive, a trio, stillborn, and a number of smaller salon pieces, like 'Frühlingslied,' 'Wiegenlied,' Impromptu in C minor, 'La Gondola,' etc.—gems in their way.

Henselt's success in 1838 at St. Petersburg was unprecedented. He was at once made Court pianist and teacher to the Imperial children, and soon after Inspector of 'the Imperial Russian female seminaries,' in which latter capacity his firmness and disinterested zeal has borne good fruit. An uniform edition of Henselt's works would be a boon, as some pieces are published in Russia only, others appear under different designations, etc. His arrangements for two pianofortes of Weber's Duo in E♭ for pianoforte and clarinet, and of selections from Cramer's Etudes, to which he has added a second pianoforte part; his transcription of Weber's Ouvertures, bits from Weber's operas, and above all his edition of Weber's principal pianoforte works with variantes, are masterly. Henselt visited England in 1867 [App. p.671 "in 1852 and 1867"], but did not play in public.

[ E. D. ]

  1. Hiller's 'Mendelssohn,' p.112.