“Piano education is important for teaching polyphony, improving sight-reading, consolidating the knowledge of harmony and gaining much more musical abilities,” write Turkish researchers in the behavioral sciences journal Procedia. The student of the piano can advance solo or with another player in duets, playing what are called “four-hand pieces.” But learning “to gain the attitudes of duet playing” poses a challenge. Researchers Izzet Yucetoker and Koksal Apaydinli suggest a possible intervention — overcoming the difficulties of playing four-hand pieces by learning to play what are called “three-hand pieces.”
How, you might wonder, does one play the piano with three hands? It does not take an extra limb or a partner with one hand tied behind their back. Three-hand technique is a dextrous sleight-of-hand developed in the 1830s, most prominently by pianist Sigismond Thalberg, a rival of Franz Liszt who could “apparently not only counter Liszt’s legendary fire and thunder with subtlety,” Bryce Morrison writes at Gramophone, “but who played as if with three hands. Three hands were heard, two were visible!” Might this somehow be easier than playing duets?
One contemporary reviewer of Thalberg’s playing described it as “myriads of notes sounding from one extremity of the instrument to the other without disturbing the subject, in which the three distinct features of this combination are clearly brought out by his exquisite touch.” The Polish pianist and student of Liszt Moriz Rosenthal claimed Thalberg adopted the technique from the harp. “Such legerdemain quickly had novelty-conscious Paris by the ears,” Morrison writes, “and an elegant white kid-glove rather than than a mere gauntlet was thrown down before Liszt.”
Liszt would have none of it, deriding three-hand technique as a trick unfit for his virtuosity. Nonetheless, “in 1837, Liszt, arguably the most charismatic virtuoso of all time, was challenged for supremacy by Sigismond Thalberg…. Stung and infuriated by what he saw as Thalberg’s aristocratic pretensions… Liszt replied with corruscating scorn.” He agreed to meet Thalberg, not in a duet but a duel, at “the home of Countess Cristina Belgiojoso — lover of Lafayette, Heine and Liszt,” notes Georg Prodota at Interlude.
The Countess “gave a charity event for the refugees of the Italian war of independence, and the contemporary press compared the concert to the battle between Rome and Carthage.” Countess Belgiojoso herself (as did the press) pronounced the outcome a draw:
Never was Liszt more controlled, more thoughtful, more energetic, more passionate; never has Thalberg played with greater verve and tenderness. Each of them prudently stayed within his harmonic domain, but each used every one of his resources. It was an admirable joust. The most profound silence fell over that noble arena. And finally Liszt and Thalberg were both proclaimed victors by this glittering and intelligent assembly. Thus two victors and no vanquished …
History was not so kind. Liszt is now celebrated as “the most charismatic virtuoso of all time,” while Thalberg is hardly remembered. And some of the most celebrated examples of pieces played with three-hand technique come not from Thalberg but from Liszt, such as “Un Sospiro” (“A Sigh”), the last of his Three Concert Études, composed between 1845 and 1849, not only as performance pieces, but — as it so happens — for the general improvement of a pianist’s technique. Hear pianist Paul Barton play three versions of “Un Sospiro” above and download the sheet music for the piece here.