Watch Franz Liszt’s “Un Sospiro” Played with the Mesmerizing “Three-Hand Technique”

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Piano Played with 16 Increas­ing Lev­els of Com­plex­i­ty: From Easy to Very Com­plex

12-Year-Old Piano Prodi­gy Takes Four Notes Ran­dom­ly Picked from a Hat and Instant­ly Uses Them to Impro­vise a Sonata

Acclaimed Japan­ese Jazz Pianist Yōsuke Yamashita Plays a Burn­ing Piano on the Beach

How the Clavi­chord & Harp­si­chord Became the Mod­ern Piano: The Evo­lu­tion of Key­board Instru­ments, Explained

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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