Adolf von Henselt was a German composer and pianist, considered to be one of the greatest virtuosos of his time. He retired early from the stage and left a promising career as a composer, but later emerged as the leading teacher of piano in St. Petersburg in the mid-19 century, with a huge influence on generations of Russian pianists. Henselt had a knack for music since childhood and began to learn music at the age of three. He continued his studies in Vienna with Simon Schechter, and then spent two years in isolation, further developing his rich melodic playing style. Later, he suffered a nervous breakdown, possibly as a result of the intense stage-fright he experienced while performing in public. Thereafter, while recovering in Weimar, he caught the attention of the Grand Duchess Maria-Pavlovna, a daughter of the Tsar, and was invited to perform in Russia. He then moved permanently to St. Petersburg, where he was appointed as a court pianist. He remained in the city for the rest of his life, working as an inspector of schools and a teacher to the royal family. Due to stage fright, Henselt ceased his compositions and retired from the stage at the age of 33. He is best remembered as a teacher and considered as a key figure in the establishment of the Russian school of piano playing
Childhood & Early Life
Adolf von Henselt was born on May 12, 1814, at Schwabach, in Bavaria, Germany. When he was three, the family moved from Schwabach to Munich where he commenced his music studies, firstly in violin and then in piano.
Henselt had valuable connections with people who helped him achieve success. With financial help from King Ludwig I of Bavaria, he went to study under Johann Hummel in Weimar for some months.
Later, he made his public concert debut in Munich in the November of 1832 and was highly successful as a concert pianist.
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After earning much appreciation for his public début in Munich, he traveled to Vienna in 1832 to study with Simon Sechter for a couple of years.
After studying with Sechter, Henselt trained for two years in solitude during which he evolved his unique style of extending the stretch of the hands to a degree which gave him a command of the keyboard.
Adolf von Henselt had a nervous breakdown in 1836 and embarked on a prolonged tour through the major German towns in order to improve his health.
In 1837, he got married and settled at Breslau but in 1838, he moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he conducted several successful concerts which dazed the audiences.
Later, he was appointed as the court pianist to Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna and was also made inspector of musical studies in the Imperial Institute of Female Education. During this time, he used to spend his summer holidays in his homeland Germany.
He also worked at Anton Rubinstein's Conservatory and spent his later years teaching at academies and Imperial Institutes for young ladies in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kharkiv, Kiev and other cities in Russia.
As a pianist, Adolf Henselt is generally regarded as an important link between Hummel and Liszt. His compositions, including a piano concerto, two sets of études, and a number of salon pieces, were mainly for piano.
Other than his piano solo works, he also did some orchestral, chamber and vocal works as a defining composer.
Adolf von Henselt’s composition, 'Studies', which he played in St. Petersburg in 1838, was one of his most acclaimed works and created such an impression that he was immediately hired by the royal court as a pianist.
In 1846, his only major orchestral work, the ‘Piano Concerto in F Minor’, was composed, which was performed regularly in Europe over the following decades. It proved to be one of the last works he produced.
The main characteristic of his playing was that it was full of poetry. He is considered remarkable for his great use of extended chords, and for his perfect technique
Personal Life & Legacy
On a visit to Weimar in the 1830s, Adolf von Henselt fell in love with the wife of a physician to the court, Rosalie Vogel. Eventually Rosalie divorced the physician and married Henselt on October 24, 1837 at Bad Salzbrunn, Silesia.
Despite his relatively long life, he stopped producing compositions in his thirties for unknown reasons. It was later rumored that chronic stage fright caused him to withdraw from concert appearances by the age of 33.
Adolf von Henselt died on October 10, 1889, due to cardiac disease, during a stay at Bad Warmbrunn, Germany (now in Poland).