Saturday, 18 March 2017


Sigismond Thalberg
Some very unsettling news out of Naples this week as descendants of 19th century Swiss composer and celebrated piano virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg revealed to the Italian press the recent desecration of the musician’s tomb, located in the Thalberg family vault at the city’s Poggioreale cemetery.

Giulia Ferrara Pignatelli, the musicians’ 2nd great granddaughter discovered the atrocity earlier this month when she paid a what she believed would be a routine visit to the cemetery in order to assess the present state of the monument and make note of any needed repairs. Much to Ms. Pignatelli’s horror upon arriving at the first of two sets of gates (which were normally kept locked, and which now had quite literally been torn apart - it’s hinges bust open by a wrench), Thalberg’s great-great granddaughter knew this particular visit would be anything but “routine.”

Accompanied by the President of the Neapolitan Thalberg Centre (a piano school named after her distant grandfather) Francesco Nicolosi (who had joined Pignatelli at the cemetery in order to assist in her assessment of the monument), the horrified pair persisted further into the tomb only to discover the vault in a state of appalling disarray. The scene inside depicted a frenzied (and morbidly crude) act of brazen violence and haste: the floor of the tomb itself hacked to pieces by a pickaxe - evidence it’s assailants had attempted (and succeeded) in smashing through to the elaborate tomb contained below; a brass urn belonging to the composer would be confiscated from its resting place. 

The vandals however, weren’t quite done with the composers’ tomb. Sadly, it would seem robbery was not the only goal for the attack on the monument. 

The thieves set sight on the glass case in which Thalberg himself rested in his final repose, and, according to Pignatelli, smashed it to pieces before violently extracting the musicians “mummified corpse”  from it's now destroyed coffin - only to callously “[toss] him into the corner” where Pignatelli presently found him, half-propped up against the one of the walls in the tomb. She would describe the scene to reporters as “gruesome.”

Franz Liszt
Although the victim of this heinous crime, “Sigismond Thalberg” may not exist in the present era as a household name, the musician was lauded across in Europe in the mid-late 19th century as one of the top contenders in the arena of piano virtuosi. In fact, so celebrated was the pianist, he would be declared “the premiere pianist in the world,” second only to Franz Liszt, a composer and fellow virtuoso with whom Thalberg famously ‘dueled’ in a piano competition held at the home of Countess Cristine Belgiojoso of Lombardy in 1837. The Countess would declare Thalberg the victor of the musical battle, claiming only of Liszt: “[he] is unique” (this was no small praise for Thalberg, considering the fact that the Countess could count herself among Herr Liszt's string of lovers). The press hailed the contest between the dueling maestri as being as thrilling as the "battle between Rome and Carthage," whilst fellow noted contemporaries Frédéric Chopin, Felix Mendelssohn and even female pianist Clara Schumann later proclaimed of Thalberg an expertise on the instrument (Clara would famously remark in her diary:
"An even more accomplished mechanism than his does not exist...many of his piano effects must ravish the connoisseurs. He does not fail a single note, his passages can be compared to rows of pearls, and his octaves are the most beautiful ones I ever heard." 
Thalberg even had a nickname: "The Old Arpeggio," named after a frequently occurring feature of his compositions for the piano. Musical Paris itself divided into two sects during this period: Thalbergian and Lisztian.

Considering the high praise lauded upon Thelberg in the mid-late 19th century, it is somewhat astonishing (in spite of the fact that his is a fate all too common) that the musician is not a frequent mention even in classical music circles, let alone in the private homes of Romantic-era fanatics.

Thalberg’s legacy fares somewhat better in present day Italy: the villa in which he died in Posillipo (a residential quarter of Naples) currently bears his name (Villa Thalberg), in addition to the aforementioned Sigismund Thalberg International Study Centre, founded by the musicians’ first great granddaughter, Donna Francesca Ferrara Pignatelli, Princess of Strongoli in her grandfather’s name for the study of the piano, also located in Naples.

The act of disturbing the graves of the artful dead unfortunately
goes back many centuries. The motive behind such acts of
vandalism, however, have not always been solely for the pursuit
of theft of relics. Sometimes exhumation would be for a noble
venture, such as for further research in the medical sector
(however even then, body parts - mostly skulls - would suddenly
go "missing" - stolen by and for collectors and phrenologists.
Often, corpses would be stolen under the cloak of night by paid
criminals - known as "resurrectionists," for use as cadavers by
shady-operating anatomists.
Unfortunately, Thalberg’s newfound status as a member of esteemed victims of grave robbers and tomb desecrations is neither a new occurrence nor a poorly inhabited club. Many a late practitioner of the fine arts (composers included) in eras past have been the unwitting victims of grave disturbance: be it through legal (or illegal) exhumation (in which some of Western Classical Music’s most famous names quite literally ‘lost their heads’) for purposes of 'science', to the present era: the reader may recall my post on the case of the “missing teeth" of Herrs Brahms and Johann Strauss II, whose graves were ransacked in Vienna (believed to have occurred in sometime in 2002), solely for the purposes of theft and bragging rights. In both cases, YouTuber Ondrej Jajcaj of Slovakia claimed responsibility for the heist as he brazenly showcased the stolen relics on the popular video sharing hub, telling his viewers
 “Now, we come to the major pedestal. On the top are the teeth of Johann Strauss Jr. ... to the left there are dentures of his wife Adele Strauss…to the right, we have rubber prosthesis of Johannes Brahms. Here, I, as an amateur have managed to build illegal historical collection of dental works.” 
Because Jajcaj (who styled himself the “Freedom Undertaker”) uploaded his ‘finds’ to the website in 2002, Austrian authorities, who only became aware of the robberies 10 years later in July of 2012 following exhumations of both composers (and who had not previously been made aware of the incriminating video) frustratingly declared the crimes “too old to prosecute.” 

Here’s hoping for a more fruitful outcome of justice for Ms. Pignatelli.

Listen below to Thalberg’s Canzonette Italienne (Op. 36 no. V):

Further Reading (external links):

  • on the desecration of Thalberg's grave (press release, in Italiano) at Il
  • on Jajcaj and his stolen 'relics' / exceeded Statute of Limitations at the dailymail
  • on the famous Liszt-Thalberg "duel" (including varied hypotheses of music played) at pianostreet


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