Considered one of the finest virtuoso pianists of the mid-1800s, Sigismund Thalberg's entire life was intimately and professionally connected with the opera.
He made a name for himself as a composer and performer by almost restricting his playing to his own fantasias on famous opera arias, many of which were by Mozart, Rossini, Meyerbeer, and Verdi, among others. He also arranged opera productions, married the daughter of the opera singer Luigi Lablache, Mme. Boucher, and even wrote two of his own operas, Florinda (1851) and Cristina di Svzia (1855), both of which had little success.
Details of Thalberg's upbringing remain unclear, especially those regarding his ethnicity and actual birth parents, who are thought to be either Prince Moritz Dietrichstein and the Baroness von Wetzlar or Joseph Thalberg and Fortunée Stein. While studying at the Polytechnic School in Vienna in 1822 and preparing for work in the government, he took up music, and his early teachers include Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Mittag, and Simon Sechter. He began performing in public at the age of 14 and his appearances of this type in the late 1820s led to an 1830 tour of Germany and his appointment as Kammervirtuoso to the Austrian emperor in 1834. Between the late 1830s and 1850s Thalberg toured the world over with artists such as Bernard Ullmann, Strakosch, and Henri Vieuxtemps, traveling to the United States, Brazil, Belgium, Holland, Russia, and Spain. He finally settled in the 1860s in Posillipo and died there in 1871.
Aside from his dozens of piano compositions, many with orchestral accompaniment, Thalberg wrote several Lieder and two chamber works, all of which are of uncertain value. His reputation as a lyrical, clear performer greatly exceeds that as a composer; for example, at one time Liszt remarked that "Thalberg is the only artist who can play the violin on the keyboard." Indeed the younger pianist's talents were exceptional as he devised a two-handed piano technique that produced the effect of several dozens of fingers on the piano (although credit for is also given to Francesco Pollini and Parish Alvars). Whereas his orchestral and chamber works are only occasionally recorded, his instrumental pieces can be heard under the ASV, Marco Polo, Philips, Danacord, and Vanguard Classics labels.