Stephen Heller

1813 1888

Stephen Heller



Stephen Heller was a 19th century pianist and composer of mixed origins. He was born into a Bohemian family of Jewish descent in Hungary. He lived in Paris for the majority of his life. Heller’s early compositions are highly influenced by German Romanticism while his later works are much more typical of French Impressionism.

Heller was born on 15 May 1813 in Pest, Hungary. His family originally came from the region of Eger in Cheb, Bohemia. His music lessons began near Budapest with a regimental bandman stationed in the area. He continued his lessons later with the well-known pianist Ferenc Bräuer in Pest. Heller studied composition with the organist Cibulka before heading to Vienna with the intention of following studies with the celebrated composer, pianist and educatorCarl Czerny <>.

Unfortunately, Heller’s father realized he would be unable to afford Czerny’s steep lesson fees. Heller instead settled on Anton Halm, who also taught virtuosos such as Adolf Henselt. Heller’s connection to Halsm also allowed him to meetFranz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Heller made his concert debut in 1828, as a young teenager. The concert proved to be such a success that his father eagerly arranged an extended concert tour for his son throughout Hungary, Transylvania, Poland and Germany. His tour came to a grinding halt in Augsburg after nearly two years on the road. After collapsing from nervous exhaustion, Heller decided to stay for a few weeks in Augsburg to recover. Despite his intentions, Heller ended up staying for eight years, during which he received generous hospitality from Frau Caroline Hoeslin von Eichthal, a woman known for her intelligence and appreciation of art, who allowed him to stay in her home. Her son also became one of Heller’s first students. While in Augsburg, Heller was able to support himself through the patronage of Count Friedrich Fugger-Kircheim-Hoheneck. It was also on the count’s advice that Heller began composition studies with the Kapellmeister of Augsburg, Hippolyte Chelard.

Heller’s initial compositions consisted of many German lieder, using sources from poets such as Goethe and Heine among other German poets. These works were never published, and though it was believed that the manuscripts were preserved in Augsburg by the Fugger family, it has unfortunately been concluded that they are in fact missing.

Robert Schumann was active as a music critic for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musikat the time when Heller was residing in Augsburg. As such, Heller submitted a few works to the great composer, who praised them in his reviews for the magazine. Heller became a member of the League of David, known in German as the Davidsbündler, a society created by Schumann himself in support of contemporary music. Schumann was quite fond of Heller and invited him to become the Augsburg correspondent for theNeue Zeitschrift für Musik under the pseudonym ‘Jeanquirit’, which was given to him by Schumann.

Schumann and Heller corresponded frequently by post. Schumann considered this correspondence to be his most interesting.

After eight years in Augsburg, Heller departed to Paris in 1838, a city he would make his home. Heller found work as a piano teacher and as a music critic for theGazette musicale. In his later years, Heller preferred not to perform in public, a trait he shared withLiszt. While in Paris, Heller became close friends withHector Berlioz and Charles Hallé. In 1883, Heller’s eyesight began to fail, rumored to have been a result of his black cigar habit. Upon learning of his condition, Charles Hallé organized a trust fund for Heller, together with Robert Browning and Lord Leighton. Heller received a great honour at the end of his life and was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. Heller died in Paris on 14 January 1888.

Heller’s musical output consists primarily of piano pieces, including 160 published works for piano, the first of which were published in 1829. The works range from simple elementary piano studies to complex character pieces. Heller’s early works are quite typical of the style of the time, harmonically and in terms of form. It is evident in Heller’s music that he was strongly influenced by Beethoven, and did not wish to join the more progressive trends.

Among his earlier works are the Introduction, variations et finale op. 6, Impromptusop. 7 and the Sonata in D minor op. 9. The Impromptus was reviewed by Schumann, who wrote that Heller used ‘new, fantastic and free’ forms and possessed the ‘imagination and the ability to fuse contrasting elements’. Though Schumann, of course, did not find everything about Heller’s music wonderful, he admitted that in these instances Heller ‘suddenly disarms criticism with a brilliant turn of phrase’.

Heller’s reputation in Paris as a composer was launched after he published the studiesL’art de phraser op. 16 (‘The Art of Phrasing’) and more importantly, after Liszt performed his concert study La chasse op. 29. Liszt’s performance was followed by many more magnificent performances from piano virtuosos throughout Europe. Other significant studies, known still to students today, include his opuses 45, 46 and 47 (1844). These, in addition toL’art de phraser op. 16, are included among the small number of Heller’s works that are still in print.

Heller was also very important, together with Liszt, in bringing Schubert lieder to France through their brilliant transcriptions. Heller’s progressive creativity is first evident in these works, as in his operatic fantasies. This was Heller’s turning point in style, more dissonances and chromatic shifts appear in addition to vast rhythmic variety and lush lyricism. These new traits influenced composers such as Bizet and Massenet, who both greatly admired Heller’s work.

The character pieces of 1851, Spaziergänge eines Einsamen vol.i, op. 78 were especially influential on the future style of French music. These pieces are subtle and pastoral and often described as ‘landscape’ or ‘nature’ music. This style is also present inIm Walde (opp. 86, 128 and 136) and the Blumen-Frucht- und Dornenstücke op. 82.

Heller’s use of harmony and rhythm in his opus 81 preludes, Blumen-Frucht- und Dornenstücke and Ein Heft Walzer op. 145 foreshadows the musical styles of Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, Fauré and Debussy. Later works share similarities to the music of Medtner and Rachmaninoff including the studies op. 90, eclogues op. 92, preludes op. 119, studies op. 125, barcarolles op. 141, the Sonata in B minor op. 143 and preludes op. 150. These works have rich, complex harmonies filled with dissonance and a mixed use of major and minor tonalities. The melodies are more angular and cover the whole range of the keyboard. He also includes rhythmic ostinatos and achieves orchestral colours through pedal effects, dynamics and use of registrar. Heller was so famous for his piano studies that he often struggled to receive recognition for his serious concert works, though his compositional style was not left unnoticed by later composers.