Adolf von Henselt, born in Schwabach, Bavaria, a few miles south of Nürnberg, occupies a firmly established place in the galaxy of six composers all born within the space of five years of one another between 1809 and 1814 – the eldest, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, followed by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Thalberg and Henselt himself – together, they shaped the manner in which romantic piano music was to develop to the end of the century and beyond.
In 1836, after a nervous breakdown, he went to Carlsbad to recuperate and, according to LaMara, it was there that he met Chopin, but this has been denied by other chroniclers including the British Chopin expert, Arthur Hedley who dispels any possibility that Chopin met Henselt.
In a letter written to Richard Beattie Davis in October 1967, Hedley stated that this idea may have originated with Friedrich Niecks, who, according to the writer, was very inaccurate. In the same year Henselt revisited Weimar and Hummel, staying there for some months.
We may judge that this visit to Weimar was the defining point in determining Henselt’s future. Firstly, he fell in love with the wife of a physician to the court. Her name was Rosalie Vogel (née Manger).
There was a divorce and Henselt married her on the 24th October 1837 at Bad Salzbrunn, Silesia. – now Poland. This event is reflected in Henselt’s ‘Poéme d’amour’, Op.3 – full of characteristic effects. Secondly, the appointment of Hummel as court Kapellmeister (from 1819 to 1837) has been said to usher in a romantic age.
With the presence of the leading patron, the Grand Princess – Grand Duchess Maria-Pavlovna, a daughter of the Tsar, who was herself a pupil of Hummel, it is not too fanciful to suggest that Henselt’s second visit to Weimar sealed him as the ascending star in the Russian firmament.
Henselt studied piano with Johann Hummel in Weimar and theory with Simon Sechter in Vienna. Following a concert tour in Germany (1836–37), he moved to St. Petersburg, where he became court pianist and an important teacher. He visited England in 1852 and 1867, but played only in private.
He remained in the city for the rest of his life, working as an inspector of schools and a teacher to the Imperial family and the nobility, and later at Anton Rubinstein’s Conservatory. He was himself ennobled in 1876. Among his pupils were Nikolay Zverev (who would later teach Sergey Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin), the composer, conductor and musicologist Nikolay Ber, and the Swedish-German pianist and composer Ingeborg Stark.
Von Henselt retired from the stage at the age of 33. His Piano Concerto in F Minor, his only major orchestral work, was composed in 1846 and was performed regularly in the following decades, but it proved to be one of the last works he produced. It is therefore as a teacher that he is best remembered, considered by many a key figure in the establishment of the Russian school of piano playing. His music is amazing from start to finish.