David Sedley
David Sedley

A caring princess (Parshat Bereishit)*

Princess Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso, in 1843 by Henri Lehmann. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Princess Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso, in 1843 by Henri Lehmann. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Long before Band Aid and USA For Africa with their charity singles, there was Hexaméron. This piece of music, commissioned in 1837, may possibly be the first supergroup in history that was put together to raise money for the poor.

Princess Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso decided to host a charity concert on 31 March 1837. She asked Franz Liszt to put together a lineup of the greatest composers

Before we talk about the star lineup, let’s try to understand exactly what an incredible, trailblazing woman Princess Cristina was.

She was born in Milan on June 28, 1808. Her father, Girolamo Trivulzio, was heir to one of the most important noble families in Milan. However, he died while Cristina was still very young. Her mother, Vittoria dei Marchesi Gherardini (also from a noble family), remarried to Alessandro Visconti d’Aragona who was arrested in 1821 and charged with being part of a revolutionary group seeking to overthrow King Ferdinand I. Cristina’s step-father seems to have passed on his revolutionary ideas to her, and she spent her entire life supporting Italy’s struggle for independence.

As the richest heiress in Italy, she had many suitors. In 1824, when she was just 16, Cristina married Prince Emilio Barbiano di Belgiojoso, eight years her senior. She fell in love with him for his musical talents though his looks may have also attracted her. He was described by his contemporaries as, “tall, with fair, wavy hair and caressing eyes.”. Unfortunately, Prince Emilio found that many women were attracted to him, and he didn’t want to be saddled with a wife. Cristina’s family were set against the marriage too. According to Erica Ann Kuhlman (in A to Z of Women in World History), her relatives read her this poem on the morning of her wedding:

Can it thus be true, lovely Cristina?
A princely morsel is what you wanted:
But how he debases you, oh bitter fate!
For when he has taken his pleasure with you,
He will go off wantonly with this woman and that,
And in vain will we hear you cry for help

Shortly after the wedding Prince Emilio began (or continued) a series of affairs. Eventually, in 1828, Emilio and Cristina separated, after the prince tried to bring his latest mistress, Signorina Ruga, to live in the same house as his wife.

They never divorced, and remained amicable, but never lived together again as husband and wife. Cristina traveled around Italy and joined the revolutionary group known as the Carbonari (lit. “charcoal makers”) whose stated aim was to defeat tyranny, drive the Austrians out of Lombardy, and to establish a constitutional government in Italy.

Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso 1832, by Francesco Hayez-detail. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The princess returned to Milan where she began to incite the poor against Austria and prepare them for a revolution. Her activities came to the attention of the authorities and she was followed everywhere by two spies, who reported on her activities (this record is preserved in the secret archives of the Lombardy-Venetian Government in Milan).

Eventually it was too dangerous for Cristina to remain in Italy and she moved to France. As soon as she left Italy, all her property and money remaining in the country was confiscated and she was declared dead. At the time she wrote to a friend, “If I could be even a little useful to our cause, I do not regret the difficult situations, the adventurous life,” (Sandro Fortunati, The Life of Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso: An Italian Princess in the 19th Century Country Side).

In France, she became friendly with Marquis de Lafayette, who fought in both the American and the French Revolutions. Lafayette’s doctor wrote, “Lafayette often talked to me on the rare merits of this lady, the nobility of her character and the charity for her unhappy compatriots,” (ibid).

Cristina organized a “salon” in Paris where exiled Italians would meet up. Everyone who met her loved her. She is said to have categorized men as follows: “He loves me, he loved me, or he will love me.” In 1838, Cristina informed her husband that she was expecting a child. Prince Emilio was certainly not the father, as he was in Milan at the time she conceived. But she never revealed the identity of her daughter, Maria’s, father.

For a time after Maria’s birth, Cristina retreated from public life. But within a few years, she returned to Milan where she advocated to improve the lives of Italian peasants. In 1848, a successful insurrection against Austria broke out in Milan. Cristina was feted as a hero. However, independence was short-lived and within a few months the Austrians returned to power.

In 1849, Princess Cristina became director of Rome’s military hospitals during the short-lived Roman Republic. She set up and ran 12 hospitals to treat the wounded soldiers. This was several years before Florence Nightingale did a similar thing during the Crimean War.

However, the Republic did not last long, and Cristina decided to travel. She and her daughter Maria ended up in Çakmakoğlu, Turkey where she managed to buy a small farm. She decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and she wrote a travelogue which was published in France as, “Asia Minor and Syria, Souvenirs of a Journey” and “Scenes of Turkish Life.” She also wrote the autobiographical novel “Emina” while in the Middle East in which, among other things, she compared the extreme gender inequality she found in a Turkish harem with the sexual bias and imbalance she had experienced in Europe.

Her final years were spent in Milan and Lake Como with her daughter, son-in-law, her English governess and her Turkish servant, who was a freed slave. She died in 1871, aged 63.

So, with that background, we now return to 1837 and the concert of the stars.

In her Paris salon, Princess Cristina organized the charity event to raise money for the poor of Italy.

An article in Le Journal des Débats of March 21, 1837, announced the event:

Mme la princess de Belgiojoso, noble witness of the misfortunes of her compatriots detained among us through exile, poverty, or illness, who has already undertaken to console so many miseries, has decided to make an all-powerful appeal to the sympathy of France on behalf of all those unfortunate Italians… To accomplish the finest possible end, an auction and a concert have been prepared for the benefit of those unhappy Italians… All the great artists of today, Messieurs Delacroix, Schnetz, Delaroche, Granet, Lehmann, Scheffer . . . have sent beautiful works…. Messieurs Liszt, Thalberg, Chopin, Pixis, Czerny, Herz, talents so different and so varied, have united to compose a series of variations on the great duet from I Puritani.

In addition to the art that was to be auctioned, Princess Cristina had commissioned Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, Carl Czerny, Henri Herz, Johann Peter Pixis and Sigismond Thalberg to compose a brand-new piece of music.

Composer and pianist Franz Liszt. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Liszt wrote the introduction, the second variation, the connecting sections and the finale. He later arranged the piece for piano and orchestra and again for two pianos. He named it Hexaméron, for the six variations it contained. He borrowed the title from theological works written as commentaries on Genesis and the six days of creation.

Unfortunately, the piece was not completed until 1839, two years after the charity concert. It seems that Chopin was the culprit responsible for the delay, because he did not manage to write his variation in time.

The princess wrote to Liszt two months after the deadline saying, “Here, my dear Liszt, are the variations of M. Herz and the others, which you already know. No news from M. Chopin, and since I am still proud enough to fear making a nuisance of myself, I do not dare ask him. You do not run the same risk with him as I, which prompts me to ask if you would find out what is happening to his adagio, which is not moving quickly at all.”

But the invites had already been sent out for March 31, 1837. So, instead of a new composition, the princess held a piano duel between Liszt and Thalberg.

Born within a few months of each other, the two were considered to be the best pianists in Europe and there was a long, amicable rivalry between the two. From the time they were both 20, they each had huge followings of fans across the concert halls, and everyone had their favorite. For example, Clara Schumann wrote:

On Monday Thalberg visited us and played beautifully on my piano. An even more accomplished mechanism than his does not exist, and 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.

In contrast, Chopin wrote of Thalberg:

Thalberg plays famously, but he is not my man. He is younger than I, popular with the ladies. Plays potpourris on themes from Masaniello, produces ‘piano’ with pedal rather than the hand, takes tenths as easily as I take octaves, wears diamond shirt-studs.

Sigismund Thalberg, Lithograph by Josef Kriehuber, 1841. (Public Domain/ WIkimedia Commons)

In preparation for the fundraising concert, Thalberg performed at the Conservatoire while Liszt gave a recital at the Parisian Opera House. On the day, they each performed a couple of pieces written by others and ended the evening with the grand finale – each performing a piece they had written themselves.

It was an exhilarating and exhausting performance of two artists at the top of their game. One can only imagine the difficulty Princess Cristina faced having to judge between these two and declare a winner.

She concluded the evening with the most tactful and brilliant judgment. “Thalberg is the best pianist in the world; Liszt is the only one.”

I was reminded of these words of Princess Cristina as I read this week’s Torah portion of Bereishit. The composition that was not performed, Hexaméron, named for the six days of creation, which is what first drew me to this story. But even more relevant is the judgment of the best in contrast to the only one.

Adam, the first man, brought to life on the sixth day of creation was both the “best,” the pinnacle of creation, but also the “only” – created as a single individual (later divided into male and female).

The Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5) describes the warning given to witnesses in a capital case, reminding them of the importance of their testimony and the damage false testimony can cause. The Mishna gives several reasons why Adam was created as a unique individual:

To teach you that anyone who destroys a single life** is considered by the Torah as if he destroyed an entire world. And anyone who keeps a single soul alive is considered as if he has kept alive an entire world.

And for peace between people, so that no person can say to another, ‘My father was greater than yours.’… For this reason, each person is obligated to say, ‘The world was created for me.’

There is a lot to unpack here. There are insights that we would do well to remember even in the modern world.

The first part is self-explanatory. Each of us has a responsibility to do anything we can to save another and to help another person. Remember, this was a warning given to witnesses about to condemn someone to death. They had to think very hard about what they were doing – even though if their testimony was true they were doing a mitzvah.

Yet, it is fairly easy and obvious to want to help others, especially to save their life – provided they belong to the same culture, ethnicity or nation as we do. But we sometimes struggle to value the lives of “others” as much.

Obviously, newspapers report on local news more than foreign news. And tragedies that happen close to home hit us harder than those far away. But the discrepancy between coverage of deaths in Europe or North America and those that happen in Africa, Asia or even South America is shocking. It would appear that we not only care more for those who are like us, but do not even know about those who are different.

Perhaps for this reason, the Mishna stresses that the creation of Adam teaches that we are all descended from the same people. Skin color, belief systems and politics are just a few of the things that make us feel different (and perhaps superior) than others. But we must always remember that we are all the same. The importance of saving a life applies equally to someone from Texas or Tel Aviv or Timbuktu.

And finally, each of us must feel that “the world was created for me.” Each of us has a unique contribution to make to the world. The planet would not be the same if any of us were
missing.

Despite her wealth and nobility, Princess Cristina cared for the poor and the downtrodden of Italy. She understood that ultimately, rich or poor, we are all the same.

Like Thalberg, each of us is the best in the world, and therefore responsible for everyone else on the planet. But like Liszt, you and I are also the only ones in the entire world. We must care for others and also care for ourselves.

——————————

*I really wanted to call this blog “Chopin Liszt” after two of the composers of Hexaméron, but that would minimize the brilliant accomplishments of Princess Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso
**Some manuscripts have this version. Others have “a single Jewish life.”

 

Beginning on October 12th, I will give a seven online classes at WebYeshiva about rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud (and one class on Chanukah). You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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