Robert Heller, a virtually unknown figure in music-historical accounts, trained in the 1840s at the Royal Academy of Music in London and gave the American premieres of Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos with the Germania Musical Society. But he also pursued a parallel career in theatrical magic, using his musical virtuosity to elevate his social and artistic stature as a conjurer. Between 1852 and 1878, his magic act was seen by millions in Europe, East Asia, and the United States, including states and territories in the American West never visited by contemporary piano virtuosos like Thalberg and De Meyer.
While magicians routinely incorporated music in their acts, Heller’s virtuosity set him apart from his conjuring peers, including those who were themselves musicians. Using his musical expertise, he blended the magic show with other popular forms of spectacle, including minstrelsy, burlesque, and the piano recital, framing the latter as an extraordinary attraction. Advertisements and accounts of his performances reveal the marketing strategies Heller employed to negotiate the crowded landscape of consumer culture and American popular entertainment, especially during the tumultuous years of the Civil War. These strategies included co-branding, altering the titles and descriptions of musical compositions (particularly “Dixie”), and joining forces with “Blind Tom” (Thomas Greene) Wiggins, the Black, enslaved musical prodigy whom Heller had briefly tutored; they performed together in Louisville during one of the magician’s last appearances in the South. Throughout the 1860s, Heller was influenced by gendered musical practices and regional attitudes toward race and politics, leading him to market his act specifically toward middle-class women, music lovers, Unionists, and those seeking postwar reconciliation.