Probably the best known pianist in the world, Franz Liszt, who was also a prolific composer, died 129 years ago on July 31. As a lifelong Lisztian, I’m devoting his death anniversary this day to recalling all the intersections that my life over the past 70 years have had with his seminal compositions.
[b. 10/22/1811-d. 7/31/1886]
Liszt was born in Raiding, Hungary, on October 22, 1811. After receiving some instruction from his father, who was a steward in the service of the Esterházy family, patrons of Haydn, the young Liszt made his first appearance as a pianist when he was nine. Several Hungarian noblemen raised a fund to send him to Vienna, where he studied the piano with Carl Czerny and composition with Antonio Salieri. His Vienna debut on December 1, 1822 was a succès fou.
In 1823 he went to Paris and on March 8, 1824, gave his first concert there, becoming at once an idol of the city. That summer he also made highly successful appearances in London, where he was commanded to play for King George IV. He continued to concertize for the next few years throughout France, England and Switzerland. Then, in 1827, the death of his father led him to turn his fortune over to his mother and turn to religion. But soon after 1830, his intimate associations with Chopin, Berlioz and Paganini, inspired him to return to music that was beginning to be filled with the Romantic spirit sweeping Europe at the time.
Paganini alone, with his devilishly dazzling virtuosity on the violin imbued in Liszt a passion to become the Paganini of the piano – the consummate master of the keyboard, no less! After an intensive two-year work on his technique, he returned fully formed to the concert stage in 1833 and was universally hailed as one of the greatest piano virtuosos of his day.
Affairs of the heart and his wandering eye derailed his concert career for some years, but when he returned to concertizing his performances were triumphant wherever he went. The years 1839-1847 – when he covered half the (European) world – were his Wanderjahre (or Years of Travel) wherein his showmanship was inextricably combined with profound musicianship. Indeed, he was the first modern piano virtuoso, who instead of requiring the collaboration of an orchestra or assisting artists, actually gave solo concerts with confidence in his ability and chutzpah to command the attention of his audience throughout an entire program, however long and demanding.
In 1848, and by then ensconced in Weimar, Liszt was appointed Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke. There, our hero gave outstanding performances of opera and orchestral music, which emphasized new music and unrecognized composers. Even then, his espousal of avant garde music, especially that of Berlioz and Wagner, didn’t sit well with the concert-going public – how true even today with our own concert audiences!
In 1850, Liszt wrote a set of three nocturnes, all entitled Liebestraum (Love’s Dream.) The third in A-flat major is one of his most celebrated piano works, and its sentimentality and tenderness are characteristic of the other two pieces in this form. It was also the first piece by Liszt that I learnt as a youngster in my early teens and it hooked me for life as a lover of his compositions for piano: Here is a good version of it appearing on YouTube: Liebestraum No. 3
By 1859 Liszt found Weimar increasingly at loggerheads with him and his championing of new music. He saw the writing on the wall, abandoned Weimar after two years , and in 1861 literally found refuge in religion by moving to Rome. However, he continued composing, mainly for the piano, and also devoted himself to teaching the piano to students from all around the world.
Then, in 1886, he gave several concerts in England, including one for Queen Victoria. Later, he was at Bayreuth for the Wagner Festival where he fell ill and died soon after – reportedly a victim of pneumonia.
Both as a man and a musician, Liszt had grandeur and greatness. On the one hand, he was always aware of his immediate audience, playing to it with all the drama, triviality and superficiality he could muster on the fly. Yet, he was supremely capable of rising to great heights, playing music filled with poetry and majesty.
Liszt was no saint. He was someone with serious flaws, but no one can deny that he was a great composer whose influence cannot be overestimated. Consider that he invented the tone poem, or symphonic poem; he brought new drama to orchestral and piano writing, new vitality to program music, and he ushered in a new harmonic language.
For the record, the best-known of Liszt’s symphonic poems are Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne, based on Victor Hugo, Les Préludes, based on Lamartine, works based on Byron’s Tasso and Mazeppa, and Prometheus, with the so-called Faust Symphony in Three Character-Sketches after Goethe and the Symphony on Dante’s Divina commedia. Other orchestral works include two episodes from Lenau’s Faust, the second the First Mephisto Waltz (to which a second was added 20 years later, in 1881).
Liszt wrote two piano concertos: the first in E-flat major (1849) has been in my repertoire ever since I first performed it in Calcutta in 1966 with the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Jacob conducting. Liszt’s other works for piano and orchestra include Totentanz (‘Dance of Death’) and Fantasy on Hungarian Folk-Melodies. Six of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, written for piano, were effectively arranged for orchestra by Franz Doppler, revised by Liszt.
In addition to original piano music Liszt also made many transcriptions of the work of other composers and wrote works based on national themes. The violinist Paganini was the immediate inspiration for the Études d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini, dedicated to Clara Schumann, wife of the composer Robert Schumann, and based on five of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for solo violin and the last movement of his Violin Concerto No. 2 (‘La campanella’). The Transcendental Studies, revised in 1851 as Études d’exécution transcendante, form a set of 12 pieces, including ‘Wilde Jagd’ (‘Wild Hunt’), ‘Harmonies du soir’ (‘Evening Harmony’) – another favorite of mine – and ‘Chasse-Neige’ (‘Snow-plough’). The three collections later given the title Années de pèlerinage (‘Years of Pilgrimage’) chronicle his wanderings from Switzerland in the first book to Italy in the second two; they form a series of evocative poetic pictures, inspired by landscape, poems and works of art. The earlier volumes stem from the years of wandering with an early love of Liszt’s life, Marie d’Agoult, and the last from the final period of his life, when he was based in Rome. The Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, written between 1845 and 1852, represent, in the 10 pieces included, something of the composer’s lasting religious feelings. These feelings are also evident in the Légendes of 1863, the first of the two representing St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and the second St. Francis de Paul walking on the water. (I have performed this work often because of its sheer pianism.) The remarkable Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, based on a theme from a Bach cantata, mourns the death of his elder daughter Blandine. His Fantasia and Fugue on the letters of ‘Bach’ (B flat – A – C – H, the last being B natural in English notation) was originally written for organ.
Liszt wrote one sonata – a work in one movement that was considered novel in its form at the time. [That was a favorite of mine and my full live broadcast over WXXI, Rochester NY, in 1976 can be heard here. I had first publicly performed the demanding work at the Franz Liszt Conservatory Concert Hall in Budapest 20 years earlier.]
The Hungarian Rhapsodies, eventually appearing as a set of 19 pieces, are based on a form of art music familiar in Hungary and fostered by gypsy musicians, although these works are not, as Liszt thought, a recreation of true Hungarian folk-music. (The No. 12 was a particular favorite of mine.) The Rapsodie espagnole makes use of the well-known La folia theme, used by Corelli and many other Baroque composers, and the jota aragonesa. Transcriptions of his own orchestral and choral compositions include a version of the second of his three Mephisto Waltzes, works supporting legends that had once dogged Paganini concerning diabolical assistance in performance. Of the many other transcriptions for piano, those of the Beethoven symphonies are among the most remarkable. There are a number of operatic transcriptions and fantasies. These include Réminiscences de Don Juan, based on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and a dozen or so based on the work of his off-and-on friend and son-in-law Wagner.
Afterword One of the great modern chroniclers of the man that was Liszt has been the Canadian musicologist, Alan Walker, and professor of music at the esteemed local Macmaster College. I had the pleasure of attending one of his well-attended long-weekend seminars at his home in Ancaster-Hamilton, Ontario. There were many Lisztians – in every sense of the word – from North America and Europe who crowded into a large living-room area in the middle of which was a gleaming grand player piano that was ‘programmed’ to reproduce one of Liszt’s set of concert pieces that he had actually performed at a recital in Europe on one of his acclaimed tours. There followed some erudite as well as homespun observations on the ‘canned’ music by the more vocal attendees, including the late Harold Schonberg, Chief Music Critic of the New York Times.
After one of those soirées I strolled with Harold along the wooded lanes nearby Alan’s house, dropped in on one of the roadside cafés and traded opinions on what had transpired earlier in the day. Since I possessed his popular book “The Great Pianists” published in 1965, I twigged him about Chapter XX that he devotes to “The Lisztianers and Leschetitzkianers” and where he discusses the current penchant for tempo rubato. Harold held firm to his argument that pupils of both Liszt and Leschetisky just couldn’t do without it as they were almost to a man or woman romantic pianists – with two prominent exceptions, Schnabel and Horszowski!
Copyright © 2015 Azim Lewis Mayadas