Lisztomania Enters the Twenty-first Century

In the freestanding compositions, too, we encounter a kind of uncertainty principle; they are multivarious, unfixed, in flux. A mainstay of the Liszt literature is Jim Samson’s “Virtuosity and the Musical Work: The Transcendental Studies of Liszt,” published in 2srcsrc3. It surveys the three stages through which this colossal piano cycle evolved: “Étude en Douze

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In the freestanding compositions, too, we encounter a kind of uncertainty principle; they are multivarious, unfixed, in flux. A mainstay of the Liszt literature is Jim Samson’s “Virtuosity and the Musical Work: The Transcendental Studies of Liszt,” published in 2srcsrc3. It surveys the three stages through which this colossal piano cycle evolved: “Étude en Douze Exercices,” a modestly flamboyant homage to Czerny, written in 1826, when Liszt was fifteen; the Twelve Grand Études, a titanic and gruesomely difficult expansion of that material, which appeared in 1839; and “Douze Études d’Exécution Transcendante,” a final revision, published in 1852, in which Liszt reined in the complexity while refining the narratives. Ferruccio Busoni, one of Liszt’s chief heirs, said of the Études, “First he learned how to fill out and then he learned how to leave out.”

What did Liszt mean by “transcendent execution”? The phrase indicates, most simply, an overcoming of conventional technical limitations. But the Romantic context of the music has us thinking of weightier things. Samson, in his searching analysis, sees a symbolic transcendence of human possibility: the Lisztian virtuoso “stood for freedom, for Faustian man, for the individual in search of self-realization—free, isolated, striving, desiring.” Liszt’s restless sequence of inspirations, revisions, reconsiderations, and recombinations—the “Mazeppa” Étude exists in no fewer than seven versions—is also a kind of overcoming of the work itself. In quantum terms, a finite object gives way to a bundle of energies and possibilities.

Inherent in this music is a challenge to the player—transcend me. Liszt is saying, I have tried to capture my ideas on paper, but I cannot capture the transient magic of live performance. Such thoughts may come to mind when you watch a video of the dumbfounding young Korean pianist Yunchan Lim at the 2src22 Van Cliburn Competition, inhabiting the Études with a nearly ideal blend of technical precision and emotional panic. (There is also a recording, on the Steinway label.) The notes are flawlessly there, to an almost unprecedented degree, yet Lim is hardly pretending to be a mere executant of Liszt’s conception. The Études are too majestically excessive to be treated with such reverence.

Toward the end of “Mazeppa,” the pianist must fire off a series of diminished-seventh chords, repeating at high speed a pattern that initially set the piece in motion. They are pinned against a fixed D in the bass, triggering all manner of dissonances. Even if the player nails the chords—tricky to do, given the tendon-endangering spread of the left hand—he gives the impression of an overtaxed soul pummelling the keyboard in a frenzy. Lim accelerates through them like a stunt driver in an action movie who steps on the gas while a bridge collapses beneath him. This is Liszt in the flesh.

Liszt’s Glanzzeit, his virtuoso glory days, ended in September, 1847, when he was thirty-five. After a recital in what is now Kropyvnytskyi, Ukraine, he decided to stop performing regularly for a paying public. Earlier that year, he had met Sayn-Wittgenstein, who urged him to shift toward composing full time—a step that he had long contemplated. He and Sayn-Wittgenstein settled in Weimar, where Duke Carl Alexander hoped to revive the cultural golden age of Goethe and Schiller. If Liszt had imagined a period of quiet creative activity, his extroverted nature soon intervened, as he set about making the city a hub for the vanguard. His greatest coup was the world première of Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” in 185src—a potent vote of confidence in a composer who, the previous year, had fled Germany after engaging in revolutionary activity. Progressives gathered in Weimar, imbibing the music of the future.

At the core of the Weimar agenda was a turn toward program music. Liszt felt that composers should deëmphasize abstract forms—sonata, concerto, symphony—in favor of narratives on pictorial, literary, and philosophical subjects. To that end, he invented the genre of the symphonic poem. His thirteen works of this type draw on such lofty sources as Shakespeare (“Hamlet”), Aeschylus via Herder (“Prometheus”), and Byron (“Tasso”). He also produced two full-scale symphonies, one based on Goethe’s “Faust” and the other on Dante’s Divine Comedy. As if to demonstrate his mastery of more traditional structures, he wrote the Sonata in B Minor, a self-sufficient tour de force of thematic transformation.

Conservative critics were lying in wait. Eduard Hanslick, the acidulous apostle of Viennese classicism, summed up the aspiration inherent in the symphonic poems: “The fame of the composer Liszt was now to overshadow the fame of the virtuoso Liszt.” The results, in Hanslick’s estimation, fell woefully short of this goal. Banal ideas were “chaotically mixed together.” Superficially shocking novelties revealed a “restlessness that smacked of outright dilettantism.” Climaxes veered toward “Janissary noise”—a reference to the percussion-heavy military music of the Ottoman Empire.

Was Hanslick entirely wrong? The ever-cresting enthusiasm for Liszt’s piano music has yet to incite a parallel vogue for the symphonic poems. “Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne” (“What one hears on the mountain”), the first and longest of the series, was last heard at Carnegie Hall in 1916; “Hamlet” and “Héröide Funèbre” have apparently never been played there. The problems are clear enough. When Liszt launched his symphonic phase, he had little practice writing for orchestra, and he turned to associates for help. There is a discrepancy between the fluidity of his musical ideas and his boxy, formulaic orchestration. Hanslick was within his rights to bemoan a surfeit of blaring brass and of cymbal crashes. “Orpheus,” perhaps the finest of the symphonic poems, stands out for its softly radiant textures and meditative spirit.

“I’m starting to miss his begging.”

Cartoon by Liam Francis Walsh

When Liszt abandons all restraint, the only choice is to follow him over the brink. Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony showed how it should be done in their matchless recording of the “Faust Symphony.” Nothing is sacrificed to the shibboleth of good taste. In the Mephistopheles movement, Bernstein augments the infernal atmosphere by having the strings play sul ponticello—a ghastly slithering of the bow near the bridge. (Liszt gave no such instruction, but strict observance of the score is un-Lisztian.) The trouble is that modern-day orchestras, with their polished professionalism, are unlikely to let themselves go. Thus, in a recent recorded cycle with Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic, the music frequently turns inert.

Even if Liszt fell short in his bid for symphonic grandeur, he did achieve an eventual victory over Hanslick and other opponents of program music. Few orchestral composers today write abstract symphonies and sonatas; they embrace suggestive titles, literary epigraphs, detailed explications. Liszt’s determination to apply the breadth of his reading and the richness of his experience helped move the art of composition onto a broader intellectual plane. He articulated that ambition as early as 1832: “Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Byron, Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber are all around me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them with fury.”

“Franz Liszt: King Lear of Music” is how Alan Walker frames his subject in the final volume of his biography. Past the age of fifty, the supple cynosure of the salons turned into something of a tottering wreck. His utopian project in Weimar had run up against burgherly discontent; his hoped-for marriage to Sayn-Wittgenstein had been foiled by the machinations of her family. He drank too much, he suffered from various illnesses and from depression, and he had increasingly fraught relations with his only surviving child. In 1857, Cosima had married Hans von Bülow, Liszt’s favorite student. Six years later, she switched her allegiance to Wagner, with whom she had three children. Liszt at first condemned the relationship on moral grounds—a hypocritical gesture, given his history—and then came to accept it, mostly out of respect for Wagner. With the inauguration of the Bayreuth Festival, in 1876, Liszt was cast as, in his own words, a “publicity agent” or “poodle” for the Wagner enterprise. When Wagner died, in 1883, Cosima took charge of the festival, assuming quasi-imperial status. At Bayreuth the following year, she walked past her father in a corridor without acknowledging him—a very “Lear”-like scene.

To the outer world, Liszt appeared to have lost his volcanic creative urge. In fact, he had entered his most radical phase. Almost from the beginning, he had resisted the idea that a given work should remain anchored on a home key and follow the usual avenues of modulation. A close study of the music of Franz Schubert, the stealth revolutionary of the early nineteenth century, suggested to Liszt a host of other paths: instead of moving along the circle of fifths (C major to G major, G major to D major, and so on), one could move by thirds, from C to E. Even stranger leaps are possible—for example, the uncanny glide from F major to B major at the end of the Sonata in B Minor. Such explorations also led him to the whole-tone scale—the division of the octave into equal steps. That scale, later seized on by Debussy, runs all through Liszt’s output; in the “Dante Symphony” it casts an unearthly light on a setting of the Magnificat, and in his oratorio “Christus” it evokes a storm that Christ dispels.

Liszt felt a particular freedom in the religious arena, where the task of representing the divine and the apocalyptic justified extreme measures. Hostile critics saw the austere apparition of Abbé Liszt as another performance, but his piety was sincere, and it went hand in hand with an immersion in Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. His earliest sacred compositions, dating from the eighteen-forties, are stark and unadorned, rejecting the opulence of much religious music of the period. “Pater Noster I,” a setting of the Lord’s Prayer which exists in piano and choral versions, has an almost medieval simplicity. At the same time, its harmonies are jarring. The piece begins in C, veers through B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and D-flat chords, and lands on E major at “Fiat” (“Thy will be done”).

By the end of his career, Liszt felt free to put almost any combination of notes on paper. In “Ossa Arida” (“O ye dry bones, there the word of the Lord”), from 1879, the organ blasts out a chord made up of all the notes of the C-major scale—a luminous dissonance that seems not the denial of tonality but the transfiguration of it. In “Via Crucis” (“The Way of the Cross”), Liszt adopts a hieratic manner that anticipates by many decades the avant-garde devotions of Olivier Messiaen. A string of works in a secular mode enter similarly far-out terrain. “R. W.—Venezia,” a memorial to Wagner, offers a forbidding procession of augmented triads—three-note chords with no clear tonal orientation. Little of this music was known in Liszt’s lifetime; much of it was rejected by publishers. Wagner, shortly before his death, told Cosima that her father had gone insane.

In the early twentieth century, a growing awareness of Liszt’s late period prompted a reconsideration of his historical position. He found a posthumous role as a prophet of impressionism and atonality. Béla Bartók declared in 1936, “The compositions of Liszt exerted a greater fertilizing effect on the next generation than those of Wagner.” This was a dramatic reputational shift for a composer who had so often been dismissed as a purveyor of dazzling trash. In truth, as Taruskin pointed out, the veneration of Liszt’s proto-modernism left intact the familiar biases against “mere virtuosity.” The elderly sage was cast as a doleful penitent, making up for youthful indiscretions. Dolores Pesce, in her 2src14 study, “Liszt’s Final Period,” complicates that picture, emphasizing that the late music traverses many different styles. Amid the arcana, Liszt was still writing Hungarian rhapsodies, not to mention arrangements of polkas by Smetana and other salon-ready fare. No single-minded teleology will suffice for Liszt.

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