The Pianist and the Program

Le concert, c’est moi.” When Liszt wrote to the Princess Belgiojoso that, in this pronouncement, he was affecting the style of Louis XIV, he had just launched a new type of public concert: the solo recital.1 To be precise, the announcement in London used the plural “Recitals on the Pianoforte,” starting on June 9, 1840—recitations of pieces of music, testimonies, one would guess, to both Liszt’s declamatory playing and the romantic closeness of music and poetry. Hitherto, soloists contributed to a program that employed a variety of participants, including an orchestra. Joint recitals, fairly rare these days, were still somewhat frequent at the beginning of our century, when Busoni shared a concert platform with Ysaÿe or Melba.

Between each “recitation” Liszt went to talk with people in his audience, a habit we have fortunately shed. (Another discontinued habit of old days, and a rather endearing one, was to modulate, arpeggiando, from one piece to the next; Wilhelm Backhaus still improvised discreetly in this manner.) While Liszt’s newly created recitals may have lasted a couple of hours, some of Anton Rubinstein’s mammoth programs of the 1890s cannot possibly have taken less than three. Today we have settled on concerts of roughly eighty minutes’ playing time, forty in each half. Of course, there may be the odd exception of a longer one, or a different balancing out of the two halves, should an oversized work like Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations demand it.

How ought these eighty minutes to be filled? Of two standard program schemes that come to mind, the old-fashioned one treated a program like a menu: starter (or soup) and main course, followed by various salads and puddings, and topped by omelette flambée. Artur Schnabel, in Music and the Line of Most Resistance (1942), wrote extensively about, and against, such musical meals. According to him,

the first condition of a good menu is that all dishes should be prepared by the same chef or several chefs of equal merit; that all should be prepared with first-class raw materials, and that the gourmet should concentrate with the same seriousness on all of them!

The usual concert menu is far removed from these requirements. In my younger and more wicked days I invented, for an encyclopedia, a list of compositions which included a work entitled “Suite gastronomique“; during its last movement an omelette is supposed to be set alight on the performer’s head. The bald virtuoso to whom it is dedicated has so far declined to give it a try.

The other standard program scheme proceeds in a roughly historical order. Yet the reverse, or an apt historical mixture, is equally justified. I would accept no hard and fast rule in program-making except one: that works in the same key should not follow one another. A varied succession of keys is required to stimulate the listener’s attention. If the whole recital does not have a true key scheme, its sequence of pieces should at least be checked for suitability.…

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