The Super Power of Franz Liszt

Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin/Juergen Liepe/Art Resource
Josef Danhauser: Franz Liszt at the Piano, 1840. Seated are Alexandre Dumas Sr., George Sand, and Marie d’Agoult; standing are Hector Berlioz, Nicolò Paganini, and Gioachino Rossini. On the piano is a bust of Beethoven by Anton Dietrich,and on the wall is a portrait of Byron.

The bicentenary of Franz Liszt (1811–1886) follows hard upon those of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Schumann, and he has conserved his place as one of the supreme Romantic composers. Nevertheless, his career as a composer was always cursed by the fact that he was also, it is generally agreed, the greatest pianist who ever lived. The major part of his work was for piano, much of it tailored for himself to perform, many of the pieces presenting a difficulty of execution almost never before seen. As a result, even today most performances of Liszt are generally intended not as a specifically musical experience, but chiefly to display the pianist’s technique, just as productions of Lucia di Lammermoor are much concerned to showcase the soprano’s highest notes and coloratura ability to warble with a flute (or glass harmonica, in the original version).

In writing about Liszt as a composer, the constant invasion of his piano scores by long passages of challenging and conspicuous technical difficulty is rarely treated seriously. Nevertheless, these spectacular passages were one of the reasons that his invention of the piano recital became such a success. No one before Liszt played an entire public concert on the piano. At first, these programs were very flashy, often dominated by transcriptions of popular airs from contemporary operas. He was the first composer who turned a musical performance into something like an athletic feat.

He invented the principal musical effect that for almost two centuries has sent audiences roaring to their feet with applause: the single musical line played strongly and rapidly with both hands spanning octaves for a lengthy dramatic passage, fortissimo and staccato. The right-hand octaves in the higher register provide metallic brilliance, and the lower left-hand octaves a thunderous sonority. In addition, when the musical line makes large leaps quickly from side to side, an attractive acrobatic element is added visually for the audience’s enjoyment, as at the opening of Liszt’s Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major.

Liszt also invented, I believe, the writing of rapid and unrelenting octaves for several pages (like the end of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6).1 This made the bravura style even more into an athletic feat since the unremitting display of fast octaves for several pages will cause sharp pains to shoot up the forearm of the pianist until he or she has learned to relax the wrist muscles when playing the passage, not an easy technique to acquire if the passage must be played so that it is always getting louder and faster. A piece like this will win the pianist admiration not…

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