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Liszt Learning

In response to:

Lisztomania from the February 6, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

When Robert Craft announces early in his review [NYR, February 6] of my book on Liszt that I ought to have emended my title, sunk such figures as Victor Hugo, and provided a biography that included Liszt’s old age, he gives fair warning that my theme—the Romantic artist in relation to the movement that produced him—does not interest him. He wants a different book, but what kind? The meaning of Liszt’s life is in the music, he says, but not in my sense that Liszt’s music was “confessional—in a way the autobiography he didn’t write.” This observation is apropos the Romantic attitude to so-called program music, and is made in connection with Liszt’s own, characteristically Romantic statement that “the musician above all, who is inspired by nature but without copying it, exhales in sound his life’s most intimate secrets” (p.42). The context, in short, is historical. But Craft, who ignores my theme, necessarily misses the sense. To him, I have merely exposed my “musical naiveté.”

Heinous examples follow, documented with all the care that the above suggests. Thus I am made to call Humphrey Searle “a composer and [Liszt] critic…the best probably that we have.” The actual words are “scholar and critic,” which wouldn’t matter if the misquote didn’t inspire a furious footnote: If Searle is “the best composer we have” some of his “verbal explanations” do little to confirm his stature. This is followed by a quote from Searle’s Music of Liszt: “The serial technique of Schoenberg…uses precisely the methods of Liszt’s thematic transformation within the framework of an entirely different language.” This, says Craft, is “untrue and impossible, though in the first place Liszt did not have transposable methods.” Now Craft is fussy about phrasing (I am scolded for “floating pronouns”). It is therefore fair to ask how a statement can be both untrue and impossible, one seeming to preclude the other, and whether he really wants to say that Liszt did not possess methods capable of transposition? The sentence is, I submit, impenetrable.

To my other blunders: How can a Liszt scholar speculate that a passage like the second subject in the Dante Symphony is possibly the first to be written in 7/4 time, when the meter occurs in Berlioz’s Cellini, “which greatly influenced Liszt and which he conducted before composing the Symphony”? A possible retort is that it is “naive” to suppose that Liszt copied Cellini merely because he happened to conduct it before he finished his symphony. In fact, the dates haven’t much significance. The Dante Symphony was sketched out as early as 1847, long before he conducted Cellini, which moreover there is no special reason for thinking had a great influence on him. But in any case I am not alone in my speculation. Let me introduce Craft to Professor Alan Walker, who asks (in Franz Liszt, The Man and His Music, New York, 1970, p.358): “Is this the first example in music of 7/4 time?”

Again: “How can anyone who has heard Don Giovanni say that the brasses, the woodwinds, the timpani are nineteenth-century products?” Without quite knowing what Don Giovanni has to do with it, I can say that the answer is in any musical dictionary and I can’t believe that Craft doesn’t know it. Here, at random, is Grove: “It is by no means certain that orchestral works written before the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when played by a modern orchestra, would convey to modern ears what their several composers heard.” (So much for Don Giovanni.) “The flute as we know it is not the instrument that the flautist of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century had in his hands…. It is safe to say that there is scarcely an instrument in the string family…which has not been rebuilt…. But beyond these a further development was to open up a fresh field, namely, the application of valves to horn and trumpet….” Etcetera. (Grove Musical Dictionary, essay on Orchestration, Vol.III, p.725, in the 1935 edition.)

There is more: I seem not to know that “Schoenberg’s scale was the same as Mozart’s and that European music had reached it centuries earlier.” Centuries earlier than Mozart or than Schoenberg? Never mind. The point seems to be my misuse of the word scale. If I had said “twelve-tone method” or “twelve-note technique” would it have passed?

Altogether it comes as a surprise that Craft hopes I may one day “be persuaded” to write another book about Liszt. Especially when it develops that Craft wants answers to some “tantalizing” questions that in fact I have already dealt with. Was Liszt’s ordination moved up to prevent his marriage to Princess Wittgenstein? No. (See pp. 386-87 and 413-14.) What is the full story of Agnes Klindworth? Since the liaison with Agnes does not belong to the later years but to Weimar in the 1850s, I have told all that is known about it, which is very little. (See especially pp. 387-88.) What is the evidence for Newman’s assumption that Franz Servais was Liszt’s son? (See footnote on p. 252.) It is distressing but I am afraid it is also fairly obvious that Craft simply didn’t read my book with much attention….

Eleanor Perényi

Stonington, Connecticut

Robert Craft replies:

I criticized Mrs. Perényi’s biography for musical unsoundness and slap-dash writing but neglected to mention the book’s Olympian condescension (“[Liszt and Berlioz] are essentially aristocratic composers, Wagner a pleb”) and deficiency in elementary logic—which her letter now exposes too glaringly to be overlooked. Mrs. Perényi asks how a statement can be both “untrue” and “impossible,” admitting that, to her, the sentence in which I employed this distinction is impenetrable…. Quite simply, a statement is untrue when it is incorrect in fact, impossible when what it says could not occur in any case; the two words are by no means preclusive. Thus Mr. Searle’s statement, “The serial technique of Schoenberg uses precisely…etc.” is factually untrue. And the same statement is also impossible, since the serial technique of Schoenberg could not “use precisely” the putative “method” of Liszt.

But to begin at the beginning:

  1. Mrs. Perényi is under the impression that my article, “Lisztomania,” was, or ought to have been, confined to a review of her book. My purpose, however, was to discuss Liszt’s music as a whole, and it is the reviewer’s prerogative, as well as accepted practice, to consider only those parts of a publication that are relevant to his topic. All the same, I did summarize Mrs. Perényi’s volume, while giving only passing notice to two others sharing with hers the review portion of the article, a fact she ignores. Mrs. Perényi’s carelessness with words is revealed in the way in which she changes my suggestion about “reducing the space allotted to Victor Hugo” to “sinking” that worthy.

  2. Mrs. Perényi writes that “Craft is fussy about phrasing (I am scolded for ‘floating pronouns.’) [sic]” Actually my review fussed about elementary grammatical errors, especially the large number of indefinite antecedents, not about “phrasing.” I gave up on the latter but can recommend the book to anthologists of peculiar usages: “No doubt it amused Liszt to live like a feudal lord…in afterlife he was fond of visiting his magnate friends in Hungary.” As a ghost?

  3. There is no special reason for thinking [that Berlioz’s Cellini] had a great influence on [Liszt],” Mrs. Perényi writes. But this influence is real and deeper than she seems to recognize. The extent to which Liszt involved himself in the opera—and it was he who persuaded Berlioz to revise it—would alone bear out David Cairns’s observation: “For Liszt, Cellini was one of the foremost works of his time.” But the evidence of the influence becomes apparent from a comparison of the two scores. Furthermore, the dates do matter. Cellini was performed a decade before Liszt “sketched out” his Symphony, and he must have known the opera long before his decision to present it. Seven-four meters, or alternating fours and threes, are at least as old as Monteverdi, but why does Mrs. Perényi appeal to an authority whose testimony is simply a repetition of the question? Professor Walker is the composer I confused with Mr. Searle, incidentally, a mistake for which I beg Mrs. Perényi’s pardon as well as that of the two scholar-composers.

  4. Mrs. Perényi refutes a point that I never raised. I did not deny that instruments, called by the same names, differ greatly in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and other centuries. I do continue to contradict her claim that “the brasses, the woodwinds, the timpani are nineteenth-century products.” The eighteenth century had them too, and Mozart’s flute would be recognized as a flute, and not some other instrument, in the nineteenth century as well as today. All of this is explained in countless histories of musical instruments published in the forty-five years since the obsolete edition of Grove which Mrs. Perényi chose “at random.” As to the relevance of Don Giovanni, it is in Shaw’s well-known remark: “The [brass] statue music [is] still as impressive as it was before Wagner and Berlioz were born.”

  5. To answer Mrs. Perényi’s question, the scale used by Mozart and Schoenberg had been employed for centuries before both composers. If the point only “seems to be” a misuse of the word “scale,” however, Mrs. Perényi has not grasped the importance of the matter, which is not merely the misuse of a word but the failure to differentiate between the categories of musical material and methods of organizing it.

  6. Mrs. Perényi took too seriously my reference to three bits of biographical trivia, yet my question about the date of the ordination is not answered in the four pages she cites. Regarding the Franz Servais affair, it is accepted that Carolyne could not have been Servais’s mother, but this is hardly proof that Liszt, whom he resembled, was not his father. Finally, if Mrs. Perényi has told all that is known about Agnes Klindworth, why does the book fail to mention her more familiar name, Mrs. Street, and why does Mrs. Perényi’s letter confine the liaison to Weimar, while her book says that “after 1855 Agnes moved to Brussels—where Liszt contrived to see her quite often”?

I am sorry to have distressed Mrs. Perényi, but the correction of erroneous and misleading pronouncements is one of the requirements of criticism.

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