The New Sound of Liszt

Franz Liszt: Volume 1, The Virtuoso Years, 1811-1847

by Alan Walker
Knopf, 481 pp., $25.00

Berlioz and Liszt are assured of immortality. By now, their right to a place in the pantheon of nineteenth-century composers goes largely unchallenged. Yet this place is equivocal. The worst criticisms made during their lifetimes are still repeated by musicians today: Liszt is cheap and flashy, Berlioz incompetent. The charges are astonishingly heavy and detailed. Liszt’s melodies are banal, his harmonies tawdry, his large forms repetitious and uninteresting; Berlioz was incapable of writing correct counterpoint, his harmony is full of grammatical solecisms that a second-year conservatory student would know how to avoid, and his sense of form was defective. One might well think that it is especially heroic to have achieved greatness against such odds.

Liszt and Berlioz were natural allies from the start. In 1830, the nineteen-year-old Liszt heard the premiere in Paris of the Symphonie Fantastique, and he became one of the champions of Berlioz, his elder by eight years. It was the publication of Liszt’s arrangement for piano of the symphony (an arrangement he played many times in public) that became the occasion for Schumann’s famous review, the most appreciative and favorable criticism that Berlioz was ever to receive. Superficially, Liszt and Berlioz had much in common: they both exploited a satanic public image, and enjoyed a gothic taste for the macabre with all its paraphernalia—witches’ Sabbath, march to the scaffold, dance of death. They were both virtuoso conductors, and did perhaps more than anyone else of their time to create the modern image of the orchestral director as an international star. The music they wrote, however, was worlds apart, and the controversies they excited were of a very different nature.

The Romantic myth that great artists went unrecognized during their lifetimes has been pretty well dismantled by historians today. In its place, however, they have erected an anti-myth equally foolish: the belief that the artists whose works have survived the ravages of time were better understood by their contemporaries than by later generations. The truth lies generally the other way. Time tends to strip away old misunderstandings. (It also, of course, adds new misunderstandings, but these are rarely either as pernicious or as tenacious as the original ones, and they evaporate easily with the rapid changes in critical fashion.) No one any longer thinks that Mozart’s modulations are too complex or that his scores contain too many notes, that Beethoven was an undisciplined, barbaric genius, or that Wagner’s music is an unintelligible noise; and there are only a few diehards left who write that Chopin could not handle large forms, that Beethoven was a poor melodist, or that Schoenberg’s music is inexpressive. Remoteness has blunted, softened, and veiled whatever once seemed difficult and unacceptable from these composers, and it has rightly made them appear almost infallible—rightly, because the standards by which we can judge them are derived above all from a study of their works.

The controversy over Liszt and Berlioz has not subsided, even though their greatness …

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