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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 is acknowledged. The durability of the old criticisms is exceptional, and suggests that the importance of these two composers is felt instinctively, but only imperfectly grasped, and that we have not yet learned a critical approach to their work, a way of elucidating what they were up to. Two recent books—Julian Rushton’s account of Berlioz’s compositional technique and the first volume of Alan Walker’s biography of Liszt—both of them very fine, should help us face these issues and to clear away some of the old misinterpretations.1

Professor Walker has set a standard of accuracy that no previous biographer of Liszt can match, and he masters the mountain of source material with ease and even a certain relish. His first volume, subtitled “The Virtuoso Years,” takes us from Liszt’s childhood in Hungary and his studies in Vienna at the age of eleven with Beethoven’s most famous pupil, Carl Czerny, to his great Parisian triumphs in the early 1830s, his creation of the modern piano recital and his European tours, and ends with his astonishing retirement as a concert pianist at the age of thirty-five. After that date, as Walker says, “he never again played in public for his own benefit.”

Walker is concerned above all with the man, and only incidentally with the composer, although he obviously loves and appreciates the music. He is lucid and just on the famous liaison between Liszt and Marie d’Agoult, who abandoned her husband for the twenty-one-year-old musician and bore him three children (the second child, Cosima, was in turn to abandon her husband, Hans von Bülow, for Richard Wagner). The bitter end of this affair is soberly related by Walker, who picks his way carefully among the various versions that were related, most of them inspired by the most obvious bad faith. He is judicious and persuasive about just how much of Liszt’s prose writing can really be attributed to him, and has demonstrated that less of it than is sometimes thought was written by Marie d’Agoult, and, later, by the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein. The social and political background to Liszt’s career is throughout absorbed into the narrative.

What emerges most clearly is Liszt’s extraordinary generosity of mind and spirit. He dedicated much of his life to the cause of his fellow composers. He never held a grudge. He continued to champion and perform the music of Schumann even after Schumann threw him out of his house (because Liszt had come very late to dinner and had made disparaging remarks about Mendelssohn). In comparison with his contemporaries—Chopin, Bellini, Rossini, Wagner, and even Berlioz—he was tolerant, kind, and large-spirited. He was justifiably vain and not often profound, either as a writer of prose or of music—but it was not exactly profundity that made him a great composer. He was above all magnanimous.

In spite of Walker’s attempts to be fair, he holds a brief for Liszt. He shows us the faults, but not too plainly if he can help it. For example, he is at some pains to defend Liszt from the charge of being a lady-killer, and points out cogently that—unlike so many other contemporary artists, Schumann, Heine, Paganini—Liszt never caught syphilis (which Walker, with unbecoming modesty, calls “the morbus gallicus“). This is a strong point, but Walker adds, more dubiously:

Unlike the true Don Juan, Liszt genuinely liked female company, and he had a great respect for female intuition and intelligence. Perhaps that is why he was surrounded by so many female admirers, both young and old, throughout his long life. Liszt treated them as his intellectual equals (which again sets him apart from the real Don Juan, who, because he sees women simply as his sexual prey, has no female admirers at all).

The “true Don Juan” and “the real Don Juan” are odd expressions. For Bernard Shaw (and he had some experience of it), the “true” Don Juan is a man who likes the company of women and is the unwilling victim of their sexual desires; he is, in a sense, asking for it even if he doesn’t want it. This is not just Shaw’s taste for paradox; it is an exact portrayal of the two most famous Don Juans of the early 1800s, Byron and Liszt. Byron spent much of his life dieting to remain slim and beautiful, seeking out the company of women, and, largely, fending off their unwelcome advances—for some periods of his life, in fact, he preferred boys. Liszt was not in the least homosexual. He simply adored women, lots of them. One of the most entertaining pages in Walker’s book lists his comments on his pupils, preserved in the Geneva Conservatory Library:

Julie Raffard: Remarkable musical feeling. Very small hands. Brilliant execution.

Marie Demelleyer: Vicious technique (if technique there be), extreme zeal but little talent. Grimaces and contortions. Glory to God in the Highest and Peace to All Men of Good Will.

Ida Milliquet: An artist from Geneva. Languid and mediocre. Fingers good enough. Posture at the piano good enough. Enough “enoughs,” the grand total of which is not much. Jenny Gambini: Beautiful eyes.

Note that Liszt refused to take money for these lessons in 1836, or for any others after his earliest years. (Walker prints no comments here on male students. The students at Geneva consisted of twenty-eight ladies and five gentlemen.) Liszt enjoyed teaching young girls, and he must also have been amused at the women who, as Walker writes, “surged forward whenever he broke a piano string in order to make it into a bracelet.” We might say that Walker’s honest attempt to get the facts right does a disservice to history. With a career like Liszt’s—or Byron’s—the legend is as important as the truth. It does not, in fact, matter much how often Liszt went to bed with the women who threw themselves at him: he did almost nothing to discourage his international reputation as a Don Juan, which caused such anxiety to Marie d’Agoult.

Walker never mentions (except to say that he played it in Russia and Spain) the greatest of Liszt’s operatic transcriptions, the fantasy on Mozart’s opera called Réminiscences de Don Juan. This work, written in 1841 as Liszt was setting out on the most spectacular triumphs of his career as a virtuoso, the tours of Germany and Russia, has won, as Busoni observed, “an almost symbolic significance as the highest point of pianism.” In it, Liszt displayed almost every facet of his invention as a composer for the piano. That the tunes are by Mozart is irrelevant, and the work is Liszt’s most personal achievement. With his international reputation for erotic conquest already set, Liszt must have known that the public would take his fantasy as a self-portrait just as everyone had assumed that Byron’s Don Juan was an autobiography. As Mozart, in The Magic Flute, had used coloratura brilliance as a metaphor for rage and power, so Liszt uses virtuosity here as a representation of sexual domination. Bernard Shaw, one of the rare critics to understand both Don Giovanni and the Réminiscences de Don Juan, wrote that “the riotous ecstasy of Finch’han dal vino is translated from song into symphony, from the individual to the abstract, with undeniable insight and power.” Shaw further remarked that

When you hear the terrible progression of the statue’s invitation suddenly echoing through the harmonies accompanying Juan’s seductive Andiam, andiam, mio bene, you cannot help accepting it as a stroke of genius—that is, if you know your Don Giovanni à fond.

If you know your Don Giovanni—that has always been the principal barrier to an appreciation of Liszt’s fantasy. One must know the Mozart opera by heart, and then forget it. Opera fantasies have generally been considered a low-class form of music. They were despised by highfalutin music lovers and largely disappeared from concert halls for many decades of the twentieth century. The operatic paraphrases are coming back today with the revival of interest in nineteenth-century salon music and the neoconservative antimodernism facetiously called the New Romanticism. Walker has a good word to say for Liszt’s paraphrases of Norma, Rigoletto, and Faust. Humphrey Searle (in The New Grove) praises the fantasies on operas by Donizetti, Bellini, and Auber, and then adds that “the fantasia on Don Giovanni is more open to question,” although he finds it “a satisfying piece.”

  1. 1

    Julian Rushton’s book, The Musical Language of Berlioz, published by Cambridge University Press, will be reviewed in a second article.

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