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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

1.

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.”

If it is satisfying, why is it more open to question? Evidently because it is one thing to appropriate the work of an Italian or French composer, and another to lay sacrilegious hands on a German classic. Even Busoni writes defensively: “We readily admit to the strict purists that the Don Juan Fantasy treats of holy matters in an all-too-worldly manner.” Mozart’s themes, in short, are too good for Liszt. The gypsy melodies of the Hungarian Rhapsodies, on the other hand, are not, in this view, good enough. They are not even folk songs, it is often alleged, but cheap, urban popular music. In fact, nothing was ever too bad or too good to serve as material for Liszt’s compositions. He had little feeling for the quality of his musical material, although he showed an extraordinary perception of its nature and of what could be done with it.

2.

The indifference of Liszt to musical material is the chief stumbling block to an appreciation of his music. Most of Liszt’s works that have remained in the repertory today were written before 1850, and the musical material is either invented by someone else or (with some significant exceptions) it is shoddy and tired, likely to grate on the nerves of any musician of delicate sensibility. After 1850 Liszt’s sense of material became more refined and, in later years, even austere. These last years were devoted above all to short piano pieces and to religious music (Liszt became an abbé when the Vatican revoked its sanction of the divorce of Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein and he had to renounce all hopes of marrying her). Many of these late piano works are experimental and foreshadow the music of Debussy and of the atonal composers of the early twentieth century. They cannot have had much influence on these developments, however, since they were essentially private, and many remained unpublished until recently.

Liszt has never needed revival; his music has always been an essential part of the pianistic repertoire. Nevertheless, he has appeared to need rehabilitation, and recent critics and biographers have tended to dismiss the early works and concentrate only on those written after 1850. Walker’s first volume stops at 1847, but he finds a moment to claim that Liszt “had not yet found his true direction and hardly came into his own until after Chopin’s early death” (in 1849). Considerable emphasis is now placed on the liturgical works: in the recent Concise Oxford History of Music, Gerald Abraham, for example, devotes twice as much space to the Masses and oratorios as to the piano music. Yet it is the compositions of the 1830s and 1840s that remain alive today, and we still draw upon them for musical sustenance. They gave Liszt his stature. The early works are vulgar and great; the late works are admirable and minor. Liszt may be compared to an old ancestor who built up the family fortune by disreputable and shameful transactions in his youth and spent his last years in works of charity; recent criticism seems like an official family biography that glosses over the early life and dwells lovingly on the years of respectability.

The Sonata in B Minor of 1852 is a pivotal work between Liszt’s early and late style. It is the only piece after 1850 to remain a basic part of the piano repertory (although at least two beautiful late works merit equal respect: the Variations on Bach’s “Weinen, Klagen” and the “Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este”). The Sonata is often considered Liszt’s masterpiece, because of its seriousness and originality of form. In both respects it seems to me slightly overvalued. It contains a certain amount of bombast and sentimental posturing mixed with its finest passages. Both the formal structure (four movements—allegro, adagio, scherzo, and finale—compressed into a single sonata movement with exposition, development, and recapitulation) and the technique of thematic transformation that holds it together were worked out with equal elegance some years before by Schumann in the Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra (later to become, with very little alteration, the first movement of his piano concerto). Indeed, the transformation of themes to create successive movements of different emotional character was used by many composers between 1825 and 1850, including very minor ones like Moscheles. Unfortunately we are, like Liszt, still saddled with an aesthetic that admits works in sonata form as sublime, but not études or characteristic pieces (short, idiosyncratic works like the fragments in Schumann’s Carnaval or the landscape pieces which are among Liszt’s most distinctive creations).

It was with the étude and the characteristic piece that Liszt in the 1830s achieved one of the greatest revolutions of keyboard style in history. Most of Liszt’s compositions for piano during that time were collected in five great sets, which changed considerably in format and character over the years in various editions: the Transcendental Etudes, the Paganini Etudes, and the three parts of the Album d’un voyageur—Switzerland, Italy, and Hungary. The Hungarian section later became the Hungarian Rhapsodies, and the first two parts of Album d’un voyageur became the two books of the Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage); the Italian section acquired an appendix, called Venice and Naples, and many years later a third book (mostly Roman) was added.

To see what kind of composer Liszt was, one must start with the two sets of études, the first important works of his to be published. They each exist in three basic stages: the first stage of the Paganini set is the version for violin by Paganini, the Caprices from which Liszt selected six for transcription. The second stage is the first piano version of 1838, dedicated to Clara Schumann; if Liszt had not been so essentially generous in nature, one might suspect malice in the dedication—this edition must have been unplayable even on the light-actioned pianos of the time by anybody but Liszt himself. This version is practically never attempted today: what has survived in the concert hall is a third stage, or second piano version, published in 1851. This version has been stripped down, and in some respects brought closer to the original violin caprices: there is a gain of effectiveness and a loss of pianistic imagination. Liszt at his most extravagant was very grand.

The first stage of the Transcendental Etudes is by Liszt himself at the age of fifteen: Studies for the Piano in Twelve Exercises, opus 6. One or two of these studies have a certain charm, particularly the ninth in A-flat major; the seventh study, too, has some of the rich sonority of Liszt’s mature style. The others have little musical interest, not even so much as most of Czerny’s studies, and they are not even particularly difficult. I doubt whether anyone since the adolescent Liszt has ever found it worthwhile to play them in public. In 1837, when he was twenty-six, he published the Twelve Great Studies for the Piano (actually called Twenty-four, but nothing further came out of this plan); eleven of these are rewritings of the early exercises, and the remaining étude is based on the Impromptu, opus 3, composed many years before. Rewriting is too mild a term; in this second stage, the early exercises are completely transformed. Only two or three of them would be recognizable at first hearing in their new guise. Like the Paganini Etudes published a year later, they skirt the edge of the impossible in piano technique, a limit to what the human hand can be made to do. Once again, like the Paganini, they were revised by the composer in 1851, pruned of their romantic excesses, thinned out—classicized, in short. Even in this easier final form, they remain among the most difficult works in the piano repertory.

The étude is a Romantic creation. Educational music for keyboard had existed for more than a century before Liszt, above all the published works of Johann Sebastian Bach; the first thirty sonatas published by Domenico Scarlatti were called “Exercises.” Nevertheless, the étude as it appeared in the early nineteenth century was a new genre: it is a short piece in which the musical interest is derived almost entirely from a single technical problem. A mechanical difficulty directly produces the music, its charm and its pathos. Beauty and technique are united, but the creative stimulus is the hand of the executant with its arrangement of muscles and tendons, its idiosyncratic shape. In the Etudes of Chopin, the moment of greatest emotional tension is generally the one that stretches the pianist’s hands most painfully, so that the muscular sensation becomes—even without the sound—a mimesis of passion.

Chopin is the true inventor of the étude, at least in the sense of being the first to give it complete artistic form—a form in which musical substance and technical difficulty coincide. His first études were written in the late 1820s and the complete set of opus 10 was published in 1833 and dedicated to Liszt. Etudes of musical interest were written before him; in 1804 by John Baptist Cramer, an Anglicized German and friend of Beethoven; by Muzio Clementi, an Anglicized Italian, whose Steps to Parnassus (1817 to 1826) was so important in the training of young pianists; and by Carl Czerny, Liszt’s teacher. Etudes specifically intended for concert performance rather than for didactic purposes were published by Ignaz Moscheles, a famous Czech pianist, in 1825, just before Chopin began to compose his opus 10. In all of these, as in Liszt’s first set of 1825, the musical value is either minimal, or else it is partially independent of the technical problems. (In some of the later parts of Clementi’s Steps to Parnassus, the musical value is high, but execution is relatively easy.)

The rewriting of Liszt’s opus 6, which transformed it into the sublime, is heavily indebted to Chopin. The indebtedness of Liszt’s F-minor Transcendental Etude to Chopin’s F-minor, opus 10, has often been noted. Walker remarks on this:

At such moments as these (and there are dozens from which to choose), the two composers seem to be interchangeable. Yet it is precisely on such occasions that we must exercise the most caution if we wish to avoid becoming ensnared in a historical trap. The F-minor Transcendental Study as we know it today is an outgrowth of the juvenile version that Liszt composed as a youth of fifteen, long before he had heard a note of Chopin.

Here it is Walker who has fallen into a trap. None of the details that make the Liszt étude sound like the Chopin are present in the 1826 version; they were all added in the 1837 edition, four years after the publication of Chopin’s opus 10, a work which Liszt knew well before publication. His own set of 1837 was printed simultaneously in Paris, Vienna, and Milan. The Parisian and Viennese editions were dedicated to Czerny, the Milanese to Chopin.

The existence of the adolescent pretranscendental version of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes seems to cause confusion, and even Walker seems puzzled by the relationship, as he writes, “It is not clear why he chose to revise his ‘prentice pieces, rather than to compose a completely fresh set of works.” I seem to detect here a trace of impatience in Walker that so often can be found with admirers of Liszt, the echo of a regret that their hero was not more often original, that he wasted so much of his time making paraphrases of other works. Here there is a critical failure to recognize an extraordinary form of originality. The new versions of the Transcendental Etudes are not revisions, but concert paraphrases of the old, and their art lies in the technique of transformation. The Paganini Etudes are piano transcriptions of violin études and the Transcendental Etudes are piano transcriptions of piano études. The principles are the same, and comparing the early and later forms helps us to understand how Liszt’s mind worked, and what gave him his distinction as a composer.

Any étude would do for this comparison, but I give here the early and later versions of the fourth in B-flat major, quoted by Walker (see Figure 1).2 He writes:

Compare the juvenile model with the highly developed concert study which later sprang out of it. The one version shimmers behind the other, and the moment the player knows it his performance is bound to be affected.

I do not find this approach convincing. What seems to me remarkable about the juvenile version is its utter lack of interest or distinction. It is a kind of sub-Czerny. Of course, Beethoven and other composers have made great music by developing material equally unpromising, but that is not Liszt’s way. He keeps the earlier structure—its melodic profile and its basic succession of harmonies—and changes the sonority; the radical transformation of sound makes the later version a masterpiece.

Walker’s choice of words is significant, stimulated by a genuine response to the music. “One version shimmers”—but it is not the early one that shimmers. What Liszt has added in the later version is the supremely difficult chromatic finger exercise in double notes that gives the shimmering or flickering effect: the 1837 and the 1851 versions are identical in these bars, but the 1851 piece is now called “Will-o’-the Wisp” (we can see from this that the programmatic significance of many of Liszt’s pieces, like those of Schumann, was invented after the music was composed). Liszt has taken the banal work of a child, and reconceived its sound.

Critics sometimes write as if all composers start with a sound in their heads, an imagined sonority, listen to it carefully, and then write it down. This is a Romantic notion, derived, indeed, from works by Liszt and his contemporaries. A glance at, say, the manuscript of Mozart’s C-minor piano concerto will disabuse us quickly. It is clear that, in parts of the finale, all that Mozart had decided was that the piano would play long passages in sixteenth-note motion. He wrote first an abbreviated outline of the piano right hand into the score at those places, and then tried subsequently to work out just which sixteenth notes to put down. He put down as many as three versions, all crossed out, and perhaps never made up his mind before performing the work. What Mozart had in his head was only sixteenth-note motion and a melodic profile. The realization of this idea could be postponed.

It is hard nowadays to comprehend just how abstract the composition of music could often be. When Handel wrote an aria, he knew that the singer would add ornamentation, but just which ornaments he could not know—except that they came from a standard repertoire, a basic stock that each singer was expected to employ with skill, sensitivity, and imagination. Handel would have insulted his better and more temperamental singers if he had prescribed the decoration. In early-eighteenth-century music, expressivity still depends largely on ornamentation. The realization of the harmony, too, was often left to the performers; they were told which harmonies to play, but the spacing of the chords was not always indicated. Composition and realization in sound were different processes. It is a misunderstanding of the nature of musical composition at that time to insist that Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier or Art of the Fugue were designed specifically for harpsichord, organ, or clavichord—although all these possibilities have been, and are still, argued for. Now that we know that there were more pianofortes than harpsichords at the court of Madrid in the mid-eighteenth century we are no longer safe in claiming that Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas were conceived only for harpsichord.

Since the sixteenth century there had been music composed directly for certain instruments or instrumental combination, from Gabrieli and Frescobaldi to François Couperin, but the previous examples should teach us to beware of the anachronistic view that ascribes too great a role in composition to sonority and tone color. Composition and realization begin to draw together in the late eighteenth century, and more closely still with Beethoven. Alan Tyson has shown us that Mozart began the Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488, with oboes, and changed them to clarinets the following year when he returned to the work, as by then he had clarinets in his orchestra. Mozart preferred clarinets to oboes, but the sound did not determine the shape of his work. Donald Francis Tovey once characterized the difference between Mozart’s and Beethoven’s orchestration by remarking that when Mozart gives a phrase to an oboe, we think it a wonderful inspiration, but that when Beethoven does it, we find it less striking because no other instrument seems possible. The realization in sound, the instrumentation, has become unique. (We may safely disregard the fact that Beethoven agreed to earn some extra money by arranging some of his works for other combinations, and produced, for example, the absurd transcription of his violin concerto for the piano.)

Even with Beethoven, however, the basic composition is still somewhat abstractly conceived. In other words, pitch and rhythm are the essential determinants of form, and spacing and tone color are subordinate, only a means to the realization in sound. How shaky this hierarchy has become, however, can be seen from the role of dynamic accent in Beethoven (both the violent fortes and the sudden pianos) which now plays a basic structural role, an essential part of the motifs and of the general rhythmic movement.

All this is turned upside down by Liszt. Realization now takes precedence over the underlying form. There were many composers before Liszt who wrote with a specific sound in mind, but none in which this realization in sound is more important than the text behind it. In this respect Liszt is more radical, more “modern,” than Chopin. Beautifully sensitive to the character of his musical material, and deeply indifferent to its quality, all Liszt’s genius is turned onto the realization in sound. The 1838 version of his youthful études must have been the result of hundreds of performances, thousands of hours of improvisation. Why should he have written new études? The invention of material was never his strong point; one suspects that as he developed new effects of realization, he created material to fit and show them off. Liszt is perhaps the first composer of instrumental music whose music is conceived absolutely for public performance. That is why there are so many different versions of the same piece: each successive version is itself a new performance.

In the Paganini Etudes, Liszt takes the following simple succession of notes: C, A, E, C, A, E, C, A. The 1838 edition is very different from that of 1851 (see Figure 2). In the 1838 version, this variation represents violin spiccato, the bow bouncing from string to string, the hand bouncing all over the piano. In 1851, the same succession of notes stays within a small range, and it now represents a pizzicato effect. The 1838 version commands admiration for its imaginative extravagance. Part of the delight comes from the fact that it is almost unplayable. By 1851, it has become more faithful to Paganini, but it is the new effect, the new color that counts. The succession of pitches remains the same, although transposed to different registers. In any case, who cares what Paganini’s original notes were, when faced with such an imagination?

The only forms of music in which composition and realization are identical are improvisation and electronic music; sound and conception coincide absolutely here. In jazz improvisation, as in Liszt’s Paganini Etudes, there is a text behind the sound, a tune given in advance, but in listening to one of Art Tatum’s recorded performances, it makes almost no difference who wrote the musical text behind the realization—Cole Porter, Fats Waller, Rube Bloom. What counts is the “paraphrase.” In bringing composition and realization closer together, Liszt made it possible to give qualities of sound—resonance, texture, contrasts of register—an importance that they had never had before in composition. Tone color is even more important in his music than in that of Berlioz, and his combinations of invented sound are often as astonishing as those in electronic music.

Liszt’s feeling for sound was the greatest of any keyboard composer’s between Scarlatti and Debussy, and he surpassed them in boldness. Critics often write as if Liszt’s innovations in piano technique were only ways of playing lots of notes in a short space of time, instead of inventions of sound. Even Walker does this. He thinks that Liszt’s fingering of a scale in thirds by playing all the thirds staccato with the second and fourth fingers makes it easier to play, but this is true only so long as there are no black keys in the scale. This fingering was invented for sonority, not for ease of execution. It transforms the banal thirds of Liszt’s youthful Etude in D Minor into the dramatic poem of Victor Hugo, Mazeppa, in the Transcendental Etudes since the thirds can now be punched out on the piano with enormous power.

Similarly, Walker discusses Liszt’s fingering of scales with five, four, and three fingers, but does not tell his readers that playing scales with all five fingers in succession enables one to achieve extraordinary velocity, a smear like a glissando; that the four-fingered scale is for controlled legato; and that the three-fingered scale is for a light, detached, “pearly” touch. Only the first is Liszt’s invention; the others are mentioned by Beethoven in a letter to Czerny, explaining how he wants his nephew to study the piano.

What Liszt’s technical innovations enabled him to achieve were not only new kinds of piano sound, but layers of contrasting sound. His arrangement of Schubert’s “Der Lindenbaum,” for example, in the last stanza plays the theme in the right hand in octaves above and below a steady, delicate trill, which gives a continuously vibrant sonority, while the left hand imitates a pizzicato bass and, at the same time, realizes Schubert’s simple flowing accompaniment as if it were performed by a trio of French horns. This is, one must confess, rather an awful thing to do to a Schubert song, but it would be churlish to refuse one’s admiration for the grandeur and richness of the conception—or for the pianist who can play it and make it sound as vulgarly beautiful as it was intended. To comprehend Liszt’s greatness one needs a suspension of distaste, a momentary renunciation of musical scruples.

It was Liszt’s extravagant inventions of texture, spacing, and sonority that made possible the great sets in different national styles: Hungarian, Swiss, and Italian. In Hungarian music, he was preceded by Schubert, whose magnificent “Hungarian Divertissement” for four hands he had transcribed for two hands and performed; in Swiss music, there were operatic precedents in Cherubini’s Eliza or the Mountains of St. Bernard and Rossini’s William Tell. These national idioms were each another form of tone color for Liszt. As a romantic who had read Rousseau, he started with the Swiss style, and Walker has documented the deep Hungarian patriotism that led him to the music he heard in his own country.3 Some of his finest early and late works are evocations of the Italian landscape. In most cases, the material is borrowed, but like the Paganini Etudes, they are among Liszt’s most original achievements.

It is a mistaken strategy to make Liszt acceptable today by concentrating on those works in which the musical substance is interesting, original, and in good taste. Such works exist, of course, like the three settings of Petrarch’s sonnets, which he rewrote in so many different ways throughout his life, but even here the variety of realizations is more impressive than the underlying melody. In any case, good taste is a barrier to an understanding and appreciation of the nineteenth century. I am willing to abandon Liebestraum to anybody who wants it, but only a view of Liszt that places the Second Hungarian Rhapsody in the center of his work will do him justice.

(This is the first of two articles.)

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    The notation of Walker’s excerpts of the music, reprinted here in Figure 1, is extremely faulty. In the later version, there should be no phrase-line over the music, the thirty-second notes in bar 2 should be in one undifferentiated sixteen-note group, and the unity of this bar was emphasized by a crescendo-decrescendo hairpin sign over the right hand. The first version should have a P molto legato after the sforzando. The original notation is important since it reveals Liszt’s conception of the sound. (I follow the old Liszt-Stiftung edition, published by Breithopf und Härtel, which is the most faithful.)

  3. 3

    Walker promises to treat the Hungarian Rhapsodies in his second volume, although the initial conceptions date back to the early 1840s.

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