The Noble Liszt

Do composers gain from posthumous anniversaries? If their greatness is well enough established, the playing of their lesser-known works may further enhance their reputation; if unduly neglected, they may be helped out of their oblivion. Those afflicted by a history of chronic misrepresentation, pervasive malice, and lingering doubt stand the slimmest chance. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Liszt’s death and the 175th of his birth, a plethora of Liszt festivals, marathons, and competitions this year may well prove to have further obscured the stature of a man who has to be defended on several fronts: against some of his champions and partisan admirers, against the crowd of skeptics and adversaries, and, to a lesser extent, against himself.

When Liszt died, he made the mistake of leaving behind an unusual legacy of envy. There is a relation between envy and posthumous fame. Liszt’s early European success as virtuoso and improviser equaled that of Mozart; a few years later, his “genius of expression” (Schumann) and boundless pianistic skill made him, as a player, superior even to Chopin, Mendelssohn, or Clara Schumann. The combination of a lively mind, personal magnetism, masculine beauty, the social triumphs enjoyed by a privileged parvenu, and a love life bordering on scandal turned out to be, within one human being, barely forgivable. There was a conspicuous absence of mitigating circumstances such as Mozart’s or Schubert’s early death, Mozart’s alleged impoverishment and unmarked “pauper’s grave,” Schubert’s syphilis, Beethoven’s deafness, Chopin’s consumption, or Schumann’s mental disorder—features that make the fame of a genius a great deal more gratifying, and guarantee its solidity. (Wagner’s monstrous egotism and merciless promotion of his own ends, while not stimulating compassion or malicious glee, present a frame of mind many people enjoy sharing.)

Arguably, Liszt and Haydn are the most frequently misunderstood among major composers; their biographers afford little food for pity. (The insufferable bigotry of Haydn’s wife and the senility of his last years do not, it seems, sufficiently atone for his achievement in being the first great symphonist and the grand master of the string quartet.) In old age, Haydn reigned over the musical world as its undisputed leading light. For this, the nineteenth century punished him—as it punished Liszt for his undisputed supremacy as a performer. Haydn was branded the ingenious classicist (something he rarely was), “the family friend who is always welcome but has nothing to say that is new” (Schumann). Liszt, in his compositions, was seen as a poseur and charlatan (which he only occasionally was), the embodiment of a superficial and bombastic romanticism. Not until our century did a greater number of composers—from Richard Strauss, Ravel, and Busoni to Schoenberg, Bartok, and Boulez—appreciate Liszt by taking him seriously.

One of this Liszt year’s more interesting German contributions is the belated publication of Lina Ramann’s Lisztiana (1895),1 a collection of reminiscences by Liszt’s official biographer. “Alas,” exclaims Miss Ramann after listening to some of Liszt’s classes, “none of our masters is so dependent on performances that make sense of their compositions…and only too few players manage to get through to the core of his music! There is a lack of either poetry, or intelligence, or wealth of feeling.” In Liszt’s case, performance is less a matter of quality than of existence: a “to be or not to be” of a work, its spark of life. Possibly, Liszt entrusted his musical executants with too much power; his demands upon them reflect the transcendent authority of the greatest performing musician of his day.

Most leading pianists of the later nineteenth century had been, at least briefly, among Liszt’s disciples, yet, despite all claims to the contrary, no convincing tradition of Liszt playing developed. Of course, Liszt, after his virtuoso years, hardly ever performed his own works himself, and did very little to promote them. (Rather, he helped others, notably Wagner.) In the Liszt-Pädagogium, a valuable set of comments on the performance of some of Liszt’s works by his pupils, recently republished by Breitkopf & Härtel, the editor, again Lina Ramann, counters certain misconceptions about Liszt’s style. According to Miss Ramann, Liszt should be taken as a lyrical tone poet first and foremost—as a rhetorician, rhapsodist, and mime. The poetic essence of a piece explains its form, the musical spirit creates its technique.

But poetic freedom is not, “as the practice of immature virtuosos may suggest, distortion of form,” nor is it “autonomy of virtuoso fingers.” The grosse Still (grand style) becomes possible only through Liszt’s “periodic execution” that prevails over bar lines and metric stereotypes. The melos, or melodic spirit, in Liszt no less than in Wagner, permeates everything; it contains Liszt’s “profundity (Innerlichkeit) and passion”—which brings us to qualities that, alongside the grand style, should be mandatory for Liszt players. Passion and introspection, daring and nobility by no means exclude one another. Nobility need not be pale or academic. Neither should passion have to be vulgar. Miss Ramann warns against mistaking “passage-work” for an invitation to technical bravura, and stresses the importance of rests and pauses—a point later taken up by Busoni in his Outline of a New Aesthetic of Music—telling us they may be of “longer or shorter duration” (than their written value) and have to be determined “precisely by the character of each transition.”

For Liszt, the much-maligned program musician, music was fundamentally a tool of poetic expression, and the piano an object to be transformed into an orchestra, turned into the elements, lifted into the spheres. In lesser hands, his extraordinary pianistic demands risk becoming an end in themselves. Chopin’s strictly pianistic music provided the ideal medium for a concept of sound that limits itself to a certain idea of beauty, and specializes in maintaining the most ravishing timbre. In Liszt’s piano style, the concept of a “beautiful” sound is superseded by that of an expressive one. Subservient to the desire to encompass every facet of experience, and freed from the classicist restrictions, the piano is made to release the whole gamut of color, dynamics, and nuance, and encouraged to forget its own boundaries.

Liszt’s “poetic” imagination relied no less on the sensations of the surrounding world than on those of the world within. Their musical transmission is often amazingly subtle and precise—a feat the performer should demonstrate to his audience, and himself. Those who conceive music as “absolute” and autonomous should find plenty to admire in Liszt’s B minor Sonata, the one major work that makes do without any program or motto; but even here, they will miss out on a large domain of Lisztian expression. Without its poetic core, Liszt’s music easily degenerates into a vehicle of Effekt, which, in its German sense, has been defined as “effect without cause” by Wagner. On the other hand, it would be a grave mistake to overlook, or under-estimate, Liszt’s musical intellect even if it was not always employed to full advantage. In the end, response to poetic images may come more easily to many than the insight into Liszt’s professional mastery of part-writing (often dissolved into figuration), and the coherence of the musical whole.

Liszt’s music, unlike that of Mozart, projects the man. With rare immediacy, it gives away the character of the composer as well as the musical probity of his executant. Hans von Bülow, Liszt’s favorite pupil and the first pianist to offer a complete Liszt recital, taught his students to distinguish between Gefühl (feeling) and Dusel (giddiness, sentimentality). Likewise, one might add, the Liszt player should keep pathos and Schwulst (pomposity) firmly apart. When playing Liszt’s superb variations on Bach’s “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” he or she should make the music weep, lament, worry, and despair without lapsing into howling, or chattering of teeth, and, at the work’s conclusion, whether a believer or not, prove capable of demonstrating certainty of faith without producing a wrong gesture. To a good mime, nothing should be unattainable.

Good taste is a barrier to an understanding and appreciation of the nineteenth century,” writes Charles Rosen. For Busoni, who stunned Berlin audiences with three Liszt recitals in 1905, feeling had to be linked to taste, and style. According to him, the popular concept of feeling ignores taste, and therefore relishes sentimentality and overprojection. In the matter of taste, no composer could be more vulnerable than Liszt. In contrast to Charles Rosen (“To comprehend Liszt’s greatness one needs a suspension of distaste, a momentary renunciation of musical scruples”),2 I consider it a principal task of the Liszt player to cultivate such scruples, and distill the essence of Liszt’s nobility. This obligation is linked to the privilege of choosing from Liszt’s enormous output works that offer both originality and finish, generosity and control, dignity and fire. Where Liszt has been casual and uncritical, the player, and listener, must come to his rescue. After eliminating many a lesser piece, there still remains a rich harvest, at least within his piano music. It is bound to include his sonata, the Années de pèlerinage, the “Weinen, Klagen” variations, late pieces like Mosonyi Mihály, and a selection from the études—works I feel to be on a par with the best of Chopin and Schumann.

Though enjoying, once in a while, some of the Hungarian Rhapsodies and operatic paraphrases, I wince at Charles Rosen’s assertion that “only a view of Liszt that places the second Hungarian Rhapsody in the center of his work will do him justice,” or at the kind of praise he gives to Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan:

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.

Once again virtuosity and sexuality are in the spotlight. With such distinguished support, the argument whether Liszt’s niche should be in the pantheon or in a bazaar of oddities and monstrosities may well drag on.

It is difficult to find, for Liszt’s music, a fitting national identity. In the end, not even Hungary laid claim to it after Liszt made the mistake of equating the native folklore of his country with gypsy music. Instead of “specializing in himself,” Liszt presents a panorama of style. His skill in appropriation resembles that of his beloved gypsies. Already the intellectual poets of German romanticism had half adopted, half created a manner of folk poetry; and later nineteenth-century architects made unhesitating use of past styles. Not until Stravinsky, however, did another composer emerge who elaborated on the most varied musical material without losing himself.

Liszt’s variety extends from the sacred to the utterly profane, from the lavishly sumptuous to the ascetic—and from the careless to the masterly. His music was deemed lacking in “Germanity” as long as instrumental music was taken to be German monopoly. For European purists of the twentieth century, on the other hand, only original compositions were admissible until recently, and preferably those which avoided rhetoric, apotheoses, and arpeggios. While much of Liszt’s music assimilates material from elsewhere, the use he makes of it is not uniformly felicitous. Melodies by his operatic contemporaries, folk tunes, and Gregorian chant lend themselves more readily to Liszt’s handling than does Mozart’s or Schubert’s idiom; this is not a question of Mozart’s or Schubert’s tunes being too good for Liszt but of Liszt’s treatment clashing, to my ears, painfully with their style and character. (An exception is Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy,” which Liszt understood well enough; here, his error was to “set free,” in an orchestral score, qualities that are supposed to turn the piano itself into an orchestra.) These days, arrangements have regained respectability. If Liszt, however, had left nothing but his Lied transcriptions and operatic paraphrases he would hardly be better remembered than his erstwhile rival Thalberg.

It is on some of his original compositions that his fame most durably rests. To deny Liszt a melodic style of his own would be unfair even if the quality of its invention wavers. (Among Liszt’s occasional shortcomings are facile melody, the compulsion to say something two or three times, lack of formal economy, and a reliance on the glorious and idealistic.) The B minor Sonata shows none of his weaknesses: none of the themes is disappointing, patterns of repeated phrases help to articulate the structure, the grand design is impressively controlled, and the projected fortissimo ending has been replaced by a moving and mysterious lyrical coda. Altogether, this is the boldest and intellectually most satisfying sonata written after Beethoven and Schubert, two of the three composers Liszt most ardently admired. (The third, at least in Liszt’s earlier years, was Weber.) It has remained the only one of Liszt’s largescale works that, to the last bar, shows him in complete command; all the others, whether orchestral or vocal, suffer, if intermittently, from a lack of economy, direction, thematic distinction, or freshness. (Liszt was not, like Busoni, a natural orchestrator unless he used his own instrument as an orchestra; and he is, to me, more convincing in some of his religious piano pieces—a genre he created—than in his church music.)

Liszt’s works show various degrees of finish. Some had been published in several versions; in others, optional variants (ossias) testify to restlessness and indecision. In the case of the “Transcendental Studies” and many pieces from the Années de pèlerinage (a few have remained unaltered), the final versions are almost invariably the most satisfying. It was one of Liszt’s great achievements during his Weimar years to have made some of his potentially finest compositions playable, if only by a few, by purging monstrosities and clarifying their musical purpose. Sometimes, a new version amounted to a new piece. (In the “Chapelle de Guillaume Tell” barely a memory of one theme has survived.) The player may permit himself, here and there, to adopt a detail from an earlier version as long as it fits into the definitive one without altering its formal design.

In the only version of his B minor Sonata, Liszt has achieved the same practical clarity of notation that we have learned to respect in Beethoven or Brahms. It is a myth that Liszt needs the kind of extemporizing performer he himself is known to have been on occasion. But was he really, as Harold C. Schonberg maintains, invariably bored if he could not prove his alertness by adding something to the pieces he played? Even if this were so, he would be better served by ardent, if critical, devotion than by performers pretending to be another Liszt.3 Some of his improvised ossias can be attributed to a lack of practice time; his activities as composer, virtuoso, conductor, teacher, writer of essays and letters, reader, lover, society figure, supporter of colleagues, abbé, tireless traveler, whist player, and cigar and cognac addict make it evident that he must have been used to either sight reading or relying on his memory.

Liszt would surely have been the first to object to others meddling with his texts unless he had given the player an ad libitum authorization, as in the cadenza of his second rhapsody. (One wonders what he would have made of Horowitz’s recorded performance of “Vallée d’Obermann” which, among various changes, omits several bars of its stormy middle section.) In his Memories of Liszt (1877) Alexander Borodin writes:

In spite of having heard so much, and frequently, about his playing, I was surprised by its simplicity, sobriety and severity; primness, affectation, and anything that aims only at surface effects, is completely absent. His tempi are moderate; he does not push them or become hot-headed. Nevertheless there is inexhaustible energy, passion, enthusiasm and fire. The tone is round, full and strong; the clarity, richness and variety of nuance is marvelous.

Liszt’s supposedly arbitrary handling of the music of others is uncorroborated by his editions of Beethoven’s concertos, and Beethoven’s and Schubert’s sonatas, while his pupils hardly dared to touch up his own texts, so that obvious writing or printing mistakes have lingered on to this day. As Liszt confessed, he was a good proofreader where others were concerned but a bad one for himself.

Modern chroniclers of the piano like to call Liszt a showman. That he was capable of behaving ostentatiously during the most hectic years of his virtuoso career, throwing his kid gloves to the floor of the stage, and staring at the ladies while playing, is undeniable. As a general characterization of his art and personality, however, the label is undeserved. Liszt was the first to depart from the salon. To the displeasure of some contemporaries, he democratized the concert by occasionally performing for an audience of thousands in large theaters like La Scala. This required a different projection of music, one based on a physically freer and more demonstrative treatment of the piano that, when we take account of the feeble instruments of the 1830s and 1840s, may well have “used up” three pianos during one evening. He also inaugurated the “recital,” a concert presented by one single player, and was promptly castigated for his self-sufficiency.

The personal life of Liszt, like that of Paganini, soon became the subject of myth and calumny. Neither his alleged noble origin nor the “evidence” of his unofficial children bears scrutiny. Liszt inhabited a world populated by women writers and fascinated by romans à clef. George Sand and Marie d’Agoult parted company over private indiscretions revealed in Balzac’s Béatrix. The Countess d’Agoult, under the pen name Daniel Stern, then gave vent to her resentments against Liszt in her novel Nélida; in the guise of a painter, Liszt is accused of being unable to produce works in a large format, a charge he once and for all refuted with his B minor Sonata a few years later.

The pinnacle of malice was reached by Olga Janina who, as we are told by Dezsö Legány and Alan Walker, was neither a countess nor a Cossack but a pathological impostor. It is significant that Ernest Newman, the respected biographer of Wagner, was taken in by her books because they represent Liszt, in accordance with his own view, as a feeble character. If Liszt was thought in the English-speaking world—at least until the publication of his letters to the Baroness Meyendorff (1979)—“to be vain, duplicitous and, above all, a showman, given to the tawdry and bombastic in life as in art” (Robert Craft), this was due mainly to Newman’s The Man Liszt, a book ungenerous to the point of slander while always priding itself on its “objectivity.” It was, to Robert Craft,4 a “complete and welcome surprise” that Liszt emerged from the Meyendorff correspondence as genuinely modest, sincere in his religious convictions, common-sensical, wise, and full of understanding of human nature. Newman’s distorted portrait rests on his musical skepticism: where access to Liszt’s music is clouded by prejudice, or lack of sympathy, the outline of Liszt’s personality easily becomes shaped according to the writer’s distrust. Eduard Hanslick, Vienna’s ruling critic, was a remarkable exception: he esteemed Liszt highly as a man and as a performer, although he despised his compositions.

During his lifetime, Liszt must have had his portrait painted more frequently than any other celebrity in Europe. In a new pictorial and documentary biography that should for many years set a standard for accuracy and splendor (Ernest Burger, Franz Liszt, List Verlag, Munich, 1986), an oil sketch shows him being painted by three painters at once. But Liszt’s vanity was counterbalanced by his selflessness, his urge to dominate held in check by his humility. Has there been another musician as generously helpful, as magnanimously appreciative? Liszt bore the “bitterness of heart,” the personal and artistic disappointments of his later years, with imposing self-control. He mustered the strength to react against the hysteria surrounding a triumphant virtuoso career by leaving the concert platform at the age of thirty-five; he did penance for a superabundance of notes by carrying music, in his uncompromising and spare late pieces, to the brink of silence.

To be sure, the excess of worship bestowed on him by blind admirers, and the biographical semifiction fabricated by his mistress Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein in conjunction with Lina Ramann, was bound to provoke criticism. Here, Liszt must take some of the blame. At the end of a questionnaire submitted to him by Miss Ramann before she completed the first volume of her biography, Liszt, to her bewilderment, volunteered the advice: “Don’t get too entangled in details. My biography has to be made up rather than made out.” (“Meine Biographie ist weit mehr zu erfinden als nachzuschreiben.”) Meanwhile, even his renunciation of public concerts (except for charity) and his taking minor orders have been turned into acts of Lisztian self-promotion. To steer clear of the devotional figure on the one side, and the vulgarian of films and gossip magazines on the other, one needs precise information, and good will. The most urgent requirement, however, is that of musical fairness. A musical charter of human rights, if there were such a concept, would grant any composer the basic privilege of being judged by his finest works, and their worthiest performances. Whether this Liszt year has brought us any nearer to such an ideal state of affairs remains the question.


Playing Liszt February 26, 1987

Playing Liszt February 26, 1987

  1. 1

    Republished by Schott’s (Mainz, 1986).

  2. 2

    See Charles Rosen, “The New Sound of Liszt,” The New York Review (April 12, 1984).

  3. 3

    Liszt’s partitions de piano, his straight piano transcriptions of orchestral scores such as Beethoven’s symphonies or Weber’s overtures, are an entirely different matter; what they require from the player is not a “Lisztification” of style but a faithful reproduction, as far as the piano permits, of their original orchestral color.

  4. 4

    See Robert Craft, “The New Liszt,” The New York Review (February 5, 1981).