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Playing Liszt

In response to:

The Noble Liszt from the November 20, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

Alfred Brendel’s article “The Noble Liszt” [NYR, November 20, 1986] is sympathetic and fair-minded but it does not do full justice to Liszt’s creative originality. In the light of history, his most successful compositions place him in the front rank of composers who are prime movers in creative ideas. As we all know, Liszt enlarged the range of keyboard devices, extending the style of piano technique to the benefit of future composers and delight of concert pianists. But his seminal influence reached much farther—recognized but, I think, not appreciated universally.

Liszt prepared the way for Debussy both in concept and musical language. I do not refer to the more obvious works such as “Les jeux d’eaux à la villa d’Este” from Années de pèlerinage based on impressions of water and light, although in this concern Liszt certainly prefigured the Impressionists who were so intrigued with various facets of nature. In stronger works such as “Au bord d’une source” and the concert étude “Waldesrauchen” (“Forest Murmurs”) of his middle years (1849) Liszt created atmospheric tone-paintings that not only offered a foundation for Debussy’s vision but also broke through to an idiom that Debussy, Ravel and later composers had only to build on. The musical content of “Waldesrauchen” no longer emerges from extroverted passages of thousands of notes as are his self-indulgent eye and superficially ear-catching compositions. “Waldesrauchen” is concise; the omission of one note would constitute a loss of harmonic and intervallic relationships that would be as noticeable as a missing front tooth. This composition is a prototype of Debussy’s prelude “Le vent dans la plaine” as is “Au bord d’une source” of Ravel’s “Ondine” from “Gaspard de la nuit.” Liszt’s second concert étude “Gnomenreigen” (1849) is a perfectly formed forerunner of Debussy’s fantasy vision in his prelude “Danse de Puck.” Here again the idiom is succinct, shorn of superficially virtuosic passages.

Liszt’s popularity today is still due, to a considerable degree, to his flamboyant and virtuosic characteristics. (Bad taste is by no means confined to a specific era such as the nineteenth century. For that matter, neither is good taste confined to our era. Pace Charles Rosen.)

That the lesser works of little or no creative significance continue to receive attention should not reflect negatively on Liszt as a creator who did reach to the roots of original musical thought. As a result, Liszt deserves to be allotted his rightful place more conclusively as the father of the tone-painting, image-creating composers and of those who cracked the tonal walls of diatonic music from Debussy right through to and including Stravinsky in The Firebird and Petrushka.

Rosalyn Tureck

New York City

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