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The Super Power of Franz Liszt

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Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin/Juergen Liepe/Art Resource
Josef Danhauser: Franz Liszt at the Piano, 1840. Seated are Alexandre Dumas Sr., George Sand, and Marie d’Agoult; standing are Hector Berlioz, Nicolò Paganini, and Gioachino Rossini. On the piano is a bust of Beethoven by Anton Dietrich,and on the wall is a portrait of Byron.

The bicentenary of Franz Liszt (1811–1886) follows hard upon those of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Schumann, and he has conserved his place as one of the supreme Romantic composers. Nevertheless, his career as a composer was always cursed by the fact that he was also, it is generally agreed, the greatest pianist who ever lived. The major part of his work was for piano, much of it tailored for himself to perform, many of the pieces presenting a difficulty of execution almost never before seen. As a result, even today most performances of Liszt are generally intended not as a specifically musical experience, but chiefly to display the pianist’s technique, just as productions of Lucia di Lammermoor are much concerned to showcase the soprano’s highest notes and coloratura ability to warble with a flute (or glass harmonica, in the original version).

In writing about Liszt as a composer, the constant invasion of his piano scores by long passages of challenging and conspicuous technical difficulty is rarely treated seriously. Nevertheless, these spectacular passages were one of the reasons that his invention of the piano recital became such a success. No one before Liszt played an entire public concert on the piano. At first, these programs were very flashy, often dominated by transcriptions of popular airs from contemporary operas. He was the first composer who turned a musical performance into something like an athletic feat.

He invented the principal musical effect that for almost two centuries has sent audiences roaring to their feet with applause: the single musical line played strongly and rapidly with both hands spanning octaves for a lengthy dramatic passage, fortissimo and staccato. The right-hand octaves in the higher register provide metallic brilliance, and the lower left-hand octaves a thunderous sonority. In addition, when the musical line makes large leaps quickly from side to side, an attractive acrobatic element is added visually for the audience’s enjoyment, as at the opening of Liszt’s Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major.

Liszt also invented, I believe, the writing of rapid and unrelenting octaves for several pages (like the end of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6).1 This made the bravura style even more into an athletic feat since the unremitting display of fast octaves for several pages will cause sharp pains to shoot up the forearm of the pianist until he or she has learned to relax the wrist muscles when playing the passage, not an easy technique to acquire if the passage must be played so that it is always getting louder and faster. A piece like this will win the pianist admiration not just for skill but also for stamina.

To emphasize the athletic aspect of bravura playing was not a purely personal ambition of Liszt. The project was in the air during the early nineteenth century. Liszt studied as a young boy in Vienna with Carl Czerny, a composer-pianist who had had a few lessons with Beethoven. Most of Czerny’s compositions were didactic compilations of exercises with names like The School of Velocity to develop the strength of the fingers of young pianists. In his other works, Czerny is, in fact, a somewhat better composer than his reputation today would have us believe, but the numerous exercise volumes are not very exciting.

The Étude in Twelve Exercises that Liszt wrote and published at the age of sixteen in 1827 betrays the influence of Czerny. The exercises are largely uninspiring, except for one in A-flat Major with a lovely Italianate melody. There was, however, an internationally famous example as a model before the youthful Liszt, Nicolò Paganini, who revolutionized violin playing, publishing his 24 Caprices in 1820, and Liszt finally heard him play in Paris in 1832. Paganini did not always attempt to produce a pleasing or beautiful sound on the violin, but often astonished the public by attacking the instrument with brutal and dramatic violence.

Liszt determined to do for the piano what Paganini had accomplished for the violin. He did, indeed, imitate the brutality and created fierce sonorities on the keyboard never heard before. He transcribed six of the Paganini caprices as études in 1838. Before that, however, another important model had already come before him, Fryderyk Chopin, who, in 1829, at the age of nineteen, had already begun to transform the genre of the virtuoso piano étude. His first set of twelve études, opus 10, was finished by 1832, and the second set, opus 25, by 1837.

One year older than Liszt, Chopin was a great admirer of his younger colleague’s playing, although relatively skeptical about his compositions. Chopin’s first set of études was dedicated to Liszt, and the second set to Liszt’s mistress, Marie d’Agoult. His études are among the most difficult works for the piano, but they are less spectacular than Liszt’s in their display of bravura, requiring more subtle nuances of phrasing. Josef Hofmann, considered by many the finest pianist of the twentieth century, claimed that nobody could give a satisfying interpretation of all the Chopin études. The composer himself knew that he could not play them as well as Liszt. They were an extraordinary stimulus for Liszt in the years 1837 and 1838 when he produced his Paganini and Transcendental Études.

Robert Schumann had also previously transcribed some of the Paganini caprices, but his arrangements were very modest. Liszt dedicated his more pretentious transcriptions to Clara Schumann—she was (like everybody else) certainly incapable of playing them, as his version is sometimes close to the absolutely impossible, and was, in fact, completely rewritten by the composer almost two decades later. It is this later simplified edition that is played today. For example, in the first version of the sixth étude the right hand skips all over the piano with huge rapid leaps, making it difficult to hit the right notes, in an evident attempt to imitate the way a violinist’s bow bounces over all four strings. This étude was later rewritten and toned down to leave the hand more conveniently resting in one register.

At the same time as his Paganini transcriptions, Liszt began to rewrite his twelve uninteresting youthful exercises and turn them into the sensational and masterly Transcendental Études. These, as well, skirt the impossible and had to be rewritten twenty years later to make them more accessible. This suggests that even Liszt may have had problems executing the earlier versions. The inspiration for the first recasting in 1838 of the youthful exercises was obviously Chopin, as Liszt’s early F-Minor exercise was made more interesting by superimposing an agitated melody very like Chopin’s F-Minor étude of opus 10 on top of the sixteen-year-old’s bland effort.

Even more revealing both of Chopin’s influence and of Liszt’s imaginative and original exploitation of that influence is the famous Transcendental Étude called Feux Follets (Will o’ the Wisp). The original B-flat exercise from which it arises was an exceedingly simple piece negotiable not only by a sixteen-year-old pianist but even by a talented ten-year-old. It provided a skeleton form for the compositional metamorphosis that turned out to be one of the supremely difficult works of the repertory, still demanded today by piano competitions. It was a frequent display piece for Sviatoslov Richter.

Liszt was obviously impressed by the opening double-note trill in thirds followed by a chromatic scale in thirds of Chopin’s Étude (in Thirds) in G-sharp Minor, opus 25, and he created Feux Follets by turning the simple opening of his juvenile B-flat Major exercise into a trill in double notes (sixths, fifths, and fourths) followed by a chromatic scale in the same double notes, although the melody adheres otherwise to the original outer shape and outline of the earlier exercise. However, the changed tone color and harmonies parade dramatic contrasts and a ravishing variety of delicate sounds of a new character in piano literature, while the Chopin étude is more focused, intense, and unified. Even if there is an important debt to Chopin in Liszt’s Transcendental Études, one must admire the originality of the imaginative adaptation. Comparing these two famous pieces reveals the profound difference between the two composers.

Another basic difference between the compositional technique of Liszt and Chopin was observed long ago by Donald Francis Tovey, and Feux Follets once again offers a good example. When the principal theme in B-flat Major returns in the new tonality of A Major, it has become very awkward for the hands to play the double-note trill and chromatic scale as the relation of black to white keys has changed with the new key,2 and Liszt accordingly rewrites the theme in a new form that fits hands to the new harmony. Chopin, as Tovey remarked, is more ruthless: when a figure that lies well for the hands in the opening key returns in a less convenient form, he generally demands that the pianist cope with the new difficulty, refusing to make any musical concession to the physical discomfort. Liszt is often supremely difficult but almost never really awkward, and always composes with the physical character of the performance in mind. In the conception of modern virtuosity, he was even more important than Chopin, whose achievement was more idiosyncratically personal.

For the concertos of Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Rachmaninov and the works of Balakirev and Ravel, it is the innovations of Liszt that come to the fore, and that is true even in the piano compositions of Aaron Copland, Sergei Prokofiev, Elliott Carter, and many others. It is interesting to see in the Transcendental Études how close Liszt actually sticks in some respects to his earlier exercises written when he was sixteen, using them as a basis to create new technical difficulties and novel imaginative effects.

A large proportion of some of the finest works of Liszt are actually rethinkings of an earlier version. After the age of forty, Liszt made the more extravagant inspirations of his thirties more accessible, polishing and simplifying them—transcribing them, in short—into the forms that one hears today in the concert hall and on discs. These transcriptions of his own earlier compositions include most of his best-known works, including the great landscape tone poems of his Swiss and Italian “pilgrimage years”; even the profound black despair of his Vallée d’Obermann.

An excellent new book, Liszt as Transcriber by Jonathan Kregor, selectively discusses some of the hundreds of transcriptions of Liszt’s career, largely omitting the many transcriptions or rewritings of his own work. Kregor concentrates on the transcriptions of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the Beethoven symphonies, the overtures of Weber, the Schubert lieder, and the selections from the Wagner operas. A final chapter treats a few late transcriptions of César Cui, Saint-Saëns, and Verdi. This last section glances at the problem of the last works of Liszt, which experimentally prefigure some of the modernist effects that would appear with Debussy and Schoenberg, and Kregor makes a good case for finding in the late transcriptions some traces of the stylistic developments already present in some of Liszt’s early works. Unfortunately these late pieces are rarely strong enough to bear a comparison with Debussy or Schoenberg.

  1. 1

    The tiring repeated octaves in Schubert’s Erlkönig accompaniment largely stay on the same notes, while Liszt’s make considerable leaps. 

  2. 2

    The arrangement of black keys is asymmetrical within the octave (two black keys between three white followed by three black keys within four white), so the fingering of a passage must often be altered if the key is changed. 

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