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The Super Power of Franz Liszt

Kregor’s choices are interesting because they cast light on Liszt’s predominant role in the musical politics of the nineteenth century. With Berlioz and then Wagner, he was the leader of the group in favor of new music, new forms, and new styles, opposed by the traditionalists led by Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms. Kregor begins with intelligent considerations on the different methods of transcription in the nineteenth century, from simple attempts to represent the main musical line to the imitations of different kinds of orchestral details on the keyboard. The great question, of course, in the transcription of a symphony is whether one makes a successful piece that is pianistic and sounds as if it were written directly for the piano or whether one can somehow make the piano resemble the original orchestral instruments.

Liszt did both and sometimes very shrewdly. For example, the first of the Paganini Études (not treated by Kregor) begins entirely for the left hand alone. This gives the pianist the opportunity of feeling like a violinist, since it is with the left hand that the violinist chooses and makes the exact pitches of the score, while the right hand with the bow only releases the sound. (When Brahms arranged for the piano the solo violin Bach Chaconne for the left hand alone, he claimed that playing it made him feel like a violinist, but he was quite clearly imitating Liszt’s example.)

Liszt’s transcription of the Berlioz symphony made the reputation of the composer at a time that it was difficult for him to give performances. The famous review of the symphony written by Robert Schumann was actually written from an examination of Liszt’s transcription since the full score was not available, and Schumann had never heard it. This transcription was an act of publicity. At a time when orchestral performances were much rarer, almost nonexistent outside of large cities, the fundamental importance of the complete transcription of all nine Beethoven symphonies, started only a decade after Beethoven’s death, was a similar work of education and publicity, and it was fundamental in the construction of Beethoven’s future fame, a goal for which Liszt worked tirelessly for many years, including his aid for the construction of a monument in Beethoven’s home town of Bonn.

These symphonic transcriptions were more than merely educational, as Liszt actually performed several of the symphonies on the piano in public concerts. They were therefore not only for private use and information but for public display beginning in the 1830s when Liszt gave piano recitals for money. This lasted until 1847, after which he abandoned commercial performance at the piano since his later mistress, the Princess Carolyne von Sayne-Wittgenstein, considered such concerts degrading. Afterward he conducted an orchestra, but played the piano only for charity.

The arrangements of Schubert songs also had an educational role in the establishment of Schubert’s reputation and German style in general (although Schubert’s songs had already won a very large following with the public in Paris). Here the educational purpose is more dubious, since it is not hard to sight-read songs at the piano, adding at least some of the vocal line, and in addition, several of Liszt’s arrangements of Schubert are almost insanely difficult. One verse of The Linden Tree with a vocal line of folk song–like simplicity, arranged by Liszt and illustrated in Kregor’s book, requires the pianist to play the melody with the left hand over some exceedingly complex chords while the right hand trills rapidly with the weakest fingers, four and five, and the right thumb executes a rapid and agitated accompanying figure. (I remember that when I first saw the arrangement some years ago, I immediately practiced this page for half an hour just to see if it was possible—it is, but would require hours of further study to do it smoothly and balance all the sonorities.) The arrangement of the song The Trout as well is so difficult that it would do more to dampen than to encourage an amateur’s interest in Schubert, but it makes a great encore piece.

Kregor presents an interesting case for the fact that the selected songs from Schubert’s Winterreise are arranged by Liszt in an order that makes a new and coherent cycle, although it should be said that since the songs were sold separately, this might have been hard to realize. Liszt’s transcriptions of Chopin songs do form a cycle that Chopin never intended, and they are much more successful musically in Liszt’s version than in the original vocal setting, because Liszt has actually made them more Chopinesque by adapting some of Chopin’s piano works in the introductions or the accompaniments.

The arrangements of Schubert waltzes called Soirées de Vienne contribute to the public presentation of these beautiful dances, since in their original unpretentious form they are obviously intended only for private performance for dancers at home, making little effect in public, and Liszt’s reworkings are genuine improvements for the concert platform—although perhaps they are even better played privately in their original simplicity.

In leaving out the paraphrases of popular contemporary Italian and French operas, Kregor minimizes one essential commercial purpose of the transcriptions, the display of the pianist’s technique. These transcriptions have been underrated since many of them are mere showpieces. The great ones, however, like the Reminiscences of Norma, amount to a synoptic and critical view of the opera worth much more than most of what has been written about the work. It is true that it is above all in the opera paraphrases that all the difficult finger exercises that Liszt learned from his teacher Czerny along with new ones he invented are introduced fortissimo and velocissimo or alternatively with great delicacy but usually with stupefying public effect.

The imaginative power of his most outlandish inspirations is breathtaking. One of the most famous examples occurs in his paraphrase of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, where he transforms a simple half cadence into an enormous climax. The harmony is the simplest possible: a dominant seventh, the most commonplace penultimate chord of all tonal music from 1700 to the present day. Liszt places the top note of the chord in the right hand very high on the keyboard and the bottom note at the far left. These notes remain fixed and the pianist goes back and forth from them to the notes in the center. Both hands play all the notes of the chord (twenty-two notes over the whole keyboard), leaping at high speed in contrary motion from top and bottom gradually to the center of the keyboard, ending with huge leaps, the whole passage marked “bravura fortissimo.” In his important edition of Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni admonishes the pianist not even to think of slowing down, and adds that no matter how much you practice or how superior your technique has become, this passage is still risky—in other words, you can never be sure that you will hit all the right notes.

The astonishing visual effect is essential to the music. When this work is played, connoisseurs watch the pianist at this moment intently to see what will happen, just as the balletomanes at a performance of Swan Lake watch the black swan, counting carefully to see if she will get all of the thirty-two fouettés in a straight line. It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that the Russian ballet developed its athletic character comparable to the transformation of virtuosity in pianism, and it was a development of similar aesthetic consequence in the history of the art.

Some musicians who appreciate Liszt with passion believe, like his mistresses, that all his bravura showmanship was unworthy of him and would like to purge his reputation of any attempt to emphasize its importance. It made, however, an important contribution to the dramatic force of his style. The emotional impact of his inventions of virtuosity can sometimes be found at the heart of even his most meditative work. It would be hard to overestimate the cultural importance of his bravura style for the history of classical music from his day to ours.

Kregor’s book gives a persuasive account of the importance of Liszt’s transcriptions in contemporary musical politics. They made a great deal of music available to many who had little chance of contact with it, and above all they indicated an extraordinary variety of ways that music could be interpreted, and the art of imagining a score with different possibilities of sound. We might say that the transcription transferred the weight of interest from the written score to the performance, and revealed the way that performance could rewrite the original score.

At one point, however, it seems to me that Kregor underestimates the variety of Liszt’s playing. Berlioz reported that when Liszt played Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, he rendered the score with absolute fidelity. Kregor thinks that Berlioz failed to notice Liszt’s usual interpretive shenanigans, because he was following the score. I think this very unlikely. Liszt was quite capable of playing with absolute fidelity when it was a challenge to do so. The Hammerklavier Sonata, largely unplayed at the time because of its difficulty, would have presented just such a challenge. On one occasion, Chopin was so outraged at the freedom of Liszt’s playing of one of his nocturnes in a salon that he stormed over to the piano and played it himself. The next day Chopin was asked to play it again, and he said he would do so if they put out the lights. When the lamps were lit again afterward, it was Liszt who had played exactly as Chopin had done the evening before.

Kregor does not deal with the transcriptions of the organ works of Bach by Liszt: there are seven, six of which are absolutely faithful to the original text, just making it possible to play with two hands a work that demanded manual and pedal keyboards; but the seventh transcription is extremely free with a great many Lisztian additions. I would think that Liszt’s performances like his transcriptions could range from faithful to highly personal.

There is, of course, more to Liszt than the virtuoso piano compositions, but little of the rest has either a comparable power or the historical weight. The orchestral tone poems are no longer an essential part of the symphonic repertory, but have been replaced by those by Richard Strauss. There are many exquisite songs, often original and highly idiosyncratic. Of the larger orchestral works, only the Faust Symphony is still performable today (and I confess I have found a fine performance of the transcription for two pianos more effective than the original symphonic form). The oratorio St. Elizabeth is positively lethal.

Complete honesty would compel one to admit that even in the finest works of Liszt there is occasionally a moment of somewhat commonplace inspiration, and much of his production has always seemed to be not in the best of taste. He did not have the aristocratic grace, impeccable workmanship, and morbidly intimate sentiment of Chopin, or the simple surge of lyrical passion in the best of Schumann. So much of Liszt’s work, however, has an effective power that paralyzes criticism and makes questions of taste irrelevant.

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