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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.

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.

  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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