Liszt’s virtuosity, charisma and devastating good looks always counted against him, but we should look beyond the surface to understand the man and his music, says Jeremy Nicholas
Were one looking for a yardstick by which to identify someone’s musical tastes, few composers fulfil the function better than Franz Liszt. You either get him or you don't. His music is to love or to loathe. A few years ago, while compiling a list of the 50 greatest composers for a book, my erudite and music-loving publisher balked at the inclusion of Liszt. 'Liszt?' he moaned. 'What about Tallis and Victoria and Schütz? Far more important!' He did have the grace to admit that he didn’t know much about Liszt the man, and that he had not heard a great deal of his music. His perception was based on a handful of what he characterised as 'flashy' works – and they had not appealed to his refined sensibilities. My publisher’s allergy, I have found, is not uncommon.
On the other side of the fence, those of us who worship at the shrine look on non-believers with the same degree of pity that a doctor reserves for a geriatric with incurable arthritis: we’d like to help but there’s nothing we can do. Ignorance and preconceptions are frequent symptoms of Lisztophobia. My publisher’s affliction was cured, in part, by sending him some representative CDs of some of the best Liszt from all genres in top-class performances. He claimed to be, as a result, if not a convert then at least surprised by the variety and quality of the music, and at how much he had enjoyed these discoveries.
This simple course of treatment merely disabused my friend regarding Liszt’s music (to which we shall come in a moment), but there is much more to Liszt than 'just' Liszt the composer. He is a significant figure in several other areas of musical endeavour, and a complex, contradictory one at that, making him an endlessly fascinating subject for musicologist and biographer.
He was born on October 22, 1811, at Raiding, near Ödenberg, Hungary (now in Austria). His father, an excellent musician, was a minor court functionary in the service of the Esterházy family, the same aristocrats who, a few years earlier, had employed Haydn. In fact, had Liszt been born two years earlier, his lifespan would have overlapped with both Haydn and Stravinsky, neatly mirroring the span of the musical bridge he represents, taking in as it does (and indeed exemplifying) the whole of the Romantic movement and the yet unformulated worlds of Impressionism, atonality and dissonance.
The young Liszt was a keyboard wunderkind. At the age of nine he played Ries’s Piano Concerto in E flat, Op 42, in public and extemporised on themes submitted by the audience. He studied with Czerny who, however, refused to accept any payment, such was the pleasure of teaching him. Salieri trained him in composition; Beethoven is said to have bestowed his blessing on the boy by publicly kissing his brow ('Devil of a fellow! Such a young rascal!'). By his mid-teens, Liszt was established as one of the foremost living pianists. Many years later, by which time he was one of the most famous men in Europe, he was having his portrait painted by the French artist Ary Scheffer. Liszt took a pose that 'assumed an air of inspiration'. 'The devil, Liszt!' exclaimed Scheffer. 'Don’t put on the airs of a man of genius with me. You know well enough that I am not fooled by it.' And what was Liszt’s reply? There was silence for a moment. 'You are right, my dear friend. But pardon me. You do not know how it spoils one to have been an infant prodigy.'
Liszt’s pianistic gifts and the electrifying effect his playing had on listeners have been widely documented. He was a phenomenal sight-reader: 'Liszt,' wrote the despairing Clara Schumann, 'played at sight what we toil over and at the end get nowhere with.' When she first heard him, she broke down and sobbed. Grieg described how Liszt sight-read the manuscript of his Piano Concerto. 'Not content with playing, he at the same time converses and makes comments, addressing a bright remark now to one, now to another…' He invented the concept of the solo piano recital. Helped by a charismatic stage presence and a flair for showmanship, he could whip up an audience into a state of frenzy. Ladies were known to have flung jewels on the stage instead of bouquets; sometimes they fainted. There were unkind rumours that they were paid to do so. Only Paganini had produced such an effect on an audience, and Liszt had the advantage of striking good looks.
His dalliances were the talk of Europe. He had at least 26 major love affairs and fathered several illegitimate children. Chief among his amours were the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult and Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, both of whom left their husbands to live with him. Having spent nearly two decades as a travelling virtuoso and amassing a fortune on the way, Liszt abandoned life on the road. After 1847 he never again appeared in public as a paid artist, though he continued giving concerts, mainly for charity. Invited to become Kapellmeister in Weimar, he re-established the city as a major cultural centre once more. In the years spent there, between 1848 and 1859, he conducted symphonic works and operas, both of the standard literature and those of his contemporaries. These included the first German performances of many of Berlioz’s works, a revival of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and the world premiere of Lohengrin – two operas by a political revolutionary then sought by the authorities, a man who would soon become his son-in-law.
It was also during this period that he composed (or revised) the bulk of his music, much of it pioneering and original in form and content. The amount he produced was quite staggering: 12 symphonic poems (Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne, Tasso, Les préludes, Orpheus, Prometheus, Mazeppa, Festklänge, Heroïde funèbre, Hungaria, Hamlet, Hunnenschlacht and Die Ideale), Années de pèlerinage Books 1 and 2, the Rapsodies hongroises, the Grandes Etudes de Paganini, the Etudes d’exécution transcendante and the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, the Faust and Dante symphonies, the two piano concertos, Totentanz, the B minor Sonata…the list is a long one: if you count every version for every instrument, the complete catalogue of Liszt’s works amounts to about 3000 individual pieces. Not all of it is equally good – that could hardly be expected of any composer writing over a period of 60 years – but the proportion that is regularly played and recorded today is probably the smallest of any major composer. Little of his vocal or church music, such as the orchestral Missa solennis and the two Psalms with orchestra, features in the repertoire of today’s artists; barely a handful of his considerable body of organ music, such as the mighty Fantasy and Fugue on Meyerbeer’s Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, is ever heard. There is nothing like an anniversary year to put that right.
Towards the end of Liszt’s life he was replying to over 2000 letters a year. In addition to all this, piano students flocked to him from all over the world. Among them were the greatest pianists of the 19th and early 20th centuries: Tausig, Reubke, d’Albert, Rosenthal, Lamond, de Greef and von Sauer among them. Besides Wagner and Grieg, already mentioned, he influenced, directly or indirectly, the careers of Borodin, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, MacDowell, Smetana, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Fauré and Brahms. All of them benefited
from his advice and wisdom.
How did he do it all? Music simply poured out of him. Inspiration, the creative urge, is one thing, and the physical, time-consuming labour of producing a score another (true, he had help from the likes of Raff in orchestrating certain works), but simultaneously to invent new forms (the symphonic poem), develop others (B minor Sonata), and experiment with harmonic language as well as undertaking all the other activities listed above – well, 'remarkable' seems a barely adequate description.
Leslie Howard, president of the Liszt Society, whose Hyperion recording of the complete piano works is likely to remain a unique achievement (over 120 hours of music on nearly 100 CDs), is keen to emphasise Liszt’s place in musical history. 'Any composer worth twopence knows that by the middle of the 1850s Liszt had already worked out ways in which tonality could be subverted. He’d already invented the 12-note row and used the whole-tone scale many times, the first time in the Grande Fantaisie sur La clochette which he wrote in 1831 when he was 19. Every composer in the 19th century acquired Liszt’s music in order to learn things from it. Marvellous as his piano music is, the rest of his output is, in many ways, even more important. The music of Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Richard Strauss would not be as it is if Liszt had not written orchestral works. Yet while many people’s symphonic poems get played and recorded, Liszt’s are very badly served. His Masses and oratorios scarcely get done at all. I don’t know why. Christus, I think, is arguably his greatest work.'
Howard is equally in no doubt about Liszt’s stature as a man. 'He was the most photographed man of the 19th century and the most sculpted man after Napoleon. He had a social way with him that won the hearts of those who knew him personally. None of those who spoke ill of him ever did so to his face because his personality was very powerful. There was no door of any court or state in Europe that Liszt couldn’t walk through. You can’t say that of any other composer of the time. Imagine if Wagner had tried to ingratiate himself with Pope Pius IX!'
Yet what are these missiles flying through the air labelled 'charlatan', 'self-promoter', 'superficial'? Here is the critic Eduard Hanslick in 1874: 'The main objection against Liszt is that he imposes a much bigger – and abusive – mission on the subject of his work: namely either to fill the gap left by the absence of musical content or to justify the atrociousness of such content as there is.' Hanslick detested him. 'After Liszt, Mozart is like a soft spring breeze penetrating a room reeking of fumes.' The English critics were not to be outdone. Frederick Corder, a composer himself who prepared the English editions of Wagner’s operas, wrote: 'Liszt’s themes stick out like almonds in a Dundee cake: they fail to cohere' (whatever was he listening with?), while the pious principal of the Royal Academy of Music, Sir George Macfarren, declared that 'Liszt was working a great evil upon music'.
Germany, the critic James Huneker observed, set the fashion for abusing Liszt. 'He had too much success for one man, and as a composer he must be made an example of…In Germany he was abused as a Magyar, in Hungary for his Teutonic tendencies, in Paris for not being French-born […] Germany refused to see Liszt except as an ex-piano virtuoso with the morals of a fly and a perverter of art. Even the piquant triangle in his piano concerto was suspected as possibly suggesting the usual situation of a French comedy.' Howard agrees: 'It was jealousy. They couldn’t bear the bounties that God had bestowed upon him. He was handsome – which is more than you can say for almost all the others – he made a fortune when he was very young and which effectively allowed him to retire from performing so that he could do what he wanted to do as a composer. And it gave him the financial freedom to help all these other musicians, including many of the people who gave him a hard time behind his back. The idea that he was some kind of charlatan is a hare that simply won’t run. One of the reasons why Liszt is not held in the highest esteem is that he’s very often played by musicians who shouldn’t be held in the highest esteem. They play Liszt as though it’s some kind of cheap trick – and when you play it like a cheap trick, it sounds like a cheap trick. You can make Liszt sound like muck – and I don’t think that’s his fault. If you played a Beethoven sonata with the same carelessness with which most people approach Liszt, you’d get run out of town on a rail.'
One of today’s finest young Liszt players is Czech pianist Libor Novacek. He, too, is concerned at how frequently Liszt’s music is considered as flashy virtuoso material and often used as a means for showing off one’s technique. 'To me this music is much more – it has a very special aura and wonderful depictive qualities for which technique should only serve as a tool to reach the music beyond. Liszt, contrary to his legendary reputation, was a very inspired and sensitive man who embedded in his music his own personal conflict between earthly passion and godly virtue. This is why we find such different styles and qualities in his writing, from the flashy Hungarian Rhapsodies and Paganini transcriptions to the epic works such as the Sonata in B minor. My little quest as a musician is to persuade the audience to always look beyond the surface of his music and show them the beauty and poetry that his works possess.' Novacek’s recordings of the first two books of Années de pèlerinage are eloquent examples of practising what you preach.
Howard elaborates: 'One of the problems is that Liszt is associated with virtuosity, a word derived from the concept of virtue. Once you get to the 19th century, there’s an absolute inbuilt distrust of anyone who has any technical facility. They say "Oh, he can’t be much of a musician – it’s all technique". Nobody writes music to be impossibly difficult just for the merry hell of it. People write within the limits of what they are able to do. Liszt’s works, like Paganini’s for the violin, are never, ever sold at less than the right price for their musical value. There was always a musical reason for Liszt’s virtuosity. This is a composer who, if you take him seriously, benefits everybody. If he had not written a note of piano music I would still stay that. I think it’s a great shame that his reputation has somehow been harnessed to piano players – because you can’t trust most of them!'
Liszt’s final years produced a body of work much of which remains virtually unknown, like the unfinished oratorio St Stanislaus, Via Crucis (his setting of the Stations of the Cross) and a final symphonic poem, From the Cradle to the Grave. It was only in the 1950s that his late piano works began to be taken up, works such as the third book of the Années de pèlerinage, Nuages gris, the Valses oubliées, the three Csárdás, La lugubre gondola, RW-Venezia and Am Grabe Richard Wagners (these last three works relating to the death of Wagner) and the Bagatelle sans tonalité. Now they are seen as no less than Liszt’s signposts for the future of Western classical music after his death.
The Liszt who people knew in Weimar, Rome and Budapest (after 1871 he divided his time between all three) could be as arrogant and vain at times as he was humble and self-effacing at others; a Casanova who took minor orders in the Catholic Church to become an abbé; a lover of luxury and the adulation of the public, at other times a profoundly spiritual recluse: 'The noble priest, the circus-rider, neo-classical and vagabond, a mixture in equal doses of real and false nobility' (Romain Rolland in Jean-Christophe). A writer, reformer of church music, orchestra trainer, conductor, pianist without equal, 'captain of the new German music' (Huneker), selfless and generous to a fault. Alfred Brendel said somewhere that there was no composer he would rather meet. I go along with that. Chances are we’d find ourselves agreeing with one of Liszt’s greatest pupils. Towards the end of his long life, Moriz Rosenthal (who died in 1946) confided: 'Liszt was more wonderful than any person I have ever known.'
Let us not talk of him merely as a great composer and musician. Let us celebrate Liszt as one of the seminal figures of the 19th century.
This article was first published in Gramophone in February 2011.