Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Music of the Great Composers – Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Though one would have perhaps thought differently about it, and though we have just whizzed through this composer's bicentennial year, this hardly aroused as much public attention as the bicentennial of Chopin a year earlier. Also that same year, the bicentennial of Robert Schumann was given scant attention. Well, as much as it might pain some of the more plain minded, I will make the prediction that Franz Liszt shall have some kind of a come back in the near future, particularly as his music is appreciated for the really forward looking musical material that much of it contains.

Landständischer Saal
Things to note about Liszt: this pre-eminent Hungarian composer was born and raised in Hungary and his competent musician father forbade any use of German while in Hungary, though the family was originally ethnically German. That attitude was prevalent in much of Hungary's history and is not noted much these days where English has become almost a second language there. Liszt's father also knew Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven personally. Now if you were ever going to be a really serious composer, you could not have had better connections at that time than these. Of course, young Franz had amazing musical and pianistic talent and he was strong, tall, good looking, athletic, had great sex-appeal. Liszt at his time, more than anyone else, personified what it meant to play the piano. He was widely travelled and widely heard by adoring people all over Europe from one end of it to the other. He was one of the most widely travelled musicians of his time.

Franz was a child prodigy who was sent to school in Vienna by wealthy patrons. He went to Vienna and studied with Carl Czerny and Antonio Salieri. At age 11, Liszt has his Vienna début at the "Landständischer Saal." During this period of his childhood, Liszt travelled in Austrian and Hungarian aristocratic circles, even met Beethoven and Schubert. This very early success probably aided his natural confidence which was already pretty robust. There was early on a sense that Franz Liszt was somehow personally magnetic, that he could move people; was a natural leader. But if so, he was also clearly a follower, or at least a joiner, one who wanted to belong to something bigger, even to following rules, even to professing obedience (Liszt was a devout Catholic and as well a Mason, as had been both Haydn and Mozart before him.)

Liszt's first published composition, 1823 or 1824:
3Variations on a Waltz of Diabelli – Cyprien Katsaris, piano

The familiar Diabelli waltz followed by variations by Anselm Hüttenbrenner, Franz Schubert, and Franz Liszt. Notice the two very different styles of interpreting this piece. Howard's is more traditional while Katsaris' approach is more modern.

Now to top off his years in Vienna, Liszt was destined to spend his teens in Paris! His father may have come on hard times, and he died soon after. But it had been his father's intention to move the family to Paris, and so the young Franz, who had been touring, gave it up and moved to Paris to live with his mother. Franz was busy in Paris, teaching piano and composition (or at least harmony and arranging), keeping weird hours and travelling the length and breadth of the great city. Imagine being in Paris in the 1820's when the latest gadget was the piano and the reigning genius at learning how to play one was the dashing young Hungarian, Franz Lszt! Note the difference between the sickly Chopin who gave lessons where he was and had the draw of a select set whilst the usually robustly healthy Liszt had to teach where he was bidden. Certainly there had to have been many interpersonal encounters of the kind we all call “romantic” during these years. Franz wasn't composing anything during this period either, so what else was he doing, in Paris? Getting an education, no doubt.

Then sometime during this period Liszt has a sort of St. Francis of Assisi experience. He is named for the saint in fact. He got very ill, almost died, and had serious religious / psychical difficulties. He wanted to join the Catholic Church then and there, as a religious; a deacon or even a priest, but at this time, his mother forbade him. Anyway, he recovers his robust health completely. Later in life, he is compelled as it were to join the Church where he does become a deacon.

Then in 1830, a day before the première of Hector Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, Liszt who is 19, meets Berlioz who is 27. I can just imagine the chemistry. By the time Liszt is 21 he is popularizing Berlioz' work as best he can, at the piano, and at his own expense, as well as making a name for himself on that great stage of the piano which was Paris in the 1830's. During these years Liszt was to be seen in the company of Frédéric Chopin, another influential friend.

Though Liszt really is out of what has come to be called the “First Vienna School” of composition, he was from the beginning really intending to do something completely different. As a prodigious composer, which means there's a lot of Liszt's music that probably few have heard before, Liszt left a lot of very interesting and intense music, especially for the piano, that foreshadows the work of people who came much later, near the end of the 19th century into the 20th century, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and more certainly Ravel. Liszt's influence as a composer and as a piano teacher are significant; most people who can trace their teachers back to Beethoven pass through Czerny and Liszt.

Liszt was of course one of European music's first international superstars, the other being Niccolo Paganini, who may be considered Liszt's inspiration in this regard; if Paganini could wow the crowds, so could he. Liszt's audience was clearly middle class, though the nobility took the lead in supporting him and the proceeds from his tours were enormous. Though he was a year younger than Chopin and Schumann, and younger still than Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt always came across as far more self assured, though a very generous sort of person.  As a pianist he had no serious rivals at all; he had literally the complete technical mastery over his instrument, was known to break many pianos if they were not built to take it. Liszt's level of pianism required the eventual technological changes in design that took place in the piano industry over the first half the 19th century, including the cast iron plate, action refinements and higher tension scales.

There is usually something that strikes one as fresh and new in a good performance of anything by Liszt. Where Chopin is poetic and Schumann and Mendelssohn majestic or trivial by turns, Liszt is either sparkling or tremulously ferocious in comparison. The trend lately has been for pianists to pursue a far more dispassionate rendition of music by Liszt so that one can easily hear traces of the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel that will follow. Liszt was also hugely influential on the orchestral writing of Richard Wagner and those who came after him, particularly Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. What Liszt starts to do early on is to experiment with eluding and sliding tonal centres, changed harmonic contexts, literal flights of harmonic fancy; casual listening does not know what key the piece is in or even how exactly the composer manages to get all the textures and structures to work. It sounds and is technically very difficult, it requires a different kind of concentration to master as a piano student; Liszt's style is characterized by a distinctly double fisted piano technique that requires a total involvement of the pianist with the music in a way almost three times as physically intense as playing anything by Mozart or even Beethoven.

What Liszt was really doing is to use the piano as an orchestra, and he even used it to popularize the orchestral or operatic works of others. Yes, we have a lot of Liszt's transcriptions of works by other famous composers, including some of the great organ works of Bach and all the symphonies of Beethoven. Most of these transcriptions are finally beginning to receive the attention they have long deserved. It might be admitted that this revival is due in part to the pianists (and the pianos) finally being up to the prodigious tasks set for them. We say with pretty complete confidence that one's appreciation for Liszt goes up as one plays him on better pianos. Most uprights really can't do him justice.

Of course Liszt lived a good long 75 years, was composing for most of his life, had a few changes in style along the way, went through his various life stages until he became sort of ascetic near the end. Liszt wasn't the first one, nor certainly the only one, to conceive of his life as an artefact designed by the artist, but that was sort of his intention all his life anyway. As such Liszt provided tremendous grist for the perpetual public craving for fanciful, exotic romance, even of the pulsatingly erotic varieties. Here's an example played by my friend, Violetta Egorova:
Franz Liszt. "Tarantella, Venezia e Napoli" from Les Annees de Pelerinage, 2nd Year: Italy. It was composed 1859.

Liszt also had developed a reputation, at the age of 22 he took up with a woman six years his senior (a usual practice by the way, followed by many prominent artists of the time) who had her own reputation, all of which no doubt helped his box office receipts, and in addition spurred him to greater creative output. But a year later he makes friends with a sickly Catholic mystic and it is sort of this mixture of the erotic and the mystical that characterizes much of Liszt's output. The numerous gossipy stories about him really are less interesting (and in any case they are personal and so beyond the ken of any but the inquisitorial) as the music they helped engender.

So, let's hear some of it, these composed while at the summer residence of another of Liszt's lovers who were usually noble born ladies of leisure married by convenience to their spouses (from which practice comes the notion of noble or at least rich women having “protégés” who they keep). Those of you who patiently listen to all these tracks at one listening will be amazed at both the variety and unity of these works as individual master-works and as members forming a great masterpiece. Those who know the music of later epochs will find their seeds here in this great cycle of pieces which take their inspiration form literary and operatic sources of the times before 1850.

Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses (1847) [Poetic and religious harmonies]

1. Invocation (Alfred Brendel)
2. AveMaria (Ronald Hawkins)
3. Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude [God's blessing in solitude] (Claudio Arrau)
4. Pensée des morts [In memory of the dead] (Alfred Brendel)
5. Pater Noster [The Lord's Prayer] (Andrea Bonatta)*
6. Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil [The Awaking Child’s Hymn] (Andrea Bonatta)*
7. Funérailles
[Elegy] (Martha Argerich)
8. Miserere, d’après Palestrina (Andrea Bonatta)*
9. Andante lagrimoso (Sviatoslav Richter)
10. Cantique d’amour [Hymn of Love] (Andrea Bonatta)*

* Performed on the Steingraeber grand piano said to have belonged to Liszt at Weimar.  He owned many pianos during his lifetime, many given to him as gifts from prominent piano manufacturers. 

That last one sounds as though it had inspired Scriabin, but that's for a future time.

Franz Liszt was of course known for some orchestral pieces, which were usually scored based on the usages of the times, especially sources drawn from opera. All these literary and operatic elements were after all fictional representations of some elements within the real societies in which people lived, these were said to be “romantic.” That is what we have been left with by tradition; that all this music, specifically from the 1830's onward, since it depicted fiction, is hence deemed trivial and those engaged in it, whether it is said openly or thought casually, are themselves wasting their time on utter trivialities.

We disagree with the superficial suppositions and saturnine conclusions involved in this traditional view, because we are aware of other elements in the lives of many of these individual composers, many who were actively involved in what would be considered politically subversive ideas or heretical religious views, especially concerning the rights of certain people to rule over other people. We submit that literary and other artistic “fictions” arose in large part due to the need to conceal important ideas the more easily to be disseminated; ideas that people need only to be ruled by themselves, that the rights of authority are and should be fairly weak and always serve the individual, etc. else they are suspect.  Music, which is relatively new in the sense in which we are dealing with it here; written down, composed thereby intended to last, as well as other innovations, usually had to endure the baleful and useless scrutiny of the political and social authorities; those who saw their social position challenged by a rising middle class. The 19th century saw this struggle for freedom intensify in Europe against a background of entrenched systems of political and religious authority.  In his early life, Liszt -with his notorious private lifestyle, whether it was really very erotic at all- symbolized this struggle in the popular mind.

No matter from which quarter one hears the inevitable jibes and criticisms, the facts are fairly clear that people to this day are moved by much of this “romantic” music. Something resonates in them when they hear it, many international music festivals are predominantly devoted to it. Performances of this music are becoming better and more lucid all the time as they shed the mere trappings of emotion for the basic real thing; musical recreation based on the power of precision and realism. What we would like to establish as the new perspective on this music is that it was not so much "romantic" as it was emotionally realistic.

This was the music of emotional realism, getting as close to how it feels to feel sad, feel bad, really bad, burst into tears, to feel real terror, real pain, real lust, real desire, love in all its aspects from the merely polite to the distinctly erotic. This was music that spoke frankly about war, desolation and death too. This was and is the range of music of emotional realism and Franz Liszt had a major hand in generating it.

We offer an obscure piece by Liszt for your delectation, one composed in 1867 after the death (by firing squad) of Maximilian von Habsburg, the erstwhile puppet Emperor of Mexico. We wonder to which side of this historical figure he might have been most attached. It is from his third book of Years of Pilgrimage ( Années de Pelerinage).

Franz Liszt: Marche funèbre - Années de Pelerinage (Alvaro Ordoñez – Piano)

There's little else like this in the standard piano repertoire. Here we see the emphatic use of the piano as a percussion instrument. Though many would later take this side of pianism up, the beating up of a piano in order to make a musical statement, it all began with Franz Liszt. These late works of his immense output will particularly interest students of the future, for the musical effects Liszt was able to release from the piano are in many ways finding their emotional pedal points in the events of our own times.

Liszt didn't write symphonies, he wrote symphonic poems, thirteen of them.  Most are rarely performed because they are often so formless, mere sketches as if intended for use between scenes of a play or background music for a future movie.  The last one was called Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (From the Cradle to the Grave) S. 107.  (Liszt's compositions are catalogued these days by Searle numbers or “sig” numbers rather than opus numbers). You would almost automatically think of this music as a film-score for some fanciful cartoon or other motion picture. But this was a while before motion pictures came along. We note that this work was written about the same time as Brahms was writing his second piano concerto and Béla Bartók was born.

Franz Liszt - Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, S107 (1881-82)
I. Die Wiege (The Cradle)
II. Der Kampf ums Dasein (The Struggle for Existence)
III. Zum Grabe (To the Grave)

This obscure piece was gratefully performed by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, Arpad Joo, conducting.

Liszt has been a stumbling block for many, easily dismissed and discarded by those who find this or that about him objectionable. He was a product of a tumultuous period of technical and social change, and he was for the most part close to the top of it from which he could observe with his own keen though influenced perspectives. These days any pianist with a better than average technique and a good piano would be tremendously rewarded by a deeper interest in his music. As for the rest of us, since Liszt's output was so vast, we have plenty of music to look forward to as much of it remains unexplored territory to this day.

Liszt's apartment in Budapest.  Not sure how much time he actually spent here, but this is said to be one of his many pianos.  It is known that Liszt was active in certain charitable activities whenever he was in Budapest.

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