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Essential Liszt

By Gary Barton

"A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." When Winston Churchill uttered those words in a radio broadcast in October 1939, he was speaking of the difficulty in predicting Russia's future actions. He could also have been describing composer, teacher, conductor and piano virtuoso, Franz Liszt.

Liszt's father, Adam, was employed at the court of Esterhazy and played cello in the orchestra there. Young Franz began to show avid interest in music at six. Born on October 22, 1811, he listened with unusual focus to his father's piano playing, the songs of traveling gypsies and the music he heard in church. Noting his son's fascination with music, Adam began to teach him to play the piano. Liszt's progress was astonishing; he was a prodigy and could play notated music and improvise on popular melodies with equal ease. When he was nine, his father arranged for him to play Hummel's Piano Concerto in public. He then took him to the court of Prince Esterhazy to perform. The prince was immensely impressed with Franz's abilities, as were several counts in attendance. This group decided that they would pool 600 florins a year for four years to pay for the boy's further studies with the best teachers in Vienna.

Adam was able to place Franz in the care of Antonio Salieri for composition instruction and Karl Czerny for piano lessons. After a few weeks, Czerny, who had studied under Beethoven, realized what a gifted student young Franz was and declined any further payments. Humphrey Searle, in his entry in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, describes one of Liszt's concerts in Vienna, writing, "…Beethoven, who had been in the audience, sought out the young virtuoso, and, lifting him up to his height, kissed him on his forehead." Liszt was fond of telling this story in his later years, considering the occurrence to have been a "musical christening."

Soon the Liszt family moved to Paris, creating musical sensations enroute. Franz had hoped to gain admission to the Paris Conservatory, but Cherubini, the director at the time, blocked his admission on the grounds he was "a foreigner." (Cherubini, himself a "foreigner," had an aversion for prodigies.) Anton Reicha, however, was delighted to accept Liszt as a student as was Ferdinando Paer, who had taught composition to Paganini. Liszt was soon welcomed in Parisian salons and began to tour, first in England, in 1824 and then in France and Switzerland.

He toured again in 1827, but constant traveling had a deleterious effect on his health. It was at this time that Liszt first seriously considered joining the priesthood. He traveled to Boulogne for rest and to spend time with his beloved father who unexpectedly died, reportedly from typhoid fever. Returning to Paris, he lived with his mother with whom he shared his vast earnings. It was during this time that Liszt started to accept paying students. However, he fell ill once more, so seriously that an obituary even appeared in one Parisian newspaper. Again, he professed a desire to become a priest but his mother dissuaded him.

As is often the case with prodigies, Liszt's early general education had been neglected. He vowed to make up for this by reading voraciously. Goethe's writings inspired him. He established contact with Heine, Hugo, and Lamartine and would later write a series of symphonic poems that were inspired by their writings. One was based on Lamartine's Les Preludes:

"What is our life but a series of Preludes to that unknown song of which death strikes the first solemn note? Love is the enchanted dawn of every life; but where is the destiny in which the first pleasures of happiness are not interrupted by some storm, whose deadly breath dissipates its fair illusions, whose fatal thunderbolt consumes its altar?"

Victor Hugo inspired What I Hear on The Mountain, and Mazeppa (the musical depiction of a chieftain who is tied to an untamed steed and forced to ride for three days across the Ukraine). Liszt was happy cultivating his remarkable intelligence. For three years, he wrote virtually no music. Then a series of events took place that would change Liszt and the fate of music.

First, Liszt met composer Hector Berlioz on the day before the premiere of Berlioz' revolutionary Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz' music left Liszt's head swimming with ideas. The Episode in the Life of an Artist planted a seed that later blossomed into the "Dante" and "Faust" Symphonies. He also composed a piano version of the Symphonie Fantastique that was remarkable for its brilliance and difficulty.

The second experience that transformed Liszt occurred March 9, 1831 when he saw and heard the charismatic violinist Nicolo Paganini perform for the first time. Liszt was stunned by Paganini's technique. He realized that he could forge an analogous career for himself. "What a man, what a violin, what an artist!" he wrote to a friend. His objective became to become "the Paganini of the piano" and the greatest pianist of all time. According to many, he succeeded. Very few musicians can play his piano transcriptions of Paganini's Caprices.

On his deathbed, Adam Liszt gave his son an ominous warning, telling he that while he had a good brain and a kind heart, women would control and upset his life. Indeed, women found the gifted and handsome pianist irresistible, heaping on adulation. His performances caused them to faint and to fight over the gloves he casually tossed onto the stage. One society woman snatched a discarded cigar butt that Liszt had thrown in some shrubbery and wore it next to her heart for over two decades! So many people wanted to witness Liszt's miraculous playing with their own eyes that he often had two pianos placed on the stage facing opposite directions. He would alternate playing one or the other of the instruments, so that both sides of the audience could be afforded a view of his hands in action. The Countess Marie d'Agoult wrote: " When he sits at the piano and, free from all care, allows his genius free rein, his beauty wins a degree of nobility that only his listeners can measure. His pallor increases, his nostrils flare, his lips tremble nervously, his proud imposing glance seeks no more; he rules and commands.

It was with this woman that Liszt fell in love. Marie's husband was still alive, but was 20 years older than his wife. The countess was 28 and Liszt six years younger. She left her husband in 1835 to join Liszt in Switzerland. Their first girl, Blandine, was born in December of that year and their second, Cosima, on Christmas day 1837. In 1839, Liszt's son Daniel was born. Cosima was to marry first Hans von Bülow and later Richard Wagner.

The idyllic years of travel throughout Switzerland and Italy culminated with Liszt's Années de Pelerinage, ("Years of Pilgrimage"). Book I was devoted to preserving moments and places visited in Switzerland. Book II, "Italy," relied more on the philosophical and religious readings. Three dwell upon sonnets by Petrarch and one was inspired by a reading by Liszt of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Liszt was a strange combination of characters. On the one hand he desired a simple and quiet life devoted to music and religious meditation; on the other, he craved applause, praise and the luxury and glitter of aristocratic drawing rooms. His kindheartedness was mixed with callousness, his modesty with colossal egotism. In the autumn, of 1839 Marie and Liszt parted company.

The next decade saw the height of Liszt's flamboyance. He traveled the world, playing the Hungarian Rhapsodies (the most famous of which, number two, he virtually stole from another composer) as well as his amazing transcriptions of three of Beethoven's symphonies. He also sketched the groundwork for large-scale masterpieces such as the Dante Symphony.

Midwinter of 1847 brought Liszt to Kiev. There he met the woman (already married) who thereafter would exert her powerful influence over him, the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein. She convinced Liszt to concentrate on serious composition and on writing. Carolyne also, despite the violation of her marriage vows, helped to turn Liszt back to established religion. Liszt, like Mozart before him, joined a Masonic lodge.

In 1842, Liszt accepted a position at the Weimar court as Grand Ducal Director of Music Extraordinary. He started working there in earnest in 1848, making the town the headquarters for progressive music and performing works by Wagner, Berlioz and Schumann. He also continued to teach and started a career as a conductor. His final years were divided between Budapest, Weimar and Rome. He taught a large number of grateful students for no fees and maintained interest in the continuing evolution of music, often conducting and introducing for the first time the music of young and promising composers, including those that had merit but had expressed a personal dislike of him. He finally took four minor church orders in 1865, started wearing a cassock, and was referred to as Abbé Liszt.

Liszt's music was often criticized, although he was, in fact, a good composer. He introduced the concept of thematic transformation and developed a new musical form, the symphonic poem. As Slonimsky says in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, "In his orchestration he summoned large sonorities following the precedent of Berlioz. It was this unremitting flow of sound that outraged the music critics of Liszt's day and moved them to pronounce Liszt as a purveyor of noise in guise of music."

In 1886, against his doctor's orders, Liszt went to see a performance of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. He stayed as long as the death scene of Isolde but fell so ill that he left the Festspielhaus and returned to his rooms. He had "caught a chill" on a night's train ride, which developed into pneumonia. On Saturday night, July 31st, Liszt died. The last word he spoke was "Tristan".

The Essential Liszt

Here are recommendations for a core CD collection of the works of Franz Liszt that is by no means comprehensive.

An excellent start would be a two-disc set (Deutsche Grammophon 469151) that is part of the company's "Panorama" Series and includes Les Preludes and the Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 2 and 4, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Von Karajan. Shura Cherkassky is the pianist for the Hungarian Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra; Martha Argerich is soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, in the Piano Concerto No. 1. She also performs the Piano Sonata in b minor and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. Pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy plays the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 while the Transcendental Etude No. 5, "Feux follets" and Harmonies poétiques and réligieuses No. 3 is heard in an early live performance by Sviatoslav Richter. If you buy only one of my suggestions, this is the one to choose

A double CD from Philips (462312) contains Liszt's collected Années De Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). The First and Second years are played by Alfred Brendel; Zoltan Kocsis plays the seven pieces of the Third Year.

Pianist Krystian Zimerman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa conducting, deliver exciting performances of the bravura Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 2 and Liszt's setting of the Dies Irae (from the Mass for the Dead) in his Totentanz (Dance of Death) on Deutsche Grammophon 423571.

For a sampling of Liszt's tone poems, Les Préludes, Orpheus, Mazeppa, Hamlet, and Battle Against the Huns, try Sony 66834, with Zubin Mehta and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Of the three Beethoven symphony transcriptions for solo piano that Liszt wrote, I chose the lucid and idiosyncratic recording of Symphony No. 6, "Pastorale" by Glenn Gould, Sony 52637.

I recommend Michele Campanella's recordings of the piano originals of the complete Hungarian Rhapsodies, a 2-CD set from Philips 438371. To complement the piano originals, I added to my list the orchestrations of six of the Hungarian Rhapsodies on Sony 44926, with Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic. (The numbers are switched in some cases in these settings.)

Berlioz' "The Damnation of Faust" inspired Liszt to write his Faust Symphony, in three movements. I suggest the Bernstein recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Chorus with tenor Kenneth Riegel, (Deutsche Grammophon 447449).

Of all the Liszt CDs I listened to, I found Telarc's disc (Telarc Hybrid SACD 60613) of Liszt's Dante Symphony to be the most sonically exciting. Leon Botstein conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Oratory School Schola chorus. Also included is Tasso, Lamento e trionfo from 1849, originally written as an overture to a staged production of Goethe's drama Torquato Tasso.

Next time you go CD shopping, add Liszt to your list. You may recognize his music from having heard it as a child. His Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 alone was used in hundreds of animated cartoons. Don't be embarrassed if "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies" pop into your mind's eye when you hear it. I can see Elmer chasing Bugs every time!

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.


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