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Probing the Liszt Legend

A biographer and a pianist examine the mystique of the flamboyant 19th-century composer and keyboard virtuoso. MUSIC: INTERVIEWS

WHEN Franz Liszt was a little boy, he threw his father's pouch of gunpowder into the kitchen stove. A tremendous explosion shook the house and knocked Franz off his feet. In a way, the concussion has not settled yet. Throughout his long lifetime, pianist/composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) shook up a lot of people. Beethoven dubbed him a ``Young Turk.'' Clara Schumann dismissed the mature virtuoso as a ``smasher of pianos.'' In middle age, when Liszt took holy orders from the Roman Catholic Church, a monk sneered that he was ``Mephistopheles in the guise of a curate.'' Liszt himself once remarked that he was ``half Gypsy, half Franciscan.''

``Truly great men are those who combine contrary qualities within themselves,'' Liszt once wrote. He may be forgiven for referring to himself. The contradictions are everywhere:

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He was born into humble, lower-middle class circumstances, yet he eventually helped raise the status of ``artist'' to prestige and respectability. He was undeniably Hungarian, yet the circumstances of a mixed geographical background and the international character of his fame could accord him German and French credentials as well. He was renowned as the greatest piano virtuoso of his time, but his peak concertizing years occupied a scant decade. He began that career playing the magnificent new Erard pianos in glittering salons and ended it in a private monastic cell with an instrument that was out of tune and missing some notes. In the 1840s, he traveled across Europe by private stagecoach and traversed the Russian steppes by dogsled. But late in life he was content with second-class trains. There were numerous liaisons with women, but he never married. And tirelessly he championed the ``new German music'' of Richard Wagner; yet when he died at a Wagner Festival in 1886, his death went unannounced.

Public life and private paradox. Even today, Hollywood and the scandal sheets delight in him. But for the biographer and performer, Franz Liszt is a towering and unassailable monument. Two men have appeared in recent years to take up the challenge.

Alan Walker recently released the second book in his three-volume biography, ``Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848-1861.'' Formerly with the music division of the BBC in London, Dr. Walker now teaches at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

Leslie Howard is a pianist and musicologist currently involved in recording all of Liszt's solo piano works. Hyperion Records has released his seventh compact disc in a projected series of 48.

BOTH men agree that it is only a thorough re-evaluation of original source materials - music scores, letters, diaries, and documents - that a path can be cleared through the accumulated debris of misinformation and legend.

``It's been about 18 years now since I realized that if a definitive work on Liszt were to appear, I'd better do it myself,'' says Walker in an interview at the offices of his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, here in New York. ``It dawned on me only slowly what I was getting into. ... At first I could see no reason why a Liszt biography would take more than 10 years. Biographers, as a breed, tend to be lazy and stay home in the comfort of their own studies. But I resolved to travel, and that doesn't come easily to me. But Liszt was a world traveler, and I decided to go out and buy a stout pair of boots and get into the field. Wherever I've gone - Weimar, Budapest, Paris, Rome, London, Vienna, Poland, Washington D.C. - I've found the name `Liszt' is magical. It will always make you new friends.''

Like his subject, pianist Leslie Howard knows what it's like to storm across the globe on concert tours. Trained in musicology in Australia, he decided, after moving to London, that the sedentary life of an academic was not for him. Before starting his Liszt project four years ago, he had already traveled extensively in pursuit of other interests like Percy Grainger, Alexander Glazunov, and Anton Rubinstein, producing many world-premi`ere concerts and recordings of their works.

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``I think it's enormously important with almost every composer to know, if possible, why a piece was written and what the influences were, from all directions,'' says Mr. Howard.

He adds that cataloging the composer's more than 700 keyboard compositions is wickedly difficult. ``Liszt wrote no opus numbers to his work,'' he explains. ``After the end of his public concertizing in 1847, he bought back at his own expense all his published works, except his transcriptions, in order to improve and rewrite them. The public knew him mostly as a virtuoso, but he wanted to develop as a composer. Anyway, many of his works are now difficult to properly date; others exist in several different versions; and some others - like `album souvenirs' written into guest books - remain unknown to this day, although, I think I have found most of them.''

``That's the paradox, isn't it,'' exclaims Professor Walker. ``We think we know a lot through the more than 20,000 titles in the Liszt bibliography in 11 different languages. Instead, there's just that much more room for error! Unlike other composers, whose biographies appeared after their deaths, Liszt's public demanded information about him then. What they got was the kind of thing we see with today's media superstars. The gossip mongers and journalists obligingly circulated the most spurious material, usually just hours ahead of his arrival in a city. And that became the basis for the first biographies.''

WALKER and Howard confront many of the legends head on. For example, Walker minutely examines the available evidence surrounding the famous kiss of benediction Beethoven supposedly bestowed upon the young Liszt in Vienna. It may have happened, he concludes, but not in the ways we have been told.

As for the sensational piano tours from 1839 to 1847, when Liszt conquered the world, the picture is unexpectedly sober. He frequently traveled by stagecoach at night, unwilling to give up his daylight hours. He endured a grueling schedule, snowstorms, and numerous accidents. Once he sat outside on a coach traveling across Ireland during a blizzard, allowing someone else to sit inside; and upon arrival had, literally, to be dug out from under a pile of snow.

What about the legends of Liszt the demon, tossing off unplayable compositions at the keyboard, leaving behind no secrets to their performance?

``He never wrote anything that was impossible or even very awkward,'' claims Howard. ``Other composers did that! His works may look and sound hair-raisingly difficult - and make no mistake about it, you can't sight-read these things - but they are all within reasonable bounds. Yes, you have to have stamina, but part of the secret is not to expend energy in useless places or in keeping muscles taut that are better relaxed.''

THE prevailing legends about Liszt's showmanship - the fainting countesses, the frantic riots over a glove tossed from the platform, the collapsing pianos, and the wild tossing mane of long hair surmounting what his first mistress, Marie d'Agoult, called his ``incandescent'' sea-green eyes - tell only part of the story.

``It was said of him that he not only played the music,'' says Walker, ``but he played the building. He knew that buildings were also musical instruments, whose acoustics and reverberation time could influence the piano sound. So, early on, he placed his pianos at right angles to the auditorium with the lid up, so as to deflect the sound straight into the room. At a concert - he first used the term ``recital'' in London in 1740 - he seemed to be saying, `C'est moi, c'est Musique!' This concert is me and nobody else.''

Colossal arrogance? ``Not so,'' says Howard. He cites the hundreds of transcriptions Liszt made of the music of others. ``He brought the songs of Schubert and Schumann ... to many people who didn't know them. He rigorously transcribed the symphonies of Beethoven and thus brought them to people outside the reach of the concert orchestras.''

Walker points out that ``his concerts more often than not helped charitable causes, like the building of a Beethoven monument or supporting victims of political strife and natural catastrophe. He was one of the most generous musicians in history.''

Both biographer and performer have a long way to go in their respective projects. Walker's third volume, due out in five years, will document what Liszt called ``the three-pronged life'' of his last years, divided among the three cities of Weimer, Budapest, and Rome. Howard estimates that he will produce an average of six compact discs a year of the piano music over the next decade or so. ``A project like this has been attempted several times,'' he admits, ``but nobody's ever gotten anywhere near finishing it. But I want to play everything. Everything.''

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