Guest post: On the significance of Liszt’s keyboard music

by Dr Mark Berry

The following arises from a lecture given in Bergen op Zoom as part of a three-day symposium, ‘Liszt meets Ibach’. I was asked to give a general overview of the significance of Liszt’s keyboard music to complement the more specialised masterclasses, performances, and lectures. 

In considering the significance of Liszt’s keyboard music, one can and should consider its significance both as keyboard music and more broadly in general musical terms, bearing in mind that, although Liszt often expressed himself best through his own instrument(s), he was not narrowly a ‘keyboard composer’, nor even a ‘piano composer’. That is not to say that I intend perversely to spend most of my time speaking about his symphonic poems, wonderful and neglected though many of them might be. (Even there, I might add, there would be a good deal to say with respect to the organ, not least in terms of Orpheus, transcribed in 1860 by Alexander Gottschalg, court organist in Weimar, but crucially – and in this, Liszt’s practice has something in common with his essay writing, early versions sometimes being penned by others – then carefully revised by the composer himself.)  

Let us start nevertheless with some of Liszt’s extraordinary achievements in terms of keyboard technique and ambition.  First and perhaps foremost, we have Liszt as the quintessential piano virtuoso. Just as we immediately think of Paganini as the exemplar of the type for the violin, however much the technical difficulties of his music may since have been superseded, so we do for Liszt and the piano – and more broadly, perhaps, the keyboard family. (It is less clear, by the way, that all of the technical difficulties of Liszt’s music have been superseded, even though an unhealthy number of musicians now seem able to toss off, say, the B minor Sonata, the Transcendental Studies, or indeed the organ Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale, ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.’)

There is, as Dana Gooley has pointed out, in his book, The Virtuoso Liszt, something of the magician to the virtuoso. He writes, ‘Virtuosity is about shifting borders. The musician, the athlete, and the magician are potentially virtuosos as soon as they cross a limit – the limit of what seems possible, or what the spectator can imagine.’ Of course, then, ‘Once this act of transgression is complete, the border shifts, and the boundaries of the possible are redrawn.’ However, as Gooley also points out, there is a considerable difference between the ‘clichés of the professional magician – mere craft,’ and what he describes as a ‘truly surpassing virtuoso,’ whether of the magical or musical variety. ‘To be a truly surpassing virtuoso,’ he writes, our artist ‘must have his own tricks,’ and I shall add in passing that the ‘his’ is indicative of a notably gendered role here too, ‘inventing new impossibilities to be transcended, for these are the only impossibilities that will any longer seem truly impossible’. Liszt then, as Gooley summarises ‘remains the quintessential virtuoso because he was constantly and insistently mobilising, destabilising, and reconstituting borders. … None of his protégés and imitators … came even close to him in extending the virtuoso’s relevance qualitatively – beyond the sphere of music and into the social environments he entered.’

To be a virtuoso pianist or indeed to be a virtuoso upon any musical instrument during the nineteenth century was also to be a composer. There still exist musicians who ‘do both’ and indeed who do various other things too, though many of you will be aware of the distrust with which some instrumentalists, perhaps especially pianists, meet when they take up conducting. (To digress briefly just for a moment, that seems to have been the reason Maurizio Pollini cut short his conducting career, and even Daniel Barenboim took a long time indeed properly to be accepted as a conductor, nevertheless gaining reassurance from Arthur Rubinstein, very much an old-school pianist, who rightly encouraged him. Such, in any case is a modern division of musical labour which would have astonished Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Bartók, and many others, as well as a host of ‘lesser’ names and, of course, audiences.) So Liszt, in terms simply of being a composer, was not different from his ‘rivals’ – and I think I use the term advisedly, ‘competition’ being very much an issue in the world of the nineteenth-century virtuoso.

Where Liszt differed them ‘competitors’ such as the Swiss pianist, Sigismond Thalberg was, of course, his greatness as a composer and the ultimate seriousness, despite the magical side of things, with which he approached and understood his social role – especially as time went on, but the distinction may be observed all along, if not necessarily entirely without exceptions. The celebrated ‘duel’ between Liszt and Thalberg fought itself out both on stage and in the Parisian press, following Liszt’s arrival in the city in 1836. Parisians have always enjoyed an artistic controversy, whether between Gluckists and Piccininists or Thalbergians and Lisztians. Liszt’s programmes were of course not free of display, far from it, but they were eminently more ‘serious’ – in a sense even Wagner would have appreciated – than Thalberg’s; for instance, he gave what may have been the first (semi-public) performance of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata in the city. Berlioz sang his praises, writing of Liszt, and foretelling future talk of the ‘music of the future’ of their so-called New German School, as ‘the pianist of the future’, who, in his performance of that technically but above all musically challenging work had shown highly commendable fidelity to the score – a sign again of seriousness – whose difficulties recalled ‘the riddle of the Sphinx’. Liszt had made ‘comprehensible a work not yet comprehended,’ not through interventionism but quite the contrary: ‘Not a note was left out, not one added … no inflection was effaced, no change of tempo permitted.’ I have my doubts that our modern-day apostles of ‘authenticity’ would agree – and in any case, so much the worse for them – but Berlioz’s words and message rankled with Thalberg’s supporters, and the situation became more explosive when Liszt himself reviewed Thalberg, whose music he found frankly worthless, for the Revue musicale.  The celebrated duel, in a princess’s salon, as the climax – I am honestly not making this up! – of a three-day charity bazaar, fetched prices of 40 francs a ticket. As pianism, both musicians acquitted themselves finely; it was certainly not the decisive Lisztian victory that many early biographers claimed it. But it was equally acknowledged that there was far more to Liszt than being simply a piano virtuoso; even the hostess, Princess Belgiojoso, commented: ‘Thalberg is the first pianist in the world –Liszt is unique.’

How, then, did Liszt go on to show himself ‘unique’, as a pianist-composer? Essentially by out-‘virtuosoing’, as it were, the virtuosi, albeit through musical, compositional as much as musical, performative means. (However, it must be said that defeating them on their own territory was a necessary part, though only part, of the plan, whether conceived as such or not.) The following years, roughly 1839-47, have often been termed by writers on Liszt, his ‘years of transcendental execution’. His rate of performance was quite extraordinary, utterly unlike anything that had come before or indeed since; travelling from Britain to Turkey, from Russia to Portugal, he was often giving three or four concerts a week. He was also to all intents and purposes the inventor of the modern piano recital, giving entire programmes from memory, playing the whole repertoire – at least as it existed and was understood then, and, also as enlarged by him – from Bach to Chopin. In the words of Alan Walker, the author of a splendid modern three-volume biography of Liszt, ‘Whatever else the world may debate about his life and work, one thing is generally conceded: Liszt was the first modern pianist. The technical “breakthrough” he achieved … was without precedent in the history of the piano.’ Indeed, as Walker goes on, ‘All subsequent schools’ – and, I should add, perhaps the very idea of schools of piano playing in a modern sense – ‘were branches of his tree. Rubinstein, Busoni, Paderewski, Godowsky, and Rachmaninoff – all those pianists who together formed what historians later dubbed “the golden age of piano playing” – would be unthinkable without Liszt.’ And crucially for us, that is as much through his composition as through his admittedly unparalleled virtuoso career, which was actually surprisingly short.

To become a little more technical – in performing rather than analytical terms – Liszt seems both to have invented and to have solved a good number of keyboard problems. Despite attempts, some of them doubtless interesting and valuable, to resurrect older methods of keyboard playing – organists amongst you will not need to be told about French Baroque fingering and so forth – for the most part, modern keyboard performance and modern keyboard composition can helpfully be understood in a post-Lisztian manner. That is not to say that everything comes directly from him, but a great deal comes from him either directly or indirectly through his successors and theirs. To quote Walker again, in an invaluable chapter from that biography, entitled ‘Liszt and the Keyboard’, ‘Liszt’s influence … had to do with his unique ability to solve technical problems. Liszt is to piano playing what Euclid is to geometry. Pianists turn to his music in order to discover the natural laws governing the keyboard.’ I am a little wary of speaking about natural laws; such matters are surely more constructed, but if we replace the ‘natural’ with a more historical understanding, then there is surely little to argue with there. Although he would later turn to the orchestra and indeed would enter court service at Weimar largely with the idea in mind that he would have an orchestra there at his disposal, as a new ‘instrument’ almost on which to experiment, for these earlier years and indeed beyond, he was resolved in often quite systematic fashion to explore the capabilities of his first and most beloved instrument.

Fingering, then, is always well worth studying in his music – and, when one can, in his editions of other composer’s music. They exist of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and other composers – and one sees in them the essential truth of Berlioz’s claim regarding fidelity. Liszt’s editorial practice is not ours, but he is at all times clearly concerned to bring out what he regards as the truth of the work, certainly not to impose anything external upon it – just as, for instance, Wagner was concerned to divine what he called the melos of a work he conducted, whether his own, Beethoven’s, or someone else’s. But to return to fingering: Liszt practised every scale with the fingering of every other scale, so as to achieve the utmost independence of every finger. As Walker puts it, a central truth concerning Liszt’s technique was, however, that ultimately ‘he did not conceive of a pianist’s hands as consisting of two parts of five fingers each, but as one unit of ten fingers’. Interchangeability and interlocking of fingers were important goals – and achievements. Consider ‘La campanella’, the third of his Six Grandes études de Paganini, written in 1838 and revised in 1851. The chromatic scales interspersed between the hands in a sense took Paganini as an initial inspiration yet went far beyond him, and not only on account of the greater capabilities of Liszt’s own instrument. Likewise the persistent leaps across the keyboard and the notorious repeated notes, reimagining the violin in pianistic terms and ultimately having one forget the original.

It was in the Paganini and the Transcendental Etudes that that technical foundation for modern pianism was laid. And they remain, like Chopin’s essays in the genre, so much more than mere ‘studies’, despite Liszt’s dedication of the latter to his sometimes teacher, Carl Czerny, ‘in gratitude and respectful friendship’. However, he extended his distinction from the ‘mere’ virtuosi by putting his discoveries in such works, admittedly as much musical as technical even there, to more overtly ‘poetic’ and even ‘absolute’ – in the dubious sense of ‘absolute music’ – ends.

The whole issue of ‘programme music’ has, as Carl Dahlhaus noted some time ago, been clouded by unhelpful debates concerning superiority and inferiority, which date back to the dawning of the very notion and its opposite, Wagner’s derogatory coinage of ‘absolute music’, later reclaimed by Eduard Hanslick’s school as a badge of honour. We need not trouble ourselves too much, or indeed at all, by such issues; we can surely now appreciate Liszt and Brahms. But Liszt’s exploration of the keyboard, and especially the piano, as a poetic instrument, as a way of expanding music’s Romantic connections with other art-forms such as literature, painting, and architecture, as well as the natural world, is deserving of our attention in itself. An especially celebrated example of such expression and connection is the three-volume collection of pieces, Années de pèlerinage. Poetic, natural, literary, visual artistic varieties of inspiration are palpable in far more than the individual titles – as indeed is the composer’s love of travel. ‘Au Bord d’un source’ from the first, Swiss book sounds, inevitably for us, to look forward beyond his own late Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este to the water-inspired music of Ravel, and indeed the music of Ravel and Debussy – call it impressionism, or whatever we like – is inconceivable without that of Liszt. The water music of all three is, moreover, quite inconceivable without the technical advances Liszt had made during this time, and arguably without his poetic imagination too.

Such explorations also laid the seeds for many of Liszt’s later orchestral explorations too, especially with respect to his symphonic poems, a form of his own invention. Wagner, who was certainly not wont to extol the music of any of his contemporaries, let alone to do so unduly, went so far as to posit them as an intermediary stage between Beethoven’s symphonies and his own music dramas, to a certain extent in defiance of the chronology. Liszt’s poetically-inspired motivic transformation – a technique that would have implications beyond, for Schoenberg and indeed even later serialism – was here being presented as a crucial step in the ability of the orchestra to depict, to represent, to comment, even to think and certainly to have us think. Wagner elsewhere – it is worth noting in passing that he was certainly no great pianist – noted that Liszt’s move away from the purely instrumental was a sign of progress, shunning what he, Wagner, that is, understood to be, the desire of the purely instrumental musician to divorce himself from the community and to make music alone. ‘Truly,’ Wagner wrote in his Opera and Drama, ‘the entirety of our modern art resembles the keyboard: in it, each individual component carries out the work of a mutuality, but, unfortunately, in abstracto and with utter lack of tone. Hammers – but no men!’ It was no accident, Wagner then commented in a footnote, that Liszt, the miracle worker of the piano, was now turning his attentions to the orchestra, and thereby, to the human voice. Whatever we think of that, we know, as indeed did Wagner, that Liszt had only been enabled to paint on a grander canvas by virtue of his explorations of the piano – for which he in any case would of course continue to write until the end of his life.

We should also remember the formal achievement of a work such as the B minor Sonata. (I am using it as an exemplar rather than as a sole case.) Many of Liszt’s piano works, let alone his others, are terribly neglected; one cannot make the claim of this sonata. But that perhaps offers a different danger, of coming off poorly in the wrong sort of performance. What it should not sound like – and I realise I am being prescriptive here, but Liszt often needs help – is a celebration of that ‘mere’ virtuosity Liszt first disdained and then vanquished. Of course it requires virtuosic, almost transcendental, technique, but that, as Liszt realised, is only a starting point: a way to beat the mere virtuosi at their own game. After that, and above all, stand the musical challenges. Analysis of this score can operate upon so many levels that it is difficult to know where to begin, but only briefly to consider its formal ingenuity and the dramatic issues that presents is to realise the scale of the achievement – and of the challenge. The Introduction will initially baffle; in what key do we find ourselves; what are those mysterious scales? Yet it prepares the way with well-nigh Schoenbergian economy for the thematic material of so much that is to come, much of it undergoing that thematic transformation in which Liszt’s pianistic and orchestral explorations came to influence one another.  One commentator even went so far as to suggest a ‘programme’ of ‘the transformation of Man brought about through Christ.

Drawing upon Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann, Liszt goes at least as far as anyone before Schoenberg (I think especially of the First Chamber Symphony, op.9) in synthesising and radicalising the relationship between individual sonata ‘movements’, if indeed they may now be thought of as such, and the form of the whole. Within what must in some respects at least be considered a single movement, we also hear the traditional four, and that is before we even begin to consider issues such as the false dawn of a recapitulation denied, or rather deferred. A similar path is taken in the piano concertos, amongst other works, but here the tightness of construction and singularity of purpose are, if anything, still greater. And what does it all mean? Should it be considered in extra-musical terms? Faustian? Christian? Both possibilities, and indeed others, have been suggested. Then again, do we perhaps pay Liszt a disservice by stressing potential or even real extra-musical associations? Are we again implying a certain lack of ‘absolute’ compositional rigour? As I mentioned a little earlier, æsthetic debates about the superiority or otherwise of ‘absolute music’ take us nowhere, just as they did at the time, yet at times we seem destined to replay them. Might Liszt now actually offer us a way out? A work such as this shows us that we can appreciate its stature with or without a ‘programme’, perhaps with equally satisfactory results.

Liszt was also, of course, a great populariser of, advocate for, and arguably commentator on other music, not just as a performer but also as a transcriber. His sympathies ranged widely both as a performer and, more crucially for our purposes, as a transcriber. The operatic fantasies, for instance, should not be considered with a broad brush. There is a world of difference between the virtuoso antics – perhaps he comes closer, though still only closer, to the ‘mere’ virtuoso here – of some of the early French and Italian paraphrases and the more earnest, musically rewarding, work on Wagner’s behalf. The astonishing dramatic re-imagination of Mozart in the Réminiscences de Don Juan is another thing again: though highly virtuosic in its demands, this ‘grandest of the Liszt paraphrases’, to quote Charles Suttoni, remains ‘virtually free of virtuosity for its own sake’. The principal interest today of a work such as his 1829 Grande fantaisie sur la Tyrolienne de l’opéra “La Fiancée”, that is a grand fantasy from Auber’s now-forgotten opera, would for most be the ways in which, to quote Alan Walker, ‘the opening pages, black with hemidemisemiquavers, confirm that tendency towards extreme virtuosity,’ thus leading towards the ‘transcendental’ technical breakthroughs of the 1830s. There he was perhaps exploiting Auber’s frankly rather slight music to other ends, though there is no reason to doubt Liszt’s genuine interest, at least at this stage in his life and career, in the world of the opera as it existed rather than as Wagner would later wish to reform it.  Brahms, as distant from a fervent Lisztian as any sensible man could be, admired greatly what he described as ‘the true classicism of the piano’ present in such fantasies and paraphrases. However, that is a very different world, both in source and in fantasy, from what Liszt would describe as ‘modest propaganda on the inadequate piano for the sublime genius of Wagner.’

Transcriptions for the organ tended to be more along such lines too, and, as with the piano, lines would often be blurred between transcription and ‘original’ composition, a piece such as the Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine, based on Allegri’s Miserere and Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, providing both, first in its piano version and then later in its organ version. Liszt’s final piece of such ‘propaganda’ would be based on music from Parsifal, the Solemn March to the Holy Grail as far from grandstanding as possible.

Another way in which Liszt’s super-virtuosity was arguably able to defeat ‘mere’ virtuosity lay in his increasing inclination also to write musically fascinating yet technically quite simple music. No one could accuse him of writing in such a manner out of any technical inability, but older age perhaps brought a greater willingness to distil to essentials, although certainly not to eschew experimentation. Such experimentation would, however, often be of a harmonic or other ‘musical’ variety; after all, the composer seemed pretty much to have conquered the piano. In some of the extraordinary pieces of his old age, he approached and even achieved the abandonment, or perhaps better, suspension, of tonality. Not for nothing did composers such as Schoenberg, Bartók, and Debussy revere him. In a 1911 tribute, so after he had made his own break with tonality in the 1908 Second String Quartet, Schoenberg lauded Liszt for his ‘fanatical faith’. ‘Normal men,’ he wrote, ‘possess a conviction,’ whereas ‘the great man is possessed by a faith’. Schoenberg praised Liszt for the degree to which there was much that was ‘truly new musically’ in his work, ‘discovered by genuine intuition. Was he not after all,’ Schoenberg asked, ‘one of those who started the battle against tonality, both through themes which point to no absolutely definite tonal centre, and through many harmonic details whose musical exploitation has been looked after by his successors?’ In a sense, Schoenberg suspected, the consequences might prove to be even greater than Wagner’s, since Wagner had ‘provided a work too perfect for anyone coming later to be able to add anything to it.’ Busoni, who when he re-examined his work, his piano technique included, turned to Liszt, thought similarly on both accounts. Pierre Boulez programmed no fewer than five works by Liszt in his first season at the New York Philharmonic, the 1971 opening concert featuring Totentanz, with Jorge Bolet as soloist, the second introducing Malédiction, and the third given over entirely to Die Legende von der Heiligen Elisabeth.

Introversion, desperation, bitterness, and death were the hallmarks of Liszt’s late piano pieces, whether explicitly elegies – for instance, for Wagner and for Seven Hungarian Historical Portraits – or not. Chords constructed on fourths and sevenths, augmented chords, the so-called ‘Gypsy’ scale we heard at the beginning of the B minor Sonata, biting clashes between major and minor scales and intervals: such devices and more are very much part of what may perhaps rest as the ultimate ‘late’ experimentalism. A Bagatelle without Tonality from 1885, the year before Liszt’s death, made explicit what Liszt considered the future to be. The grey clouds of Nuages gris, written in 1881, proved especially interesting to Debussy and even to Stravinsky. Its harmonies appear not so much to have rejected as to have drifted away from tonality.

And so, as Liszt looked forward in his spoken utterances, even if he did not yet use them, to quarter-tones and to something approaching twelve-note music, being preoccupied with the idea of a twelve-note chord from which composition would subtract notes, he saw his late mission, as he told Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, as being to ‘hurl my lance into the boundless realms of the future’. He even went so far as to discourage his pupils from performing his late music, lest they damage their careers by doing so – a considerable extension of the idea of Beethoven’s writing for posterity in his late quartets. This truly was ‘music of the future’, by the erstwhile ‘pianist of the future’. Liszt is, I think, the greatest musical avant-gardist of the nineteenth century, perhaps the greatest before Webern or Boulez. Wagner might often be thought of as such, and, to be fair, he has a very important claim, but Liszt probably pips him to the post. (The relationship between Wagner and Liszt is in any case endlessly fascinating and endlessly complex.) Schoenberg might often popularly be thought of as such, but there is such a strong current of traditionalism to his thought and indeed to his practice – not for nothing did he write the celebrated lecture, ‘Brahms the Progressive’ – that the picture is far more mixed and subject to qualification in his case. Liszt, on the other hand, could write: I calmly persist in staying stubbornly in my corner, and just work at becoming more and more misunderstood.’

He had perhaps come a long way since his virtuoso years, but as I have tried to argue, it was those years and their triumphs that enabled the future triumph – perhaps still lying in our future – of his later works. Still suffering from hostility towards his virtuosity as a pianist – ‘how could he also be a great composer?’ – and from hostility and indifference towards his avant-gardism as a composer, Liszt remains a cause for which we need to fight. Understanding a little more clearly and deeply the relationship between those two crucial strands, virtuosity and avant-gardism, might just help.

Mark Berry regularly reviews concert and opera performances, both in London and abroad, especially in France, Germany, and Austria. These often attempt to combine his research interests with imperatives of live performance and theatrical production, and may be found, alongside other material, on his blog. He writes regularly for The Wagner Journal, which he has guest edited (November 2013), as well as Times Higher Education, Music and Letters, and various other journals. Other musical engagements include regular broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 (‘Night Waves’, ‘Opera Bites’, Proms, etc.), speaking engagements (e.g. British Library, English National Opera Study Day, Seattle Opera Ring, the Netherlands Opera, BBC Symphony Orchestra), and writing of programme notes for, amongst others, the Royal Opera House, the Wigmore Hall, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Salzburg Festival. His book After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from ‘Parsifal’ to Nono was published by Boydell and Brewer in 2014.

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