On Saturday 22nd October, it is Franz (Ferenc) Liszt’s birthday. So here’s a small selection of ‘Liszt links’, pictures, music, film and other ephemera, some serious, some not, to celebrate his bicentenary.

Please feel free to comment and/or contribute more ‘Liszt Links’

Notes from a Pianist – Throughout Liszt’s bicentenary year, pianist Christine Stevenson has been blogging about Liszt in a series of delightful, thoughtful and quirky posts.

From The Musician’s Way Blog – Franz Liszt: Self-Made Musician

Liszt’s favourite pudding, as noted in Alan Walker’s biography The Virtuoso Years 1811-1847

Visit the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands, near Guildford, Surrey (UK) and see an 1845 Erard, autographed by Liszt’s great rival Thalberg. And many other wonderful pianos and early keyboard instruments with “composer associations”.

Liszt's Bosendorfer piano at the Franz Liszt Museum in Budapest

Website of the Liszt Museum, Budapest

Stories from a Book of Liszts, a novel by John Spurling (with accompanying CD)

A close-up tour around the Liszt Apartment in the Budapest Museum

Read journalist Jessica Duchen’s intelligent article in Standpoint magazine

Wilhelm Kempff playing ‘Sonetto 123 del Petrarca’ from Années de Pèlerinage, 2ème année: Italie, the first piece by Liszt I learnt seriously. (Link opens to Spotify). And here’s a YouTube clip of Marc-André Hamelin playing the same Sonetto

 

Cartoon of Liszt in concert, with ladies swooning before him

Martha Argerich plays ‘Funerailles’

And Louis Kentner plays the ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude’

“If nothing else, Fran, you’ll be the best-dressed Diploma candidate this season!”. So declared a good friend of mine who knows well my love of clothes and who has often been an enthusiastic companion on shopping sprees.

Joking apart, the Trinity Guildhall regulations state that one should dress as if for “an afternoon or early evening recital”. So an “evening gown” is not required, but something pretty smart nonetheless. Long before I’d decided on my Diploma programme, I’d already worked out what I was going to wear: a Little Black Dress from LK Bennett with 1950s styling, demure yet faintly sexy, in a fluid jersey fabric which is comfortable and easy to wear, and low-heeled mock-croc shoes. A small heel is essential for pedalling, while a high heel renders the action virtually impossible.

One of my Twitter friends made a slightly tongue-in-cheek comment to me about a blog post on piano teacher’s attire, so this article is, in part, to satisfy his curiosity, as well as my own musings on what pianists wear.

Yuja Wang at Hollywood Bowl (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)

Recently, Chinese piano Yuja Wang created a bit of a furore amongst critics and concert-goers for appearing in a dress more at home on the fashion catwalk than the concert platform: a thigh-skimming, body-hugging frock and gold stilettos. When I saw the pictures of “that outfit”, my first thought was “how on earth can she pedal in those shoes?”. What occupied the critics publicly was whether such attire was “appropriate” for the classical music scene, while privately many of them were no doubt slavering with delight over the view of a slim young female leg during the 40 minutes or so of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. This hoo-hah says something about the perception of male and female artists in the eyes of both audience and critics.

The days of the traditional virtuoso “uniform” of white tie and tails for male pianists are long past, and it is rare to see anyone but the most senior musicians in this attire now (of all the male pianists I’ve heard this year, only Charles Rosen and Maurizio Pollini wore white tie and tails). Lounge suits, open-necked shirts, Nehru collars, silk shirts with diamonté studs (Robert Levin) – I’ve seen them all this season. Paul Lewis, Steven Osborne and Stephen Hough all favour a sort of black “smock” (presumably for comfort?), and Hough is rarely seen without his shiny metallic shoes on the concert platform. Meanwhile, Turkish pianist Fazil Say cut a rather shabby Oscar Wild-esque figure in a black tee-shirt and long velvet coat not unlike a dressing gown.

Angela Hewitt

But while the men are allowed to “go casual”, women pianists are still expected to turn out in a more traditional evening gown, and any deviation from this can be met with cries of horror, the wringing of hands and general pulling of eyes. Some, like Yuja Wang and Angela Hewitt, have made the fashion statement part of their artistic persona: Hewitt favours designer gowns, bright lipstick and red shoes. When I saw her at the Wigmore Hall in June she wore an extraordinary dress with some interesting zip arrangements, not unlike the “safety pin dress” by Versace, famously worn by Liz Hurley, and I confess the zips interested me more than her Chopin. Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida likes the finely pleated creations of Issey Miyake, and so, when she raises her arms, a lovely image is created of the gossamer wings of a beautiful butterfly. Helene Grimaud, who I saw at the Proms this summer, chose a stylish, somewhat mannish, grey suit for her performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

Fazil Say

At the end of the day, it is of course entirely up to the performer what they wear, but it is also important that their dress reflects the occasion, for the moment the performer walks onto the stage, the audience’s attention is engaged and awakened. Mannerisms, attire, the way one greets the audience, all these things matter, and all contribute to the experience of the performance for the audience, as well as a means of differentiating performer from audience, and defining one’s role for them.

I admit I’m torn between admiring Ms Wang’s chutzpah for wearing such a daring outfit while wondering whether she wanted the audience to focus on her music or her legs.

And as for my Twitter friend’s enquiry about what I wear to teach piano….. I favour easy, comfortable clothes, my Wright & Teague charm bracelets, which chink and tinkle as I play, low-heeled shoes or boots (it gets cold in my piano room in the winter), and some interesting beads, a pendant or a scarf…..

More on Yuja Wang’s dress here

The following text is the welcome address from Karl Paulnack, Director of the Music Division, Piano Faculty, of the Boston Conservatory. It is moving, succinct and sensitive.

One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “you’re wasting your SAT scores!” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they loved music: they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.

One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you: the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp. 

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose, and fortunate to have musician colleagues in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist. Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—even from the concentration camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

In September of 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, 2001 I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day. 

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds. 

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart wrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does. 

Very few of you have ever been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but with few exceptions there is some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks. Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town a few years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation. 

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute cords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?” 

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. The concert in the nursing home was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft. 

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well. 

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”

 

Here is another of those lists I indulge in when I’m too busy to write a proper blog post. This blog meme comes via Somewhere Boy and before him Stuck in a Book. The idea is to answer each statement/question with the title of a book you’ve read this year. Because I’ve virtually given up reading books in favour of my Twitter feed, other people’s Facebook status updates, and piano exam regulations, I’ve cheated: some of the books I’ve read, some I haven’t. Please do feel free to submit your own list….

One time on holiday…
A Pale View of the Hills/Ishiguro
A Room With a View/E M Forster

Weekends at my house are….
The Craft of Piano Playing/Alan Fraser
How to Eat/Nigella Lawson

My neighbour is….
Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde/Stevenson

My boss is….
My Secret History/Paul Theroux

My superhero secret identity is….
Me Cheeta/James Levene
The Handsomest Young Man in England/Michael Hastings

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry because….
This Thing of Darkness/Harry Thompson

I’d win a gold medal in….
Shopping & F**king/Mark Ravenhill
Disobedience/Naomi Alderman

I’d pay good money for….
The Truth About Love/Josephine Hart

If I were prime minister I would….
Hard Times/Dickens

When I don’t have good books I….
Eat Pray Love/Elizabeth Gilbert

Loud talkers at the cinema should be….
Goodbye to All That/Robert Graves

Were you at the Proms last night? Even if you weren’t, you probably know by now that the concert, given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with Zubin Mehta and Gil Shaham, was interrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters who barracked and sang, thus forcing Radio Three to abandon its broadcast of the concert. It is not the first time a concert given by Israeli musicians has been interrupted by protest – and it won’t be the last either. Although more rigorous security checks were in place ahead of the concert, these did not prevent protesters invading the hall: they had booked their tickets way in advance. Hints that there would be trouble at this concert were made ahead of event, via Twitter (where I heard about it) and various other social media and news channels, and petitions had been made to the BBC, suggesting the concert be cancelled.

Reading various reactions, including a hefty handful of tweets and links from Norman Lebrecht, I felt an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. Last March I attended a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall, given by the Jerusalem Quartet, four young Jewish string players who reside in Jerusalem. There was a rag-tag group of noisy protesters outside the hall when I arrived, being fielded calmly by John Gilhooly, the hall’s Director. Stupidly, perhaps, I thought little of it, because I never believed the “sacred shoebox” of the Wigmore Hall could be invaded by protest, anger and violence. I was wrong. At least six protesters were dotted around the hall (they had also purchased their tickets in advance), and each made their best effort to interrupt the performance, knowing that it was being broadcast on Radio Three. One protester, a perfectly respectable-looking middle aged woman, was sitting next to me. She stood and heckled loudly, and was immediately attacked (this is the only word I can think to use) by a gentleman sitting in front of me. He dragged the woman by the hair across my lap and roundly demanded that she shut up so that we could enjoy the concert. But of course we couldn’t: by now the Mozart quartet was spoiled, for all of us, and certain members of the audience, angry that their lunchtime music had been disturbed, were now heckling the hecklers. Eventually all the protesters were removed, and we tried to settle down to try and enjoy the rest of the performance. But the dynamic within the hall had changed because a space which had, until then, been sacrosanct, a place of refuge and comfort to escape the exigencies of everyday life, politics, war, celebrity gossip, had been invaded by anger and protest. I suspect that the concert-goers at the Proms last night felt very much the same. One thing is certain: the protesters have not particularly helped their cause by invading the Proms in way that they did.

The UK is, supposedly, a free country. To me that means we have the right to protest, to express our views freely. It should also mean that certain places, such as the Wigmore Hall, are permitted to remain separate from the important issues of the day. It is naive to deny that there is no relationship between the arts and politics, but that does not excuse the invasion of art spaces and venues by those who chose to deny the rest of us our freedom, our human right, to enjoy music or art, no matter who is performing it, or who created it. Places like the Wigmore Hall should be refuges, places where no one can reach you, and the Wigmore guards that privacy most assiduously. It is this preciously guarded freedom which the protesters last night, and last March, set out to destroy. Incidentally, the members of the Jerusalem Quartet, who behaved with great dignity and calmness during their interrupted recital, spoke to the audience and the protesters simply to state “we are musicians, not soldiers”.

I am not sufficiently conversant with the politics of the Arab-Israeli situation to comment here: what I do know is that such issues should be kept out of the way of music. Leave music alone, please. The Wigmore Hall is my “church”, and the wonderful music I hear there regularly transports me to another, better world: it is one of the few places left where we can escape governmental politics and protest.

For a fuller account of last night’s concert, read this review from the Arts Desk. Some video clips of the concert, and plenty of comments, are on Norman Lebrecht’s blog.