In freestanding works we also encounter a principle of uncertainty; they are varied, fluid, ever-changing. A mainstay of Liszt’s literature is Jim Samson’s 2003 book on virtuosity and musical composition: a transcendental study of Liszt. It examines three phases in the evolution of this vast piano cycle: the Etudes, a modest and magnificent tribute to Czerny, written in 1826, when Liszt was 15; The Grand Etudes, a vast and extremely difficult expansion of the material; and the final revised edition, Douze Études d’Exécution Transcendante, published in 1852, in which Liszt controlled complexity while perfecting the narrative. Ferruccio Busoni, one of Liszt’s main heirs, said of the etudes: “First he learned how to fill, then he learned how to omit.”
What does Lister mean by “beyond execution”? At its simplest, the phrase suggests an overcoming of the limitations of traditional technology. But the romantic context of the music makes us think about bigger things. In his exploratory analysis Samson sees a symbolic transcendence of human possibility: the Liszt virtuoso “represents freedom, the Faustian man, the individual seeking self-actualization—freedom, isolation, struggle, Longing.” Liszt’s constant inspiration, revision, reconsideration and recombination – there are at least seven versions of the Mazepa etude – is also an overcoming of the work itself. In quantum terms, a finite object gives way to a beam of energy and possibility.
This music is essentially a challenge to the player – beyond I. “I tried to capture my thoughts on paper, but I couldn’t capture the ephemeral magic of live performance,” List said. That’s what you might think when you watch the jaw-dropping young Korean pianist Yunchan Lim’s etudes for the 2022 Van Cliburn Competition, an almost perfect blend of technical precision and emotional scare. (There is still a recording on the Steinway label.) The notes are flawless to an almost unprecedented degree, but Ling hardly pretends to be merely an executor of Liszt’s vision. The etudes are too majestic to deserve such reverence.
At the end of Mazepa, the pianist must play a series of diminished seventh chords, repeating at high speed the pattern that originally started the piece. They are fixed on the fixed D note of the bass, causing various dissonances. Even when a player can hit chords accurately (hard to do, given the tendon-threatening left-hand stretch), he can give the impression of an overworked soul frantically pounding away at the keyboard. Lin speeds through them like a stunt driver in an action movie, stepping on the gas when a bridge collapses under his feet. This is Liszt’s flesh and blood.
Liszt’s shining timeHis virtuoso glory days came to an end in September 1847, when he was thirty-five years old. After giving a recital in what is now Kropevnitsky, Ukraine, he decided to stop performing regularly for the paying public. Earlier that year, he met Shane Wittgenstein, who urged him to turn to full-time composition—a step he had long considered. He and Thon-Wittgenstein settled in Weimar, where Duke Karl Alexander hoped to revive the cultural golden age of Goethe and Schiller. If Liszt imagined a period of quiet creative activity, his outgoing personality soon intervened as he set out to make the city a center of the avant-garde. His greatest success was the 1850 world premiere of Wagner’s Lohengrin – a powerful vote of confidence in a composer who had fled Germany after taking part in the revolutionary activities the previous year. Progressives gathered in Weimar to absorb the music of the future.
At the heart of the Weimar agenda was a shift to program music. Liszt believed that composers should deemphasize abstract forms—sonatas, concertos, symphonies—in favor of narratives about pictorial, literary, and philosophical themes. To this end, he invented the genre of symphonic poetry. Thirteen of his such works draw on such sublime sources as Shakespeare (Hamlet), Aeschylus through Herder (Prometheus) and Byron (Tasso). He also composed two large symphonies, one based on Goethe’s Faust and the other on Dante’s Divine Comedy. As if to demonstrate his mastery of more traditional structures, he wrote the Sonata in B Minor, a self-contained masterpiece of theme-shifting.
Conservative critics are lying in wait. Eduard Hanslick, the acerbic apostle of Viennese classicism, summed up the aspirations inherent in symphonic poetry: “The reputation of the composer Liszt now overshadows that of the virtuoso Liszt.” According to Hanslick’s estimate , the result is far from reaching this goal. Mediocre ideas are “chaotically mixed together”. The ostensibly shocking novelty reveals an “uneasiness tinged with downright amateurishness”. The climax turns to “praetorian noise”—a reference to the percussive military music of the Ottoman Empire.
Was Hanslick completely wrong? The growing enthusiasm for Liszt’s piano music has not yet sparked a similar popularity for symphonic poetry. “Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne” (“The Voice Heard on the Hill”) is the first and longest piece in the series, last heard at Carnegie Hall in 1916; Hamlet ” and “Héröide Funèbre” were apparently never performed there. The problem is already clear. When Liszt began his symphonic phase, he had little writing practice for the orchestra, so he turned to colleagues for help. There is a difference between the fluidity of his musical thought and his boxy, formulaic orchestration. Hanslick has every right to bemoan the excess of brass and cymbal crashes. Orpheus is perhaps the finest of the symphonic poems, striking for its soft, radiant structure and meditative spirit.
When Liszt gives up all restraints, the only option is to follow him to the cliff. Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra show how this can be done in their unparalleled recording of the Faust Symphony. Nothing is sacrificed for good taste. In the “Mephisto” movement, Bernstein enhances the hellish atmosphere by letting the strings play “sul ponticello” (the bow slides horribly near the bridge). (Liszt gave no such instructions, but strict adherence to the score is not in Liszt’s style.) The problem is that modern orchestras, despite their superb professionalism, are unlikely to give it a go. As a result, on a recent loop recorded with Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic, the music often became dull.
Even if Liszt failed to achieve symphonic greatness, he eventually triumphed over Hanslick and other opponents of program music. Today, few orchestral composers create abstract symphonies and sonatas. They contain suggestive titles, literary inscriptions, and detailed explanations. Liszt’s determination to use his extensive reading and experience helped push the art of composition to a wider intellectual level. He articulated this ambition as early as 1832: “Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Byron, Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber All around me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them in rage.”
Alan Walker takes “Frantz Liszt: Music’s King Lear” in the final volume of his biography. Past fifty, the soft exterior of the salon becomes a crumbling wreck. His utopian plans in Weimar met with discontent from the townspeople. His hopes of marriage to Thion-Wittgenstein were dashed by the machinations of her family. He is an alcoholic, suffers from various illnesses and depression, and has an increasingly strained relationship with his only surviving child. In 1857 Cosima married Hans von Bülow, Liszt’s favorite student. Six years later, she switched her allegiance to Wagner, with whom she had three children. List initially condemned the relationship on moral grounds—a hypocritical gesture, given his history—and then came to accept it, mostly out of respect for Wagner. In 1876, with the opening of the Bayreuth Festival, Liszt was appointed the “publicity agent” or “poodle” (in his own words) for Wagner’s enterprise. After Wagner’s death in 1883, Cosima took over the festival and achieved quasi-imperial status. In Bayreuth the following year, she walked past her father in the hallway without saying hello to him—a very Lear-like scene.
From the outside, Liszt seems to have lost his volcanic creative impulse. In fact, he has entered the most radical stage. Almost from the beginning, he resisted the idea that specific compositions should remain on the master key and follow the usual modulations. A careful study of the music of Franz Schubert, the invisible revolutionary of the early 19th century, suggested to Liszt many other paths: instead of following the cycle of fifths (C major to G major, G major to D major, and so on), one can move from C to E. Even strange jumps are possible, for example, the uncanny glide from F major to B major at the end of the Sonata in B minor. Such explorations also led him to the diatonic scale—the division of an octave into equal scales. This scale was later adopted by Debussy and throughout Liszt’s oeuvre. In Dante’s Symphony it casts an otherworldly light on the background of the Ave Maria, and in his oratorio “Christ” it evokes a storm that Christ dispelled.
Liszt felt a peculiar freedom in the religious arena, where the task of representing the divine and the apocalyptic justified extreme measures. Hostile critics dismissed Father Liszt’s serious visions as just another performance, but his piety was sincere and bound up with an immersion in Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. His earliest sacred compositions, dating from the 1740s, are austere in style, rejecting the ornate style of much religious music of the time. “Pater Noster I,” the setting for the Lord’s Prayer, available in piano and choral versions, has an almost medieval simplicity. At the same time, its harmonies are jarring. The piece begins in the key of C, goes through the B flat, E flat, A flat, and D flat chords, and finally lands in “Fiat” in E major (“Thy will be done”).
At the end of his career, Liszt was free to put almost any combination of notes on paper. In “Ossa Arida” (“O dry bones, there is the word of the Lord”) from 1879, the organ blows a chord made up of all the notes of the C major scale—a bright dissonance that doesn’t seem to be Deny tonality, but distort it. In Via Crucis, Liszt employs a monastic approach that foreshadows the avant-garde devotion of Olivier Messiaen decades earlier. A series of works in secular modes also entered into equally distant realms. “RW—Venice,” a tribute to Wagner, offers a formidable array of augmented triads—three-note chords with no clear tonal direction. Little was known about this music during Liszt’s lifetime. Most of these were rejected by publishers. Wagner told Cosima shortly before his death that her father had gone mad.
Growing awareness of Liszt’s late period in the early twentieth century prompted a reconsideration of his place in history. He was posthumously considered a prophet of Impressionism and atonality. Béla Bartók declared in 1936: “Liszt’s work is more nurturing for the next generation than Wagner’s.” It was a dramatic reputational shift for the composer. In fact, as Taruskin points out, the cult of Liszt’s proto-modernism left intact the common prejudices of “pure virtuosity.” The older saint is cast as a sad penitent to atone for the indiscretions of his youth. Dolores Pesce complicates this in her 2014 study, Liszt’s Last Period, emphasizing that late music spans many different styles. Among the mysteries, Liszt was still composing the Hungarian Rhapsody, not to mention Smetana’s arrangements of polkas and other Salon works. For List, a single teleology was not enough.