Enigmatic Liszt

Franz Liszt

A portrait of Franz Liszt

There’s more to Franz Liszt than most people realize.  If you ask a musicologist they’ll usually rattle off a series of truisms:

  • one of the first great virtuosi for the piano, possibly the greatest pianist in history
  • Wagner’s father-in-law
  • Long-lived
  • Invented the piano recital and the orchestral tone-poem

You wouldn’t normally think of someone famous as a puzzle.  But when there are so many chunks of information, both anecdotal and factual, the image can get quite fuzzy, something like being unable to see the forest for the trees.

I think the historical image of Liszt is understandable.  Scholars hear descriptive epithets that become ingrained, at least until someone comes along to challenge and possibly overturn the earlier myth.  Consider for example

  • Debussy the “impressionist” (completely wrong…although come to think of it, the word “impressionist” is itself often mis-used by those who don’t really know what it means)
  • Schumann as a bad orchestrator (rather hard to test if you’re listening to altered versions by other composers, played on modern instruments)

I only brought those up to suggest that those stereotypes are destructive and counter-productive.  No composer should be reduced to a list of bullets such as the ones I listed above.  Composers should not be compared and rated like the young talent on American Idol.  But unfortunately music education has often been influenced by a competitive model of skill and excellence, given that this was often the paradigm for training performers. 

I am particularly curious about new combinations and approaches to a composer, because they’re opportunities to hear a familiar composer with fresh ears.  I wrote about John Dowland recently, excited by a new CD of his music exploring his alleged Irish connection via a very Celtic approach.  I suggested –not entirely as a rhetorical position—that every performance or creative project is in some sense an experiment, a hypothesis put to the audience, even if the audience prefer the same old same old.

I am intrigued by an upcoming concert Sunday February 19th titled “A Romantic Music Tryst With Liszt,” hoping it will shed light on a different side of a composer who’s been stereotyped in the ways I outlined above.  Instead of the usual pianistic warhorses, we’ll get something a bit different, including songs and chamber works.

As I seek a new perspective, here are a few alternative notions about Liszt:

  • Speaking as a Hungarian, it always feels weird to me to call him “Franz Liszt” (using a German first name).  I prefer “Liszt”, if not “Liszt Ferenc” (using the Hungarian custom of reversing surname & given name).
  • Liszt was one of the first great philanthropist artists.  Long before “Band Aid” in the 80s, or George Harrison’s concerts for Bangla Desh (aka “Concert for Bangladesh”), Liszt offered his services to raise funds for flood victims in eastern Europe, or to help raise money for assorted good causes.
  • Liszt was a mentor to other artists.  While Liszt’s help to Wagner is well-documented, that’s just one case.  Liszt championed such works as Beethoven’s symphonies as well as Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique through his transcriptions that the pianist played all over Europe, helping in their rediscovery/popularization.
  • Liszt was a great piano teacher, wealthy from his concerts and therefore able to choose projects out of interest rather than concern for financial gain.
  • Liszt’s experiments in tonality have not been given a proper hearing, compositions anticipating the works of Debussy and even Schoenberg.

I am looking forward to discovering more about this intriguing man and his music.  A Romantic Music Tryst With Liszt is on Sunday at 3:00 pm, at the Toronto Centre for the Arts presented by Neapolitan Connection.

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