About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

March 15, 2013

A 'Monster' of the Chickering

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

As our last "Monsters of the (Elizabethtown) Steinway" concert for this season approached (the legendary Emanuel Ax, Tuesday, March 19), my thoughts turned to pianists. Franz Liszt may not be the appropriate pianist to contemplate for this concert--perhaps an antithesis of Ax--but he was considered a musical 'monster' by some contemporaries. (Actually, our "monster" label applies to the repertoire, the Pathetique on this concert, not the player.)
“Music embodies feeling without forcing it to contend and combine with thought, as it is forced in most arts and especially in the art of words.”
So said the Hungarian, Liszt, the 19th Century’s greatest piano virtuoso and arguably the greatest who ever walked the planet. Even his contemporaries mispronounced his name (list, not the Victor-Borgean “Schlitz”). Bathed in controversy ever since his birth in 1811, Liszt earned the contempt of Robert and Clara Schumann, Chopin, and Brahms, who accused him (and his son-in-law, Richard Wagner) of vulgar showmanship (“a smasher of pianos”) contrary to their view that music should be played only for its own sake. (They never heard Liberace.) But they were awestruck by, perhaps jealous of, his ability and would probably agree that Liszt could make his Chickering (a gift) do just as much as anyone (except maybe Marc-André Hamelin) will ever be able to do on any piano, even a modern Steinway. And most might agree with Charles Rosen:
“The harmonics can be banal, the melodies almost nonexistent…” In some of the Hungarian Rhapsodies, there is “zero degree of musical invention if we insist that invention must consist of melody, rhythm, harmony, and counterpoint. Nevertheless, played with a certain elegance, these are both dazzling and enchanting. The real invention concerns texture, density, tone color, and intensity—the various noises that can be made with a piano—and it is startlingly original. The piano was taught to make new sounds. These sounds often did not conform to an ideal of beauty, either Classical or Romantic, but they enlarged the meaning of music, made possible new modes of expression. On a much larger scale, Liszt did for the piano what Paganini had done for the violin. Listeners were impressed not only with the beauty of Paganini’s tone quality but also with its occasional ugliness and brutality, with the way he literally attacked his instrument for such dramatic effect. Liszt made a new range of dramatic piano sound possible, and in so doing thoroughly overhauled the technique of keyboard playing.”
Liszt exploited not only virtuosity but also a satanic public image and a Gothic taste for the macabre with all its paraphernalia--dances of death, etc. He was also a virtuoso conductor, doing more than anyone else of his time (except maybe Berlioz) to create the modern image of the orchestra conductor as an international star. He invented the symphonic “tone poem” (like Les Préludes) and was the first composer to write atonal (at least “harmonically audacious”) music foreshadowing Debussy and Schoenberg.

Liszt also acquired an international rock star-like reputation for erotic conquest, cultivating the image of a Don Juan. He used dazzling “transcendental” (his word) virtuosity as a representation of sexual domination, and women fought over his snuff box and pieces of his handkerchief. His piano fantasy, Reminiscences of Don Giovanni, could be considered a self-portrait, just as everyone had assumed that Byron’s Don Juan was autobiographical. 

Although he had fathered three children by age 25, Liszt finally wanted to marry after retiring from the concert stage at age 35 at the peak of his performing career. To his chagrin, the Vatican revoked its sanction of the divorce of his intended, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein. Liszt became an abbé, albeit an urbane and composing abbé who could marry anyone else if he wished--but never did during the remainder of his 75 years.

In the first great age of pianistic virtuosity Liszt was a scrupulous editor of works of other composers—and also borrower of their themes. In a nod to the Baroque era, he said, “A person of any mental quality has ideas of his own,” an initiative indispensable for first-rate performing as well as composing. Thus, no two performances, based on 'a few useful instructions'” in the score were ever expected to be the same, no two interpretations of a score’s written directives were ever meant to sound the same—not if performers employed ideas of their own to allow “the emotions to radiate and shine in their own character."

Most of Liszt’s piano works that have remained in repertoire and gave Liszt his stature -- more than a few indescribably beautiful --come from before 1850, even though, according to Rosen, “…the musical material is either invented by someone else or, with some very significant exceptions, it is shoddy and tired, likely to grate on the nerves of any musician of delicate sensibility.” 

After 1850 Liszt’s compositions became more refined and, in later years, more austere. These last years were devoted above all to short piano pieces and to religious music. The well-known Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, (the one of 19 most used in old Disney animated cartoons), comes from the earlier period. 

My apologies to the artist. I have had copies of these drawings for over 40 years and long ago forgot their origin. Anyone know?

Listen to the last of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes by Valentina Lisitsa.

Listen to La Campanella by Valentina Lisitsa and watch them build a Bösendorer piano. 

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