I know I am compromising myself by speaking up for Liszt. Audiences in Central Europe, Holland and Scandinavia tend to be irritated by the sight of Liszt's name on a concert bill. If one should happen to play a Beethoven sonata in the same programme, they are apt to shut their ears, as it were, and project onto that performance all the prejudices they have against Liszt: his alleged bombast, superficiality, cheap sentimentality, formlessness, his striving after effect for effect's sake. For, so the audience reckons, a pianist who champions Liszt cannot be taken seriously as an interpreter of the Classics. People forget that Liszt himself was the foremost Beethoven interpreter of his century. It would be more to the point if they were to adopt the opposite approach and accept as an outstanding Liszt player only a pianist who had proved his competence in the interpretation of Classical masterpieces.
So pianists tend to warn one another to avoid performances of Liszt in Amsterdam or Vienna, Munich or Stockholm. Yet in the rest of the world, east and west alike, his piano music continues to cast its spell, although even so one still finds a weakness for a certain type of virtuoso who, unmindful of Classical rules, seems to be at his best whenever -- to put it bluntly -- the greatest possible number of notes has to be crowded into the shortest possible space of time. Composers as dissimilar as Liszt and Rachmaninov are sometimes mentioned in the same breath, as if genius and the art of elevated conversation were only one step apart. When the difference between a great man and a grand seigneur is so lightly ignored, one must regard any enthusiasm for Liszt with caution.
Liszt's musical idiom has been claimed as part of their own by the Hungarians, Germans and French. His love of French poetry and culture -- at one time personified, rather imperfectly, by Marie d'Agoult -- is as familiar to us as that passion for the Romantic vision of Hungary which addressed his senses chiefly through its gipsy music. Though it would be an exaggeration to say that the Hungarian Rhapsodies occupy as central a place within his oeuvre as do the Mazurkas and Polonaises in Chopin's life work, the role played by the gipsy scale in Liszt's compositions from the Weimar period onwards should not be underrated. The musical language of both Berlioz and Chopin also had a significant influence on his style. All three had in common an admiration for Italian bel canto. The essential Liszt, however, emerges when we look on him as the pupil of Czerny; as the youth who in Paris discovered for himself and for the public the works of Beethoven and Weber; as the editor and transcriber of Schubert, whose friend, Schober, was for a time Liszt's secretary, providing him with material for an (unwritten) Schubert biography; and as the elder musical brother of Richard Wagner. Add to this the Saint-Simonian and philanthropist; the kindest and the most incorruptible of colleagues; the world-weary Catholic, as well as the man of the world who, even in his old age, was not averse to the adulation of ladies from all circles, particularly the highest -- and the picture is rounded off in human, all too human, dimensions. Images such as 'Abbé Liszt at the Villa d'Este, thundering through the Waltz from Gounod's Faust while his cassock flutters about him' have circulated long enough. Our critical faculty should guard itself against anecdotes. In the Faustian seriousness of the B minor Sonata there is no room for ambiguities. One has to take Liszt seriously in order to play him well.
It is a peculiarity of Liszt's music that it faithfully and fatally mirrors the character of its interpreter. When his works give the impression of being hollow, superficial and pretentious, the fault lies usually with the performer, occasionally with the (prejudiced) listener, and only very rarely with Liszt himself.
Liszt's piano music depends to a great extent on an art that makes us forget the physical side of piano-playing. Yet it tends to be a vehicle for players of mere manual ability who lack any deeper musical insight. (In places where Liszt is viewed with disfavour, the conservatory students give themselves over with the same blind zeal to the demolition of Prokofiev sonatas.) The spell of 'technique for its own sake' will soon kill off the weaker brethren, and in the end it may well be Liszt himself who gets the blame for the whole epidemic.
In reality, Liszt stood in angry opposition to the drawing-room virtuosity of his time. He was first and foremost a phenomenon of expressiveness -- Schumann called him 'Genie des Vortrags' ('a genius of interpretation') -- so much so that he is said to have infused even Czerny and Cramer studies with radiant life. The frenzy and poetry of his music-making, allied to the new-found daredevilry of his technique, must not only have amazed the general public, but also dumbfounded his fellow pianists in the early years. Clara Wieck wrote to Robert Schumann, describing how Liszt's recitals had affected her: 'My own playing seems so boring and haphazard to me now -- I've almost lost the inclination to go on tour again. After hearing and seeing Liszt's bravura, I feel like a student.' And again: 'Sometimes you think it's a spirit sitting there at the piano.' Technique served Liszt as a means of opening up new realms of expression. Anyone who is of the opinion that there is even one work by Liszt where gymnastics is the principal aim, had better keep his hands off this composer.
A word about Liszt's form. One must not expect perfection in the Classical sense. The sonatas of Schubert, when measured by the yardstick of Classical form, already reveal nothing but flaws and shortcomings. There is something fragmentary about Liszt's work; its musical argument, perhaps by its nature, is often not brought to a conclusion. But is the fragment not the purest, the most legitimate form of Romanticism? When Utopia becomes the primary goal, when the attempt is made to contain the illimitable, then form will have to remain 'open' in order that the illimitable may enter. It is the business of the interpreter to show us how a general pause may connect rather than separate two paragraphs, how a transition may mysteriously transform the musical argument. This is a magical art. By some process incomprehensible to the intellect, organic unity becomes established, the 'open form' reaches its conclusion in the infinite.
Anyone who does not know the allure of the fragmentary will remain a stranger to much of Liszt's music, and perhaps to Romanticism in general.
This music, therefore, in no way 'plays itself'. One has to interpret it, and interpret it intelligently. Often it is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.
The pianist should be careful not to take that step. It is up to him whether pathos turns into bathos, whether Liszt's heroic fire freezes into a heroic pose, whether his rapt lyricism is smothered under perfumed affectation. He should give the passages of religious meditation simplicity, bring out the devilry behind the capriciousness, and convey the profound resignation behind the strangely bleak experiments of his late works.
He should be sure to use the original editions of the Breitkopf & Härtel Collected Works, and consult the Liszt Pädagogium (also published by Breitkopf & Härtel), a collection of notes made by some of Liszt's pupils about their studies with the master. Almost every other available publication is unreliable, with the possible exception of Sauer's reverent edition. Special attention should be paid to Liszt's pedalling instructions. They provide important information about declamation, colour and atmosphere; they create pedal points, underline harmonic connections. They should be observed, not literally, but in the spirit in which they were conceived: that way, the pedalling will not drown the music, but will let it breathe. The pianist should beware of dismissing out of hand pedal marks that seem to endanger clarity where there are numerous secondary notes. It is his job to create transparent textures with the aid of minute pedal vibrations. (Wilhelm Kempff's masterly Decca recordings are a perfect illustration of how this can be done.) Anyone who misconstrues the cadenzas at the start of the Totentanz, with their chaotic agglomerations of tone masses, and insists on rattling them off secco had better play Stravinsky.
Speeds should be kept in check -- as far as the performer's boundless exuberance will permit! It has become virtually obligatory to play Liszt as if he knew only one tempo indication: prestissimo possible. The poor E flat major Concerto in particular has become the target of sporting ambitions. What is the present record -- 14 minutes' playing time? Or has it been bettered to 13? The performing style of the mature Liszt tended rather towards majestic breadth; this is borne out, in spite of all necessary scepticism about metronome figures, by the tempo indications in Siloti's edition of Totentanz and in the Liszt Pädagogium. As a conductor of Beethoven symphonies too, Liszt is said to have taken slower tempi than was usual -- 'with surprising advantage to the overall effect', as even a conservative Leipzig journal could not help but recognize.
Another danger to be avoided is excessive rubato. Of course, it is as unwise to insist on strictness of tempo as it is to lapse into anarchical freedom. Rhythm should be firm yet without constraint, masculine as well as elastic. It should be remembered that Liszt transcribed the First Mephisto Waltz and other piano pieces for large orchestra, so the player should restrict himself in general to tempo modifications that could be achieved by a first-rate orchestra under a first-rate conductor. Liszt's music asks for refinement without pettiness. Works like the Sonata and the Piano Concertos are not patchworks, but symphonic organisms.
Liszt was one of the most amazing revolutionaries in the history of music, and the pianist should prove this both to himself and to others. He should present Liszt's daring harmony with such freshness as to make the listener forget that new harmonic thresholds have been crossed in the intervening hundred years. How 'modern' his late compositions seem! It is no accident that the great pioneers Busoni and Bartók vigorously defended his music.
We are all of Liszt's line. He created the type we aspire to: that of the universal performer of grand stature. To him also we owe our aural imagination and our technique. It would be nice if some of my fellow pianists were to acknowledge this. It would be nice if the public were to shed a few prejudices. A rehabilitation of Liszt is overdue.
[Date of original essay: 1961; translated from the German by Paul Hamburger]
"Liszt and the Piano Circus: An Afterthought"
The denigration of Liszt has long since passed its peak. Today one almost has to defend him from those admirers who tend to see the whole nineteenth century as a kind of pianists' circus and would gladly subscribe funds for research into the achievements of Friedrich Kalkbrenner.
Yet the extent to which the circus is reflected in concert-giving should not be underestimated. The interpreter puts himself on display: a juggler, tightrope-walker and trapeze-artist of piano-playing, he performs tricks which even the supremely assured amateur would not believe himself capable of, and although he is not literally risking his neck, he does hazard his prestige for effortless security. It is this security of smoothly working reflexes rather than the communication of musical essentials which even today draws many deeply serious listeners to the concert hall, unaware of their motivation.
The engraving on the title page of Liszt's paraphrase of Halévy's La Juive [see illustration above] provides visible evidence of the fact that Liszt himself has contributed to the pianistic spectacular. Of course, his mastery of the instrument practically knew no bounds. But what musical daring underlies the pyrotechnics! How far removed Liszt's display is from the antics of the musical lightweights of his century whose bravura concertos have become the recent passion of a limited group of specialists! And, leaving the circus arena behind, how naturally did Liszt's music react to the Swiss countryside, to Italian works of art, or to the deaths of Hungarian friends! While it is being debated whether Henselt, Scharwenka or Moszkowski is to be preferred, even the best works of Smetana -- whose Polkas hold a similar place in music of his native country to that of Chopin's Mazurkas and Polonaises in Polish music -- still remain virtually unknown.
That some of Liszt's own major piano works have fared no better is exemplified by the total neglect of his Variations on 'Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen'. To me this is one of his most moving masterpieces. The stature of his original piano version -- so vastly superior to the subsequent version for organ -- is emphasized by the dedication to Anton Rubinstein, the century's other pianistic genius. Young pianists who played the work for Liszt in his last years were ironically informed by the master that 'this piece is a total flop'; how could anyone play such sombre 'hospital music' when art was supposed to be cheerful? The variations are in fact a passacaglia, leading into a fantasy on its chromatic ground bass and concluded by a chorale. The ground bass, identical with the bass line of the Crucifixus in Bach's B minor Mass, had also been used in Bach's Cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen sind der Christen Tränenbrot. Stirred by the psychological implications of this title, Liszt produced a superb example of programme music at its most emotional, and least pictorial. A very wide range of human suffering is suggested with almost austere concentration. Chromaticism stands for suffering and insecurity, while 'pure' diatonic harmony, introduced at the conclusion of the piece, represents the certainty of faith. We are reminded of the opening of Haydn's Creation, where Chaos and Light follow one another in a comparable way. In Liszt's work 'Light' is identical with the chorale 'Wass Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan', which, incidentally, also closes Bach's Cantata. Liszt succeeds in offering relief without a trace of triviality: the entry of the chorale is a miracle of tenderness.
Liszt does not appear as the most self-critical of composers. Yet he realized sooner than anyone where the development of musical harmony would lead, and he adhered to this perception with admirable integrity. Consequently, his later pieces leave tonality, and consolation, behind. The analogy between religious faith and the faith in the imperishable power of the triad had ceased to ring true.