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Franz Liszt: The Piano Phenomenon

Serouj Kradjian

viernes, 16 de febrero de 2001
When Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was once asked to comment about Franz Liszt, he simply said: "Liszt's life is a constant change between the scandalous and the divine". Perhaps the statement might be interpreted as being an exaggeration but without doubt the versatile artistry and the controversial life of the "Piano God" Franz Liszt remains remarkable. As a human being and as a musician, he was a revolution itself in a century of revolutions. Regarded as the greatest pianist of all time, who outplayed such greats as Chopin and Thalberg, his genius extended far beyond the piano, to push musical composition and performance well beyond its 19th Century limits. His unique compositions inspired and inflamed the imaginations of his own era, yet quite miraculously he laid the bases for a variety of schools that would grow in the distant future, such as; the late Romantics, Impressionists and Atonal schools. For all this... Liszt is unique - simply put: He is a phenomenon!The prodigyBorn 1811 in Raiding, Hungary and being an only-child, Franz Liszt's first piano teacher was his father Adam Liszt and his initial inspiration the temperamental music of the Gypsies who made home not far away. The young Liszt was fascinated with the Gypsy musicians' improvisation abilities, a fascination which later in life became a basis for much of the music he wrote and performed. His beginnings as a musician were that of a typical child prodigy. Having the renowned pianist-pedagogue Carl Czerny (student of Beethoven) and Antonio Salieri as his teachers, who in his words put "discipline in my talent", he made his wunderkind pianistic debut in Vienna at the age of ten playing works by Weber and most importantly (and this being the main attraction of the evening) making virtuoso improvisations on themes by Rossini and Beethoven. Present at one of those concerts was none other than Beethoven himself. It's been told that the already sick and half-deaf composer, after hearing the young Liszt, stood up and under the thunderous applause of the audience, kissed his forehead and gave him his musical blessing. This was of course very special, coming from his idol and a meister who was not known for positive comments.What followed afterwards, were couple of years of non-stop touring (always accompanied by his father) with numerous recitals especially in Paris, which had become his new home. Whether aristocratic circles or the press, the uproar the "new Mozart" caused as a performer and an improviser caught the cultural capital of the world by surprise. His first compositions were published, the most remarkable of them being an opera (the only one he wrote) and the 12 Etudes for Piano which 12 years later, he transformed into the 12 Etudes Transcendante, one of the most fantastic virtuoso piano works of all time. His father’s death, when he was barely fifteen was followed by years of severe depression when he stopped concertizing and mostly worked as a private teacher in aristocratic circles to earn his living. It was in this time when Liszt actually had doubts about his profession and the piano. But the French Revolution of 1830 and the cry for justice and equality which he wholeheartedly supported, awakened the nineteen-year-old. At this time he also heard Hector Berlioz' revolutionary Symphonie Fantastique. It was the beginning of a new era in the young Liszt's life.The birth of the poetic virtuosoThere were no more teachers left for Liszt anymore. He was the complete musician in the eyes of many. The event which led him to explore a new unknown world of artistry was a concert by the Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini in 1831. What Paganini did on stage was unheard of. He had redefined virtuosity and put it on another level. And through that, he had inspired the twenty year-old Liszt to become the Paganini of the piano through the development of a revolutionary technique for the instrument, to find the equivalent of what Paganini accomplished on four strings in terms of Octaves Arpeggios, jumps, and doublestops, on the piano. He went even further than only transferring what was being done with four fingers, four strings and a bow, onto ten fingers and seven chromatic octaves: He actually explored the possibilities of transferring orchestral music and imitating its different colours in a percussive instrument such as the piano. To Liszt belongs the actual discovery of pianistic vibrato, a new exhilarating octave-technique, the new style of bravura passages, brilliant arpeggios, accurate note or chord repetition technique. His aim was to reach the highest degree of virtuosity possible. Liszt talks about this period: "For over two weeks now, my hands and soul are damned to work together. The Bible, Plato, Hugo, Lamartine, Beethoven, Bach and Weber are all around me. I study them and I meditate...On top of that I practice exercises five hours a day (Thirds, Sixths, Octaves, Tremolo, repetitions etc.). If I don't lose my mind you will see an artist in me. Paganini!!! What an artist, what a man, what a violinist! My God, so much grief and misery in these four strings!"The other acquaintance Liszt developed, which influenced his artistry deeply, was rather unexpected. A shy Polish pianist, two years older than him appeared in Paris. His name was Frederic Chopin. Chopin and Liszt had opposite personalities and one can hear that in their music. Yet this acquaintance of two opposites became a long-lasting, unselfish and deep friendship. Chopin didn't think of himself as suited to give triumphant recitals for which Liszt was known. He felt more at ease in the summer night recitals in salons of Comtesses where the atmosphere was more suitable to play his poetic lyrical and dreamy works. Chopin didn't have Liszt's incredible strength which went over the limits of the instrument, brought out a whole orchestra from it, yet he possessed the soft poetic dreamery which Liszt admired. Through this close friendship, perhaps it was Chopin whose music was more influenced by the fiery Liszt. In the Ballades, the Sonatas, the Fantasy or the Scherzos there are instances of typical Liszt temperament. On the other hand Liszt himself always stayed true to his Hungarian madman nature, mostly away from the soft personality of his Polish counterpart. Perhaps the only way Chopin influenced Liszt was by his special tempo rubato which gave his music a new touch and a richer virtuosity. What was Chopin's tempo rubato? It was an absolute control on the two hands where the right hand plays the melody and the ornamentations freely yet delicately in time while the left hand keeps strictly in rhythm. In Chopin's hands this theory had a marvelous effect. In the words of a critic who heard him play his own works, "It was impossible to fixate this music in the notes. It was something unreachable ..." Liszt was always fascinated by that.If Paganini introduced Liszt to the storm, the tragic and the devilish in music, Hector Berlioz to the leitmotif and its development possibilities, he learnt the gracefulness of romanticism from Chopin.What was the result of this three-year abstinence from the concert stage and his relentless preparation to open a new page in the history of the instrument? Liszt had, more than any other pianist, developed a remarkable brilliance in the most difficult passages, a totally new use of the pedal which allowed sound effects unheard of. Through the greater span of his hand and the total independence of the fingers from each other, he could make the richest chords sound full and "orchestral". Not to forget, the total control of the sound from a stormy thunderous fortissimo to the most mystifying pianissimo even in the largest halls. His comeback had the effect of a bomb in Paris. Even his staunchiest critics who till then had described him as a "charlatan of music" a "magician of musical effects but nothing more" fell silent. In addition to his own new works he made fantastic performances of the monumental Beethoven Sonata Op. 106 Hammerklavier, a complicated work, a riddle in itself which was until then left untouched by most pianists. His comeback is best described by Hector Berlioz, who wrote: "His comeback was more like a rebirth. The Liszt of previous years as much hailed as he was, was left far behind by the new emerging Liszt ...He had accents and nuances which were seen as impossible until now. A simple melody, long-sounding naturally connected notes and all this without losing the harmonic shine, without giving any feelings of stiffness in the sound. Whether rapid melodies in thirds, or diatonic runs in staccato in an unbelievably fast tempo...This is the new grand school of piano playing! Liszt has proven to everyone that he is the pianist of the future!"In his way Franz Liszt had surpassed Paganini. Because unlike Paganini he had used virtuosity as one of the ways of expressing his musical individuality and hadn't centered and fixated only on virtuosity like Paganini had done. He had been a self-creator. When Paganini died, Liszt dedicated an essay to his idol where near the end he honestly explains his opinion about virtuosity, a belief which stayed with him all his life, whether as a composer or a pianist: "If the artist of tomorrow would abandon the relatively selfish role full of vanity, which we hope it found its last representative in Paganini, he should set his aim within and not out of himself and let virtuosity become a means but never a purpose. And never forget: Even though it is called "noblesse oblige", just as much and more noble than that, it is "Genie oblige".No other artist before him toured in as many cities for as many concerts from London to St. Petersburg, from Madrid to Constantinople. No other artist had gotten as much media coverage. Lisztomania had engulfed Europe. The King of Virtuosos had occupied a whole continent with his huge repertoire. By playing to broader mixed audiences and not just for Kings & Queens, Liszt brought music to the general public and established modern musical practices as we know them now. The crowds craved pure excitement and Liszt played many difficult virtuoso pieces that only he could play. Yet this did not stop his new energy for original compositions. Until now Liszt was famous in writing fantasies upon the themes (principally opera themes) of other composers. Yet the "Premiere Année: Suisse" of Années de Pèlerinage show the birth of the intellectual programmatic composer. A new school of composition headed by Berlioz and Liszt which liked to see all forms of art whether it be painting, music or literature connected to one unit was making its way. Perhaps the person who best described the triumphant years of the virtuoso was the British musician Moscheles: "After Liszt performs, the only thing left for another pianist to do is to close the lid of the piano". These electrifying events were similar to the atmosphere of the frenzy at Rock concerts today. Liszt was the true pioneer of stage performance and the piano recital. He devised the piano recital for the audience's acoustic and visual pleasure which was unheard of before him. The numerous concerts Liszt gave in this time brought out also the great philanthropic character in him. No other artist has made so many financial contributions to humanistic causes (be it natural catastrophe victims or the socially disadvantaged) and cultural benefits (be it the foundation of new music academies, helping to build the Beethoven-statue in Bonn or directly contributing talented musicians). Perhaps this detail in Liszt's life has little to do with music itself, but his readiness to help was so remarkable that it is impossible to ignore mentioning this noble humanistic virtue, which always remained with him. Described by his secretary "Liszt's policy with money was: When it comes to music and artists, give to whoever asks..." Sometimes he contributed complete fees of concerts to the support of musical institutions.At the age of 37 and to the shock of many, he decided to give an end to his concert career. He had decided to concentrate on a higher mission: the creation of new musical forms through a liberated mind.The Thinker, the Avant-gardiste and the TeacherLiszt settled in Weimar and began working as the Court Kapellmeister. It was here where he devised the concept of symphonic poem which was groundbreaking for later composers. The symphonic poem in itself was a new, elastic and revolutionary form of musical expression. Whether Les Preludes, A Faust Symphony or Prometheus this was "music of the future" and a prime example for a struggling composer at the time called Richard Wagner who would find a guide and inspiration in them later for his Tristan or Tannhäuser.His production of the Weimar years brought about a full stream of rich piano works such as the Sonata in B minor, the Consolations, Dante sonata and more, culminating into some of the most powerful pieces ever written for the piano, and being a climax of the mid-Romantic era. The Ballades, the Don Juan Fantasy, the evocating Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses, the Piano Concertos, Totentanz (Dance of the Dead), the Mephisto Waltzes and the entertaining and patriotic Hungarian Rhapsodies were to become the jewels of Romantic piano literature. It is interesting to mention that unlike others, he chose to express the inner more-profound essence of his subject matter. Rather than merely painting a visual picture of events in sound, he would reveal the dreamy and emotional aspects which music’s language was better equipped to express. In doing so, his works offer a wider variety of instrumental textures and timbers while elevating his subject from the particular to the universal.In Weimar, he also started a piano class which throughout the years brought out some of the best piano virtuosos of the century. Taking on many pupils without fee (some names include Hans von Bülow, Tausig, Albeniz, Saint-Saens, d'Albert) he became a great inspiration and a protégé for them. Did he have a certain method of teaching? According to many of his students he didn't: "He taught every one of us according to his or her particular needs. About technique, he emphasized on the elasticity and independence of all joints from each other, therefore, making strength and beauty of the tone based on that factor". Paradoxical statements such as "The hands should be more suspended in the air than be glued to the keys" or "If you want to play Beethoven you have to have more technique than the one needed to play the piece" were typical of him.After quitting his post in Weimar, caused by differences he was having with conservative circles in 1858, he moves to Italy for a while. It is in those years where the man, who in his younger years was famous and scandalous for his many affairs with women, makes a bold decision and at the age of 54,petitions to enter priesthood and receiving minor orders he becomes an Abbé. By this time, he had set up residence in three cities, Weimar, Budapest and Rome. He was instrumental in the opening of the Budapest National Conservatory being elected its first President. It was in these years also, when he had successes with his religious pieces, such as the Elisabeth Oratorio and the Mass. He selflessly promoted the works of fellow composers; Schumann, Wagner, Grieg, Smetana, Berlioz, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Borodin and others who all likewise gained valuable artistic insights into their own creativity by this grand master of sound.As an old master composing in semi-seclusion he wrote what is now considered perhaps his most prophetic and groundbreaking works ever. It was with pieces like; En Rêve-nocturne, Nuages gris, Les Jeux d'Eaux á la Villa d'Este, Bagatelle Sans Tonalité and Unstern!-Sinistre, that Liszt laid the blueprints for the works of Debussy and Schoenberg who made these new forms flourish a century later. Future generations were to benefit greatly from this.In order to grasp Liszt one should understand this golden era of Balzac, Heinrich Heine, Victor Hugo, Dumas, George Sand and the other heroes of the Romantic Period. Liszt’s life was most of all a life of constant tireless search for the new and the undiscovered in music. It was Sergei Rachmaninoff who said: "If the word personality didn't exist, it would be invented only for Franz Liszt". This phenomenal personality changed the course of music history and had a profound impact on its further development. May the Lisztian spirit be alive in every aspiring pianist and musician!

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