Liszt, Show Business, and Art

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Franz Liszt (1811–86) practically invented the showbiz end of classical music. He was the first touring pianist to give solo concerts in large halls. He was the first to play entirely from memory—absolute showbiz!—and then flip the trick, flawlessly sight-reading the music of fellow composers as a “favor” to them. (When he pulled that in Leipzig, using Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, its composer was both irked and embarrassed.) Liszt was the first to mix his own, contemporary music on programs with that of past greats like Bach and Beethoven, unsubtly suggesting that his works were of equal value. Sight-reading aside, all these practices caught on and are still used today.

The main tool in Liszt’s bag was his formidable technique. He could play more notes per second than anyone else on the planet. He wrote some of his music on three staves, implying that its ideal interpreter would need three hands, although for Liszt two was plenty: he had very long fingers, each hand spanning an interval of a tenth at the keyboard. As a young man he had been mesmerized by violinist Nicolò Paganini, who combined absolute command of his instrument with charismatic stage presence. (Like bluesman Robert Johnson, Paganini was reputed to have struck a deal with the devil. Pure showbiz.) Liszt developed similarly innovative piano skills. Those, and his striking good looks, generated hysteria among his fans.

But Liszt was also a creative genius. For years his formidable technique overshadowed his contributions to the development of musical language itself. Critics couldn’t help dismissing him as a charlatan whose finger-wiggling brought him more attention than he deserved. The truth is, he also extended the boundaries of chromatic harmony, producing richer, more varied, surprising harmonic and tonal progressions. He pioneered thematic transformation, a way of unifying longer pieces around a single continuously morphing idea. Finally, he came to recognize that the apparent conflict between program music and absolute music was a superficial distraction. We can observe how this played out in two masterpieces, the symphonic poem Les Préludes and the Sonata in B Minor for piano.

Liszt invented the symphonic poem as a genre, composing thirteen such works with titles like Prometheus, Orpheus, Battle of the Huns, Hamlet. These one-movement orchestral showpieces attempt to evoke a picture, person, play, poem, etc.—i.e., an extramusical program. Their titles alone provide a sense of their composer’s gargantuan (and very Romantic!) ambitions. Liszt couldn’t escape criticism for that. Champions of so-called absolute music, like the critic Eduard Hanslick, believed that great music possessed “self-contained” beauty and was “in no need of content from outside.” In time Liszt sought to reconcile this view with his own preference for linking human experience across media.

Consider the purely musical way in which he unified Les Préludes. There is a program, of course. Liszt chose a poem by Alphonse de Lamartine and attached a summary preface to the score so that no one could be confused about the “message.” It’s basically a Seven-Ages-of-Man thing; I’m going to spare you its flowery, dated language, although you can read it here.

Musically, Les Préludes consists of an introduction followed by five distinctive sections and a coda. They’re all based on a single three-note motive: one pitch, then another pitch a step below it, then a leap upward by four steps, e.g., C – B – E. You can hear it at the very beginning (low strings, echoed by flutes):

This repeats and “develops,” which leads to a brassy, martial statement (“man as mortal being”) by low brass and strings, giving way to an extended lyrical passage about a minute into this clip:

The best-known reworking of the motive occurs in the “happiness in love” section:

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t hear anything like the original motive. 

The X’s above the G, F, and B show the motive; all those other notes provide the melodic gestalt. In disguising this transformation, is Liszt somehow “cheating”? Not at all—you are meant to sense these motives’ unity subliminally, so that the sublime will enter you in a subconscious manner.

This music may even be more enjoyable if you don’t know the program at all. Liszt admitted as much in an 1855 essay he wrote with the help of his mistress, the Princess Carolyn von Sayn-Wittgenstein:

It is on the one hand childish, idle, sometimes even mistaken, to outline programs . . . and thus to dispel the magic, to profane the feeling, and to tear to pieces with words the soul’s most delicate web, in an attempt to explain the feeling of an instrumental poem which took this shape precisely because its content could not be expressed in words, images, and ideas. . . . [On the other hand, unlike the specifically musical symphonist,] the painter-symphonist [sets] himself the task of reproducing with equal clarity a picture clearly present in his mind. . . . Why may he not, through a program, strive to make himself fully intelligible? (Adapted from Burkholder et al., History of Western Music, 8th ed.)

So: “programs” can get us into the emotional ballpark of a work, but we shouldn’t try to decipher programmatic details in the music as if it were a crossword puzzle. (Yes, I know the spot in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique where a severed head apparently plops into a basket. Crude fun, maybe, but not a great moment. See here; search “fatal blow.”)

The essential need for listeners to balance the programmatic with the absolute, the script with one’s individual fantasy, became clear to me years ago when I heard Alfred Brendel play the Sonata in B Minor at Emory University. In his recital notes—reprinted in his 1991 recording and in his book Music Sounded Out—Brendel made a compelling case for the Sonata as “a work of absolute music” that “exemplifies total control of large form.” Paradoxically, he also described its six (!) distinctive themes as “characters.” Familiar characters, in fact.

Here is the first theme. Note its resemblance to the first bars of Les Préludes:

And the second theme, in which “an actor makes his grand entrance on stage, his attitude a mixture of defiance, despair and contempt. May I call him Faust?”

The third theme, “instigating subversion, is Mephistophelean. Faust and Mephisto join . . . to produce what could be called a symphonic main idea.”

And with those themes, you know almost everything you need. Later on, will you hear the fifth theme “as a lyrical variant of the third,” i.e., “Mephisto turned into a vision of Gretchen”? Musically that’s valid. The metaphor is pretty good too.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Much more will occur. As you listen, you’ll construct your own program. The sixth theme eventually takes things, as the kids say, to the next level. Brendel has given us his take on it, as have many others. Your turn!

(Recordings excerpted:  Les Préludes, Berliner Philharmoniker, Karajan, DG; Sonata in B Minor, Kirill Gerstein, Myrios Classics MYR005.)

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