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Unwanted Liszt
January/February 2011

Franz Liszt: The ultimate Romantic artist as musician 

BBC Radio 3 is beginning Franz Liszt's bicentenary year with...wall-to-wall Mozart. Nothing could make clearer something that has bugged me for years: the critical, snobbish, misinformed and persistent denigration of a musician who was the very embodiment of Romanticism. 

Ever since one of his Hungarian Rhapsodies featured in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, the unbelievably prolific composer and pianist, who was born on October 22, 1811, has been habitually dismissed as a shallow virtuoso, concerned merely with self-aggrandisement through the technical demands of his piano writing. 

So when he has an anniversary, Radio 3's gut reaction is to turn up the corporation nose. Even the Budapest Festival Orchestra, launching Hungary's presidency of the EU at the Royal Festival Hall in January 2011, is electing to offer just a rather short piano concerto by their national musical titan, sandwiched between reliable Haydn and Beethoven. 

Sex sells; Liszt has always sold on sex. Yes, he was a great virtuoso. Yes, he was a charismatic womaniser. Unfortunately, the constant sensationalising of his complicated love life, besides the tremendous difficulty involved in playing his music, has completely skewed our view of him. 

In fact Liszt pursued his glamorous performing career with its associated "Lisztomania" for only about 15 years. By the time he was 37, it was all over. In 1848, he settled down in Weimar and refocused his art and his attitude. He became primarily a composer so prolific that his piano music alone, recorded complete by Leslie Howard for Hyperion, runs to a mind-boggling 95 CDs. Later still, from the early 1870s on, he visited his native Hungary for several months every year to teach at the music academy in Pest that today bears his name. 

But if anything consistently obsessed Liszt, it was quite the opposite of his notorious sensuality. All his life he was a devout and mystical Catholic. And if we hear more of his fantasias on popular operatic themes than we do of his oratorio Christus or his dozens of psalm settings and other sacred choral works, that says more about us than it does about him. 

Born in the Hungarian village of Doborján (now Raiding), the son of a cellist in Haydn's orchestra at the nearby Esterházy court, the child Liszt became fascinated early on by the music of both the church and the local Gypsy bands. He quickly showed his exceptional pianistic talent and after studies in Vienna, where Beethoven is said to have blessed the 12-year-old prodigy with a kiss, his fame spread through Europe. 

When he was 15, his father died. Liszt, living in Paris with his mother and supporting them both by teaching, fell into a deep depression, questioning the purpose of his music and of life itself. He considered becoming a priest. But in 1832 when he heard a recital by Paganini — the phenomenal violinist who did little to discourage the public's association of his image with that of the fiddle-playing devil — inspiration struck. Liszt decided to transform himself into the Paganini of the piano. The rest, as they say, is history. 

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John Pilkey
May 27th, 2011
7:05 PM
Like some others I have been deeply puzzled by critical dismissals of the music of Franz Liszt. This critical attitude has always struck me as one of the most mysterious cultural phenomena on record. Liszt's genius is so palpable and undeniable that I suspect some sort of mass hysteria caused by out-0f-control envy. To the critics of Liszt, I can only ask, "What are you thinking?"

December 23rd, 2010
4:12 AM
Nice essay, but can we really blame Tom & Jerry for doing in Liszt's reputation? (after all, Rossini and Wagner seemed to have survived the Bugs Bunny treatment). Consult Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective, and we find Lizst fervently denounced both during and immediately after his lifetime. Regarding the b-minor Sonata which you praise so eloquently, Eduard Hanslick wrote, "It is impossible to convey in words the idea of this musical monstrosity...At first I felt bewildered, then shocked, and finally overcome with irresistible hilarity...Who has heard that and find it beautiful is beyond help."

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