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Unwanted Liszt
January/February 2011

Still, his assumption of a limited level of holy orders later, in 1865, and his status thereafter as the Abbé Liszt fulfilled an inclination that had been with him since adolescence. Some of his finest piano works reflect the meditative enchantment he found in legends of the saints or personal religious contemplation: the calm wonderment in Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, or the richly pictorial St François d'Assise: La Prédication aux oiseaux are just two examples. Throughout his oeuvre Liszt drew on many different extramusical sources: nature, art, poetry, travel, architecture, national pride and more, embracing a narrative approach to music which may even have fed in to his son-in-law Richard Wagner's notion of Gesamtkunstwerk — the "complete artwork". Liszt's faith was one part of that connection of music to all around it. However, it was never less than central and is increasingly looking ripe for reassessment.

Take the ever-popular Piano Sonata in B minor. Given his internal conflicts — torn, as it were, between God and Paganini — it is no wonder that Liszt identified with the story of Faust. The B minor Sonata, supposedly an abstract work, often attracts claims of extra-musical inspiration, quite possibly Goethe's masterpiece. But another theory has emerged: the pianist Paul Barnes, in a lecture-recital on CD, suggests that the sonata is similar in shape to Liszt's overtly sacred works, notably Via Crucis (which is rarely heard, unlike those Hungarian Rhapsodies). He adds that some of its motifs, which also appear elsewhere in Liszt's music, may symbolise religious images, and that a motif some take to be the laugh of Mephistopheles could represent the hammering of Christ on to the cross. 

The most important thing is that the sonata's power can transcend all these interpretations. It condenses and abstracts a world of extreme conflicts and seeks to work them through: whether between God and the Devil, Faust and Mephistopheles, love sacred and love profane, or the different facets of Liszt's own soul. The composer captures the polarities of the human spirit and carries to his listeners a message that each hears in an individual way. 

Liszt was endowed with a quantity of energy, imagination, sensuality, spirituality and visionary creativity that could have furnished at least four normal people. To appreciate only one side of him at the expense of the others misses the point of why he matters so much. Wagner created the "complete artwork", but Liszt made himself into the complete artist: he probed virtually every parameter of life, from the most sexual to the most spiritual, from the most public to the most private, from the greatest triumphs to the most profound personal tragedies (the deaths of two of his three children in early adulthood). 

Some aspects of his work are more successful than others. But he remains the ultimate romantic. Without his influence, the 19th-century musical world would have been much the poorer — and so, too, that of the 20th, for it was Liszt who created the first piano piece written without fixed tonality. His is a bicentenary worth celebrating. I just hope we emerge from 2011 understanding Liszt's full significance a little better, with the blinkers of cheap prejudice removed once and for all.

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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?"

coriolan
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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