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Franz Liszt By James Huneker Characters: 10356

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


"While remaining itself obscure," wrote George Moore of L'Education Sentimentale, by Flaubert, "this novel has given birth to a numerous literature. The Rougon-Macquart series is nothing but L'Education Sentimentale re-written into twenty volumes by a prodigious journalist-twenty huge balloons which bob about the streets, sometimes getting clear of the housetops. Maupassant cut it into numberless walking-sticks; Goncourt took the descriptive passages and turned them into Passy rhapsodies. The book has been a treasure cavern known to forty thieves, whence all have found riches and fame. The original spirit has proved too strong for general consumption, but, watered and prepared, it has had the largest sale ever known."

This particular passage is suited to the case of Liszt. Despite his obligations to Beethoven, Chopin and Berlioz-as, indeed, Flaubert owed something to Chateaubriand, Bossuet, and Balzac-he invented a new form, the symphonic poem, invented a musical phrase, novel in shape and gait, perfected the leading motive, employed poetic ideas instead of the antique and academic cut and dried square-toed themes-and was ruthlessly plundered almost before the ink was dry on his manuscript, and without due acknowledgment of the original source. So it came to pass that the music of the future, lock, stock, and barrel, first manufactured by Liszt, travelled into the porches of the public ears from the scores of Wagner, Raff, Cornelius, Saint-Sa?ns, Tschaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Borodin, and minor Russian composers and a half-hundred besides of the new men, beginning with the name of Richard Strauss-that most extraordinary personality of latter-day music. And Liszt sat in Weimar and smiled and waited and waited and smiled; and if he has achieved paradise by this time he is still smiling and waiting. He often boasted that storms were his métier, meaning their tonal reproduction in orchestral form or on the keyboard-but I suspect that patience was his cardinal virtue.

Henry James once wrote of the human soul and it made me think of Liszt: "A romantic, moonlighted landscape, with woods and mountains and dim distances, visited by strange winds and murmurs." Liszt's music often evokes the golden opium-haunted prose of De Quincy; it is at once sensual and rhetorical. It also has its sonorous platitudes, unheavenly lengths, and barbaric yawps.

Despite his marked leaning toward the classic (Raphael, Correggio, Mickelangelo, and those frigid, colourless Germans, Kaulbach, Cornelius, Schadow, not to mention the sweetly romantic Ary Scheffer and the sentimental Delaroche), by temperament Liszt was a lover of the grotesque, the baroque, the eccentric, even the morbid. He often declared that it was his pet ambition to give a piano recital in the Salon Carré of the Louvre, where, surrounded by the canvases of Da Vinci, Raphael, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Veronese, and others of the immortal choir, he might make music never to be forgotten. In reality, he would have played with more effect if the pictures had been painted by Salvator Rosa, El Greco, Hell-Fire Breughel, Callot, Orcagna (the Dance of Death at Pisa), Matthew Grünwald; or among the moderns, Gustave Doré, the macabre Wiertz of Brussels, Edward Munch, Matisse or Picasso. Ugliness mingled with voluptuousness, piety doubted by devilry, the quaint and the horrible, the satanic and the angelic, these states of soul (and body) appealed to Liszt quite as much as they did to Berlioz. They are all the apex of delirious romanticism;-now as dead as the classicism that preceded and produced it-of the seeking after recondite sensations and expressing them by means of the eloquent, versatile orchestral apparatus. Think what r?les Death and Lust play in the over-strained art of the Romantics (the "hairy romantic" as Thackeray called Berlioz, and no doubt Liszt, for he met him in London); what bombast, what sonorous pomp and pageantry, what sighing sensuousness, what brilliant martial spirit-they are all to be found in Liszt. In musical irony he never had but one match, Chopin-until Richard Strauss; Berlioz was also an adept in this disquieting mood. Liszt makes a direct appeal to the nerves, he has the trick of getting atmosphere with a few bars; and even if his great solo sonata has been called "The Invitation to Hissing and Stamping" (thus named by Gumprecht, a blind critic of Berlin, about 1854) the work itself is a mine of musical treasures, and a most dramatic sonata-that is if one accepts Liszt's definition of the form. Here we recall Cabaner's music-as reported by Mr. Moore-"the music that might be considered by Wagner as a little too advanced, but which Liszt would not fail to understand."

Liszt's music is virile and homophonic, despite its chromatic complexities. Instead of lacking in thematic invention he was, perhaps, a trifle too facile, too Italianate; he shook too many melodies from his sleeve to be always fresh; in a word, he composed too much. Architecturally his work recalls at times the fantastic Kremlin, or the Taj Mahal, or-as in the Graner Mass-a strange perversion of the gothic. Liszt was less the mast

er-builder than the painter; color, not form, was his stronger side. And like Chateaubriand his music is an interminglement of religious with moods of sensuality. An authority has written that his essays in counterpoint are perhaps more successful than those of Berlioz, though his fugue subjects are equally artificial; and he fails to make the most of them (but couldn't the same be said of Beethoven, or of the contrapuntal Reger?). Both the French and Hungarian masters seem to have concocted rather than have composed their fugues. All of which is the eternal rule of thumb over again. The age of the fugue, like the age of manufactured miracles, is forever past. If you don't care for the fugal passages and part-writing in the Graner Mass or in the organ music, then there is nothing more to be said. Charles Lamb inveighed against concertos and instrumental music because, as he wrote, "words are something; but to gaze on empty frames, and to be forced to make the pictures for yourself ... to invent extempore tragedies is to answer the vague gestures of an inexplicable rambling mime." This unimaginative condition is the precise one from which suffered so many early and too many later critics of Liszt's original music. If you are not in the mood poetical, whether lyric, heroic, or epic, then go to some other composer. And I protest against the parenthetical position allotted him by musical commentators, mostly of the Bayreuth brood. The Wagner family saw to it that the mighty Richard should be furnished with an appropriate artistic pedigree; Beethoven and Gluck were called his precursors. Liszt is not a transitional composer, except that all great composers are a link in the unending chain. But, though he helped Wagner to his later ideas and style, he had nothing whatever to do with the Wagnerian music-drama or the Wagnerian attitude toward art. Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner are all three as different in conception and texture as Handel and Haydn and Mozart; yet many say Handel and Haydn, or, worse still, Mozart and Beethoven. Absurd and unjust bracketings by the fat-minded unmusical.

In musicianship Liszt had no contemporary who could pretend to tie his shoe-strings, with the possible exception of Felix Mendelssohn. And in one particular he ranks next to Bach and Beethoven-in rhythmic invention; after Bach and Beethoven, Liszt stands nearest as regards the variety of his rhythms. His Eastern blood-the Magyar came from Asia-may account for this rhythmic versatility. It is a point not to be overlooked in future estimates of the composer.

How then account for the rather indifferent fashion with which the Liszt compositions are received by the musical public, not only here, but in Europe? This year (1911) the festivals in honor of the Master's Centenary may revive interest in his music and, perhaps, open the ears of the present generation to the fact that Strauss, Debussy and others are not as original as they sound. But I fear that Liszt, like any other dead composer-save the few giants, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven-will be played as a matter of course, sometimes from piety, sometimes because certain dates bob up on the calendar. His piano music, the most grateful ever written, will die hard, yet die it will.

Musicians should never forget Liszt, who, as was the case with Henry Irving and the English speaking actors, was the first to give musicians a social standing and prestige; before his time a pianist, violinist, organist, singer, was hardly superior to a lackey. Liszt was the aristocrat of his art; his essential nobility of soul, coupled with his flaming genius, made him that. And he came from a cottage that seemed like a peasant's. A point for your anarch in art.

Whatever the fluctuations of the chameleon of the Seven Arts, the best music will be always beautiful; beautiful with the old or the new beauty. Ugliness for the sheer sake of ugliness never endures; but one must be able to define modern beauty, else find oneself in the predicament of those deaf ones who could not or would not hear the beauty of Wagner; or those blind ones who would not or could not see the characteristic truth and beauty in the pictures of Edouard Manet. The sting and glamour of the Liszt orchestral music has compelling quality. Probably one of the most eloquent tributes paid to music is the following, and by a critic of pictorial art, Mr. D. S. MacColl, now keeper of the Wallace Collection in London. He wrote:

"An art that came out of the old world two centuries ago with a few chants, love-songs, and dances, that a century ago was still tied to the words of a mass or an opera, or threading little dance movements together in a 'suite,' became, in the last century, this extraordinary debauch, in which the man who has never seen a battle, loved a woman, or worshipped a god may not only ideally but through the response of his nerves and pulses to immediate rhythmical attack, enjoy the ghosts of struggle, rapture and exaltation with a volume and intricacy, an anguish, a triumph, an irresponsibility unheard of. An amplified pattern of action and emotion is given; each man fits to it the images he will."

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