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Franz Liszt By James Huneker Characters: 11128

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The future bibliographer of Liszt literature has a heavy task in store for him, for books about the great Hungarian composer are multiplying apace. Liszt the dazzling virtuoso has long been a theme with variations, and is, we suspect, a theme nearly exhausted; but Liszt as tone poet, Liszt as song writer, as composer for the pianoforte, as littérateur, the man, the wickedest of Don Juans, the ecclesiastic-these and a dozen other studies of the most protean musician of the last century have been appearing ever since the publication of Lina Ramann's vast and sentimental biography. Instead of there being a lack of material for a new book there is an embarrassment, not always of riches, from industrious pens, though few are of value. The Liszt pupils have had their say, and their pupils are beginning to intone the psalmody of uncritical praise. Liszt the romantic, magnificent, magnanimous, supernal, is set to the same old harmonies, until the reader, tired of the gabble and gush, longs for a biographer who will riddle the various legends and once and for all prove that Liszt was not perfection, even if he was the fascinating Admirable Crichton of his times.

Yet, and the fact sets us wondering over the mutability of fame, the Liszt propaganda is not flourishing. Richard Burmeister, a well known pupil and admirer of the master in Berlin has assured us that while Liszt is heard in all the concerts in Germany, the public is lukewarm; Richard Strauss is more eagerly heard. Liszt's familiar remark, "I can wait," provoked from the authority above mentioned the answer, "Perhaps he has waited too long." We are inclined to disagree with this dictum. Liszt once had musical and unmusical Europe at his feet. His success was called comet-like, probably because he was born in the comet year 1811, also because his hair was long and his technique transcendentally brilliant. His critical compositions were received with less approval. That such an artist of the keyboard could be also a successor to Beethoven was an idea mocked at by the conservative Leipsic school. Besides, he came in such a questionable guise as a Symphoniker. A piano concerto with a triangle in the score (the E flat), compositions for full orchestra which were called symphonic poems, lyrics without a tune, that pretended to follow the curve of the words; finally church music, solemn masses through which stalked the apparition of the haughty Magyar chieftain, accompanied by echoes of the gipsies on the putzta (the Graner Mass); it was too much for ears attuned to the suave, melodious Mendelssohn. Indeed the entire Neo-German school was too exotic for Germany. Berlioz, a half mad Frenchman; Richard Wagner, a crazy revolutionist, a fugitive from Saxony; and the Hungarian Liszt, half French, wholly diabolic-of such were the uncanny ingredients of the new music. And then were there not Liszt and his Princess Wittgenstein at Weimar, and the crew of pupils, courtiers and bohemians who collected at the Altenburg? Decidedly these people would never do, even though patronised by royalty. George Eliot and her man Friday, proper British persons, were rather shocked when they visited Weimar.

Liszt survived it all and enjoyed, notwithstanding the opposition of Ferdinand Hiller, Joseph Joachim, the Schumanns, later Brahms and Hanslick, the pleasure of hearing his greater works played, understood, and applauded.

Looking backward in an impartial manner it cannot be said that the Liszt compositions have unduly suffered from the proverbial neglect of genius. A Liszt orchestral number, if not imperative, is a matter of course at most symphony concerts. The piano music is done to death, especially the Hungarian Rhapsodies. Liszt has been ranged; the indebtedness of modern music to his pioneer efforts has been duly credited. We know that the Faust and Dante symphonies (which might have been called symphonic poems) are forerunners not only of much of Wagner, but of the later group from Saint-Sa?ns to Richard Strauss. Why, then, the inevitable wail from the Lisztians that the Liszt music is not heard? Christus and the other oratorios and the masses might be heard oftener, and there are many of the sacred compositions yet unsung that would make some critics sit up. No, we are lovers of Liszt, but the martyrdom motive has been sounded too often. In a double sense a reaction is bound to come. The true Liszt is to emerge from the clouds of legend, and Liszt the composer will be definitely placed. A little disappointment will result in both camps; the camp of the ultra-Liszt worshippers, which sets him in line with Beethoven and above Wagner, and the camp of the anti-Lisztians, which refuses him even the credit of having written a bar of original music. How Wagner would have rapped the knuckles of these latter; how he would have told them what he wrote to Liszt: "Ich bezeichne dich als Sch?pfer meiner jetzigen Stellung. Wenn ich komponiere und instrumentiere-denke ich immer nur an dich ... deine drei letzten Partituren sollen mich wieder zum Musiker weihen für den Beginn meines zweiten Aktes [Siegfried], denn dies Studium einleiten soll."

Did Wagner mean it all? At least, he couldn't deny what is simply a matter of dates. Liszt preceded Wagner. Otherwise how explain that yawning chasm between Lohengrin and Tristan? Liszt, an original stylist and a profounder musical nature than Berlioz, had intervened. Nevertheless Liszt learned much from Berlioz, and it is quite beside the mark to question the greater creative power of Wagner ove

r both the Frenchman and the Hungarian. Wagner, like the Roman conquerors, annexed many provinces and made them his own. Let us drop these futile comparisons. Liszt was as supreme in his domain as Wagner in his; only the German had the more popular domain. His culture was intensive, that of Liszt extensive. The tragedy was that Liszt lived to hear himself denounced as an imitator of Wagner; butchered to make a Bayreuth holiday. The day after his death in 1886 the news went abroad in Bayreuth that the "father-in-law of Wagner" had died; that his funeral might disturb the success of the current music festival! Liszt, who had begun his career with a kiss from Beethoven; Liszt, whose name was a flaring meteor in the sky of music when Wagner was starving in Paris; Liszt the path-breaker, meeting the usual fate of such a Moses, who never conquered the soil of the promised land, the initiator, at the last buried in foreign soil (he loathed Bayreuth and the Wagnerians) and known as the father-in-law of the man who eloped with his daughter and had borrowed of him everything from money to musical ideas. The gods must dearly love their sport.

The new books devoted to Liszt, his life and his music, are by Julius Kapp, August G?llerich (in German), Jean Chantavoine and Calvocoressi (in French), and A. W. Gottschalg's Franz Liszt in Weimar, a diary full of reminiscences. These works, ponderous in the case of the Germans, represent the vanguard of the literature that is due the anniversary year. To M. Chantavoine may be awarded the merit of the most symmetrically told tale; however, he need not have repeated Janka Wohl's doubtful mot attributed to Liszt apropos of priestly celibacy: "Gregory VII was a great philanthropist." This reflects on the Princess Wittgenstein, and Liszt, most chivalric of men, would never have said anything that might present her in the light of pursuing him with matrimonial designs. That she did is not to be denied. Dr. Kapp is often severe on his hero. Is any man ever a hero to his biographer? He does not glorify his subject, and for the amiable weakness displayed by Liszt for princesses and other noble dames Dr. Kapp is sharp. The compositions are fairly judged, neither in the superlative key, nor condescendingly, as being of mere historic interest. There are over thirteen hundred, of which about four hundred are original. Liszt wrote too much, although he was a better self-critic than was Rubinstein. New details of the quarrel with the Schumanns are given. The gifted pair do not emerge exactly in an agreeable light. Liszt it was who first made known the piano music of Robert Schumann. Clara Schumann, with the true Wieck provinciality, was jealous of Liszt's influence over Robert. Then came the disturbing spectre of Wagner, and Schumann could not forgive Liszt for helping the music of the future to a hearing at Weimar. The rift widened. Liszt made a joke of it, but he was hurt by Schumann's ingratitude. Alas! he was to be later hurt by Wagner, by Joachim, by Brahms. He dedicated his B-minor sonata to Schumann, and Schumann dedicated to him his noble Fantaisie in C. After Schumann's death his widow brought out an edition of this fantaisie with the dedication omitted. The old-fashioned lady neither forgot nor forgave.

We consider the Kapp biography solid. The best portrait of Liszt may be found in that clever and amusing novel by Von Wolzogen, Kraftmayr. The G?llerich book chiefly consists of a chain of anecdotes in which the author is a prominent figure. Herr Kapp in a footnote attacks Herr G?llerich, denying that he was much with Liszt. How these Liszt pupils love each other! Joseffy-who was with the master two summers at Weimar, though he never relinquished his proud title of Tausig scholar-when the younger brilliant stars Rosenthal, first a Joseffy pupil, Sauer, and others cynically twitted him about his admiration of Liszt's playing-over seventy, at the time Rosenthal was with him-Joseffy answered: "He was the unique pianist." "But you were very young when you heard him" (1869), they retorted. "Yes, and Liszt was ten years younger too," replied the witty Joseffy.

G?llerich relates the story of the American girl who threw stones at the window of the Hoffgartnerei, Liszt's residence in Weimar, and when the master appeared above called out: "I've come all the way from America to hear you play." "Come up," said the aged magician, "I'll play for you." He did so, much to the scandal of the Liszt pupils assembled for daily worship. The anecdotes of Tausig and the stolen score of the Faust symphony (Liszt generously stated that the score was overlooked), are also set forth in the G?llerich book.

But he, the darling of the gods, fortune fairly pursuing him from cradle to grave, nevertheless the existence of this genius was far from happy. His closing years were melancholy. The centre of the new musical life and beloved by all, he was a lonely, homeless, disappointed man. His daughter Cosima, a dweller among memories only, said that the music of her father did not exist for her; Weimar had been swallowed by Bayreuth, and the crowning sorrow for Liszt lovers is the tomb of Liszt at Bayreuth. It should be in his beloved Weimar. He lies in the shadow of his dear friend Wagner, he, the "father-in-law of Wagner." Pascal was right; no matter the comedy, the end of life is always tragic. Perhaps if the tragedy had come to Franz Liszt earlier he might have profited by the uses of adversity, as did Richard Wagner, and thus have achieved the very stars.

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