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   Chapter 6 No.6

Franz Liszt By James Huneker Characters: 6614

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


When Franz Liszt nearly three quarters of a century ago made some suggestions to the Erard piano manufacturers on the score of increased sonority in their instruments, he sounded the tocsin of realism. It had been foreshadowed in Clementi's Gradus, and its intellectual resultant, the Beethoven sonata, but the material side had been hardly realised. Chopin, who sang the swan-song of idealism in surpassingly sweet tones, was by nature unfitted to wrestle with the problem. The arpeggio principle had its attractions for the gifted Pole, who used it in the most novel combinations and dared the impossible in extended harmonies. But the rich glow of idealism was over it all-a glow not then sicklied by the impertinences and affectations of the Herz-Parisian school; despite the morbidities and occasional dandyisms of Chopin's style he was, in the main, manly and sincere. Thalberg, who pushed to its limits scale playing and made an embroidered variant the end and not a means of piano playing-Thalberg, aristocratic and refined, lacked dramatic blood. With him the well-sounding took precedence of the eternal verities of expression. Touch, tone, technique, were his trinity of gods.

Thalberg was not the path-breaker; this was left for that dazzling Hungarian who flashed his scimitar at the doors of Leipsic and drove back cackling to their nests the whole brood of old women professors-a respectable crowd, which swore by the letter of the law and sniffed at the spirit. Poverty, chastity, and obedience were the obligatory vows insisted upon by the pedants of Leipsic; to attain this triune perfection one had to become poor in imagination, obedient to dull, musty precedent, and chaste in finger exercises. What wonder, when the dashing young fellow from Raiding shouted his uncouth challenge to ears plugged by prejudice, a wail went forth and the beginning of the end seemed at hand. Thalberg went under. Chopin never competed, but stood, a slightly astonished spectator, at the edge of the fray. He saw his own gossamer music turned into a weapon of offence; his polonaises were so many cleaving battle-axes, and perforce he had to confess that all this carnage of tone unnerved him. Liszt was the warrior, not he.

Schumann did all he could by word and note, and to-day, thanks to Liszt and his followers, any other style of piano playing would seem old-fashioned. Occasionally an idealist like the unique De Pachmann astonishes us by his marvellous play, but he is a solitary survivor of a once powerful school and not the representative of an existing method. There is no gainsaying that it was a fascinating style, and modern giants of the keyboard might often pattern with advantage after the rococoisms of the idealists; but as a school pure and simple it is of the past. We moderns are as eclectic as the Bolognese. We have a craze for selection, for variety, for adaptation; hence a pianist of to-day must include many styles in his performance, but the keynote, the foundation, is realism, a sometimes harsh realism that drives to despair the apostles of the beautiful in music and often forces them to lingering retrospection. To all is not given the power to summon spirits from the vasty deep, and thus we have viewed many times the mortifying spectacle of a Liszt pupil stagger

ing about under the mantle of his master, a world too heavy for his attenuated artistic frame. With all this the path was blazed by the Magyar and we may now explore with impunity its once trackless region.

Modern piano playing differs from the playing of fifty years ago principally in the character of touch attack. As we all know, the hand, forearm and upper arm are important factors now in tone production where formerly the fingertips were considered the prime utility. Triceps muscles rule the big tonal effects in our times. Liszt discovered their value. The Viennese pianos certainly influenced Mozart, Cramer and others in their styles; just as Clementi inaugurated his reforms by writing a series of studies and then building himself a piano to make them possible of performance. With variety of touch-tone-colour-the old rapid pearly passage, withal graceful school of Vienna, vanished; it was absorbed by the new technique. Clementi, Beethoven, Liszt, Schumann, forced to the utmost the orchestral development of the piano. Power, sonority, dynamic variety and novel manipulation of the pedals, combined with a technique that included Bach part playing and demanded the most sensational pyrotechnical flights over the keyboard-these were a few of the signs of the new school. In the giddiness superinduced by indulging in this heady new wine an artistic intoxication ensued that was for the moment harmful to a pure interpretation of the classics, which were mangled by the young vandals who had enlisted under Liszt's victorious standard. Colour, only colour, all the rest is but music! was the motto of those bold youths, who had never heard of Paul Verlaine.

But time has mellowed them, robbed their playing of its too dangerous quality, and when the last of the Liszt pupils gives his-or her-last recital we may wonder at the charges of exaggerated realism. Indeed, tempered realism is now the watchword. The flamboyancy which grew out of Tausig's attempt to let loose the Wagnerian Valkyrie on the keyboard has been toned down into a more sober, grateful colouring. The scarlet waistcoat of the Romantic school is outworn; the brutal brilliancies and exaggerated orchestral effects of the realists are beginning to be regarded with suspicion. We comprehend the possibilities of the instrument and our own aural limitations. Wagner on the piano is absurd, just as absurd as were Donizetti and Rossini. A Liszt operatic transcription is as nearly obsolete as a Thalberg paraphrase. (Which should you prefer hearing, the Norma of Thalberg or the Lucia of Liszt? Both in their different ways are clever but-outmoded.) Bold is the man to-day who plays either in public.

With Alkan the old virtuoso technique ends. The nuance is ruler now. The reign of noise is past. In modern music sonority, brilliancy are present, but the nuance is inevitable, not alone tonal but expressive nuance. Infinite shadings are to be heard where before were only piano, forte, and mezzo-forte. Chopin and Liszt and Tausig did much for the nuance; Joseffy taught America the nuance, as Rubinstein revealed to us the potency of his golden tones. "Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance," sang Verlaine; and without nuance the piano is a box of wood, wire and steel, a coffin wherein is buried the soul of music.

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