Saturday, 5 November 2016

Quotes: The Music of Liszt (1966) by Humphrey Searle

Humphrey Searle

Dover, Paperback, 1966.

First published, 1954.
Second Revised Edition, 1966.


Chapter I
The Early Works (1822–39)


Liszt completed his next original work in 1834; and the six years after 1828 marked the transition to maturity. External events wrought a great change in his character; first his illness from 1828–9, and the outbreak of religious fervour which accompanied it, gave him a strong distaste for the career of a travelling virtuoso for which he seemed to be destined; then the revolution of 1830 infected him with romantic revolutionary ardour; at the same time his entry into contact with the literary and artistic world of Paris at the moment of the birth of the Romantic Movement revealed to him how defective his general education had been – a defect which he determined to remedy as speedily as possible; and finally the successive impacts of Berlioz, Paganini and Chopin gave him a completely new musical outlook. This rapid series of events, coming at a time when adolescence was giving way to maturity, completely altered the whole course of his work. Hitherto he had been merely a successful infant prodigy, composing in his spare time works bounded by his technical powers and partly (at any rate) influenced by the views of his teachers; from now on his horizon was incomparably widened in all directions.


Before attempting any more original works, Liszt now turned his attention to transcriptions and fantasias. He first set himself what might seem the completely impossible task of transcribing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique for piano – surely one of the most unpianistic works ever written! Yet Sir Charles Hallé in his memoirs relates an occasion, at which he was present, when Liszt played his transcription of the March to the Scaffold immediately after an orchestral performance of the same piece, and received even more applause than the orchestra. Looking at Liszt’s “partition de piano,” as he called this type of transcription, one can well believe it, for it is astonishingly well done; Liszt has not simply arranged the notes for piano, but has recast the texture in such a way as to give the piano an orchestral effect. The extract from the March to the Scaffold on p. 7 indicates the type of writing he used.

The purpose of the transcription was of course to help Berlioz at a time when he found it difficult to get orchestral performances of his works: Liszt not only played it in his own concerts, but actually bore the expenses of its publication, so that it could reach as wide a public as possible. He followed this up by writing a short piano piece, L’Idée Fixe, Andante amoroso, on the main theme of the Symphony, and also by transcribing Berlioz’ overture Les Francs-Juges. Next year (1834) he wrote a Grande Fantaisie Symphonique on themes from Lélio for piano and orchestra, and in 1836 he also transcribed Harold in Italy and the King Lear overture.

Liszt has often been attacked for writing these transcriptions and fantasies, and it is as well to discuss the question before we proceed further. To begin with, these works fall into two main classes: the “partitions de piano,” which are more or less straight transcriptions from one medium to another, and the fantasies, which are original works based on other composers’ themes. There are of course borderline cases, where a transcription is so embellished with added detail that it almost becomes an original composition; but in general these two classes hold good. The purpose of the “partition de piano” was normally the help the composer by making his orchestral works more easily accessible to a wider audience. Berlioz, as we have seen, was the first whom Liszt helped in this way; but many others followed including Wagner, Glinka, Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Cui, Dargomijsky and a number of the younger German composers. In addition Liszt was able to make the works of Bach, Beethoven and Schubert known at a time when they were insufficiently appreciated by the concert audiences of the day. These transcriptions therefore served approximately the purpose of the modern gramophone record, that of presenting in a convenient form works which would not otherwise be easily available; and there is no doubt that Liszt’s transcriptions usually give as good an idea of a work as is possible in a totally different medium. It is true that some of his transcriptions of Beethoven and Schubert contain a good deal of added decoration which may not always be felt to be in keeping with the original; but in most cases Liszt also gave a simpler form as an ossia for those who prefer it, and his transcription of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasia for piano and orchestra, for instance, is generally agreed to be a brilliant realisation of an extremely difficult task. It is also true that many of the works transcribed by Liszt, at all periods of his life, are by third- and fourth-rate composers; many of these were transcribed either as compliments to Liszt’s aristocratic friends, or for the benefit of young and comparatively unknown composers to whom the name of Liszt on the cover of their pieces would be a great help. A further point is that in Liszt’s later years payments from his publishers represented practically his entire source of income; he had given up playing the piano professionally, and he never accepted a fee for teaching. He may have wasted a good deal of time on some of these transcriptions, but at least they provided an outlet for his abounding energy.

The fantasies are a different matter. Many, but by no means all, of these are on operatic themes – for instance, among the earliest are those on La Campanella, Lélio and Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words – and it is true that brilliant fantasies on current operatic successes were part of the stock-in-trade of every fashionable pianist of the day. We may look down our noses at them now, but we must remember that taste was very different in the 1830s, and who can blame Liszt for wanting to play the game even better than his rivals? Even Cesar Franck in his younger days wrote a number of fantasies, including one on “God Save the Queen” for piano duet, as well as a “Souvenir d'Aix-la-Chapelle”; it was in fact the rule rather than the exception to do so. The sole criterion is the musical value of the result; and here I think we must admit that Liszt not only outstripped every other competitor in the field, but produced a number of real winners. The best of the fantasies are formally well organised, musically beautiful and exciting, and of course brilliantly written – one has only to compare them with those of, say, Thalberg to see the difference between a first-rate and a second-rate mind. Naturally there are bad fantasies as well as good – here again Liszt wasted a good deal of time on inessentials – but it is ridiculous to condemn all fantasies out of hand as mere drawing-room fireworks. This will become apparent when we come to discuss them in detail.

The Grande Fantaisie Symphonique on themes from Berlioz’ Lélio was written, as we have seen, in 1834, and was first performed in Paris in the following year. The MS., which is unpublished, is in the Liszt Museum at Weimar. It seems unlikely that the scoring is by Liszt himself; at that time he had little knowledge of orchestration, and the first work which he is known to have scored himself is the first Beethoven Cantata of 1845. This is borne out by the fact that the score is written in another hand, but contains additions and alterations in Liszt’s writing, and even some pencilled comments, such as “Bon!,” which appear to express approval of some idea of the orchestrator’s which Liszt had not thought of himself.[1] The Fantasy is in two sections, the first based on the setting of Goethe’s Der Fischer (Le Pêcheur), and the second mainly on the Chanson du Brigands. The opening section, Lento, is a poetical meditation on Berlioz’s theme, with alternating moods of animation, despair, calm, delicacy – in fact the real essence of Lélio as a whole seen in miniature; the second section, in which the trombones enter for the first time, is naturally more dramatic and exciting, though it is interrupted just before the end by a return of the Lento theme. The Fantasy is in fact a re-creation of Berlioz’ work in Liszt’s terms – an unusual tribute from one composer to another, perhaps, but certainly a practical one in the case of a work which needs such elaborate and unusual resources in its original form. The Fantasy is one of the most clearly written and successful of Liszt’s early works, and obviously deserves publication and performance.


The same year, 1834, saw Liszt's real beginning as an original composer, and from it date four extremely remarkable works. The first of these is the single piece Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses; [...] The piece is a kind of free improvisation, mostly without time or key signature, and far bolder than any previous attempts in the same direction, such as Beethoven's Fantasia, Op. 77, or the slow movement of Mendelssohn's early piano sonata in E minor (1826). In this piece we can see Liszt trying to reproduce the effect of his own playing in a more minute way than had ever been attempted before. The beginning is marked "avec un profond sentiment d'ennui," and the mood ranges through a recitative passage and an Agitato assai to an Adagio and an Andante religioso, ending gloomily, yet inconclusively, with a bass recitative. [...] It is in any case an extremely remarkable work to have been written within seven years of the death of Beethoven, especially by a composer of only twenty-three.

The piece was originally conceived for piano and orchestra; in the later set Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses Liszt included it in a revised version under the title Pensée des Morts, and disclaimed the earlier version as "tronquée et fautive." Few will agree with him in this, however, for the later version is considerably inferior to the first, and contains a good deal of that rather stifling atmosphere which has somehow turned sour most of the set of Harmonies.


Liszt evidently realised the danger of the extreme technical difficulty of some of his works, and therefore revised them in later life; but even so a great deal of his music is in the unfortunate position of being playable in the way Liszt meant it to be played by only a handful of pianists in each generation, while remaining at the mercy of every pianist who has enough technique to play the notes and nothing more; and thereby the misleading impression, to which we are so well accustomed, is perpetuated. Liszt did not invent his transcendental technique merely in order to dazzle his hearers and show that he was a better pianist than his rivals; he did it because he was thereby able to draw new and almost orchestral effects from the piano, which incomparably widened its range of expression – and all subsequent composers for the piano are grateful to him.


Paysage is a calm and beautiful landscape, simply, yet originally expressed; some of the syncopated progressions in the middle have more than a foretaste of Brahms – who was five when the piece was written!


The sixth piece, Vallée d’Obermann, is the most considerable in the collection; it is prefaced by a long quotation from the novel Obermann by Etienne Pivert de Senancour (1770–1846), to whom Liszt dedicated his piece. This romantic work had a considerable influence on Liszt at the time; this quotation will give some idea of its character. “Vast consciousness of a Nature everywhere overwhelming and impenetrable, universal passion, indifference, advanced wisdom, voluptuous abandon, all the desires and all the profound torments that a human heart can hold, I have felt them all, suffered them all in this memorable night. I have made a sinister step towards the age of enfeeblement; I have eaten up ten years of my life.” The work has a most curious atmosphere, gloomy, sinister and resigned by turns, but ending with a real paean of joy; it is in some ways a kind of earlier Verklärte Nacht. It is one of the pieces in which the subject really “possessed” the composer, so that one feels throughout it a feeling of absolute conviction. There are many examples throughout of Liszt’s novel and expressive use of harmony, such as this:


The Sposalizio was inspired by Raphael's famous painting, "The Marriage of the Virgin," in the Brera at Milan. It is mainly a quiet, lyrical piece which carries still further the tendency shown in the Eglogue towards the free use of notes foreign to the main harmony, as we may see from this passage:

If one compares this with, for instance, the first Arabesque of Debussy, it is easy to see how far Liszt was ahead of his time. The second piece, Il Penseroso, is even more remarkable. Inspired by the celebrated statue by Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel in the church of San Lorenzo at Florence, it is unique not only for its expression of brooding melancholy, but also for its bold use of chromatic harmony which anticipates the style of Tristan – yet Tristan was not composed till twenty years later! This extract from the end is typical:

To Il Penseroso Liszt prefaced a quotation from Michelangelo which may be roughly translated as follows: “I am thankful to sleep, and more thankful to be made of stone. So long as injustice and shame remain on earth, I count it a blessing not to see or feel; so do not wake me – speak softly!” The piece had a great personal significance for Liszt: more than twenty years later he used it as the basis of the second of the Trois Odes Funèbres, which, as we shall see, he intended to be his own requiem.


The three Petrarch Sonnets exist in several versions. They were originally written in 1838-9 as songs for high tenor voice (going up to C sharp) and as such are probably the first of Liszt’s songs. In this version the first sonnet is No. 104 and the second No. 47. At about the same time Liszt made a piano solo version of the songs, and it was this version which was issued separately in 1846, followed a year later by the publication of the song version. Some time before 1858 Liszt altered the piano version into the form which is now familiar to us, reversing the order of the first two sonnets at the same time, and they were then published in the complete second volume of Années de Pèlerinage. About 1865 Liszt made another version of the songs, this time for much lower voice (medium tenor or baritone), and considerably simplifying them in the process; this version was published in 1883. The original tenor song version (as well as its piano transcription) shows all the romantic exuberance of Liszt’s youth, as well as a strong influence of the Italian operatic bel canto; these songs are well worth reviving, for they are not only extremely beautiful in themselves, but also show an unfamiliar side of Liszt’s art. The mature piano transcriptions are admirable examples of Liszt’s power of translating music from medium to another without any feeling of loss; taken by themselves they make excellent piano pieces, and one would certainly not have guessed that they were originally written for the voice. They are all of supreme beauty, and there is little to choose between them; many consider that No. 104 in perhaps the finest. The final song versions make a most interesting contrast to the 1838-9 songs; here the exuberance has completely disappeared, and is replaced by extreme simplicity, almost austerity. It is not perhaps surprising that Liszt’s attitude to the poems should have changed with the years; but the difference between the two song versions is quite remarkable.

The final piece in the collection, Après une Lecture du Dante, is also the most extended and ambitious. Liszt and Mme d’Agoult often read Dante together in the 1830s; and though the title of the piece is actually taken from a poem by Victor Hugo, there is no doubt that in it Liszt expressed his own reactions to the “strange tongues, horrible cries, words of pain, tones of anger” which Dante describes in his Inferno. It is a strange, confused and passionate piece, perhaps incoherent and inchoate, but conjuring a powerful and unmistakable atmosphere. It is not quite altogether satisfactory as a piano solo piece, for Liszt often seems to be trying to express things which are beyond the powers of the instrument; but a version for piano and orchestra, such as that made by Constant Lambert for the Sadler’s Wells ballet Dante Sonata, brings out its qualities in a far clearer and more incisive manner.[2] Liszt was to return to Dante again in his Dante Symphony; but this sonata remains an interesting and impressive attempt at the interpretation of literature in music.


We may complete our study of Liszt's early period with a reference to yet another virtuoso piece, the Grand Galop Chromatique. This work is the essence of all concert platform fireworks; it is the grand finale par excellence, and we can well imagine Liszt ending his concerts with it, with fevered gestures and hair flying in all directions. Nevertheless it is by no means negligible as a piece of light music, which is all that is intended to be; it is short, well shaped, entertaining and has good tunes, and there is no reason why a serious composer should not unbend at times if he does it as well as this. We shall see more of this side of Liszt during the next period, his years as a travelling virtuoso; but meanwhile we may recall the remarkable variety and richness of the works we have discussed so far, ranging as they do from the romantic expressionism of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, through the virtuosity of the Transcendental and Paganini Studies, to the poetical imagery of the Années de Pèlerinage and the dazzling glitter of the salon pieces. It was surely no mean feat to have created a corpus of works of such variegated distinction by the age of twenty-eight.

Chapter II
The Virtuoso Period (1839–47)


The works in dance form include an excellent Galop in A minor, just as brilliant as and musically superior to the Grand Chromatic Galop; for some reason this piece was never published in Liszt’s lifetime, and first appeared in the Collected Edition in 1928. (An orchestration of it by Gordon Jacob was used in the Ball Scene of the Sadler’s Wells ballet Apparitions, and recordings of this version have been made by Constant Lambert and Robert Loving.) It has all the gaiety of Offenbach at his best, and deserves to be played, though its technical difficulties are formidable. There is also an admirable waltz on themes from Donizetti’s Lucia and Parisina, which has all the freshness and brilliance of Liszt at his youthful best; this too is a piece which is well worth reviving. The other original piano works are mainly short salon or album pieces; but there are a number of important fantasies and transcriptions. The fantasies include those on the Tarantella from Auber’s Muette de Portici, on Bellini’s Sonnambula and Norma, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia (in two parts) and the Funeral March from Dom Sebastien, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Meyerbeer’s Robert the Devil. (A further fantasy, on Mozart’s Figaro, was left unfinished, though actually played by Liszt in Berlin in 1843; it was completed and published by Busoni in 1912.[3]) These in some ways represent the high point of Liszt’s work of this type; whatever one may think about the operatic fantasy as musical form, there is no doubt that in many of these works Liszt completely transcended his original material and produced a kind of re-creation of the thoughts of the composers which raises them to a far higher musical level. Mozartian purists may argue about Liszt’s approach to Don Giovanni and Figaro; but there is no doubt that the fantasy on Norma, for instance, is far more than a mere effective concert piece, and gives a summary in short space and concentrated form of the whole musical content of Bellini’s opera; further than that, as Kaikhosru Sorabji wrote: “Bellini’s themes never had, by themselves, the grandeur and magnificence that Liszt is able to infuse them with.” The same is true, perhaps to lesser extent, of the fantasies on Sonnambula, Dom Sebastien and the Muette de Portici; before dismissing these works as mere salon fireworks one should note the extraordinary breadth and power which Liszt was able to impart to material which in itself was often somewhat undistinguished.

The Don Giovanni fantasy represents a different problem, in that here Liszt was dealing with an undisputed masterpiece, and it might therefore seem impertinent of him to attempt to add anything to it. Of course the nineteenth-century attitude to such things was not as purist as ours is, and Liszt would have been quite justified in the eyes of his contemporaries in giving his own interpretation of even such a great work as this. And in fact one cannot say that Liszt has vulgarised it; his approach is certainly broader and more romantic than is in fashion to-day, but he was interested in the work as a human and dramatic story, and it was this aspect of the opera which he wanted particularly to bring out. He did this by taking three scenes which typify three different sides of the drama: a slow introduction based on the Statue Music when the Commendatore appears at the super scene, a middle section with two variations on the duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina, and a finale on Don Giovanni’s “Champagne Aria.” These three episodes represent the essence, though not the whole, of the story; at any rate one is presented with the three main ideas of justice, seduction and carefree enjoyment which form the mainspring of the opera. Liszt takes each idea as the basis of a musical section and works it out so as to represent the dramatic development of that particular scene in the opera; but the three ideas are each treated separately, and there is no question of a pictorial “symphonic poem” representing the actual course of the action. (The only exception is a passage towards the end of the finale where the theme of the Commendatore reappears to cast a blight on Don Giovanni’s gaiety.) Personally I find the work a completely satisfying interpretation by one composer of the ideas of another; it, of course, cannot make the same effect as a hearing of Mozart’s opera, but it is not intended to – it is Mozart-Liszt, and not Mozart, and one should appreciate it for what it is. And Bernard Shaw’s opinion is worth quoting: “When you hear the terrible progressions of the statue’s invitation suddenly echoing through the harmonies accompanying Juan’s seductive ‘Andiam, andiam, mio bene,’ you cannot help accepting it as a stroke of genius – that is, if you know your Don Giovanni au fond.”[4]


I have said “so-called Malediction concerto” above, for in fact Liszt left the work untitled. He did however make some additions and corrections to the copyist’s MS., and over some of the principal themes he wrote phrases indicative of their character. Thus “Malediction” applies only to the opening theme, a startling phrase, in some ways similar to the opening of Orage from the Swiss book of the Années de Pèlerinage; it is found in a sketch book which dates from the early 1830s.[5]

After a short piano cadenza, mainly based on the clash of two chords a tritone apart – an effect not afterwards paralleled till Petroushka* – the second main theme, marked “orgueil,” enters on the piano.

This theme was later used in the finale (Mephistopheles) of the Faust Symphony, where it is the only one which is not a parody of those of the first movement. A later theme, a romantic ‘cello solo with piano accompaniment (p. 7 of the Breitkopf score) is marked “pleurs – angoisses – rêves,” the latter word being later crossed out and “songes” substituted; and a brilliant Vivo passage (p. 11) is marked “raillerie.” The concerto is thus a succession of mood pictures, poetical, romantic and emotional, and extremely characteristic of Liszt at this period – he was even thinking of introducing into it a transcription of Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh” at one point, but afterwards, wisely, thought better of it. It is admittedly a patchy work, and some of the string writing is extremely awkward for the players – though curiously enough its actual sound in performance is perfectly effective; but it contains a number of extremely interesting things, and is well worth performing by those who can cope with the difficult piano part.[6]

* Incidentally the parallel passage in Petroushka is in fact called “Malédictions de Petroushka” – a curious coincidence, as Liszt’s Malediction was still unpublished at the time Stravinsky wrote the ballet. [Searle’s footnote.]


Six of the Rhapsodies (Nos. 14, 12, 6, 2, 5 and 9) were later issued in an orchestral version, described as “arranged by the composer and Franz Doppler”; but according to Liszt’s English pupil and friend Walter Bache, “Doppler was a flute player who did arrange some of these Rhapsodies for orchestra. So when Liszt published the set of six, he very generously put Doppler’s name on the title out of compliment to him; but Doppler had nothing to do with them. If you like to mention this characteristic of Liszt’s kindness, do so; but don’t mention my authority for it, which is Liszt himself.” As we shall see in discussing the orchestral works, Liszt ceased employing collaborators in his orchestral scoring from about 1854 onwards, and thereafter wrote out all his own scores himself; in any case the orchestral versions of the Rhapsodies are extremely effectively done, and deservedly hold their place in the popular repertoire. The 15th Rhapsody (Rákóczy March), which exists in at least three different piano versions, was also scored for orchestra later in Liszt’s life; Liszt somewhat naturally wished to avoid competition with Berlioz’ brilliant orchestral arrangement of the same theme, and therefore withheld his own version for many years. Though certainly effective, it does not generate the enormous excitement of the Berlioz’ version.*

* Liszt’s earlier piano arrangements of the Rákóczy March (and probably some form of his orchestral arrangement) were actually written before Berlioz’ version (1845); in fact, it was Liszt who first introduced Berlioz to the march; see Liszt’s Briefe II, 336. [Searle’s footnote.]


The songs are another matter [than the secular choral works], for they represent the first exploitation of a fruitful vein which Liszt continued to explore for the rest of his life. Of his seventy songs, about thirty were written during this period […]. Many were revised and reissued later, but in essence their inspiration dates from this time. […] In most cases the later revisions, which are the ones usually known and performed to-day, represent a considerable improvement. In the 1840s Liszt had certain disadvantages as a song-writer; he was a virtuoso pianist who tended to write over-elaborate accompaniments; he was steeped in the feeling of Italian opera, and therefore was inclined to over-dramatise the most simple lyrical poems; and he was as yet insufficiently at home with German traditions to avoid making mistakes in setting German words. For instance, in the setting of the famous Mignon song, the opening phrase is throughout accentuated as “Kennst du das Land?” which no German would dream of saying. In these early settings he also misunderstood to some extent the feeling implicit in the German words; for instance the first version of “Der du von dem Himmel bist” rises to a violent emotional climax which is quite out of keeping with the spirit of the words; and often he let the musical thought have too much control of the setting – for instance, at the end of the exquisite lyric “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh” the constant repetition of the last two lines “Warte nur, balde Ruhest du auch” produces an exaggerated effect. […] Liszt’s sensitivity to lyrical poetry greatly matured during the Weimar years, and in practically every case these revised versions of the songs are great improvements on the originals.

But in spite of these criticisms, Liszt remains a very much underrated song-writer. He had a very genuine pictorial and lyrical gift, and he saw to it that in his songs the voice and piano parts were integrated into a whole – there is no question of an all-important melody with a conventional accompaniment, as in the songs of some of his contemporaries. […] But of the major German poets it was Heine whom Liszt interpreted with the greatest feeling and subtlety; apart from the settings mentioned above, “Du bist wie eine Blume” has all the simplicity and charm of the original, “Vergiftet sind meine Lieder” has a remarkable dramatic power and some extraordinary harmonic effects, especially for a song written as early as 1842; these two passages, one from the beginning and one from the climax of the song, may exemplify this.

Of the other songs of this period, “Die Vätergruft” deserves mention for the stark simplicity and effectiveness of its opening and final sections (incidentally the orchestration of this song, made for his London visit in 1886, was the last work that Liszt completed).


But the melody which above all others has made Liszt’s name universally famous also belongs to this period; in 1847 he published a song called “O lieb, so lang du lieben kanst,” which is now known all over the world as the Liebestraum. As a matter of fact there are three Liebesträume: Nos. 1 and 2, “Hohe Liebe” and “Gestorben war ich,” were songs written about 1849, and the three were transcribed for piano and published as “Liebesträume, 3 Notturnos” in 1850. Little more need be said, except that Nos. 1 and 2 are just as beautiful, if not more so, than their famous sister, and all three deserve to be performed more often in their original song form.

The tale of Liszt’s piano compositions, choral works and songs will be continued in our next chapter, together with the important additional categories of works for orchestra and for organ; and it will then become clear that, apart from the works discussed in this chapter, many larger-scale works were maturing in Liszt’s mind during his years of travel as a virtuoso. Though Liszt undoubtedly wasted a great deal of time during this period on brilliant trifles, his progress as a composer did continue to show a steady development, and culminated in the full-scale flowering of the Weimar years.

Chapter III
The Weimar Years (1848–61)

The Weimar period was that of Liszt’s greatest productivity; music poured from his pen, and his output is all the more astonishing in that not only do many of the works show extremely novel and original characteristics, but also because at the same time Liszt was constantly occupied with productions of important and difficult new works on the stage of the Weimar theatre – not to mention the numerous essays on musical subjects which he wrote at the same time. Admittedly he was helped in his literary work by the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, and his pupils took some of the weight of routine matters off his shoulders; but even so a period which produced the first twelve symphonic poems, the Faust and Dante Symphonies, a number of major piano works, including the Sonata, as well as revisions of his earlier piano pieces and songs – not to mention numerous transcriptions and some large-scale vocal works – must indeed be considered a remarkable one. Inevitably there were drawbacks to this activity; many of the works of this period give the impression of having been written in too much of a hurry for the thought contained in them to have really crystallised, and although Liszt frequently and tirelessly revised his works, both before and after performance and publication, there was a certain element of hit-or-miss in his composition process which tended to produce uneven results.


But the collection [Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses] evidently had a strong personal significance for Liszt; it is dedicated to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, and it was the work which he took the greatest pleasure in playing to his friends in later years, when he had retired from public activity. Musically the collection is extremely uneven; the Ave Maria, Pater noster and Miserere are more or less straightforward arrangements of liturgical music of no particular importance. […] The Invocation is somewhat clumsy and overdone; Pensée des Morts is weaker and more conventional than its original version, and Nos. 6 and No. 9 give a curiously negative effect. But Cantique d’Amour is a fine expressive piece, and the Benediction of God in Solitude and Funérailles must both be reckoned among Liszt’s masterpieces.[7]

The Benediction is indeed almost unique among Liszt’s works in that it expresses that feeling of mystical contemplation which Beethoven attained in his last period, but which is rarely found elsewhere in music. Lamartine’s poem begins:

D’où me vient, O mon Dieu, cette paix qui m’ inonde?
D’où me vient cette foi dont mon coeur surabonde?

and Liszt has truly expressed the atmosphere of peace and faith which the words suggest. The touching simplicity of the final passage shows that Liszt, like Beethoven, could express the most sublime thoughts in completely unadorned language when the mood was upon him, and the Benediction is rightly acclaimed as one of his finest and most original works.


By 1849, therefore, Liszt had either seen or read the scores of Wagner’s first four mature operas[8]; by that time he had himself completed the first versions of the first three symphonic poems, the two piano concertos and the Totentanz. The two did not meet again till July 1853, when Liszt visited Wagner at Zürich; after this visit Wagner wrote that he had really got to know Liszt for the first time, and that Liszt had played from MS. some of the symphonic poems (of which about eight had been completed at this time), some of his piano music, and the Faust Symphony. The reference to the last work seems obscure as Liszt did not put it down on paper till the following summer (incidentally Liszt had given Wagner’s Faust Overture at Weimar in 1852); but the idea of a Faust Symphony had long been in Liszt’s mind, and possibly Liszt played to Wagner his ideas and sketches for the work. Wagner, who had written no music since Lohengrin, now embarked on the composition of the The Ring, which proceeded as follows: Rheingold, November 1853–January 1854; Walküre, January–December 1854. Part of 1855 was spent in scoring Walküre, and the first two acts were sent to Liszt in October. In the summer of 1856 Wagner underwent a cure at Mornex, and spent the time studying Liszt’s symphonic poems – Mazeppa, Orpheus, Les Preludes, Festklänge, Prometheus and Tasso; in September he began the composition of Siegfried. Later Wagner wrote to Liszt: “I regard you as the creator of my present position. When I compose and orchestrate I always think only of you. … Your last three scores are to consecrate me a musician once more and fit me for the beginning of my second act (of Siegfried), which I shall precede by my study of them.” This however was broken off in the middle of the second act, and in 1857 began the composition of Tristan. This opera was completed in 1859, and shortly afterwards Wagner wrote the letter to von Bülow in which the celebrated passage occurs: “There are many matters on which we are quite frank among ourselves (for instance, that since my acquaintance with Liszt’s compositions my treatment of harmony has become very different from what it was formerly), but it is indiscreet, to say the least, of friend Pohl to babble this secret to the whole world.”

I feel that there is no need to treat this question from a partisan point of view. Wagner, a self-centred egotist, found Liszt useful to him, both artistically and financially, and was no doubt grateful to him in his own way; Liszt genuinely admired Wagner’s genius, and certainly learnt a good deal from him. There are of course many parallels between Liszt’s and Wagner’s music, both at this time and later. We have already seen (p. 52) how a phrase in one of Liszt’s songs anticipates the opening of Tristan[9]; and there are some curious parallels between Walküre and the Faust Symphony, both of which were composed in 1854. The main theme of the Faust Symphony:

appears in this form in the second act of Walküre, at the words “Kehrte der Vater nun heim”:

Similarly the “Kiss” motive at the end of Walküre:

is strikingly similar to this passage from the finale of the Faust Symphony:

It would be possible to multiply examples; e.g. the opening three notes of the Tristan prelude are similar to a figure in the Faust Symphony (Ex. 39 (i)a, p. 79) and there is a definite resemblance, commented on both Wagner and Liszt themselves, between themes in Liszt’s Excelsior! (1874) and Wagner’s Parsifal (1882) – but such reminiscence-hunting is of little value. What is more important is what each learnt from the other, and of what advantage it was to each of them. Liszt learnt from Wagner a stronger sense of form; he was able to make his music more symphonic and less episodic, and in addition his command of orchestral writing became surer and less amateurish – in fact Wagner helped him to become a really professional composer of large-scale works, like Christus and St. Elisabeth, and not merely an inspired dilettante whose effects might or might not come off. Liszt’s music enriched Wagner’s language; it became less conventional, more pictorial and dramatic, and above all showed him bolder methods of handling chromatic harmony; one has only to look at Tristan to see how much he learnt in a short time. It was the 1850s that marked the transition between Wagner’s earlier and later styles, and it was precisely in this period that Liszt and Wagner were closest together. It was inevitable that they should drift apart, musically, if not personally, in later years, for their aims were entirely different; but these years of cross-fertilisation, as it were, were of the greatest value to both composers.

There was a further point in which Liszt and Wagner came together at this period – the question of thematic transformation and the leit-motiv. Clearly both composers had been tending in this direction independently for some years; Liszt, as we have seen, wrote many early works which are based on varied treatments of a single theme – possibly the operatic fantasies, many of which consist of an introduction, variations and coda, all based on the same theme, suggested this method to him. Wagner, in his operas up to Lohengrin, did not use leit-motive as such; but he did adopt the idea, used consistently by Weber in his later operas, of associating certain music with certain characters and introducing it at suitable dramatic moments – an obvious example is provided by Senta’s and the Dutchman’s themes in The Flying Dutchman. But from The Ring onwards his leit-motiv technique appears fully developed, and it is surely not too much to suppose that Liszt’s methods of thematic transformation provided the impetus for this invention, especially when one considers the dates and times involved.[10]


We are now in a position to discuss Liszt’s orchestral works. As we have seen, Liszt approached the orchestra in an extremely gingerly manner in his earlier years; but by the late 1840s he did at last make a serious attempt to overcome his lack of knowledge of the technique of orchestration. He began by enlisting the help of August Conradi (1821–73), a composer of farces and operettas well known at that time; Liszt wrote out his orchestral works on three or four staves, together with indications of the instrumentation required, and from this Conradi prepared a full score. Liszt then revised this himself, and often the whole process was repeated two or three times until Liszt was satisfied. Conradi was a competent routing composer with little imagination; but from 1849 onwards Liszt enjoyed the help of a far more useful collaborator – Joachim Raff, who came to Weimar expressly for this purpose. The same procedure was followed as with Conradi; but Raff, a composed of far greater imaginative power, was able to make practical suggestions which were of great value to Liszt. However, the final printed versions of all Liszt’s orchestral works were revised by Liszt himself, and do represent his own wishes and not those of his collaborators.


The work [Orpheus] throughout has a broadness and nobility which place it high among Liszt’s creations, and the final passage for strings echoed by woodwind chords, “gradually rising like the vapour of incense,” as Liszt says in his preface, shows a highly daring and original poetry.


Both Orpheus and Prometheus deserve to be heard far more frequently than they are – which in the case of the latter is practically never.


Héroïde funèbre is, in fact, a fine one-movement funeral march of vast proportions, which recalls the shape and feeling of many movements in Mahler’s symphonies.


No program is attached to Hungaria, which may best be regarded as a Hungarian Rhapsody on an extended scale.


[Hamlet] is a short and concise work (it plays about ten minutes[11]); in it nothing is wasted, every point is made with clarity and precision, and a remarkable psychological portrait emerges. Of all Liszt’s symphonic poems this is the one that most merits revival and frequent performance; yet even in Liszt’s lifetime it was not properly appreciated, and the first performance did not take place until 1876 in Sondershausen.


This review of Liszt’s first twelve symphonic poems will have shown, I hope, that though many of them contain pictorial and programmatic elements, Liszt’s approach was fundamentally different from that of Saint-Saëns, Strauss, Dvořák, Sibelius and others who have used this form. In the symphonic poems Liszt wished to expound philosophical and humanistic ideas which were of the greatest importance to him, and many of which were connected with his personal problems as an artist (Tasso, Orpheus, Prometheus). Thus where Beethoven’s symphonies may be said to be concerned with undefined philosophical problems which cannot be expressed accurately in words, Liszt in this new form was trying to represent more explicit problems which had been set out in many cases by writers or painters; he was not interested in the minute pictorialism into which the symphonic poem later degenerated, nor, in the first place, in “telling a story” in music; the story, if any, to him was merely the symbol of an idea. This is not an easy conception to fulfil; and as we have seen, Liszt scored as many failures as successes; but the invention of the symphonic poem was a landmark in musical history, and Liszt rightly felt that with it the scope and expressive power of music had been greatly widened, if not always deepened.


Liszt was truly inspired when he wrote the Faust Symphony; it expresses every variety of mood with the utmost clarity and dramatic emphasis, yet one never feels that the music is forced or artificial. It simply poured out of him quite naturally; though the symphony lasts over an hour one does not get the impression that it is overlong for what it has to say, for it is all deeply and genuinely felt. Many think, and I would agree, that in this work Liszt produced his masterpiece.

The Dante Symphony is more open to question, though curiously enough Liszt here felt a stronger affinity with his subject. […] Nevertheless the Dante Symphony contains a good deal of fine music, particularly in the first movement (on which, incidentally, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini appears to have been closely modelled).


The Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust are the last important orchestral works of the Weimar years, having been written about 1860. Lenau’s work is a long dramatic poem which contains many episodes omitted from Goethe’s version of the Faust legend. The first of the two interpreted by Liszt is Der nächtliche Zug – The ride by night. It is a warm spring night, dark and gloomy, but the nightingales are singing. Faust enters on horseback, letting his horse quietly saunter on. Soon lights are seen through the trees, and a religious procession approaches, singing the choral Pangue lingua. The music rises to a climax, the procession passes on, and Faust, left alone, weeps bitterly into his horse’s mane. This fine descriptive piece, with its wonderful evocation of atmosphere, for some reason is hardly ever performed, though there is nothing exaggerated or overdone about it; in fact it shows what complete mastery of orchestral writing Liszt had by now attained. Its companion piece, however, The Dance in the Village Inn, better known as the Mephisto Waltz (there are, in fact, three others, which will be discussed in the next chapter), is frequently played, both for orchestra and as a piano piece – both versions were composed at approximately the same time. Faust and Mephistopheles enter the inn in search of pleasure; the peasants are dancing, and Mephisto seizes the violin and intoxicates the audience with his playing. They abandon themselves to love-making, and two by two slip out into the starlit night, Faust with one of the girls; then the singing of the nightingale is heard through the open doors. There are two alternative endings which come at this point; in the one usually played the music of the dance returns, and works up to a brief and violent climax; but the second ending is dramatically more effective. There is a sudden fortissimo in the whole orchestra, and then the music dies away in muted tremolos; the quotation in the score reads: “They sink in the ocean of their own lust.” The first Mephisto Waltz is a brilliant dramatic piece which rightly deserves its place in the repertoire; the middle section, with its chromatic theme, looks forward to the harmonic methods of Scriabin:

The Ruins of Athens Fantasy is little more than a brilliant showpiece – which also applies to the transcription of the Weber Polonaise – and the Hungarian Fantasia is an effective arrangement of the 14th Hungarian Rhapsody. The arrangement of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasia is of more interest; it is certainly not what Schubert might have written, yet in a curious way it keeps faithful to the spirit of Schubert. Particularly effective, for instance, is the opening of the last movement, where the theme is announced fugally, beginning fortissimo in bass octaves. A lesser arranger might well have given this to the lower strings and brought in the higher instruments successively with each subsequent entry; Liszt rightly gave the entire fugal exposition to the solo piano, knowing that it alone could give the effect that Schubert intended, and reserved the orchestra for the subsequent passage. The soloist is in fact the dominant partner throughout, and the orchestra either supports or provides a contrast to his part. The whole question of an arrangement of this kind depends on whether the letter or the spirit is of greater importance; but Liszt, always a sincere admirer of Schubert, has certainly been faithful to his original “in his fashion”.


The sacred choral works are few in number; the first one of importance is the Mass for four-part male chorus and organ, written in 1848. Liszt in later years regarded this work as a step on the way to higher things; it is simple and liturgical in style, and Liszt wished it above all to express “religious absorption, Catholic devotion and exaltation. The church composer is also preacher and priest,” he wrote, “and where words cannot suffice to convey the feeling, music gives them wing and transfigures them.” This was one side of his attitude to church music, and it may be found in a number of his simpler and smaller works of this kind.


The other side of his approach to church music may be seen in his setting of Psalm 13 (1855) for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra. Here the dramatic technique of the symphonic poems is applied to a religious subject, and the result is a fine, intensely exciting and moving work. It has more in common with later dramatic settings of religious texts, like Verdi’s Requiem, or even a modern work like Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus, than with the usual oratorios and cantatas of the time, and hence Liszt was accused of being an “effectmonger.” Nothing could be more unjust; Liszt felt the suffering and the joy expressed in the words with great directness, and he simply wished to give it the fullest expression possible. And the fact that it has still lost none of its power to-day shows that he was well justified.


His only other important religious work of this period is the Gran Mass, written in 1855 for the dedication of the Basilica at Gran (Esztergom) in Hungary. This work caused considerable discussion at the time; Liszt was accused of imitating Wagnerian methods in it, and even of trying to “smuggle the Venusberg into church music.” The Mass certainly gives no cause for alarm in these days; it is highly dramatic and full of feeling, but so is a good deal of church music written earlier (including, for instance, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) and since. Hanslick wrote: “We do not raise the slightest doubts about the religious feelings of the composer,” but went on to imply that Liszt was like a clever actor trying to find new points to bring out in an important role which he had played too frequently – i.e. that he was merely trying to do something different from what anyone else had done before. This is unfair to Liszt, who certainly felt very strongly what he was writing, even if his feelings were sometimes superficial. To us to-day the Mass makes a sincere, if not an overwhelming impression; it contains many beautiful moments, particularly in the opening Kyrie, and there are exciting passages in the Gloria and Credo.


Chapter IV
The Final Years

Part I. Rome (1861–9)


The only important orchestral works of the period are the Trois Odes Funèbres; but these are extremely interesting, not only for their musical value, but also for the insight they give into Liszt’s thoughts at this time. The first, Les Morts, was written in 1860 in memory of Liszt’s son Daniel. It is described as an “Oration for orchestra with male chorus ad libitum.” The title is explained by the fact that throughout the score there is written a prose passage by Lamennais, which begins as follows: “They too have lived on this earth; they have passed down the river of time; their voices were heard on its banks, and then were heard no more. Where are they now? Who shall tell? But blessed are they who die in the Lord.” The last three sentences recur from time to time throughout the work as a kind of refrain, and each time the male chorus enters with the words: “Beati mortui qui in Domino moriuntur.” Liszt did not in fact intend Lamennais’ words to be declaimed during the music – they were simply inserted in the score as a guide to the musical thought – but the work has been so performed in modern times with very moving effect. It is a very fine and dignified elegy, rising to a great central climax with the words “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God of Hosts,” and afterwards returning to the quiet mood of the opening. Liszt clearly had a special affection for it, and in his will asked Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein to see that it was published; but in fact it did not appear till many years after his death, in the Breitkopf Collected Edition.

The second Ode, La Notte, is even more interesting. It was written in 1864, two years after the death of Liszt’s eldest daughter Blandine; the main part of it is an orchestrated version of Il Penseroso from the Italian book of the Années de Pèlerinage. Liszt prefixed to La Notte, as he did also to Il Penseroso, the quatrain of Michelangelo, “Grato m’è il sonno.” These words are significant of Liszt’s state of mind at the time; but, even more significantly, he wrote in La Notte a new middle section of which a notable feature is a well-known “Hungarian cadence,” and to this he prefixed a quotation from Virgil: “Dulces moriens reminiscitur Argos.” (“Dying, he remembers fair Argos.”) These words refer to the death in Italy of Antores, an Argive companion of Aeneas, who was killed in battle by a spear aimed at his leader; Liszt, who was living in Rome at the time, clearly felt that he too might die far from his native Hungary. Liszt asked in a note to the score that Les Morts and La Notte should be played at his own funeral; but his wish was not fulfilled, and both works remained unperformed until 1912.

The third of the Funeral Odes, Le Triomphe Funèbre du Tasse, also has a personal significance. It was written as an epilogue to the symphonic poem Tasso, and is based on some of the same themes. Tasso, like Liszt, won a brilliant success at an early age, but thereafter found recognition withheld from him; and this work clearly symbolises the idea that Liszt’s true fame, like Tasso’s, would not come about until after his death – here Liszt showed himself a true prophet, for it is only in recent years that the real significance of Liszt’s later works has begun to become apparent. This is the only one of the three Odes to be published and performed in Liszt’s lifetime; the first performance took place in 1877 in New York under Leopold Damrosch, to whom Liszt dedicated the work. Harmonically the Odes do not show any great difference in style from the works of the Weimar period; but the atmosphere is more dignified and restrained, and they are fine musical works as well as moving human documents. They are all published in the Collected Edition, and well merit revival to-day.


St. Elisabeth is thus partly oratorio, partly drama; and to perform it on the stage is obviously absurd. The music contains some striking moments, particularly in the more dramatic scenes such as the fourth; but it is nowhere much more than competent and effective. The work, however, does have continuity, and is able to bear its length without undue strain; but one can hardly call it one of Liszt’s masterpieces. It was first performed in Hungarian at Budapest in 1865, and was at once hailed as the foundation of a new national Hungarian school; but the music still has a distinctly cosmopolitan flavour, in spite of the use of Hungarian themes here and there, and certainly provides no parallel to the work of Smetana in Bohemia or of Balakireff in Russia. It was perhaps something relatively new at the time, but it has since been surpassed in its genre.

Liszt’s next oratorio, Christus, is a different matter; for here he had no need to write “effective” ceremonial scenes, and was able instead to express his own reaction to the Bible story. […] Though Christus is in many ways a patchy work, it does represent a self-summing-up of the kind that we find in the piano sonata and the first movement of the Faust Symphony; Liszt combines his varied elements, ranging from Gregorian plain-chant to romantic and dramatic orchestral colour, with consummate mastery, and throughout the work one feels that he sincerely meant every note of it. It is certainly the most successful of his larger choral works, and deserves to be revived.


Part II. Rome, Weimar, Budapest (1869-86)

Most of the works composed in the last fifteen years of Liszt’s life, when he had emerged from his semi-retirement in Rome and was travelling regularly between his three main centres of residence, together with many visits to other cities, show some quite remarkable innovations compared with the majority of the works so far discussed. The style has become extremely stark and austere, there are long passages in single notes and a considerable use of whole-tone chords, and anything resembling a cadence is avoided; in fact, if a work does end with a common chord it is more often in an inversion than in root position. The result is a curiously indefinite feeling, as if Liszt was launching out into a new world of whose possibilities he was not sure. For the majority of these works he returned to his first love, the piano; but in general the old pianistic glitter is absent – Liszt was now writing for himself, and no longer for his public. In fact, a good many of these pieces were not even published until many years after Liszt’s death, and some are still in MS. to-day.


There are also three Csárdás, of which the most remarkable are Csárdás Obstiné and Csárdás Macabre. The latter is indeed extraordinary for its period in that it is mostly written in bare parallel fifths; here is part of the opening section.


Many of the works of this period are short pieces which express a particular mood. There is, for instance, the charming nocturne En Rêve, a rather more disturbed nocturne called “Sleepless, Questions and Answers,” [Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort] and two Elegies, of which the first was originally written for cello, piano, harp and harmonium. It was in fact a characteristic of Liszt at this time to write pieces which could be played on either a chamber combination or for piano solo; the music is, as it were, “abstract,” and depends very little on instrumental colour, and probably many of these pieces were written down for piano more for the sake convenience than anything else. We can see this in the little group of four pieces which connected with the death of Wagner: the two versions of La lugubre gondola, Richard Wagner – Venezia, and Am Grabe Richard Wagners. Of these La lugubre gondola I and II were written in Venice about two months before Wagner died there; they were inspired by the funeral processions by gondola which Liszt saw on the lagoons – and it is certainly a most curious coincidence that the body of his lifelong friend should have been carried in this way so soon afterwards. Both versions have a simplicity and austerity which reminds one of Bartók;…


Three of these pieces show Liszt’s harmonic experimentation at its most extreme. The first is a Funeral Prelude and March written in 1885, of which the March is based on an ostinato figure of four notes – F sharp, G, B flat, C sharp; these are driven against the accompanying harmonies with the greatest violence, leading to clashes of this kind:

Similarly at the climax of Unstern (Sinistre) we find the following passage:

An even more remarkable example is the short piece Nuages gris, an extraordinary example of impressionism. In the opening section the blurred effect of the pedal is deliberately marked by Liszt, and in the final passage the chromatic rising phrase is driven against the whole-tone harmonies in the left hand without any regard for orthodox consonance.

One would certainly hardly believe that this piece was written by the composer of brilliant fantasies on themes by Rossini and Donizetti.


The first of these four waltzes [Valses oubliées] is the only one of Liszt’s late piano works accepted in the general repertoire; but most pianists completely destroy its essential character by playing it much too fast. Very different in feeling are the last three Mephisto Waltzes and the Mephisto Polka. The second waltz was originally written for orchestra and will be discussed bellow, and the Mephisto Polka is overlong and not of great interest. But the Third Mephisto Waltz is certainly one of Liszt’s finest achievements. It beings with this startling phrase:

[Ex. 68]

The mood is angry and violent throughout, with little relief; it shows Liszt at his most ruthless and savage. The fourth Mephisto Waltz was not revised for publication by Liszt, and in fact has only recently been published by the Liszt Society. It is complete as it stands in the sense that it is possible to play it through from beginning to end; but Liszt also left some sketches for a contrasting section which he intended to interpolate towards the end, and so one cannot speak of the work as properly finished. It its present form the work is not really up to the level of its three companions, but had Liszt lived to revise it he might well have made considerable improvements.

A number of other late works have only come to light in recent years: they include the fourth Valse Oubliée, of which the MS. was given by Liszt to a pupil who later settled in the U.S.; a previously unknown Toccata of 1879, of which the MS. is now in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; and – most remarkable of all – a Bagatelle sans Tonalité, which was found in the Liszt Museum at Weimar and published in Budapest in 1956. Written in 1885, this was originally intended to be the fourth Mephisto Waltz. Though it is not atonal in the Schoenbergian sense, it certainly lacks any definite key feeling, being mainly based on tritone and diminished seventh harmony, and ending in a curiously indefinite way.

The piano transcriptions of these final years are varied and fairly numerous. Apart from transcriptions of a number of works by unimportant and now forgotten composers, Liszt arranged for piano Bach’s organ Fantasy and Fugue in G minor, and Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (a great improvement on the original work!); the transcription of the Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel’s Almira amounts to an original work on Handel’s themes. His interest in the new school of Russian nationalist composers, which he did so much to help in their early years, is shown in the transcriptions of a Tarantella by Dargomijsky, originally written for three hands, of which one plays a constant tic-tac bass on A, and of another Tarantella by César Cui; he also transcribed the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin, in spite of Tchaikovsky’s uncomplimentary opinions of him! He continued too, with the series of Wagner and Verdi transcriptions mentioned above (cf. p. 63); his last operatic fantasy, that on Verdi’s Simone Boccanegra, is a fine, dignified work, quite different in style from the early brilliant fantasies, and containing some remarkable whole-tone harmonies in the middle section. The transcription of the March to the Grail from Parsifal, made in 1882, also shows the same dignity and restraint.


The Second Mephisto Waltz, for orchestra was written, in 1880-1, and is dedicated to Saint-Saëns – a rather doubtful compliment when one considers how much more violent its expression is than that of Saint-Saëns’ own Danse Macabre, which, as we have seen, Liszt had himself transcribed for piano. It is a most powerful and effective piece, with a characteristic ending; after building up a big climax in E flat, the main key throughout most of the waltz, the music suddenly falls on to the tritone B natural–F, and so ends the piece in an entirely unexpected and startling manner.


But the most remarkable of all these late choral works is Via Crucis – the fourteen Stations of the Cross for soloists, chorus and organ, completed in 1879. The text was arranged by Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein from Biblical quotations, Latin hymns and German chorales, and soloists represent Jesus, Pilate, and the mourning women. The whole work has a most curious atmosphere, for while it is entirely restrained and devout in feeling, there is a more or less consistent use of experimental harmony, particularly that derived from the whole-tone scale. This can be seen in passages such as these:

Via Crucis does, in fact, represent the fulfilment of Liszt’s aim to create a new kind of church music by allying a new harmonic technique to the old liturgical framework; he clearly had the subject very much at heart, and the result is not a mere experiment, but a very deeply felt and moving work. To show how little Liszt’s new style was understood by his contemporaries it must be recorded that Via Crucis was rejected by a prominent firm of publishers of religious music in Liszt’s lifetime, and was not in fact performed or published till more than forty years after his death.


Liszt was an extrovert composer who threw out his ideas in all directions. Though he frequently revised and rewrote his works both before and after publication, one does not find with him the long and laborious process of sketching and polishing by which Beethoven arrived at the final versions of his major works. Consequently, composition was often a hit-or-miss process with Liszt; in all periods of his life he probably wrote as many works of no particular musical importance as those which, I have suggested, are worthy of our continued interest and attention. One may not find that his works are always completely finished and unalterable in the way that those of Mozart and Beethoven are; but what is important with Liszt is not only the number of ideas that came to him, but also the remarkable quality of very many of them. He certainly lacked self-criticism on many occasions; but he always felt a burning necessity to express the ideas which came into his mind. And there is no doubt that in this last period he did become the prophet of the music of later generations, not so much through his harmonic innovations alone as through his general approach to music. The romantic fervour of which Liszt was one of the chief apostles in the 1830s had by this time been replaced on the one side by the more classical approach of Schumann and Brahms, and on the other by the monumental dramatic efforts of Wagner and his followers. As we in this century have seen, both these roads turned out in the end to be cul-de-sac; the Brahms tradition led only to minor figures like Dohnányi and Medtner (though admittedly Schoenberg in his own way learnt something from it); the Wagnerian colossus blew itself up and finally exploded with Strauss and Mahler. Liszt, in spite of his enormous admiration for Wagner, must have seen this; for why else should there have been such a radical change in his style in these years? In fact the road on which he started is that which a large number of composers have adopted to-day, a style in which every note is of importance and nothing is wasted or put merely for effect. It is a style in which the feeling of key is left deliberately vague; though it may contain impressionistic elements on occasion, it is not itself fundamentally impressionist; it simply aims at the expression of a mood or an idea in the most direct and basic form. One can see how alien this approach must have been to the musicians of the late nineteenth century; and this may explain why so many of these pieces remained unpublished – and even those which were published at the time were misunderstood and regarded as mere senile scribblings. One cannot but admire the courage of the ageing Liszt in striking out into new and uncharted ways at a time of life when he could well have rested on his laurels, and, in spite of complete lack of appreciation, taking the path which he knew the music of the future must follow.

Liszt was born two years after the death of Haydn; he died a year after the birth of Alban Berg, and in a way he may be said to bridge the gap between those two musical worlds. When one thinks of the long road that he had to travel between his early Czernian pieces and late works like Nuages gris and Unstern, his achievement becomes even more astonishing. Nor can one regard him simply as a technical innovator whose works have no actual musical value apart from the experiments contained in them. Each work has its own idea, mood, atmosphere or emotion to express, and each work presents a genuine musical experience. Admittedly many of Liszt’s works are superficial, overwritten or merely dull – in so large an output one could hardly expect otherwise, and the same may be said of many other great composers. But the point at issue is that he did also write a great deal of extremely fine music, and it is by that that he should be judged – nobody would dream of assessing Beethoven’s powers on the strength of the Battle Symphony alone. One may dislike the flavour and quality of some of Liszt’s music, but that is purely a matter of taste, and cannot possibly be made into a universal judgment. Liszt was a person who was torn in many directions simultaneously, and this may be seen in the varied style and quality of his music. But above all he did sincerely feel whatever he wrote at the time he wrote it; and it is that which will make his music live. No doubt he will always remain a controversial figure, just as Berlioz has done; but we must salute him for his unique contribution to the music of his time, and must also reflect that without that contribution the music of our time would be very different.

[1] Leslie Howard has refuted this theory in his liner notes (Vol. 53a):

It is a pleasure to report that the original manuscript of this work [Lélio Fantasy], long undiscovered, recently surfaced at auction in France (although sadly not in its entirety), and it revealed immediately that Liszt carried out his own orchestration – it is astonishing that there are still many commentators who believe the hoary myth that Liszt began to study orchestration in his Weimar years, and that much of his instrumentation was done by other hands. This is bunk, and the Lélio Fantasy shows it to have been so from the beginning. Unfortunately, the published two-piano score of this work actually states that it has long been known that Liszt did not do the orchestration. What is certain is that the surviving fair copy – in the Goethe-Schiller Archive in Weimar – is in a copyist’s hand, and that the one word ‘bon’ in Liszt’s hand must refer to Liszt’s satisfaction at his wishes being carried out and not, as some writers have suggested, to his approval of someone else’s orchestration.


In any case, Searle was quite unaware of the many early examples of Liszt’s original orchestration, and credits other hands with much work which is indubitably Liszt’s or at the very least prepared under his minute supervision…

Leslie is also convinced (Vol. 53b) that De Profundis, another early (1834/5) work for piano and orchestra, was also scored by Liszt. If all this is true, it strongly suggests that Liszt was a more experienced orchestrator when he settled at Weimar in 1848 than has hitherto been recognised.

[2] This version was recorded in 1940 by Louis Kentner and the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra conducted by the very Constant Lambert (to whose memory Mr Searle’s book is actually dedicated). It is available on Naxos 8.111223, together with solo piano stuff by Kentner. I beg to differ with Mr Searle, however. The piano and orchestra version is fascinating, but it brings out nothing the solo piano original does not. As for the work being “incoherent and inchoate”, it is so only in the wrong hands and minds – which are many, alas. Try Jorge Bolet and Claudio Arrau for a treatment of this sonata as a masterpiece, which indeed it is.

[3] It was not completed by Busoni. It was mutilated by him. He cut a large portion based on Don Giovanni (almost one third of the piece!) and published the disfigured version as “Figaro Fantasy”. A much fuller performing version by Leslie Howard has been recorded and published since. Only some 20 bars (out of more than 600!) were needed to make the work performable. See Leslie Howard, Vol. 30.

[4] The World, 19 November 1890. See Shaw’s Music, ed. Dan H. Laurence, The Bodley Head, Second Revised Edition, 1989, Vol. 2, p. 205. Somewhat ironically, Shaw’s perceptive remark makes nonsense of Searle’s claim that the three musical fragments are treated separately. So, of course, does the Commendatore’s late appearance which Mr Searle gamely admits.

[5] The concerto is now dated much earlier (c1833) than Mr Searle thought (“early in the 1840s, if not earlier”).

[6] Mr Searle really could have used the adverb “extremely” just a little more sparingly!

[7] Mr Searle rather missed the point of this cycle. Of course the pieces are extremely uneven: they are meant to be. That’s why they are published, and no doubt intended to be performed, together. Thus they work surprisingly well if given half a chance. Harmonies poétiques et religieuses remains Liszt’s longest and most underrated piano cycle. As for the single piece of that name from 1834, it may be superior to its revised version for trained musicians chiefly interested in harmonic experimentation, but for the haplessly lay music lover, in this case myself, Pensée des Morts remains musically the more satisfying work.

[8] Mr Searle counts Rienzi as one of Wagner’s “mature” operas. I reckon he was not welcome at Bayreuth.

[9] The famous case of “Ich möchte hingehn” which modern scholarship has discredited. Liszt’s song, it seems, was revised in post-Tristan times and Liszt was probably quoting, not anticipating, Wagner’s work. Not that it matters either way.

[10] Harold Schonberg has expressed, in his characteristically blunt way, an even bolder opinion: “... and his [Liszt’s] mind was much more daring and imaginative than that of the infinitely more eclectic Wagner. Wagner’s immense position in music is based on a different set of factors. But it should never be forgotten that Wagner never started to compose really great music until he had been exposed to Liszt and man and Liszt the composer.” See “Liszt: A Seminal Force of Romanticism” in Facing the Music, Summit Books, 1981, pp. 151-5.

[11] Mr Searle was evidently a fan of fast tempi. Most recordings take 13-15 minutes.

No comments:

Post a Comment