Sunday, May 02, 2010

Nine Lives 1: Franz Liszt!

Our book today is actually three books – Alan Walker’s monumental three-volume biography of 19th century Hungarian virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt. The size of Warner’s accomplishment – three heavy hardcover books – is dwarfed by its scope. This is one of those overwhelmingly comprehensive lives, the kind that are born of a merciless swapping alchemy of kind for kind: Walker began researching and drafting his trilogy in the mid-1970s, delivered his first volume, Franz Liszt, The Virtuoso Years: 1811-1847 in 1983, worked for another six years and brought forth the next volume, Franz Liszt, The Weimar Years: 1847-1861 in 1989, then labored for seven more years and finished his achievement in 1996 with Franz Liszt, The Final Years: 1861-1866. Thus, by sacrificing roughly thirty years of his own life to the task, Walker was able to give readers forever a perfect inexhaustibly corroborated account of the roughly thirty years of Lizst’s long and fraught productive life. You see this incredible exchange time and again in reading scholarly biographies, and the only response permissible is gratitude.

That gratitude would stand even if the resulting work were dry as dust- the archival sorting alone is too much a boon to future scholars not to be so acknowledged. The crowning glory of Walker’s trilogy is the one further element it manages: the writing itself is never anything less than engaging. Walker has submerged himself in the vast Liszt historiography (indeed, his first volume opens with a work-by-work account of that historiography, a virtuoso little performance that serve as the triumphant conclusion to any other Liszt biography but here is only the throat-clearing before the main performance) –he knows all the previous biographies, he knows the contents of every letter and legal document, he knows the corresponding details of Liszt’s contemporaries, from the obscure to the famous like Hector Berlioz and Frederic Chopin … and yet, even after assimilating such an ocean of raw data, he spares the time over and over to tell his stories well.

He also knows the music, not just as a scholar but as a sensitive listener. His explications of musical terminology are delivered with the studied casualness of a practiced teacher, and his insightful treatment of every one of Liszt’s works was certainly a boon to a reader like me, someone who’s always appreciated the better-known works of this composer but hardly guessed at the range or vitality of most of what he composed. More than all but a handful of composers (certainly more than any other Romantic composer), Liszt left the field of classical music very different from how he found it, and this presents his biographers with many of the same problems with nomenclature that the composer himself faced, as Walker time and again acknowledges:
A perennial problem for Liszt was how to get the wooden ensembles of his time to respond to “tempo rubato,” Until he came along, no one had seriously attempted to find a symbol for rubato, that most elusive of all the dimensions of musical performance, and one which is so important for a correct interpretation of his works. All the other dimensions – pitch, duration, dynamics, tone-quality – had developed their symbols in a very clear way within the traditional system of staff notation. But rubato was too esoteric to be captured.

Of course Walker then goes on to capture it perfectly in words – that double-stroke, first setting up a challenge as insuperable and then handily meeting it – is one of the intense little joys of this trilogy. You get used to him doing it.

He starts off his story with Liszt the young piano sensation, inspired by the weird, otherworldly genius of violin prodigy Paganini (Walker’s portrait of that poor melodramatic syphilis-raddled figure is perfect and terrifying), inspiring others with his own theatricality and dazzling technique, eventually growing so impatient with his chosen discipline that he found it necessary to substantially remake it in his own image. The young Liszt traveled extensively, giving some of the first things a modern audience would recognize as ‘concerts,’ and drawing near-universal admiration – including from the innumerable women who found his aquiline good looks and overpowering musical talent an extremely intoxicating combination. Walker gives as full an account of all these paramours (including the disastrous Countess Marie d’Agoult) and their various outbursts and offspring, and if the reader has a hard time keeping them straight, well, it’s likely Liszt did too.

The virtuoso years included trips everywhere – Switzerland, Italy, Russia (Czar Nicholas I’s gift of two performing bears was graciously accepted, but, mercifully, the bears themselves remained behind in Moscow), Prague, Leipzig – and of course London, where great heaping crowds of theatergoers were spellbound by his performances.

The traveling life eventually wore on Liszt, and, seeking a more stable environment in which to work and compose, he turned his eyes to that city with which he’s now most closely associated, Weimar. Walker everywhere in his trilogy sets himself the task of dispelling the myths and legends that have accrued around Liszt in the last 150 years, and he recognizes that Weimar is the epicenter of quite a bit of that mythologizing:
Had Liszt known of the trials and tribulations that lay in wait for him in Weimar, the chances are that he would have given the place a very wide berth. This may come as a surprise to those whose view of Liszt is formed by popular legend. His Weimar years, after all, are commonly supposed to have crowned a remarkable life with glory. This was the period during which he produced his major orchestral works, embarked on a career as an orchestral conductor, and began his famous masterclasses in piano playing. There is a darker side to the picture, however, and we come to understand it only when we scrutinize his life on a day-to-day basis. Liszt was too great a personality for such a small place as Weimar; he aroused envy and made enemies. The petty squabbles and malicious intrigue to which he was subjected, almost from the first day of his arrival in “the Athens of the North,” gradually wore him down and eventually forced his resignation. They produced the sorry spectacle of a giant in Lilliput.

These fascinating years are given in full detail (in my opinion, The Weimar Years as a stand-alone volume is one of the finest exercises in biography – and certainly musical biography – ever performed in English), from Liszt’s life with his mistress Princess von Sayn-Wittgenstein to his dealings with the city’s ruling family, Grand Duke Carl Friedrich, the formidable Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, and the Grand Duke Apparent, the kindly bumpkin Carl Alexander.

But Walker’s judgements are almost always excruciatingly correct, and he’s right to characterize the trouble between Liszt and Weimar as one of scale. Even from youth, Liszt was a grand figure, larger than life in all the best Romantic ways, and he chaffed constantly in the petty court-gossip circles of his adopted home (dealing with the Wagners couldn’t have been a picnic in the Arboretum either), eventually closing down his famous masterclasses there and moving at first to Rome. But his impact on Weimar had been enormous, and after his death (the final days are recounted with great sympathy by our indefatigable biographer), Carl Alexander – now Grand Duke – offered to erect a handsome mausoleum to the composer. Liszt’s daughter Cosima made a counter-proposal: that Liszt be buried in the royal vault, which already held the remains of Goethe and Schiller. Carl Alexander of course refused (Liszt hadn’t even been German, after all), and in his account Warner gives one of his great little asides:
Today the entire family of the once-powerful house of Sachsen-Weimar lie in leaden caskets in the royal vault. This family, whose patronage of the arts did more than anything else to lift Weimar out of petty provincialism and make of it a centre for European culture, succeeded so completely in its noble aim as to obscure its own remembrance. And this becomes painfully evident the moment one visits the royal chapel in the Weimar churchyard and descends the spiral steps into the burial chamber beneath. The coffins of Sachsen-Weimar have been pushed aside into dark recesses, where they jostle for space beneath crumbling arches, while those of the two literary giants whom Carl August brought to his city lie on a raised dais in the centre of the chamber, illuminated both day and night as the world files past in homage. It is not for artists to complain about this reverence of genius, but the extent to which the patrons have become the patronized would require a Goethe to explain the paradox.

At one point in this enormously entertaining trilogy, Walker is writing about the possibilities that Chopin heavily influenced some of Liszt’s compositions (a possibility Chopin was known to murmur on more than one occasion) and offers a caution:
This topic of influence may be a paradise for historians, but it is full of pitfalls for those who do not now their Liszt in toto.

And that’s the best part of this huge work – you know almost from the first, almost from that virtuoso opening chapter settling the hash of every biography that’s come before – that you’re in the hands of someone who knows his Liszt in toto. It’s a wonderful feeling. In fact, it’s pretty much the only feeling that can carry you so effortlessly through a work this long and detailed. And its ultimately about more than knowledge – it’s about understanding. Walker achieves an almost one-to-one understanding of Liszt, so that when he assesses the place of his subject in musical history, the reader can only nod:
Whatever else the world may debate about his life and work, one thing is generally conceded: Liszt was the first modern pianist. The technical “breakthrough” he achieved during the 1830s and ‘40s was without precedent in the history of the piano. All subsequent schools were branches of his tree. Rubenstein, Busoni, Paderewski, Godowsky, and Rachmaninoff – all those pianists who together formed what historians later dubbed “the golden age of piano playing” - would be unthinkable without Liszt. It was not that they copied his style; that was inimitable. Nor did they enjoy close personal contact with him; not one of them was his pupil. Liszt’s influence went deeper than that. It had to do with his unique ability to solve technical problems. Liszt is to piano playing what Euclid is to geometry. Pianists turn to his music in order to discover the natural laws governing the keyboard. It is impossible for a modern pianist to keep Liszt out of his playing - out of his biceps, his forearms, his fingers – even though he may not know that Liszt is there…


Harold said...

Great article, Steve. I enjoyed it, and agree. Just for the future, it is Alan Walker, not Warner.


Steve Donoghue said...

eeep! Will you look at that? I loved the books, the name is RIGHT THERE on the three covers I scanned, and yet I repeat it incorrectly about a million times throughout the entry! Thanks for the correction, Harold - how utterly mortifying!

I assure you, I won't make that mistake with tomorrow's post about the great composer Domenico Scarlutti!

GW said...

What a treat! A fabulous post!

Grrrr, but I must defend poor, pathetic Chopin! I don't pretend to Walker's superhuman knowledge on the subject, and Chopin WAS insanely jealous of Liszt (especially since he actually had the strength to play the fortes in Chopin's music), but of course he was an influence, and an entirely salutary one at that! Liszt hadn't written much of note when he first met Chopin in Paris. Chopin came to Paris with his first book of Etudes in his pocket; he was already a complete composer. Liszt's music gains depth almost immediately (the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, the Schubert transcriptions, etc). You can chalk plenty up to Berlioz and especially Paganini, but Chopin was the also the ONLY good piano composer around. They were friends for a long time and Liszt literally spent days playing Chopin's music; he knew it too well not to be influenced by it, and you can hear it in his work.

I'm anxiously awaiting Scarlatti!