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Liszt and Chopin.

There was a time in which the piano was a species of religion. When the aged Field was on his deathbed, his friends, not knowing what to say in order to prepare him for the last great change, asked, “Are you a Papist or a Calvinist?”

“I am a pianist,” responded the dying artist.

Among the adepts of this new religion, the most celebrated were, without doubt, Chopin and Liszt. A great many censure Liszt for his indescribable presumption, his grand charlatanism, for the conduct of his heroes of romance, for his strange musical theories; in spite of all, the superiority of the artist is in asking the world rapidly to forget the weakness of the man. Liszt has been, without doubt, the true lion of the piano. All the great artists whom we have interrogated on the subject, Chopin excepted, have made the same response: “Oh! Liszt is the master of all.” We have seen talents more pure, more perfect, more sympathetic; but no one has had, in the same degree, that electric power, that musical magnetism that impassions and entrances an audience. Liszt was many times but a mediocre in playing, when he was troubled, ill-disposed, or a prey to over-excitement; but when he wished to play, when he had concentrated all his powers to make a grand stroke, and held his musical poem in his head, in his heart, in his fingers, in his nerves, he launched like a thunderbolt over the trembling audience, and produced effects which no other artist has produced, except Paganini. Schumann has said of him with a mixture of admiration and irony, “He is as brilliant as light, grand as a thunderbolt, and leaves after him a strong odor of brimstone.”

We have been accustomed, for many years, to hear Liszt and Chopin, but never have we enjoyed their playing as during the year 184-. It was during my stay at Castle B., near the right bank of the Noir. One night the guests were all assembled in the great drawing room; the large windows were open, the light of the moon flooded the rooms with a golden light; the songs of the nightingale and the perfume of mignonette were borne on the breeze into the room. Liszt played a nocturne of Chopin’s, and, according to his custom, he enlarged the style, and introduced trills, tremolos, and so forth, which were not in the original compositions. Several times Chopin showed signs of impatience. At last he approached the piano, and said to Liszt in grave English: Will you do me the honor to play a piece of mine as it is written? No one but Chopin has a right to change Chopin.”

“Oh! well, play yourself, then,” said Liszt, arising from the piano.

“Willingly,” said Chopin.

At that moment the light was extinguished by a large moth which had flown into the room. They wished to relight it. “No,” cried Chopin, “the light of the moon is enough for me; extinguish all the tapers!” Then he played. He played an entire hour. It is impossible to describe the effect. There are emotions that we feel and cannot describe. The nightingales tried to rival him with their song; the flowers were refreshed with water divine. Those sounds came from heaven. The audience were in mute ecstasy—scarcely dared to breathe; and when the enchanter finished, all eyes were filled with tears—above all those of Liszt. He pressed Chopin in his arms, and cried :—

“Ah, my friend, you are right. The works of a genius like thine are sacred; it is a profanation to touch them. Thou art a true poet, and I am only a buffoon.”

“Come, then,” replied Chopin; “you know that no one can play Weber and Beethoven like yourself. I pray you, play me the Adagio in C sharp minor by Beethoven—play it slowly and seriously, as you can when you wish.”

Liszt played the Adagio with all his soul and all his will. Then he manifested to the audience another kind of emotion. They wept, they groaned. But they were not the tears that Chopin had caused to flow; they were cruel tears, of which Othello speaks. The melody of the second artist did not touch the heart, as the first had done; it was like the sharp thrust of a poniard. It was no longer an elegy—it was a drama. In the meantime, Chopin thought he had eclipsed Liszt that evening, and boasted of it, saying, “How he was vexed!” Liszt understood him, and determined to be revenged, spiritual artist though he was. And here is what he improvised. Four or five days after, the company were all assembled about the same hour—“a short time before midnight.” Liszt; entreated Chopin to play. After a great deal of persuading, he consented to play. Liszt then demanded that all the lamps and tapers should be extinguished. They put down the curtains, and the obscurity was complete. It was a caprice of the artist, and they did as he wished. At that moment, Chopin went to take his place at the piano. Liszt whispered some words rapidly in his ear and took his place. Chopin, far from dreaming what his comrade wished to do, seated himself without noise in a neigboring (sic) armchair. Then Liszt played all the compositions that Chopin had played at the memorable soiree, of which we have spoken. But he knew how to play them with such exact imitation of the style and manner of his rival, it was impossible not to be deceived. The same enchantment, the same emotion. When the ecstasy was at its height, he quickly lighted the tapers at the side of the piano. There was a cry of surprise in the assembly.

“What, was it you? We thought it was Chopin.”

“What sayest thou?” said he to his rival.

“I say, like all the rest, I should have thought it was Chopin.”

“Then seest thou that Liszt can be Chopin, when he wishes? But Chopin—can he be Liszt?”

That was defying him; but Chopin would not, and dared not, accept. Liszt was revenged.—Louis J. Richards, in the Pianist.


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