By LOUIS C. ELSON.
Liszt’s effect upon the music of the last half of the nineteenth century is by no means to be measured by his own work in composition or by his great abilities as a pianist. His power as a composer was scarcely understood during his life-time, although Wagner ranked him as among the very highest in this field, and his abilities as a performer were veiled from all but a select few by his early retirement from the concert-platform.
As a teacher, without pay of any kind, he drew around him a host of disciples who were not only guided in their piano-playing by him, but whose general musical taste and subsequent art-careers were strongly molded by the old master. Liszt was counselor and friend to such a number of prominent musicians that his influence is even to-day working strongly in the cause of modern music; it is the leaven in the meal, permeating the entire mass. The lessons given en masse at the residence in Weimar were not ordinary piano-drills, but full of parables and wise suggestions. More than one participant in these has told the present writer that it was only by subsequent reflection that one gained the full good of the counsel imparted. “Look at those trees swaying in the wind. The twigs and leaves are dancing freely; the trunks are steady; let that be your tempo rubato!” “You are not driving a coach over the Weimar pavements when you are playing Chopin!” Every lesson was full of such epigrams for further thought.
Liszt’s influence in the development of national music was and is a very powerful one. He built largely upon the folk-songs and dances of his native Hungary, and introduced the beauties of this repertoire to the concert-rooms of all the civilized world, a deed similar to that done for Polish music by Chopin. To-day music is receiving a new life-blood by the introduction of folk-themes in classical works, Russia leading in this healthy influence; but the first composers who thoroughly inaugurated this advance were Liszt and Chopin.
Liszt fought the good fight for many a composer whom the world was slow to recognize, and in this direction his influence in music can scarcely be overestimated. Of course, the chief labor of this sort was his work in the Wagner propaganda. Had it not been for Liszt the world would not possess the largest and greatest Wagnerian operas. Wagner would surely have perished or have been forced from his ideals, had not Liszt aided him by pen, purse, and baton, during the gap between the success of his “Rienzi” and the coming of King Ludwig of Bavaria to his rescue.
By the performance of “Lohengrin” at Weimar, which Liszt directed personally, the new Wagner idea was thrown down as a gauntlet to the world, and from that time to the creation of the great Trilogy, Liszt was Wagner’s shield and buckler.
But it was not only Wagner who owed success to the efforts of the noble and generous Liszt. From the moment that the gentle Robert Franz published his first set of twelve songs, the most remarkable Opus 1 that we can recall, Liszt was his friend and advocate, and, when deafness and poverty threatened to extinguish the best lied-composer of our time, it was Liszt who wrote articles and essays in the French and German press, explaining the glorious songs that were being passed unheeded by the world, and it was also Liszt who inaugurated a series of concerts for the benefit of the suffering genius. It was Liszt who, by means of brilliant transcriptions of the songs of Franz, brought them to the attention of many who would not have become interested in them as vocal works. Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Grieg, and many others were championed by this generous man.
Liszt always hoped to be remembered as a composer rather than as a phenomenal pianist. During his life-time this triumph was denied to him, for the world was too busy with the Wagnerian matter to pay very much heed to the “Graner” mass or to the “Holy Elizabeth,” and the very school which the composer had assisted in preserving to the world now overshadowed his own works. Nevertheless when the history of modern orchestration is impartially written it will be found that Liszt led the way from Berlioz to Richard Strauss. His “Poëmes Symphoniques” were a new departure, and they gave a freedom to orchestral expression that was necessary at a time when the symphonic form hung like an incubus upon a race of composers unable to manage it. There is a misconception regarding these works; the word “Symphonique” in French does not mean “Symphonic” or imply the sonata-form in which symphonies are written; it ought to be translated simply as “Orchestral,” leaving the question of form entirely free.
We agree with Mr. H. T. Finck in believing that these poems are of greater merit than the critics have yet accorded them. Such a great aspiration as “Les Preludes” is naturally somewhat above the comprehension of the criticaster.
As an essayist the influence of Liszt must also be accounted of much importance. His “Chopin” may be of but little value as a biography (for Liszt was too impetuous to settle down to the matters of investigating dates or weighing authorities), but as an essay it is of prime importance. He labored all his days to bring criticism to a higher and more liberal standard. His calling the musical critics “the rear-guard in the army of musical progress” was a sarcasm that was not undeserved by those who tried to measure the modern school with the Beethoven yard-stick.
In the domain of piano-music Liszt’s works will always stand as the chief representatives of the culmination of technic in the nineteenth century. The evolution of the technic of the instrument, which had been gradually building up through a long line of masters,—Philip Em. Bach, Clementi, Cramer, Czerny, and Moscheles may be mentioned as the chief links of this chain,—finally brought forth two diverse results; Chopin, the poet of the instrument, and Liszt, its technical king. Such a work as his “Don Juan Fantasie,” for example, is of itself sufficient to place Liszt at the head of the technicists of his time.
It must also be borne in mind that Liszt was as versatile as any of the great masters; he by no means confined himself to one or two branches of composition, for he has left oratorios, songs, symphony, symphonic poems, concertos, etc., etc., to attest the breadth of his musical culture.
Social status of the musician.
In one other direction the influence of Liszt is to be spoken of. Europe had seldom seen a pianist or a composer moving on terms of equality with princes, neither aggressive,—like Beethoven, nor servile. It was Liszt more than any other man who broke the fetters that kept the musician in a lower caste; it was he who most perfectly voiced the aristocracy of art in the courts of Europe. When he rebuked Princess Metternich for asking regarding his business success on a certain concert-tour, and boldly announced music as being something higher than “business,” he did an act that won him the homage of many a musician of that time and of later generations.
There probably never was a musician, since the time of Orlando di Lasso, who received so much of adulation and whose personality was so winning and impressive; not only was he idolized by some of the most noble ladies of Europe, but his fellow-countrymen were to a man enthusiastically fond of him, while those who were privileged to attend his study-hours in Weimar or Rome gave him an absolutely filial respect. Generally such an extreme of devotion leads to a reaction, but this has not happened in any appreciable degree in the case of Liszt. Even after the great charm of his personality is forgotten his works will stand. One may not dream of ranking him with the great masters, but it may possibly be that his influence will vie even with theirs, so earnest was his devotion to art, so wisely was it exerted, and in so many different directions.