By W.S.B. Mathews
While Liszt began his concert-career as a wonder-child, and had become, under the careful management of his father, the family support by the time he was fourteen or fifteen, and his mother’s complete support from the death of his father when he was but about sixteen, he does not seem to have regarded himself in any more serious light than that of a clever young player with a living to make. Accordingly, his successful numbers for public appearances were, above all, Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance” and the Concertstück, which were then new; and he speaks of making great success with a sonata which Czerny had written for him. Although coming from Vienna and fresh from the kiss of Beethoven, there is no record of his having brought out in his concerts anything from that source. Most likely this was in part a consequence of his living in Paris, then, as now, anything but a satisfactory environment for a serious pianist. It is not certain that the early concert-programs of the young Liszt were distinguished by even the early forms of his later so celebrated transcriptions of airs from the operas in vogue. Naturally after so long a time information on this subject is difficult to obtain with precision; but this is the net result of all that I have been able to learn.
From the material of his playing it seems quite certain that the early distinctions of Liszt were due to his captivating manner, which as a boy was serious, charming, and full of sensibility, and as yet without the circumambient “atmosphere” of the successful virtuoso. Whatever effect he made must have been mainly due to a charm of touch, which possibly left him later, although upon this subject testimony is conflicting. For instance, Dr. Mason says that Liszt’s touch was not sensitive and musical, but that in pursuit of the sensational he was likely to resort to any possible means of making a great noise. This may have been true of the Liszt of the Weimar period, when his concert-life was already ten years behind him, and his career as composer and conductor in full tide.
Very likely those who heard him later in life brought to the hearing, not the irreverent attitude of the Bülows, Masons, and the rest at Weimar, who saw Liszt every day upon familiar terms, and found in his playing traces of that masterful quality which certainly did distinguish it, and the experienced tricks of the old virtuoso, but something more like that of those who in proper form listen to the preaching of a celebrated bishop and always hear a good sermon. For example, one of the earliest tributes to the playing of Liszt, from any really artistic source, is that of Schumann, written in 1840. This selection, being too long for my space, is deferred to another part of The Etude; it speaks of “the magical tenderness” displayed in an etude by Hiller; and the wonderful virtuosity of his playing in the Weber Concertstück. So also Mason says: “The difference between Liszt’s playing and that of others was the difference between creative genius and interpretation. His genius flashed through every pianistic phrase, it illuminated a composition to its innermost recesses,” etc. (“Memories,” page 110.)
What Liszt Did.
First of all, he invented a peculiar kind of cadenza, which for more than one generation remained a sealed book to all but a very few virtuosi. In 1855, when Dr. Mason returned from Weimar, he had no more than at the outside a half-dozen concert-pieces by Liszt in his repertory. He used to play the “Lucia,” the “Rigoletto” occasionally, and the “Second Hungarian Rhapsody,” having been the first to play it in this country. Other pianists were no richer in this respect. Even Rubinstein did not have a large list of Liszt things; perhaps, in part, from not caring very much for them. Bülow learned the incredibly difficult transcription of the overture to “Tannhaüser” soon after it was finished, and played it in concert about 1853. Now, these cadenzas of Liszt were keyboard forms pure and simple, combining chromatic scales and diminished chords, played with a rush and a climax. He used to bring down the house with them. Nowadays all good pianists, even young girls, are able to do this kind of thing, and sometimes do it extremely well. The surrounding of melody by running work was not Liszt’s patent, but Thalberg’s. Liszt did a few things in this vein to show that he could; but, from a technical standpoint, aside from his tendency to tear things up with one of these cadenzas, Liszt obtained his effects by modifications of touch. Certainly he must have had wonderful control of power and delicacy, and it is more than likely that he did something in the line of quality, else he would hardly have done so much with his orchestral transcriptions of symphonies and overtures, which he not only wrote out for two hands, but often played them in public. For instance, at the Leipzig concert of which Schumann speaks so glowingly, Liszt opened with his own transcription of the Beethoven “Pastoral Symphony,” and Schumann comments appreciatively upon the nerve displayed in doing this in the hall where the same symphony had so often been played with the best orchestra then existing. Yet he gave a distinctly new impression of the power of the pianoforte as a musical instrument. It follows, therefore, that this new impression could have been due to no other cause than the distinction of conception and a rare and peculiar power of expressing his mind through the ends of his fingers.
Suggestions for Programs.
Liszt’s work as an intentionally original composer began about 1834, and went on seriously up to about 1840, during which period he not only composed a great number of sketches of Swiss, Italian, and other scenes of travel, and a variety of operatic fantasias, and made various transcriptions from Schubert, but also, perhaps, had begun his more important works, especially the sonata in B-minor, which is probably his most important bid for immortality as composer. Those who care to do so can find in the following selections material for illustrating the state of Liszt at that time. They have been taken out very carefully as best representing the Liszt of, say, 1835.
The Chapel of William “Tell. Swiss Scenes, No. 1. (5th Grade.)
The Homesickness of the Country. Swiss Scenes, No. 8. (Easy 5th Grade.)
La Pastorella dell’Alpi. Melody by Rossini. (Easy 4th Grade.)
Nocturne. The Serenade. Melody by Rossini. (Easy 6th Grade.)
The Bells of Geneva. Swiss Scenes, No. 9. (6th Grade.)
The Angelus. A Prayer. Scenes from Travel. Third Year, No. 1. (5th Grade.)
Consolation, No. 5. (4th Grade.)
Consolation, No. 2. (4th Grade.)
The foregoing illustrate mainly the early period of Liszt. The “Chapel of William Tell” is a sort of melodramatic piece, intended to illustrate the feelings of a patriot standing in the chapel of Tell. It opens with a grave and organ-like theme, followed later by a more broken melody of a recitative effect, and later the first subject, the patriotic hymn, returns with full force of the brass. The second piece has a sad and sentimental melody for middle part. The “Shepherdess of the Alps” is a very simple little piece, a rustic dance which is carried on in an Alpine chalet. So also the “Angelus” is of a church-like character, and is available for organ as well as for piano.
In a more brilliant line the following are very satisfactory examples:
“Rigoletto.” (7th Grade.)
Lucia. (The Sextet.) (8th Grade.)
Concert Study in D-flat. (10th Grade.)
Eclogue. Swiss Scenes. (7th Grade.)
Au Bord d’un Source. “By the Spring.” (10th Grade.)
These illustrate the concert style. The Concert- Study is a very interesting example of Liszt’s original work. Throughout there is a curiously attractive, yet incomplete, melody which appears in a variety of ways. Several climaxes occur. Next to this I prefer the “Spring” piece above, which is, however, very troublesome to play, requiring plenty of fingers and excellent nerve. It is full of rapid changes of hand-positions and a quick motion, so that there is hardly ever an opportunity for a player missing something to recover himself.
The most available chapter of Liszt’s work for teaching is furnished by his transcriptions from Schubert, Schumann, and Franz. Of the Schubert songs there are forty-two in all, and I believe all were done prior to 1850. The Augener edition is in three volumes, and, as a rule, the one you want is in the other volume. The Peters edition has one volume containing fifteen, among which are those we generally want:
“My Sweet Repose.” (5th Grade.)
“Hark, Hark, the Lark.” (6th Grade.)
The Wanderer. (6th Grade.)
To Be Sung on the Waters. (10th Grade.)
Belief in Spring. (9th Grade.) (First Stanza, 5th Grade.)
The Erl-King. (10th Grade.)
Ave Maria. (10th Grade.)
All of these need to be played musically, with a sweet and singing touch upon the melody, and with plenty of refinement. The first one above is easiest. Next the second, the first stanza of which is no higher than 5th grade. Be careful to observe the staccato upon the third and sixth beats—this is very important. The most common fault is to jam these two notes close to the ones following them. Admirable for study of touch, “To Be Sung on the Waters” is very difficult, both for fingers, which need to be fast and light, and also for some broken octaves and other things, which need force. It is, however, a most beautiful concert-number for an artist having the right kind of finger-technic. The “Erl-King” is an octave-study of tremendous force and effect. Rubinstein used to do wonders with it. The “Ave Maria” demands very carefully graded melody-notes, which are played by the hands alternately.
“The Evening Star,” from “Tannhäuser.” (5th Grade.)
March from “Tannhäuser.” (9th Grade.) Requires sustained playing and some brilliancy.
Spinning Song from “The Flying Dutchman.” (8th Grade.)
Elsa’s Dream from “Lohengrin.” (8th Grade.)
Elsa Going to the Cathedral. “Lohengrin.” (8th Grade.)
Isolde’s Liebestod. (Concert difficulty.) Very grand and beautiful.
The Tannhäuser March is an excellent piece for developing force, sustained brilliancy, and chord-playing and bravura. It is a very useful study, and, if proper care is taken to have everything musical in the tone-quality, even in the strongest passages, there will no harm come from it. The “Spinning Song” from the “Flying Dutchman” conduces to clean and exact finger-work, and is a very useful study.
Educational Value of His Compositions.
As to the value of Liszt in teaching and study, it lies mainly in what I call the external qualities of the piano. Liszt always treats the piano as a lady once told me that women like to be treated, as if not afraid of them. Everything conduces to brilliant effectiveness, plenty of power, and contrast of great delicacy with utmost bravura. It is impossible to make a pianist without a good deal of Liszt, but he is no longer the last word in his art. The new developments are much finer, and even Chopin in his own day was finer than Liszt, much finer, while Schumann was infinitely more musical. Yet in almost everything of Liszt there is a musical quality which the player ought to make the most of. I have not mentioned the Hungarian Rhapsodies, for the reason that they have now gone out. They are made upon a stencil pattern, and while some of the melodies are well enough, even beautiful, the pieces are of most theatrical showiness and externality. I really like the second rhapsody, and think it capable of musical effect, even upon the piano; but the tempi must be taken more slowly than the orchestral leaders take them. The sixth is a good octave-study, and the twelfth is much played. They are more honored in the breach than in the observance. A most beautiful piece by Liszt is his Concert-Study in F-minor, which is certainly one of the most charming possible, although of very great difficulty in places, especially where the runs in double thirds come down so fast while the left hand is having troubles of its own. The piece can, however, be learned successfully by a smart girl of good natural hand for piano and equal to any of the Chopin studies.
A persistent affirmation that you do possess the qualities which are necessary for your higher success, that you will develop them to their utmost strength, aids wonderfully in acquiring the desired possession.—Success.