By HENRY T. FINK.
There are thousands of musicians in America— some of them no longer young—who know from bitter experience the truth of the proverb “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.” Some of them—gifted men and women—have told me their tales of woe, their disappointments as players, as singers, and especially as composers. The only thing I could do by way of consoling them was to call attention to the fact that they were simply sharing the fate of the great masters.
Struggles of Great Composers for a Hearing.
Of the contemporaries of Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Wagner, and others of the greatest composers, very few had the faintest conception of their transcendent genius. For Bach’s works there was so little demand that the plates had to be melted and the metal sold to recover some of the expenses. His wife died a pauper, and he himself was buried no one cared where or knew until a few years ago. Three years before Mozart’s death a leading Berlin critic wrote, in denouncing “Don Giovanni,” that he “had never heard any one speak of Mozart as a composer of note.” Schubert, in the last years of his life, sold his immortal songs for a dime a piece. He did not venture to give a concert till March, 1828,—eight months before his death,—and the critics disposed of it in half a dozen lines, while Paganini got several columns.
Concerning Chopin in Paris, Liszt wrote that “Whoever was able to read his face could see how often he felt convinced that among all these handsome, well-dressed gentlemen, among all the perfumed, elegant ladies, not one understood him.” Wagner was 44 and had written all but three of his operas before Vienna, Munich, or Stuttgart produced a single one of them; and 56 before Italy, France, and England attempted them. Tschaikowsky wrote, five years before his death, that up to that time his music had been practically ignored in Berlin.
The list might be continued indefinitely. In this article, however, I wish to dwell in particular on the instructive fate of Liszt—his trials, disappointments, and ultimate triumph some years after his death. But was not Liszt always triumphant? Was he not acknowledged, even from his boyhood, to be the most wonderful pianist the world had ever heard? Pianist, yes. But Liszt had other ambitions. During the last thirty-nine years of his life he played the piano in public only half a dozen times. It was as a composer, not a mere interpreter, that he wished to be known; and it was as a composer that the professional world refused to accept him for many years. Herein lay his sorrow—a sorrow so deep that when some one asked him why he did not write his autobiography, he replied that it was quite enough to have lived his life without writing it, too.
Criticisms of his Playing.
Even as a pianist Liszt did not escape violent censure. He was accused of playing classical compositions with exaggerated expression, with too sharp accents, and too much rubato. In particular, like Rubinstein and Paderewski, and all the great pianists that have ever lived, he was censured as being unable to play Beethoven. Schindler, who used to have the words “friend of Beethoven” printed on his visiting cards, declared that Liszt’s performance of Beethoven’s sonatas was “the superlative of all aberrations of taste,” “a crime against the divine art,” and so on. At such stupidities Liszt only smiled, and one day, on meeting Schindler, he exclaimed: “My friend, you are a Philistine and a pedant.”
Criticism of his Compositions.
But it was against his own compositions that the wrath of the unbelievers was chiefly directed. Hans von Bülow, in a sarcastic mood, once wrote an amusing squib against the critics of Liszt. At first, he said, they admitted he was a good all-round pianist, but not a good Beethoven-player. When he practically transformed the piano into an orchestra and played on it transcriptions of symphonies and songs, they began to concede that no fault could be found with his Beethoven-playing, but declared that these new-fangled things would never do. They became reconciled to them, however, when he began to write original pieces for the piano. These, they protested, were simply dreadful, and they warned him against repeating the offense His subsequent compositions for the orchestra gave the critics a chance to contrast them unfavorably with the piano-pieces that had preceded them and which had now become praiseworthy. Finally, it remained for his sacred choral compositions to make the symphonic poem appear acceptable.
There is a good real of truth in this squib. The process was, however, a slow one, and poor Liszt suffered agonies while it went on. Whatever may be true of eels, composers never get quite used to being skinned alive. Liszt used to say: “I can wait”; but at the same time his letters to various friends contain many passages which reveal his annoyances and sufferings. “How long this critical comedy is to last,” he wrote in 1858, when it had only just begun, “I cannot tell. In any case I have made up my mind to pay no attention to these yells, but to proceed in my path undisturbed.” After a time he got so used to these attacks that he made up his mind to write, as Bach and Schubert did, solely for his own satisfaction and pleasure; and when friendly conductors wanted to produce one of his larger compositions he usually advised them not to, to avoid stirring up more discord.
It is useless to say that nothing aroused his wrath so much as the receipt of an invitation to play the piano at some festival concert by a “friendly” committee which tactlessly ignored the fact that he was a composer as well as a pianist. Though he was the most genial of men, I suspect that he had said to himself: “If they will not listen to my compositions, they shall not hear me play either.”
In the meantime he was confirmed in his belief in himself as a creator by Wagner’s sincere praises of his compositions. In a letter to Wesendonck Wagner expressed his opinion of Liszt as a composer succinctly: “Liszt’s ‘Orpheus’ made a deep impression on me. It is one of the most beautiful, finished, nay incomparable of all tone-poems. It gave me great pleasure. The public found the ‘Préludes’ more to its taste; so it had to be repeated. Liszt was greatly delighted with my unfeigned appreciation of his works, and gave touching expression to his joy.”
Wagner’s opinion of Liszt is the one which is now beginning to prevail generally. Within the last few years, in particular, the superb performances of his symphonic poems by great Wagnerian conductors, like Nikisch and Weingartner, have aroused great enthusiasm and converted even the critics. Other professionals have long since been converted. With the exception of Brahms and Rubinstein, all of the great modern composers have been admirers of Liszt. In the case of Tschaikowsky, Dvorák, MacDowell, Paderewski, I know this from their own mouths. Saint-Saëns has written some delightfully appreciative articles, and as for the Russian composers, they are all under the Liszt constellation. The pianists, of course, are all among his worshipers. They have for many years closed their programs with Liszt, on the principal that “all’s well that ends well.”
The public has always been favorably inclined toward Liszt, and has taken him so to heart that, as the latest concert-hall statistics from Germany show, he now ranks third in popularity of all composers, the only two having a larger number of performances being Beethoven and Wagner. It may be said that popularity is no proof of merit. Quite true, when it comes suddenly and becomes a fad, as in the case of Mascagni. But when the popularity is a matter of slow and steady growth for half a century or more, as in the case of Bach, Schubert, Chopin, Wagner, and Liszt, it does mean merit and immortality.