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Memories of Rubinstein and Liszt

By ALEXANDER SILOTI

II
The first section of this unusual work, translated by Methven Simpson, appeared in THE ETUDE for July. Siloti, possibly the most famous of Liszt’s Russian born pupils, dropped dead in the streets of Moscow recently as a result of starvation brought about by war conditions. Siloti is a cousin of Rachmaninoff.
 
What Liszt Thought of Chopin
LISZT called Chopin the only pianoforte poet, and always said that each note of his music was “a pearl dropped from the skies.” In speaking of Chopin he once told us: “We were great friends. Both as a musician and as a man he was fragile and delicately constituted. He liked me very much as a pianist, but considered that he played Some things—as for instance his Study in F sharp, op. 25—better than I did. I suggested having a bet on it. We were to invite a party of our friends to hear us both play this Study. They were to sit in an adjoining room where they could hear without seeing us, and were then to decide which one of us had played first. Chopin accepted the bet, and our friends came. We each played the Study as arranged. I played first, then Chopin.

“When we put the question to our audience they unanimously decided that Chopin had played first. He would not give in, however. ‘You play it differently quand même,’ he insisted. It was I who introduced him to Georges Sand. As she gave him her hand, and made the usual complimentary remarks, I saw something flash across his face, something that was like a streak of lightning… . It made me feel I was witnessing a fateful meeting. Poor Chopin! His fine nature could not stand the strain… . Later, after the death of Chopin, and all that had gone before it, I was lunching alone with Georges Sand. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it is through you that Musset and my Chopin have perished, but you see I have endured, and, thank God, I am living still.’”
 
Liszt Never Scolded
Liszt hardly ever scolded anyone. He had a favorite expression, the one word: “good!” But he sometimes said it in such a tone that no word could have been more offensive. This manner of his gave some people the mistaken impression that Liszt was not genuine, as he did nothing but pay compliments. But it was the people who had seen him for a few moments only who said this. When he was irritated by anyone’s playing he always said: “I know half a dozen pianists who play this as well as you, and half a dozen more who play it better.” It was still worse if he said: “Even the Princess3 plays it better.” Sometimes he worked himself into quite a frantic state of mind, but I only saw him in this condition about four times during the three years I was with him.

On these occasions he strode to and fro in his room in a way that reminded me of Salvini as Othello, where he paces up and down Desdemona’s bedroom like a tiger in the last act. In moments such as these Liszt was simply terrifying; his face was mephistophelian, and he would literally scream at the unlucky pupil: “I take no payment from you but, if I did, there is no money which could give you the right to come and wash your dirty linen here. I am not a washerwoman. Go to the conservatorium, that is the place for you.” This state of mind would last some time—about ten minutes. Afterwards, when we were more intimate, I always began talking to him at these times to divert his thoughts.

I have always said that anyone could become a pupil of his, but he was not at all pleased when people brought him letters of introduction, even though they might be from musicians, while letters from crowned heads simply infuriated him and prejudiced him instantly against the bearers. I remember a young man who came once, dressed with great care in a smart frock coat. Liszt glanced at his clothes with a grim- ace and asked:

“Where do you come from?”
 
“Meister, I should like to study with you. I have brought a letter from the Queen of Holland.”
 
Liszt frowned, put the letter in his side pocket without reading it, and said:
 
“Play first; we will read the letter afterwards.” I knew by Liszt’s face that he had taken the bit between his teeth. First he made two other pupils play while he walked up and down full of nervous irritation. Then he turned to the newcomer with a chilling smile and an ominous note in his voice:
 
“And now, young man, will you play something?”
 
Unfortunately the young man’s playing did not come up to his appearance. It was pretty, but rather amateurish. Liszt paced the room nervously, and then broke out with:
 
“Instead of carrying around letters of introduction from queens it would be better if you did some serious practicing. This is no place for you; you had better go to some other master, or best of all to the conservatorium. Take your letter with you. It may be of service, and I have no use for it.” A minute later the young man was gone, and I never saw him again.

Liszt and the Critics
As a rule Liszt got up at four o’clock in the morning; two hours later he went back to bed, rising for the day at eight o’clock. He dined at one, and then slept for about an hour-and-a-half. He went to bed about ten o’clock at night. The early morning was his favorite time for composing. In former years, his housekeeper told me, this was his time for reading the “Crrritiques”—as he always called them—on his compositions. It always made him angry if anyone boasted of having had a good critique. “If you have a good ‘crrritique,’ he would say, “you probably have a good certificate from the conservatorium, too.”
 
Liszt once wittily defined a critic. There were three of us with him—Friedheim,4 a lady, whose name I do not remember, and myself. Liszt wanted a game of whist, but Friedheim objected that he did not know how to play and understood absolutely nothing about it. “Then,” said Liszt, “you must be a critic.”

Liszt and Rubinstein: a Comparison
It is impossible to describe Liszt’s playing. A pianist myself, I am yet unable to show how he played, or to give an idea of his playing in words. I cannot say that he had a “big” tone; it was rather that when he played there was no sound of the instrument. He sat at the very piano which we young fellows used to break with our playing, an entirely unreliable, unequal instrument; but he would produce from it, discordant as it was, music such as no one could form any idea of without hearing it. I am a tremendous admirer of Anton Rubinstein’s playing, and consider that all we living pianists are mere pigmies compared with him. He used to say, however, as I was told, that he was worth nothing as a pianist compared with Liszt. Liszt once told me a story of a banquet given in Vienna for Rubinstein after his Historical Concerts, Liszt himself being present. A member of the committee gave “Rubinstein” as the first toast. He had scarcely finished speaking when Rubinstein, who had been nervously fidgeting during the speech, sprang to his feet crying:

“How can you drink my health, or do me honor as a pianist, when Liszt is sitting at the same table? We are all corporals, and he is the one and only Field- Marshal.”
 
I had faith in this story, but had always wanted to compare the two pianists for myself. It was not long before an opportunity occurred. Anton Rubinstein was giving one of his Historical recitals one morning at the Gewandhaus for the musicians of Leipzig, and I went to hear him, acting on the advice of Liszt. I was to go back to Weimar after the concert, and tell him all about it. It was a recital of Beethoven’s sonatas. Rubinstein was at his best, and played each one better than the last. I was particularly struck with his rendering of the “Moonlight” sonata, which seemed to me simply marvelous. Two hours later I was back at Liszt’s house, arriving just at the beginning of a lesson. I could hardly wait to say good-afternoon to Liszt before plunging into a breathless description of this amazing music, the glamor of which was still over me. Speaking with all the fervor and enthusiasm of youth, I told him how wonderful Rubinstein’s execution had been, and that I had never heard such a fine rendering of the “Moonlight” sonata.
 
All at once it seemed to me that Liszt winced, and the thought flashed across my brain that I was saying this to a man who was acknowledged to be a specialist in the interpretation of this very sonata. He listened to my glowing account, and then said composedly:
 
“Very good, very satisfactory.” I began to feel uneasy. Liszt walked away and began to examine the music which the pupils had brought to play. Seeing a copy of the “Moonlight” sonata amongst the pieces, he asked who was playing it. It turned out to be a young American lady.
 
“My dear child,” said Liszt, looking at her, “this piece must not be brought to the lessons; I allow no one to play it because, when I was young, it was my spécialité. But as ‘we’ are in a good humor to-day, I will play it to you.”

The Moonlight Sonata
Saying which, he turned his head, and, as I thought, gave me a look which meant: “Now listen, you will hear something.” He began to play, and I held my breath as I listened. Rubinstein had played on a beautiful Bechstein in a hall with very good acoustic properties; Liszt was playing in a little carpeted room, in which small space thirty-five to forty people were sitting, and the piano was worn out, unequal and discordant. He had only played the opening triplets, however, when I felt as if the room no longer held me, and when, after the first four bars, the G sharp came in in the right hand I was completely carried away. Not that he accentuated this G sharp; it was simply that he gave it an entirely new sound which even now, after twenty-seven years, I can hear distinctly. He played the whole of the first movement, then the second; the third he only commenced, saying that he was too old and had not the physical strength for it. I then realized that I had completely forgotten having listened to Rubinstein two hours before. As a pianist he no longer existed. I make this statement deliberately with a full knowledge of what I am saying—and as my readers know my opinion of Rubinstein they may thus gain some faint idea of what Liszt was as a pianist. When he had finished playing Liszt got up and came across to me. I had tears in my eyes, and was quite unstrung. I could only say:

“Meister, I am quite dazed. I never heard anything like it.” Upon which he smiled kindly, and said:
 
“We know how to play after all, eh?“
 
I now understood what Anton Rubinstein meant by calling himself a common soldier and Liszt a General, and how true this estimate was. In my opinion Liszt was as far removed from Rubinstein as Rubinstein from the rest of us. I have never played this sonata in public; in fact I never heard it again, for if I happened to be at a concert where it was to be played, I always left the hall. It seemed to me that by listening to it I should be soiling the impression I had received, insulting Liszt’s memory, not to speak of the martyrdom it implied to myself.

Liszt and Czar Nicholas I
In the spring of 1886 Liszt told me he wished to go to Russia at the request of his favorite pupil, Madame Sophie Menter (at that time professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatorium), but that he could not make up his mind to the journey unless he received a personal invitation written by Alexander III or the Empress Marie Feodorovna. I was surprised that he should make such a condition, and he proceeded to tell me how he came to do so.

“I was giving concerts in Russia, and received a command to play before the Emperor, Nicholas I; while I was playing the Emperor beckoned to his aide-de-camp and began talking to him, whereupon I stopped. There was an uncomfortable silence. Then the Emperor came up to me and asked why I had stopped. I said:

“‘When your Majesty speaks everybody else must be silent.’

“He did not take my meaning at first, but looked at me for a moment as if puzzled. Then all of a sudden he frowned and said curtly:

“‘Monsieur Liszt, your carriage is waiting.’
 
“I bowed in silence and went away. Half an hour later a police officer came to my hotel and ordered me to leave Petersburg within six hours, which I did. That is why I can only return to Petersburg at the personal invitation of another Emperor, and that is what I am waiting for.” And he was right. There came a letter written by the Empress Marie Feodorovna’s own hand, with a note added by Alexander III in which Liszt was invited to stay at the Winter-Palace. Liszt made me, as he put it, his “Great Chamberlain;“ it was my duty to decide whom to admit to him and to announce the visitors. It was arranged that I should give concerts in Petersburg and Moscow in Liszt’s presence, and he even gave me his promise to play, saying: “Make no formal announcement of this, but let it be known; it will add something to your receipts, and the state of your finances will be improved in consequence, even without help from the Moscow Musical Society.”
 
 
 
 
3 Princess Elizabeth, daughter of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar,
now Duchess of Mecklenburg.
4 Friedheim, Arthur, the well-known pianist, born of German parents at St. Petersburg, 1859, pupil and friend of Liszt, whom he accompanied to Rome, afterwards studying with him at Weimar.

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You are reading Memories of Rubinstein and Liszt from the August, 1920 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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