Liszt: 200 years on and still commanding the keyboard

Daniel Stout2012-02-29T06:02:25+00:00

Franz Liszt, the pianist and composer, was born just over 200 years ago on October 22, 1811, in a village called Doborján in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary. Frédéric Chopin was a contemporary, a year older than Liszt. It’s hard to imagine two such giants of the keyboard swimming in the same musical circles of the 19th century. Liszt remains known for being such a virtuoso that his star as the best pianist ever remains undimmed.

His compositions are notoriously difficult to an extreme degree. Even the older Liszt found himself rewriting his earlier compositions when he could no longer perform the pieces. It seems a strange thing to think now, but Liszt invented the recital. Before Liszt, no one had ever performed a concert of solo piano music. And perhaps it took someone of Liszt’s abilities to command an entire concert hall.

But Liszt’s insistence on intense performance took away from the musical merit of his compositions such that “even today most performances of Liszt are generally intended not as a specifically musical experience, but chiefly to display the pianist’s technique,” as Charles Rosen writes in The Super Power of Franz Liszt in the current issue of The New York Review of Books.

Liszt and Chopin’s friendship and rivalry were understandable. They were pianist/composers, which sounds like a superior version of today’s singer/songwriters. The industrial age had not quite wiped out beauty, and the brilliant beauty of the music of the time still shines for musicians and music lovers alike.

In Rosen’s review of Liszt as Transcriber, a new book by Jonathan Kregor, we learn that Liszt made a name for not only writing his own pieces but transcribing works for orchestra that he performed on the piano. Liszt was known for his interpretive performances of other works, but he could maintain fidelity to a composition when challenged. Rosen relates this anecdote between Chopin and Liszt:

On one occasion, Chopin was so outraged at the freedom of Liszt’s playing of one of his nocturnes in a salon that he stormed over to the piano and played it himself. The next day Chopin was asked to play it again, and he said he would do so if they put out the lights. When the lamps were lit again afterward, it was Liszt who had played exactly as Chopin had done the evening before.

If you want to hear Liszt’s music on Spotify, check out Liszt 200 Celebration, which includes performances from a variety of pianists such as Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, and Vladimir Horowitz. And if you’re looking for an afternoon of rapture, nothing compares to Chopin’s nocturnes.

There are many things we can say were different about the early 19th century and today, but it’s hard to compare the beauty of artistic expression. Some people assert that listening to, say, Mozart makes you smarter. That may be true in a sense, but it is my belief that if more people listened to Chopin, we could come close–very, very close–to achieving world peace.