Sun, May. 15, 2005
Today's Cliburn competitors are rebelling against the conservative composers
and are favoring composers such as Franz Liszt.
The truth about the 19th-century 'rock star' whose innovations are
behind much of what you'll hear onstage
By PUNCH SHAW
If you could gaze into the soul of the Van Cliburn International Piano
Competition, you would find yourself eyeball-to-eyeball with Franz Liszt.
Of all the great pianist-composers, he casts the greatest shadow over
this event, which is devoted to the kind of virtuosity and showmanship
that Liszt used to build one of the most dazzling careers in the history
of performing arts.
It is no surprise that Liszt works are so popular with Cliburn competitors:
Every concert pianist working today owes a debt to Liszt's trailblazing
artistry at the keyboard.
But the Liszt legend is built on more than piano notes. His entire life
was something of a work of art. He was one of the most wildly popular
figures of 19th-century Europe, earning the sort of celebrity status that
today is reserved for rock stars and movie actors. Women swooned at his
sold-out concerts and fans eagerly snatched up any Liszt memento they
could get their hands on, from gloves to abandoned cigar butts. He romanced
countesses and princesses, and his roster of male friends read like a
who's who of classical music, ranging from his early teacher Antonio Salieri
(the bad guy in Amadeus) to his son-in-law, Richard Wagner.
As with any larger-than-life figure, a number of myths have developed
about who he was and what he has accomplished. Because many of us are
going to be spending a great deal of time with this Hungarian composer
over the next three weeks, let's set the record straight about one of
music's most unbelievable figures.
Myth No. 1: Liszt was the greatest pianist who ever lived.
This is a commonly held notion, supported by firsthand accounts of his
concerts and the knuckle-busting works he composed to show off his skills.
But, ultimately, the claim is unsupportable.
It's impossible to compare the performing abilities of today's pianists
with one who left us not a single recording. Saying Liszt was the greatest
ever is about as crazy as doing something like bringing a group of 35
pianists together for a few days of recitals and then determining that
one of them is better than all the rest (uh, wait a minute . . . ).
Liszt was obviously one of the greatest keyboard masters who ever lived,
but even he was not without detractors. You can dismiss Clara Schumann's
remark about Liszt being "a smasher of pianos" as just a catty
piece of professional jealousy (she was one of the few 19th-century pianists
whose popularity rivaled his). But Clara wasn't alone. "I am quite
impervious to your music," noted musician Joseph Joachim wrote to
Liszt. "It contradicts everything in the works of our great masters."
Another informed contemporary referred to Liszt as "an inspired charlatan."
And many musicians found that performing with Liszt was a mixed blessing.
The pianist, who quickly tired of a piece as written, added embellishments
each time he played it. Imagine being a string player in a quintet where
the pianist suddenly begins to make up his part as he goes along. He drove
fellow musicians nuts.
There can be no argument that Liszt was one of the greatest keyboard talents
in history. But, as not everyone was charmed by his talented excesses,
it's hard to place him above all who came before and after. It's fair
to say, however, that Liszt was the most important pianist who ever lived.
Myth No. 2: Liszt invented the piano recital.
There is more truth to this one, but it comes down to how you define "piano
Many scholars cite one of the Bach sons, Johann Christian Bach, as the
first piano recitalist. But others give the honor to Liszt because his
performances were the first to be all piano and nothing but piano. Earlier
recitals alternated solo piano segments with singers or orchestral works.
If Liszt did not quite invent the piano recital, he certainly perfected
and popularized it. He is credited with some of the most fundamental aspects
of the form, such as turning the piano sideways on the stage. In earlier
concerts, the pianists usually had their backs to the audience, but Liszt
wanted the crowd to see his handsome profile.
Myth No. 3: Liszt was an inveterate womanizer.
Another one that has plenty of documented support. But it is not too shocking
that a rich, talented and handsome star of the stage would have a few
girlfriends. Considering that he probably had a pool of potential groupies
that would have made the Rolling Stones envious, Liszt may actually have
shown a great deal of restraint. Rather than a Don Juan-like string of
one-night stands, some accounts suggest that he actually moved from one
relatively long-term relationship to another during his youth. His relationship
with Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, for example, lasted for more
than a decade. And, for the last 20 years of his life, Liszt lived alone.
he took holy orders and earned the title of "abbe" (a low-level
priest). To be sure, Liszt got around. And he did not always wait for
a divorce decree to be finalized before starting an affair. But he may
not have been the bed-hopping opportunist he is often assumed to have
been. After all, he was one of the few romantic-era composers who did
not die from a sexually transmitted disease. He died at 74, done in by
the more mundane afflictions of dropsy and pneumonia.
Myth No. 4: Liszt's works for solo piano are the most difficult to
play in the entire repertoire.
Hearing the thundering cascades of notes found in almost all of Liszt's
great keyboard works, it is hard to believe that any music could be more
challenging. And, yes, most of Liszt's works do require a high degree
of virtuosity -- as do the works of Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev,
for that matter. "Other composers have written more difficult pieces,
even in Liszt's day," says Rich DiSilvio, an artist and musician
who maintains a worshipful Web site devoted to Liszt and his music (www.d-vista.com/OTHER/franzliszt.html).
But, DiSilvio says, "no other composer generated as much amazement
at the keyboard." Liszt, he points out, was the first to perform
entirely from memory. He also composed "penetrating melodies that
emotionally captivated his audience and had that magical quality called
Myth No. 5: Liszt was a great pianist, but he was a vain and shallow
man who offered the world nothing beyond his keyboard skills.
Given the celebrity trappings of Liszt's life and many quotes that suggest
a self-centered view of the world, the initial impression he makes is
one of flash and thunder without real substance.
But the showy Liszt hides the true artist, a well-read and surprisingly
pious man who had an incredible impact on classical music. He also composed
great orchestral music and was one of the most important conductors of
his century. He was a tireless teacher who never charged his students;
many of the great pianists of the 20th century were trained by them or
their students, including Oscar Peterson and Van Cliburn, among many others.
So rather than being just a skirt-chasing "smasher of pianos,"
Liszt was an artist whose contributions continue to echo in the world's
concert halls, illuminating and aggrandizing his legend. The notes you
hear at the Cliburn competition will be brought to you by Steinway. But
in more ways than you may have realized, the music will be coming from
Liszt on the big screen
Franz Liszt has logged plenty of screen time -- both as a character and
as a composer on soundtracks. Here are a few films where he can be seen
Lisztomania (1975): Who better to play Liszt in a film than a rock
star? The Who's Roger Daltrey chews up the scenery in this wildly fanciful
take on the composer's life that is way over the top even by British director
Ken Russell's standards (Ringo Starr plays the pope, to give you some
idea). Hard to watch, but it flirts with "so bad it's good"
Impromptu (1991): Hugh Grant and Judy Davis play Liszt's friends,
Fredric Chopin and George Sand, respectively. A handsome little period
piece that is more soap opera than music drama. And Julian Sands makes
a great Franz Liszt.
Rhapsody Rabbit (1946) and The Cat Concerto (1947): These
two cartoons, one by Warner Bros. and the other by Hanna-Barbera, are
almost identical. Bugs Bunny and Tom the Cat desperately try to play Liszt's
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 while being bedeviled by a rodent in the piano.
Both are hilarious.