Van Cliburn Competition
& the Star-Telegram's Interview with Rich DiSilvio

The 2005 Van Cliburn Competition focused much attention on Franz Liszt, and for good reason...Liszt's works are featured on the program more than any other composer.

As such the Star-Telegram's reporter Punch Shaw contacted me (Rich DiSilvio) for an interview for this special article. Although only small excerpts were included in the final article, which is very nicely written and I thank Shaw once again for interviewing me, I felt it was necessary to publish the full interview below, along with these cordial comments.

Shaw's final article describes me as one "...who maintains a worshipful Web site devoted to Liszt and his music." To the readers unfamiliar with my work I would like to clarify this worship of Franz Liszt in that my worship is not blind, as many stereotypical fans might be, but well developed by many long years of study, and most importantly listening to the master's works. Here in lies one of the focal points in my Commentary, which has made this site the premier site on Liszt since its inception back in 1996. The mere fact that many today read volumes of material about Liszt, some of which is plagued with bias, yet fail to sit and listen to a broad selection of his works before passing final judgment on his works is crucial. Shaw clearly researched well and made many sound points, yet the headline of the article claims to reveal the truth. And some of these truths need a rebuttal. For it's understandable that Shaw could not have manufactured the many months and years necessary to listen to, and properly assess, Liszt's works under such a short deadline, and was therefore forced to rely upon the written opinions and assessments of others, which is understandable when assessing Liszt's record of acheivements and failures, but not enough for judging his works. Therefore I can't fault any commercial writer forced to work under such restraints, and I commend Shaw on a job well done under such circumstances, especially since my dispute is with only some points, not the majority. As mentioned it was nicely researched and professionally written, but this lack of personal familiarity does shine through especially in the realm of Liszt's works.

Hence the sad fact remains that many are familiar with Liszt's war horses, i.e.. Hungarian Rhapsodies and Liebestraum in particular, but the majority never engage or explore the vast ocean of work that this man composed, that runs as deep into one's soul as the ocean itself. This difference gives the well acquainted an indisputable edge and will validate my words that follow.

Shaw makes a solid point that since no audio recordings by Liszt exist the often heard claim that Liszt was the greatest pianist that ever lived is unsupportable. I must contend that in this respect Shaw, at first, seems absolutely right. For music, like art, is in the eyes, or ears, of the beholder. And we today would love to assess Liszt's abilities for ourselves. Then again, there are no recordings of Jesus' voice, nor do we have any actual writings by his own hand. But his deeds were recorded and carried on despite those who hated and even crucified him. This analogy, although not meant to compare The Lord and Liszt personally, does drive home a basic point. Similarly Shaw even astutely points out the disparaging remarks about Liszt by Clara Schumann, who certainly bemoaned out of jealousy, or by Joseph Joachim, who was once a close friend and student of Liszt and then switched camps moving over to the Brahms school of traditionalists. I certainly hold no grudge against these people who were drawn to Liszt's stardom and then turned, returning perhaps to their innate and more traditionalist temperaments. Again, everyone is entitled to their core direction of tastes, be it avant-garde or traditional. Yet, interestingly enough Shaw never used my quote by Chopin that praised Liszt. But the bottom line is... What determines the greatest? A very difficult honor to assess for any individual in any field of endeavor...even in the Van Cliburn Competition. But let me state my case, one earthshattering elucidation after another...

Fact number One is that Liszt clearly invented the Piano Recital, regardless of Shaw's so-called precedent by Johann Christian Bach. For J.C. Bach still shared a stage with other performers, hence this misses the whole point, and the monumental impact, as to what a Piano Recital is, or more importantly what modern stage performance is. Today it is easy to underrate, or not fully comprehend, the importance of this single contribution. But if we can block out for a moment our ingrained concept of stage performance and go back to a time when performers were an extension of the Aristocracy's fine court of jesters and other miscellaneous talents who entertained their high and mighty masters this begins to wash away the colorful blinders we wear today, revealing a grey past. Musician's of that era performed with an ensemble, while soloists were allotted just one segment of a full program. Liszt was not only the first to perform solo, but was also the first to perform entirely from memory. Additionally, and most importantly, he took this solo concert out of the Aristocracy's court and into the public arena. This is major. This is the birth, or should I say, "unshackling" of the musical artist. For the first time a musician could go out on stage, all alone, and dazzle a large public audience! Hence Liszt is the father of solo stage performance, and why he became such a public figure that was adored by fans and covered by the tabloids. This single contribution alone is enough to make Liszt the greatest pianist, since not only can this never be duplicated, but Liszt never could have achieved such a miraculous feat without the skills and talent to pull it off. This leads to our next fact.

Fact number Two focuses on the fact that Liszt could never have achieved his solo recitals without star talent. Granted there were virtuosos in his day, many with abilities that rivaled Liszt's, yet at the end of the day, or era, one name remained shinning while others slowly waned. For how many today know the name Thalberg? Not many, yet he certainly put up a great battle, even going head to head with Liszt and achieving admirable accolades. So, why did Thalberg wane and Liszt remain? That beautiful rhyme leads to our next amazing attribute....

Fact number Three is that Liszt not only could perform like a wizard, but composed his own music. And not just good music, but great, amazing, and transcending music. A term even the master prophetically attached to his stellar Transcendental Etudes. Yet, these etudes don't even show the full breath of Liszt's genius. For his long and industrious life bequeathed too many musical miracles to mention here, yet some are examined in my Commentary for the curious. But, this last and all important fact adds the undisputed crown upon this man that so many have documented and ultimately has earned my utmost respect, which others label worship. And I don't hesitate to decline that label, for beings of such magnitude are deserving of such respect for their monumental contributions to progress and civilization. So we may sit back and honor, and even judge, these new eagles of the piano at the Van Cliburn Competition, but none of them invented the piano recital, or solo stage performance in general, and none will be performing their own creative works at this competition. This last remark is perhaps the strongest comment, and one that may ruffle many feathers of these fledgling performers, yet that prophetic fact remains. This all points to a whole other issue...the lack of new composer/performers on the Classical stage. This in essence is what I see as being the most unfortunate and crippling aspects of Classical music today, and its uncertain future. I deeply applaud the long and hard dedication that these young talents have cultivated in that star arena of performance, but The glory of the old masters will never be surpassed as long as we don't cultivate original creativity, in the arena of composition, in our youth.

On closing I would just like to say that selecting the greatest in any field is not only difficult but subjective, yet some in certain respects have earned our majority vote as the greatest. Whether one calls it Greatest or Most Important the core essence remains the same. In this regard I can even say that I truly believe that some pianists today most likely have the skills to outplay Liszt, just as athletes surpass the greats of yesteryear, but some names deserve the highest honor because of deeds that exceed just the performance. And Liszt's revolutionary compositions and invention of stage performance adds immeasurable weight to this equation.

Being first, on a grand scale, has always held a place in human's hearts just as George Washington, Neil Armstrong, Elvis Presley and others attest. Despite the always present faction of detractors their records rise above into that sphere of sublime greatness. Henceforth, the truth does does the claim of Liszt being the greatest pianist to ever live!

The Interview

Punch Shaw
We noticed that Liszt was probably the most popular composer among the pianists trying out for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition which begins here in a few weeks. Do you think there is any particular reason that Liszt is popular with this generation of pianists or is this just another example of his enduring popularity?

Rich DiSilvio
Different generations may go through brief phases, but Liszt has certainly proven to have an enduring popularity. Even in times when others were in vogue, Liszt remained a hidden pleasure for many pianists who were still drawn to his alluring works and contributions to the music industry. The fact remains that if one stops to consider just how many great pianists after Liszt were drawn to his works, such as Horowitz, Bolet, Wild, Cziffra or even Watts making his debut playing Liszt's Piano Concerto #1, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, one becomes cognizant of the fact that Liszt has been with us all along. Many pianists look up to Liszt due to his stellar career, and contribution to the piano literature. For not only did he write the most avant-garde music of his day, but he invented the piano recital and performed his, and others, works better than anyone else. Even Chopin is quoted as saying, though I paraphrase, "I wish I could steal from him how to play my own works." Hence these star qualities are why he was called the "King of the Piano". As such, Liszt has become the pinnacle of achievement for any aspiring pianist. And rightly so.

Punch Shaw
Your web site does an excellent job of pointing out the contributions Liszt made to music. But, can you single out any one thing that you feel is his most important legacy?

Rich DiSilvio
The more one studies Liszt the more one realizes just how versatile and unorthodox a thinker he was, which is why I associated Liszt with Leonardo Da Vinci in my commentary. They both had extremely fertile minds, and although Da Vinci was more diverse, by engaging many different fields of endeavor, Liszt's contributions to the music field alone is vast, but more importantly revolutionary in each area of endeavor. As a young man Liszt began by tackling the piano and took it to its pinnacle, by orchestrating on the piano, writing the most advanced harmonies of his day, and introducing the master class and piano recital, thus becoming the first mega star who could perform solo, rather than share a stage with other performers. Then at middle-age he delved into orchestration and invented the Symphonic Poem, and again developed the most avant-garde harmonies of his day, which Richard Wagner keenly studied, adopted, and as many now realize enabled Wagner to construct his mature operas. And in his latter years Liszt developed impressionistic and atonal music preceding Debussy, Schoenberg and others by many years. So, it's extremely difficult to focus on just one of these major contributions to the field of music. Yet, I can not help feel that every stage performer today, of any genre, be it Classical or even Rock, is indebted to the long haired Liszt, who wrote captivating music, mastered his instrument, toured extensively, and drove crowds wild.

Punch Shaw
Is it fair to say that Liszt's compositions are the most challenging and difficult to play, as compared to the works of other great composers of piano music from the Romantic era and early 20th century?

Rich DiSilvio
Liszt's works were extremely challenging in his day, going beyond just the physical fingering, yet as he grew older he did go back to simplify some of his pieces, which achieved the same or better result, yet with much less difficulty for the pianist. Virtuosity alone was not what Liszt is all about, for the art and poetry of the piece was paramount. Even Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, which demand extreme virtuosity from its performer, are strategically structured with their own unique challenges yet with great poetry - creating a wordless opera soaring with exhilaration, pensive interludes, tender romance and transcending visions. Other composers have written more difficult pieces, even in Liszt's day, such as Herz or Dreyschok, so it exceeds just the difficulty factor as to why Liszt still remains supreme. No other composer generated as much amazement at the keyboard, for Liszt had superior skills, was the first to perform entirely from memory, made drastic advances in piano composition, wrote penetrating melodies that emotionally captivated his audience, and had that magical quality called charisma. As an energetic youth he made sure he remained supreme by openly challenging his rivals, like a prize fighter, thus becoming a super hero that always made the headlines. I can almost equate Liszt's persona in his youth as a Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley and Vladimir Horowitz all wrapped up into one super idol. And because Liszt invented the whole modern practice of stage performance, featuring his own compositions, which were an astral leap forward, no other pianist that followed could ever match, or surpass, his lead. So, in total that can never be duplicated, only admired.

The Star-Telegram article can be see here: Liszt Article