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What can one say but ''Please, Mr Walker, write more about Liszt!''After the three volumes and more than 1600 pages of his magisterial biography, one would think there is nothing about Franz Liszt that Alan Walker has not already said. But such was the variety of Liszt's activity, that there is in fact a great deal about him that had to be glossed over, or even ignored, in Mr Walker's colossal study.
That's how Reflections on Liszt came to be written, for it concentrates exactly on such not-so-well-known areas of Liszt's life and personality. They are as diverse as Liszt himself was versatile: the virtuoso pianist is presented with another scholarly glance on the legendary ''consecration kiss'' of Beethoven; Liszt the composer is also here, with some of his most famous compositions (the B minor Sonata) and with some of the most neglected, even completely forgotten, ones as well (his Lieder and the Technical studies); Liszt the transcriber appears with his matchless transcriptions of Schubert's songs and Beethoven symphonies; Liszt the teacher has nothing to complain of for his presence is honored with fascinating character sketches of three of his most famous pupils; Liszt the proverbial Romantic and his relationships with his colleagues are given their due in a compelling chapter about the decline and fall of his friendship with Robert Schumann; finally there are two more incarnations of Franz Liszt almost unknown today, as an editor and as a writer, that are also discussed here.
Alan Walker has compressed all that into just ten essays, beautifully written and scrupulously researched as only he can do it. Sure there are some repetitions with his biography, but there is also a wealth of new insights. Mr Walker was once criticised by Michael Saffle that little in the book is new for most of the chapters had already appeared in various periodicals prior to their publishing in book form. That may be true, and probably is, but these periodicals must have been specialised ones and therefore hardly accessible to the general reader who also happens to be a Lisztian. One is indeed left wondering if Mr Saffle weren't a bit frustrated because nobody thinks it worth while to publish some of his brilliant articles into book form.
The Prologue of Reflections on Liszt, five pages or so long, is well worth the price of the whole book. It is hard to imagine that better a summary of everything and everybody Liszt ever was is possible to be written is so short a space. His career developed in at least five directions simultaneously: pianist, conductor, composer, teacher and administrator, to start with. One of Mr Walker's numerous perceptive remarks is that in each one of these Liszt created something new; as always with that particular biographer, nothing is left without a solid back-up. Liszt was the man who largely, if not entirely indeed, invented the piano recital and the symphonic poem; he introduced the concept of the masterclass mentoring a galaxy of great pianists (Tausig, Bülow, d'Albert, to name but a few) and he organized whole festivals in Weimar to champion the then neglected music of Wagner, Berlioz and Schumann; he was one of the first modern conductors and one of most prolific composers ever. Then there is Liszt's colourful personal life, a constant source of notoriety for more than a century. He was the greatest pianist the world had ever known and one of the most fabulous musical superstars of all time; he never married but had a long-lasting relationships with two women, one countess and one princess, both married; last but not least, in his middle age he entered the lower orders of the Catholic church: sincere religious devotion or superb social coup d'état: the scholars still argue. To use Mr Walker's unforgettable phrase:
"Merely to report the facts is to run the risk of being accused of writing fiction."
And all that is just the tip of the iceberg - and of this stupendous Prologue as well.
Unfortunately - or not? - for the posterity Liszt never wrote an autobiography, as his great contemporaries Wagner and Berlioz did. Numerous reasons have been called to explain that phenomenon but the most probable is perhaps the most simple one: he simply didn't have the time. Liszt was much too busy living his life to put it down on paper. Yet, in a way, he did write an autobiography, fully authorized and spectacularly candid, under the form of more than 10 000 letters to about 1000 correspondents. They tell us more about Liszt and his times through his eyes than any (auto)biography can hope to.
Hardly was there anything conventional about Liszt, but his creative process appears to have been truly unique. Apparently, he could compose with extreme rapidity (unlike Beethoven), indifferent to the presence or absence of piano (unlike Chopin), even more indifferent to commotion and friendly chatter (unlike Wagner) and, quite unbelievably, straight into full orchestral score (an astonishingly beautiful music like the ''Gretchen'' movement of the Faust symphony was composed just like that). As for the numerous revisions that many of Liszt's works went through the years - in Mr Walker's words - ''they put him into a class by himself''. Liszt never destroyed any early sketches or drafts, nor did he make bonfires of manuscripts à la Brahms, though during his Weimar years he did suppress some of his early, and frightfully virtuoso, compositions - but he did so simply because he wanted to be taken more seriously as a composer, not just as a virtuoso. Many of Liszt's works, however, survive in two, three and, occasionally, even four different versions, ranging from minor emendations to re-composition of large sections that amount to all but a new work. Not only do these numerous revisions give us a unique glance into the composer's workshop, but they provoke some serious reflections. Here comes one of the most profound insights of Mr Walker, which is best left in his own words:
"As we compare one version with another, the old conundrum returns to haunt us: ''Where does the music's true identity lie?'' With Liszt the answer is, ''Not necessarily in the most recent version"; surprisingly, there is little evidence that he regarded a revision in the usual way, as an improvement. Often it was simply a variation of what had gone before. Liszt might well have agreed with W. H. Auden, who used to say of poetry that it was never finished, only abandoned."
I suppose Alan Walker may get into a hot argument with a number of other Lisztian scholars here. But I am sure he has done his homework pretty well before writing the above passage. Last but certainly not least, Liszt's longevity as a composer is almost unprecedented among the Romantics. It spanned some 65 years: his first compositions were from his childhood, his last were written just a few weeks before his death, aged 74. Not only did Liszt meet both Beethoven and Debussy during his life, but he encompassed the whole musical universe between them in his works.
Finally, Mr Walker tells us, there is Liszt's truly unique - and pioneer as well, though Beethoven was pretty much on the same road - view of music and genius as sacred and God-given gifts that must bring solace to those who are not so endowed. Liszt has been labelled as an insincere poser and humbug about that more than for anything else, most notably in the notorious books of Ernest Newman (The Man Liszt, 1934) and Emile Haraszti (Liszt, 1967). Alan Walker does not mince words and calls these books ''written in that spirit of perversity that was fashionable in Liszt scholarship fifty or so years ago.'' If Mr Walker's painstaking research for decades, largely corroborated by other scholars, has thought us anything about Franz Liszt at all, it is that, whatever his faults may have been, he was not only among the most fascinating and unique men of the nineteenth century, but also one of most sincere and honest ones.
All that wealth of stirring, provocative insights into Liszt's life and personality is just Mr Walker's Prologue. In the ten essays that follow he elaborates, though to a different degree, on each of this subjects and on many others as well. He never tires of being eminently readable; even in his most technical chapters that are brimming with musical examples can the layman find a great deal of food for thought. Nor does his exemplary scholarship ever falter. Together with repetition of some well-known facts, every true admirer of Liszt is in for a great variety of new information. Familiarity with Mr Walker's three volume biography is not really necessary, but is nonetheless recommendable.
It is worth noting that the author has used the chance to subject some of the most famous anecdotes in Liszt's life to a fresh scholarly scrutiny, most notably the accident of Brahms' dozing off while Liszt played his own B minor sonata, and the even greater accident which happened in 1848 in Dresden when Liszt was a guest to the Schumanns. He turned up two hours late, missing half of the concert arranged in his honour, and with Richard Wagner as a company; then he proceeded to describe Schumann's Piano Quintet quite tactlessly as ''Leipziger-ish'', referring no doubt to the conservative Leipzig school, and finally he started to praise Meyerbeer at the expense of the recently deceased Mendelssohn. That was too much for the already showing signs of mental instability Schumann: he jumped, shook Liszt for the shoulders and cried how he dared speak like that of Mendelssohn, then revered in the Leipzig-Dresden circles. One is left wondering where Liszt's famous social grace was in this case. He had saved it for the final, it seems. He turned to Clara and told her to tell her husband that he was the only man in the world from whom he would take calmly the words he had just offered him. Then he left the room. Thus is musical history made.
That fascinating story, which looks as though taken from a novel, really does seem to have happened in the real life. It is just one among many anecdotes which Alan Walker investigates coolly and dispassionately, from all points of view and in the light of all surviving evidence. He is equally authoritative in the more technical matters, like the legendary case with Liszt's song Ich möchte hingehn which has been an indispensable part of the Liszt literature for decades, supposedly starting with the famous Tristan chord some ten years before Wagner penned a single note of his masterpiece. As it seems though, the famous chord was an afterthought Liszt added some ten years later and it is more probable, albeit by no means sure, that Liszt quoted Wagner, not vice versa. The search of harmonic innovations Wagner might have borrowed from Liszt is well worth the effort, but Ich möchte hingehn might not be a good place to start.
And so on, and so forth. The book is an inexhaustible supply of compelling Lisztiana. Truly obligatory read for every great fan of Franz Liszt.
Afterthoughts on the Epilogue.
Looking back on the above, I am quite surprised that I didn't say anything about the Epilogue. This is a most remarkable piece of writing. I would even go as far as to claim that it is unique in Alan Walker's Lisztian oeuvre.
During the 1500-1600 pages of his three-volume biography of Liszt, Mr Walker seldom allows himself the direct expression of opinion. That's what chiefly makes this Open Letter so fascinating: it consists of nothing else. Moreover, it is conspicuously more critical than anything else on the subject Mr Walker has ever written. But, please, make no mistake: Alan Walker at his most negative is infinitely more sensible and worth reading than Ernest Newman at his most positive; having read the notorious character assassination The Man Liszt as well, I know well what I am talking about.
The opening lines of Mr Walker's Open Letter set the tone of the whole piece. Together with some highly uncharacteristic, but not without charm, purple prose, it also demonstrates Mr Walker's remarkable self-assurance of his mind and work. The first lines of the second paragraph establish the highly critical attitude of the letter, but also the genuine sympathy, even affection, that Alan Walker does have for his subject. Until the end of the piece he makes a fine case that such shamelessly positive attitude is not incompatible with sharp and uncompromising critical evaluation. Here are the relevant passages just referred to:
Dear and highly esteemed Master!
I have long cherished the notion of writing to you, and I am grateful beyond measure that I now have the opportunity to do so. To many people it may seem strange that I would want to communicate with you at all, you who have been dead for more than a century. If so, that can only be because they lack imagination and are incapable of understanding how important your life and work have become to me. Suffice it to say that during the twenty-five years I worked on your biography, which surely gives me some claim to your attention, there were times when I longed to set aside my work in order to consult you directly about the problems before me.
Do not chastise me for these words, revered Master, at least not until you have read everything that I have to say. If I am critical about certain aspects of your life and work, that in no way diminishes my respect and admiration for the way you lived out your allotted span.
Now, this Epilogue Alan Walker does make a most illuminating comparison with Ernest Newman's scurrilous crap. Very much unlike his notorious predecessor, Mr Walker never downplays Liszt's outstanding achievements in virtually all areas of his multifarious activity: pianist, composer, conductor, teacher. Still less does Alan Walker doubt Liszt's integrity and sincerity, the real foundation of his charity and generosity. One often forgotten aspect of Liszt's life, firmly stressed here, is that he was one of the first among the great composers who took it to heart to raise the social position of the artist; in this, as in much else, Liszt proved to be a worthy successor of Beethoven.
Most importantly, Mr Walker absolutely never overestimates Liszt's faults and errors - something Mr Newman does relentlessly and, dare I say it, deliberately. Mr Walker is in an entirely different category. He tries to explain and understand, which doesn't mean excuse and condone, but it doesn't mean scoffing and bashing either.
For example, Mr Walker makes no bones that Liszt was a bad father. "That reflects badly on you", he says about Liszt's neglect of his children for eight of the most important years in their lives. Nor does Mr Walker shy away from admitting Liszt's mistakes in the most notorious department of all: his relationships with women. His "affair", such as it was, with Olga Janina was "poorly handled" by him and his letting the Princess write anti-Semitic crap in the second edition of his book about the Gypsy music is beyond excuse. Mr Walker's succinct description of the chief criticism against Liszt cannot be bettered: "misplaced chivalry".
All that said, there are a few instances where, I believe, Alan Walker is a trifle unfair to Franz Liszt.
Sometimes Mr Walker appears swayed by trifles. Is it so terrible that Liszt was a bad father? Would you have him a good father and a mediocre composer? I wouldn't. Mr Walker also declares his bafflement why Liszt didn't marry the Princess when her husband died, which happened just three years after their fully planned marriage was thwarted by their enemies. Mr Walker finds Liszt's quoting Pascal as a reply unsatisfactory, but I think this is in fact the only satisfactory explanation: "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing." After living for more than a decade as man and wife, of what use to Liszt and Carolyne a marriage could have been? Moreover, as made clear by Mr Walker in his biography, their relationship until the end of Liszt's life was not quite as cloudless as during the Weimar years, mostly due to the highly eccentric behaviour of the Princess.
I am even more surprised, nay dismayed, to read Mr Walker's accusations - gentle and kind but accusations none the less for that - that Liszt composed too many arrangements of music by others and wrote too little about his own music (while producing essays on numerous other composers). Mr Walker, of all people, should know perfectly well that, quite apart from their historical significance which he readily acknowledges, even Liszt's transcriptions are often unique creations that could not have been made by anybody else; his paraphrases all too often amount to entirely original compositions. And what's the big deal that Liszt didn't leave us any clue about the program of the B minor Sonata? Is the music not quite self-sufficient? Alan Walker is one the last writers whom I would expect to dwell on trivia.
Sometimes Mr Walker is also apt to extrapolate a little too wildly. His notion that Cosima's callous behaviour towards his father late in his life was largely a result of his neglect during her childhood is not too credible. I believe the most probable reason for Cosima's cold, almost cruel, treatment of her father's last days in Bayreuth was her boundless adulation for Richard Wagner; even though he was dead by then, he exerted a powerful spell over his wife until her own death, nearly four decades later. I am not suggesting she was consciously callous, still less that Wagner had deliberately set her up, but simply that her reason was clouded by her heart.
Finally, to top all that, Mr Walker even castigates Liszt that he never specified exactly where he wanted to be buried. As if Liszt could have predicted the sordid quarrels over his dead body and Bayreuth's detestable PR of it! What does it matter where he is buried anyway? The only thing that matters is what you have left. That is all. At another place Mr Walker all but suggests that Liszt should have predicted the Urtext-mania of the twentieth century, therefore he should not have bothered himself so much with paraphrases.
Despite all these criticisms, just and unjust, Mr Walker's Open Letter is a remarkably balanced assessment of Liszt's life, personality and place in history. If anybody has the right to write so candidly to/about Liszt, this is surely the man who has dedicated quarter of a century to him. He commands respect even when I completely disagree with him. At any rate, it is a compelling experience to read Mr Walker's reflections on Liszt expressed as bluntly as never before. As for Hanslick, Newman and all other incarnations of the perverse spirit that has attacked viciously Liszt or his music, by far the best answer has been given by Dr Johnson. Alan Walker quotes it and so do I:
"Why, Sir, a fly may sting a stately horse and make him wince. But the one is still a horse, while the other remains a fly."*
*Trying to source this quote, the closest approximation I have come across is: "A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still." It is quoted by Boswell in his legendary Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). The original source, if it exists at all, remains unknown to me.