A Study of Liszt

by Ernest Newman


When one goes nowadays into ordinary musical society, and ventures to express the opinion that Liszt composed music, one is generally greeted with a smile of condescending incredulity. To nine men out of ten he is the pianist who wrote the thumping things they usually put at the end of the program of a piano recital, the object of which seems to be to enable a candid virtuoso to demonstrate of what the piano is really incapable. Nevertheless, Liszt could and did compose, though his music has unfortunately been overshadowed by the prodigious achievement of Wagner, between whose work and that of Liszt there was a strong family resemblance. Liszt’s transcriptions and arrangements of other people’s music alone would stamp him as the possessor of a thoroughly musical imagination, the imagination not only of the performer but of the creator; for there is nothing in history of the art to parallel his re-creation of previous music, his power to make out of it something which, while still expressing the idea of the original composer, is yet so different from and in many cases so superior to the thing as it was at first, that he deserves to share the title of creator with the man whose work he was supposed to be merely “transcribing”. Charles Lamb once remarked of a bust of Wordsworth that is was “more like Wordsworth than Wordsworth himself”. Similarly one may say at times that Liszt’s Schubert is more like Schubert than Schubert himself; and the same remark is applicable to half a dozen other cases.


However, it is not in this sense alone that Liszt was a creator. Wagner wrote eulogistically of him more than once, and there is no reason to think him insincere in what he said. Wagner, with all his defects as a thinker, had a remarkably clear insight into certain things in music that bore upon his own peculiar work; and some of his dicta on Liszt and Berlioz are quite noteworthy. he necessarily, of course, criticized them both with reference to himself, blandly taking his own art form as a kind of perfected vision of what the others had been blindly groping for, the consummation of what the others had aimed at but failed to achieve. Perhaps he was to some extent right in this, which may account for his talking with a lucidity quite unusual for him. At any rate, he thoroughly understood the relation of Liszt to his epoch; and that relation is even more interesting to us now than it was to Wagner.

Evidence of his originality is to be had in the fact of his immediately recognizing, like Wagner and like Berlioz, that Beethoven summed up a whole epoch in himself; that he represented the most gigantic achievement possible to instrumental music in one department, and that it was folly to attempt either to rival Beethoven on his own ground, or to go on merely echoing what Beethoven had already said so well. He perceived also that, great as was the speech of the master, he had not exhausted the possibilities of symphonic expression; that there was another source of musical emotion than that from which so much of the greatest music had sprung in previous epochs, a source originating in a more specialized, more concrete order of experiences. It is noteworthy that the musicians who devoted themselves to this aspect of music were men of much wider culture, much more vivid lives, than the symphonists of absolute music. Berlioz, with his brain crammed with suggestions from the vital literature of his own preceding ages, worked in the center of one of the most strenuous artistic movements of any epoch; and he took his main inspiration from large and pregnant poetical works like those of Shakespeare and Goethe. Wagner lived not in music along, but in almost every artistic and social movement that interested mankind in his time. Liszt, with an imagination quite as incandescent, quite as quickly receptive as that of Wagner or of Berlioz, enjoyed and suffered one of the most varied lives that ever musician lived, a life full of the richest, most orchidaceous experiences. the stupendous charity and generosity of the man toward those who were poor and in misery, indeed, to all who could profit by his help, was one of the things that throw light on his artistic structure. He took fire from everything he approached; every experience of life, every scene of nature, every manifestation of human activity, stirred in him deep fountains of emotion. Living as he did, his music necessarily sprang from a different spirit and sought a different form from the music of the classical symphonists. There can be no step forward in the rational criticism of music until it is recognized that, though Beethoven’s achievement was incomparably great of its kind, it by no means exhausted the possibilities of the symphonic form. As yet there has been no adequate analysis of the many varying species of emotional thought which we lump together roughly under the one generic term of “music”. When that analysis is made, it will be found that the classical symphony is the expression of only one of these species; that Mozart and Beethoven wrote as they did because their mental world was not only molded, but conditioned and limited by the culture and ideals of their age; and that beyond that culture and those ideals there are states of mind which modern music has set itself to express, new orders of experience for which the old vocabulary and the old forms are alike insufficient. Liszt’s vivid and eager imagination set him at once upon the track of these new experiences and their proper musical expression. With him it is no longer a question of formulating a phrase of half a dozen or a dozen notes and putting it through a series of kaleidoscopic changes; his aim is to approach men directly upon the side of their actual life, to fashion accents, melodies, harmonies, rhythms that shall speak to them of the world of man and nature as they themselves have found it. The beauty of scenery speaks to him, and he translates his impressions of it into music. He sees a picture by Raphael and a statue by Michael Angelo, and out of his vision of them he shapes in sound his “Il Penseroso” and “Il Sposalizio”. A picture of Kaulbach suggests to him his symphonic poem “The Battle of the Huns”. Poems of Victor Hugo, Lamartine, and Schiller impel him to symphonic representations of them  in his “Ce qu’on entend sur la Montagne”, his “Preludes”, his “Ideals”. The joys and sorrows of his native country speak to him is sharp and definite melodies and rhythms, incarnating themselves in the symphonic poem, “Hungaria”. A German celebration of the anniversary of Goethe’s birth, with a performance of his drama, “Tasso”, suggests to Liszt a musical representation of the life tragedy of the Italian poet. The “Divine Comedy”, “Faust”, and “Hamlet” prompt him to still further symphonic utterances. What is so remarkable in his musical career is the variety of quarters from which he received the impulse to create. Poetry, painting, sculpture, natural scenery, all contributed to stir emotion in him and to prompt him to translate his emotion into music.


As in the case of Berlioz, the new genre of feelings was not to find adequate artistic expression without enormous difficulty. Men like Liszt found themselves standing midway between the two great currents of music, between the absolute music of Beethoven and his fellows, and the music, as vivified and transformed by poetry, of Wagner and the new school of song writers. On each of these lines it was comparatively easy to achieve an all sufficing form; the struggle for form bore most heavily on the men who, rejecting the sacrosanct formulas of the classical symphony, flung themselves into the sea of poetic music without availing themselves of the support of actual poetry. The problem before them was as thorny as any that has ever presented itself in the history of music; and if Liszt has not always succeeded in solving it we must judge him not only in relation to what he aimed at but in relation to what his forerunners and his contemporaries had made it possible for a musician of his peculiar ideals to do. In any case, we remain greatly indebted to him for having brought into music, to a degree unparalleled by any previous musician, the vitalized experience of an unendingly active life. There was not a throb his pulse had every felt that does not somewhere or other find expression in his music. Hence the strange compelling magic of his best phrases, the ring of sincerity and spontaneity in them, their suggestion of most intimate association with life as we ourselves have lived it. Here was no longer a musician occupied in reconstructing an ideal world from the depths of his own consciousness, ringing the changes upon half a dozen of the broader and more general emotions of mankind, but a musician whose quick intelligence, playing upon a copious experience of life of all kinds, prompted him to bring music one great step nearer to actual reality, and to express in tone the form and color and movement, the clash and struggle, of things as we know them to be in the world. It was probably the very intensity and multifariousness of the sensations and emotions he had to express that led to some of the defects of his music. His tendency to prolixity, his unfortunate trick of repetition without development, his occasional failure just to attain distinction of phrase, may quite reasonably be put down to the overcrowding of impressions upon the brain, for great artistic work has to be done with a concentration of idea and fixity of gaze that is sometimes, but an apparent paradox, more possible to the weaker intellect than to the stronger. The quest for perfect form becomes harder in proportion to the remoteness of your subject from the broad and easy path tramped out by generations of patient toilers; and the music of Liszt, if not always as formally correct as that of certain worthy academics, speaks to us direct of a particular man, and of the particular world he lived in, which the music of the academics, orally pleasant as it may be, never did and never will.