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Franz Liszt At 200: An Important, But Not Great, Composer

Oct 21, 2011
Originally published on October 28, 2011 5:46 pm

Tomorrow is the 200th birthday of composer and pianist Franz Liszt. Morning Edition's music commentator Miles Hoffman thinks there are plenty of reasons to celebrate.

"This is a man who lived an extraordinarily long and an extraordinarily productive life — a very complicated life," Hoffman says "By many accounts he was the greatest pianist of the 19th century, somebody who revolutionized people's ideas of what was possible on the piano."

What Liszt did for the piano was what Paganini had done for the violin a generation earlier. And he did it in a similar way, Hoffman says.

"He wrote incredibly difficult music — music that completely bowled audiences over. And at the time it was music only he was capable of playing."

Liszt's music has waxed and waned in popularity over the years. Some complain that its reliance on thousands of notes and flashy passagework renders it shallow. Defenders point to the quieter, innovative and often deeply spiritual music of Liszt's late career — music he wrote after his seemingly endless barnstorming tour through Europe ended and he settled down in Weimar, Germany. Nevertheless, these days, almost every concert pianist of note has a few pieces by Liszt in their repertoire.

Hoffman's own view of how Liszt fits into so-called pantheon of great composers may spark a little controversy.

"I think there are people who would disagree with me, but I would make the case that Liszt was not so much a great composer but was an extraordinarily important composer," Hoffman explains. "I don't think of Liszt as a composer of masterpieces. When I listen to his piano works, for example, I'm more struck by the virtuosity than by the beauty or the depth of the music itself. But I should probably make an exception — or pianists would angry with me — for Liszt's B minor Piano Sonata, because many people, especially pianists, do consider it a masterpiece."

What's certain, Hoffman says, is that Liszt was in many ways an important pioneer as a composer. Wagner, Bartok, and Debussy were all heavily influenced by him. And as a person, Liszt was remarkably benevolent. He championed composers who were alive at the time — Berlioz and Wagner. But he also championed works of composers who had come before.

"These were composers whose genius Liszt felt it was terribly important for the world to recognize — especially Schubert and Beethoven," says Hoffman. "The way he championed these works, very often, was to transcribe them for piano so he could play the music in his recitals — for instance he transcribed all nine symphonies of Beethoven, a tremendous undertaking. His was able to bring this music to the attention of people who otherwise would never have heard it."

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PIANO CONCERTO NUMBER 1")

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We are listening to the striking opening of the "Piano Concerto Number 1" by Franz Liszt. Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth.

MORNING EDITION's music commentator Miles Hoffman thought we should join the celebration, and he's here to tell us why.

Good morning, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Franz Liszt was a superstar in his day. That, many people would know. But where would you, Miles, place him in music history, if you had to find a spot?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: A spot for Franz Liszt.

MONTAGNE: Just a spot, a perch.

HOFFMAN: It would have to be a very big perch, a very big spot, Renee. This was an enormous figure in the history of music. And, as a matter of fact, in the history of Western music, only eight composers have been written about more than Franz Liszt. This is a man who lived an extraordinarily long and an extraordinarily productive life, a very complicated life.

And I guess the first perch I'd put him on is the perch as, by many accounts, the greatest pianist of the 19th century. This is somebody who revolutionized people's ideas of what was possible on the piano.

And we can hear what I mean by that, I think, if we just listen to a little bit of Evgeny Kissin playing one of Franz Liszt's transcendental etudes. This is pretty amazing stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: It sounds difficult and...

HOFFMAN: I mean, yeah. How do you say holy cow in German?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: Yeah. Nobody had ever heard of anything like that. And, again, that's a transcendental etude or, in French, an etude of transcendental execution. And, Renee, basically, what Liszt did for the piano was what Paganini had done for the violin. And he did it in a similar way, which is he wrote incredibly difficult music, music that completely bowled audiences over, and music, at the time, only he was capable of playing.

MONTAGNE: And, Miles, as famous as Liszt was as a pianist during his lifetime - and there was even a moment of Lisztomania. I mean, you're talking...

HOFFMAN: Oh, yeah, big moments of Lisztomania.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: You know, with gloves being thrown onto the stage, that sort of thing. Why is it that we primarily think of him today as a great composer?

HOFFMAN: Well, he gets a little complicated, Renee. I think there are people who would disagree with me, but I would make the case that Liszt was not so much a great composer as an extraordinarily important composer.

MONTAGNE: Okay, interesting distinction. Please explain.

HOFFMAN: Well, I think the first thing I'd say is that I don't think of Liszt as a composer of masterpieces. When I listen to his piano work, for example, I - as much as I enjoy them and find them fascinating, I'm more struck by the virtuosity than by the beauty or the depth of the music itself.

I should probably make an exception, I suppose. The pianists otherwise would be very angry with me if I don't make an exception for Liszt's "B Minor Piano Sonata," because many people, especially the pianists, do consider this a masterpiece.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "B MINOR PIANO SONATA")

HOFFMAN: That's a section from Franz Liszt's "B Minor Piano Sonata," which lasts almost a half-hour.

And, Renee, I guess what's certainly is that Liszt was, in many ways, a very important pioneer as a composer.

MONTAGNE: Was he also a champion of others' works during his career?

HOFFMAN: That's one of the most important facets of Liszt's career, Renee, both because he championed composers who were alive at the time - Hector Berlioz, for example, and Wagner. But also because he championed the works of composers who had come before, composers whose genius Liszt felt it was terribly important for the whole world to recognize. I'm thinking of Schubert and of Beethoven.

And what he did was the way he championed these works, very often, was to transcribe the works of great composers for the piano, so that he could play the music in recital - in his recitals. I think this will sound familiar to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NUMBER 5")

MONTAGNE: Beethoven's "Symphony Number 5."

HOFFMAN: Yeah...

MONTAGNE: I heard that coming a little bit. It's beautiful on piano, though.

HOFFMAN: It really was. That was Glenn Gould playing it, by the way. But Liszt transcribed all the Beethoven symphonies, all nine Beethoven symphonies for piano. This is a tremendous undertaking. And he was able to bring this music, through his piano recitals, to the attention of people who otherwise would never have heard it.

MONTAGNE: Do you have a personal favorite among the works of Franz Liszt?

HOFFMAN: There is one piece, and it's not flashy piano piece, and it's not a big symphonic poem. There is one work by Liszt that I particularly love, and it's a song. It's called "Ou Quand Je Dors," "Oh, When I Sleep." It's for voice and piano, and it really couldn't be more beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OU QUAND JE DORS")

HOFFMAN: "Ou Quand Je Dors," "Oh, When I Sleep" by Franz Liszt. That's not bad music for the desert island, I think, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And we're spending the time this morning listening to music by Franz Liszt and talking about him, because we're celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth. And it's been a pleasure, Miles.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee. Always a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players, and he is author of the "NPR Classical Music Companion."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.