I Am The Concert: Homage to Franz Liszt’s pianism

An analysis of the artist, in his 200th anniversary, by a great contemporary pianist

Homage to Franz Liszt’s pianism

by Sandro Ivo Bartoli

Franz Liszt impersonated the role of the Romantic genius to the extreme: an emphatic and contradictory personality, he was the idol of European crowds and was courted by some of the most influential women of his age (he was a serial womaniser). Later in life, after several deaths in the family resulting in a mystical crisis, he became an Abbé and an exorcist (although it appears that he never practiced that speciality). From the beginning he was considered one of the greatest musicians of history.
Moved by a creative spirit that knew no rest (his catalogue of compositions is enormous and embraces all the musical forms that were then known, including opera), proud of being ‘the King of pianists’ (a fact that he did not let anyone forget), Liszt was also a generous sponsor and promoter of others’ talents (for example, Hector Berlioz heard his Symphonie Fantastique in Liszt’s piano arrangement before any orchestra could be persuaded to play it).

Since the most tender age he demonstrated an extraordinary facility at the piano, and eventually he left his most impressive mark both as a pianist and composer of piano music. His teacher Carl Czerny recorded his first impressions of the supernatural talent for posterity: “He was a pale, delicate looking child and while playing swayed in the chair as if drunk, so that I often thought he would fall to the floor. Moreover, his playing was completely irregular, careless and confused, and he had so little knowledge of correct fingering that he threw his fingers all over the keyboard in an altogether arbitrary fashion. Nevertheless, I was amazed by the talent with which Nature had equipped him. I gave him a few things to sight-read, which he did, purely by instinct, but for that very reason in a manner that revealed that Nature herself had here created a pianist…”.

The years with Czerny equipped Liszt with a solid technique, at least insofar as what was known then. Within a few years, Franz would revolutionise not only the way of playing the piano, but the very conception of the instrument. In 1832 he heard Paganini and, like so many colleagues, felt transfixed. Unlike the others, though, Liszt resolved to replicate on the piano the devilish virtuosity of the Italian violinist. He locked himself at home and did nothing but practice. When he emerged from his self imposed exile, he had in fact reinvented the piano. He introduced to the public his arrangements of Paganini’s Caprices, and created a furore. The wide leaps, the powerful sound, the demonic virtuosity that he displayed captivated the public imagination in an extraordinary way; “Liszt,” said Countess Belgiojoso, “is the only pianist on Earth.” He went on writing magnificent opera paraphrases, true pianistic synopsis of Rigoletto, Trovatore, Sonnambula, Norma, and many more. In these works the instrumental virtuosity was pushed to almost unsurpassable heights. Nowadays one seldom hears these transcriptions: the modern taste prefers textual fidelity, and philology dictates more austere choices in favour of original works.

During a trip to Italy, impressed by the fresco ‘the triumph of death’ in the monumental cemetery in Pisa, Liszt wrote music that had an archaic and demonic tinge such as the Totentanz and the Malédiction Concerto, both for piano and orchestra. His reading of Dante resulted in one of the most beautiful works in the entire piano literature, the Fantaisie quasi Sonata d’aprés une lecture de Dante. It is important to remember here that Liszt was among the very first pianists to play music by other composers (particularly Beethoven, of whom he used to perform several Sonatas and the Emperor Concerto), a role in which he was a visionary innovator. During a concert tour of Hungary, he had notated the dance melodies of the Gypsies; he elaborated the material into the virtuosic Hungarian Rhapsodies in a fortunate, pioneering experiment of transposing folk music in a concert setting. Here also, Liszt was ahead of his times (his intuition was later followed and exploited by such composers as Bartòk, Kodaly and even Gershwin).

He withdrew from the concert scene in 1847, and in the last years devoted himself to the restructuring of sacred music with a truly impressive output that still awaits a proper appreciation (a seminal work is the marvellous Via Crucis of 1879). He died on July 31st, 1886. He was seventy four years old. “I am the concert.” These were Liszt’s words on the occasion of a historic performance at the Hanover Square Rooms in London when, for the first time in history, he performed the whole concert alone, inventing the figure of the modern concert pianist and earning the everlasting gratitude of this writer and all his colleagues. Happy Birthday, Maestro.

Original article (in Italian)