Franz Liszt. Born in 1811 and dying in 1886, he spanned his century like no other artist.
By common consent he was hailed as the foremost pianist of his day, and that before he was out of his 20s. As a conductor he set new standards of orchestral execution and, as on the recital platform, proved himself a tireless advocate of other men's music. Indeed, his efforts on behalf of Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann and Wagner were to a great extent responsible for their subsequent popularity.Yet until recently his own music enjoyed something of an equivocal reputation, if not with the public then in professional circles. So much so that as late as 1968 a major American music magazine was able to headline its cover story "Liszt: Turned-on Don Juan," followed by the query "Franz had fun - but will his recordings make the best-seller list?" - an obvious reference to the composer's X-rated (by 19th century standards) personal life.
Remarkably enough all that appears to be changing. Not only have the record companies embarked on a major reassessment of Liszt's output - in excess of 1,300 works - but that same revival of interest is apparent in our concert halls and on the printed page.
"He stole from the future of music," says Alan Walker of McMaster University in Ontario, whose own three-volume biography has likewise played a prominent role in the reassessment. (Volume 1, "Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years," was published to general acclaim in 1983; Volume 2, "The Weimar Years," is due sometime next year.) Sticking to the documentary evidence, it not only paints a more serious picture of Liszt as an artist but sweeps away the cobwebs of legend for a more balanced view of the man himself.
Walker comes to Utah this week to take part in the American Liszt Society's Festival 1988, to take place Oct. 6-8 at Brigham Young University. There, at the Harris Fine Arts Center, scholars and performers from around the world will gather for three days' worth of lectures and recitals designed to shed further light on the Liszt phenomenon. And, in keeping with the composer's own wide-ranging interests, not all the music will be his.
Recitalists will include Daniel Paul Horn (Clementi, Schubert, Liszt), Clive Swansbourne (Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Tippett), Louis Nagel (Liszt, Liapunov, Balakirev, Tchaikovsky), Vladimir Leyetchkiss (the virtuoso transcriptions), Richard Tetly-Kardos (Schubert, Glazunov, Liszt) and, Saturday alone, Duncan Stearns, Mark Wait, William Corbett-Jones, Michael Gurt and the two-piano team of Cristina Perotti and Lawrence Dutt. Along with evening concerts featuring this year's Gina Bachauer medalists, Kong Xiang-dong, Alan Chow and Eckart Heiligers, performing the two piano concertos and the "Totentanz" with the BYU Philharmonic (7:30 p.m. Thursday), the BYU Men's and Women's Choruses (7:30 p.m. Friday in the Provo Tabernacle) and the BYU Singers, Concert Choir and Philharmonic in a program of Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Rachmaninoff (7:30 p.m. Saturday).
All but the evening performances are free.
Among the lecturers will be Douglas Bush ("The Alkan Centennial"), Malcolm Brown ("Liszt's Influence on Russian Music"), Gregor Benko ("Great Romantic Russian Virtuosi") and, Thursday at 3 p.m., Walker, discussing his biographical work.
For his part, Walker agrees that "25 years ago a celebration like this would not have been possible." But the Liszt revival, he insists, can only be understood within the context of a renewal of interest in 19th century romantic music in general.
"When I was a boy growing up in England," he recalls, "one might confess one's love of Tchaikovsky and other romantic composers to one's friends and relatives but certainly not to members of the musical profession, who disdained them." The reason for that, he speculates, "had to do with the fact that professional musicians have always been deeply suspicious of composers who are already understood by the man in the street. In fact we had to wait until Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok were all dead before we could see the 19th century in its true perspective."
Yet even among 19th century composers Liszt often tends to be ranked well below Tchaikovsky etc., at least among the critical establishment. "There's no question he was ahead of his time," Walker replies. "The later piano music, for example, didn't really find its audience until after World War II. And the reason is because by then he was using whole-tone scales, atonality, even latent serialism as well as all the techniques we're familiar with from French impressionism. That in my view is why he is such a great composer, because he set in motion musical trends which are still being worked out today. In terms of harmony, structure, orchestration, he was a real pioneer."
In addition to his visionary quality as a composer, Walker ticks off Liszt's achievements as a performer, teacher and administrator.
"It's worth remembering he invented the piano recital. In fact the term `recital' was his, indicating the direction piano playing would be pointed in. Henceforth there would be an element of rhetoric on the concert platform."
As a conductor Liszt premiered Wagner's "Lohengrin" in Weimar, besides introducing a host of reforms to the podium itself. "Had he gone on another 10 years," Walker points out, "he would have overlapped names such as Nikisch and Richter. As it was, he encouragedmany of his better students to take up the baton, beginning with Hans von Buelow."
While in Weimar Liszt conducted all the Beethoven symphonies as well as major Berlioz retrospectives. In the 1850s he took over direction of the Lower Rhine Festival and, according to Walker, at one point even attempted to revive the old medieval singing contests immortalized by Wagner in "Tannhaueser" and "Die Meistersinger."
As a teacher, we have Liszt to thank for the concept of the master class - i.e., an instructional session in which the students would learn not only from the teacher but from one another. On top of which, Walker says, "he never taught technique - he would have found that very boring. What he taught was interpretation, in an attempt to bring out the musician inside the pianist."
So why, then, has his own music often had difficulty penetrating sensibilities beyond the technical?
Walker has two responses. "During his own lifetime," he says, "I don't think the world ever forgave him for retiring from the concert platform at age 35. They found it incomprehensible that, with the world at his feet as a concert performer, he would walk away from it all.
"Then I have also come to the conclusion that Liszt's music isn't performer-proof - i.e., performers unwittingly destroy it. That isn't true of Bach. You can have his music coming out of a barrel organ and it still sounds stunning, but try something like that on Liszt and the result is always a disaster. Then there is Chopin. Ask yourself how often you have left a Chopin recital that has gone badly and said to yourself, `What a poor pianist!' Yet when a Liszt recital goes badly we tend to say to ourselves, `What a lousy composer!' "
Again, that appears to be changing. Nonetheless, Walker acknowledges, festivals such as this week's still serve a purpose. "These days Bach, Beethoven and Schubert societies are, with all due respect, really a paradox. But Liszt is demonstrably in need of that promotion."
In other words, it may be time for the world of music to return the favor.
For further information on this week's activities, including times and programs, call 378-3001.