The Romantic Piano

  • John C. Tibbetts


With the possible exception of the guitar in contemporary popular music, the piano has proven itself the most popular Western musical instrument. For decades during the later nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, almost every upper- and middle-class European and American family owned one. Furthermore, the piano possesses a larger and more variegated repertory than even the violin. In addition to their concerts and recorded legacies, two pianists—Leslie Howard and the late Charles Rosen—have contributed to musical scholarship. A third performer, Garrick Ohlsson, speaks about his own pianistic preferences without an interviewer’s queries and prompts.


With the possible exception of the guitar in contemporary popular music, the modern piano has proven itself the most popular Western musical instrument. Increasingly strengthened (with iron or steel frames replacing wooden ones), and increasingly refined in terms of percussive power and volume (hammers strike the strings in all pianos), glowing timbres, and social omnipresence (for decades almost every upper- and middle-class family in Europe and America owned one), the piano possesses a larger and even more variegated repertory than even the violin. Three pianists—two of them, the late Charles Rosen and Leslie Howard—have also contributed to musical scholarship. Garrick Ohlsson, the third, speaks about his own pianistic preferences without an interviewer’s queries and prompts.
Fig. 1

Charles Rosen, with Schumann in the background

Michael Saffle

Charles Rosen: “During the Romantic Period, Piano Music was the Most Important Music Being Written”

John C. Tibbetts

21 January 1988, New York City

The piano became the nineteenth century’s most popular and pervasive instrument, in part because more and more people could afford to purchase pianos and learn how to play them. During those same decades, the piano became associated especially with two areas of bourgeois life: the concert hall, where male pianists such as Liszt mostly ruled the roost; and the middle-class home, where “the girl and her piano” became established aspects of gentility. During the early twentieth century and especially after World War I , piano purchases peaked, then fell off. Women as well as men had already become more frequently acknowledged as professional virtuosi, and in many homes the phonograph and even the player piano became increasingly commonplace.

A scholar as well as a pianist, Charles Rosen (1927–2012) began studies at Juilliard when he was only four; later he earned a Ph.D. at Princeton in French literature. Rosen won the National Book Award for The Classical Style (1972); as a pianist he recorded works as different from one another as Bach’s Goldberg Variations and—at the composer’s invitation— Stravinsky’s Movements for piano and orchestra. During the 1980–1981 academic year, Rosen held the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetics at Harvard, and his Norton lectures served as the basis of The Romantic Generation (1995) (Fig. 1).

This conversation transpired in Rosen’s New York apartment. He demonstrated his remarks at the keyboard.

JOHN C. TIBBETTS : Those years around 1810 seem to have been the cradle of musical Romanticism

CHARLES ROSEN: —and 1803, if you want to include the birth of Hector Berlioz.

What’s going on?

This was the period which all of these young people—Liszt, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Wagner—were beginning to take off. There is this trust in spontaneity, in the primacy of the poetic impulse over the rational one, which is quite clear in German and French Romanticism. That generation tried to capture the originality of form and the exotic atmosphere of the literature and art and politics they had grown up with. That starts clear back in the middle of the eighteenth century with the Sturm und Drang and the young Goethe. Politically, of course, there had been the failure of the French Revolution. It was a tremendous disappointment, a great hope that everything would improve. But it turned out that things were not better but in some respects worse. A new conservatism crept in. In 1828 a big conservative reaction against the French Revolution was beginning to break down. Two years later you get the second French Revolution of 1830, which was in effect also international. Politically, it was a time where things were really starting to ferment again.

Was it accidental that the Shakespeare and Bach revivals were going on at this time?

There’s this myth that the Romantics revived Shakespeare. Shakespeare had never been absent. But what happened with the Romantics was interesting. Before then, Shakespeare was criticized as a genius who was completely wild, who broke all the rules, a child of nature who simply wrote from the flood of his genius. In fact, that’s basically what Shakespeare was considered during his lifetime by [Elizabethan playwright] Ben Jonson [c. 1572–1637]. When they told Ben Jonson that Shakespeare had never blotted a line, he said, I wish he’d blotted a thousand. But now [i.e., the early nineteenth century], Shakespeare began to be considered a role model. The founder of German Romanticism, Friedrich Schlegel [1772–1829], said that Shakespeare was the most “correct” poet that ever lived. Similarly, E. T. A. Hoffmann [1776–1822] wrote that Beethoven was not at all the wild, untamed genius that people think he is. He was actually the most sober and correct musician that ever lived. What Hoffmann was doing would have been understood at the time, but might not be understood today: He was comparing Beethoven to Shakespeare and saying Beethoven is our Shakespeare in music.

What about Bach? The Romantics loved him, but was that more private than public?

We have the same kind of myth that Bach was “revived.” He wasn’t. There were generations of musicians who were influenced by Bach. Mozart discovers Bach and arranges the Well-Tempered Clavier for string quartet and for string trio. He even arranged one of the fugues from Art of the Fugue. Beethoven was brought up with the Well-Tempered Clavier and played a few of them from memory when he was thirteen years old. It got in the newspapers! [Carl] Czerny [1791–1857] published an edition of it. He taught it to Liszt. Chopin was raised on it. Schumann was raised on it. And we need to remember that the so-called “Bach Revival” was actually a revival of the choral works. The young Mendelssohn revived the St. Matthew Passion in a performance that was very heavily cut and abridged. From then on, Bach was regarded as the great composer of choral music.

Was the piano the best instrument for the Romantics’ more personalized expression?

It was evolving, yes. During the 1830s, piano music was the most important music being written. It seems to me that one should play the music on the instruments that were inspired by the music. In other words, the imagination and vision of many composers exceed the instruments of their own time. So, you find in response to the new kind of music that was being written in the 1830s and 1840s further developments in the pianos of the 1850s and beyond. And there’s no reason not to play Schumann and Chopin on the modern piano. It was due to the kind of music that Liszt was writing that Steinway invented the metal frame for the piano. I think it was Steinway who was the first to use steel for the frame. … Basically, from the middle of the nineteenth century on, it’s very close to the modern piano. The piano is sort of like a dinosaur right now. It’s dying out. People don’t buy concert pianos for the home. It’s not big enough anymore …

Let’s talk about Schumann. When does his music first reach your ears and your fingers.

I’ve always liked to play Schumann. Even as a small child I used to play the Album for the Young with “The Happy Farmer” and “Knight Rupert” (who was like Santa Claus), and marvelous things like that. My teachers never gave me adaptations. It was important to play the real thing, the original. After the age of six, I don’t think I played anything except really original pieces. There’s an awful lot of easy work one can give children. I was taken to play for Leopold Godowsky when I was about eight. I was told he put me on his lap and said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I said, “I want to be a pianist like Josef Hoffmann!” I’d never heard of Godowsky because he didn’t play in public. He had a tremendous reputation for being the greatest pianist who only played in private. But Josef Hoffmann was the greatest pianist I’d ever heard.

Schumann was a great reader and literary figure. You must identify with that!

Thank you. Schumann certainly had his literary role models. Jean Paul Richter [also known as “Jean Paul”; 1763–1825] was one, E. T. A. Hoffmann another. Hoffmann was one of the greatest writers of the period. If you needed a Romantic role model, he was about as good as they came. Hoffmann was also a fairly good composer and a very great music critic. He knew a lot about music, obviously, and was also the director of the Berlin opera.

Anyway, Hoffmann did become a terrific model for Schumann and Chopin and, a little later, for Brahms. Schumann’s Kreisleriana, for example, is derived directly from Hoffmann. The title is Hoffmann’s. It is one of Schumann’s greatest compositions. And what it does contain is that wonderful contrast you get between the extraordinarily wild Romanticism—like the life of the composer Johannes Kreisler—and bitter satire. Chopin is different. Chopin, on the other hand, displays little sense of humor, except in some of the early rondos.

You discovered a lot about Schumann’s Fantasie, Op. 17. What do we need to know about that?

There’s a story behind how I came to perform the original text of the Fantasie, originally entitled Dichtungen, or “Poems.” The British [-Canadian music] historian Alan Walker discovered it in Budapest. It had been dedicated to Liszt and the manuscript must have been given to him, which is how it came to be in the Budapest Library. Walker learned that the last page is very different from the published last page. But in an article Walker published only sixteen out of the seventeen missing measures.

The original version ended with a return from the first movement of a melody from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte [To the Distant Beloved] song cycle. But with that return came an important change in the melody and harmony. When Schumann came to publish it, however, he just crossed out the last page and substituted two measures of arpeggios. I think this original ending is quite beautiful.

Schumann is not alone in cultivating this idea that he’s making it up as he goes along, is he?

Yes, that last movement sounds like an improvisation. In a letter to Clara, Schumann wrote, “I’ve been playing the melody from the last movement for hours.” And he probably just sat there playing that tune for hours on end, extending it with sequences. It’s the sort of effect in Schumann, and sometimes in Chopin, that you don’t get in Haydn and Beethoven and Mozart….

The funny thing is that Schumann knew he revised badly. But he continued to revise, he couldn’t help himself. It’s true of the poets: [William] Wordsworth [1770–1850] revised badly—the original versions are much more spontaneous and more interesting. I’ve always thought if you really want to see how this works is with Chopin. [Novelist] George Sand [the pen name of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin; 1804–1876] said that after Chopin composed something, he would start revising it. He would work and work—he was never satisfied—and when he got finished he would publish the original version. That was [true] of all the composers of that particular period. I don’t mean that Chopin was a greater composer than Schumann, but in a way he was a much more critical composer. Put it this way: There are very few failures in Chopin; there are a lot of failures in Schumann—pieces that don’t come off. With maybe three or four exceptions, everything in Chopin comes off.

And Chopin did love Bach.

That extraordinary unity of sound Chopin gets is from his study of Bach’s WellTempered Clavier . Chopin was the greater craftsman, probably the greatest master of counter-point since Mozart. The music is unbelievably, beautifully tailored—all the voices are wonderful. Take something like Chopin’s Préludes. There are a lot of those preludes that don’t make any sense unless you play the whole group. You really can’t take them out of context. It’s just such an extraordinary idea to write twenty-four preludes that make sense only if you just play them together. What you get is something that you call the “cycle,” a set of pieces like the Schubert song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin [The Pretty Miller Maid] and the Wintereisse, where the songs are separate, but they only make sense if you play them as part of the cycle.

What music was Chopin hearing while he was growing up?

His education must have been rather strange. There’s a lot of music that never got played in Warsaw. Basically, what he knew was Italian opera, especially Bellini, then the most popular form of music. Opera was completely international. Every place had Italian opera. And he knew the music of Bach, as I said, because that was how he learned to study the piano. When he went to Majorca with George Sand, the only piece of music he took was the Well-Tempered Clavier.

You say Chopin’s music matures early; what about the later works?

Like a lot of people, Liszt was upset by the very last works of Chopin, which are unbelievably complex. The counterpoint becomes much more noticeable. The harmonies become extraordinarily modern. Liszt thought [Chopin’s] mazurkas and the last Ballade and the Polonaise-Fantaisie were morbid. And Chopin was attacked by a lot of people because the music seemed sickly. Liszt said something very interesting: that the most morbid are the most interesting harmonically. It’s only recently that people have become aware that far from being weak in the construction of large works, Chopin is in fact the only really great master of large forms in the 1830s and 1840s. He had much greater ease than Schumann and Liszt in writing a piece that was ten or eleven minutes long. Both Liszt and Schumann had trouble. They very rarely pulled off a long movement that was completely successful.

I know you love the mazurkas . I’ve always been struck that so many of the Romantic composers wrote dances, all kinds of dancesbut not really to be danced to!

No, nobody’s going to dance to the Chopin mazurkas! You really can’t dance those in a salon.

Why do you say that?

Capturing the rhythm of a Chopin mazurka is, I must say, very interesting, at least to me. The last movement of the Second [Chopin Piano] Concerto has a mazurka in it. He’s turning that into a great big virtuoso piece. What’s interesting is that when Chopin played the concerto with Berlioz, Berlioz complained that Chopin was unable to play two measures in strict time! Everybody said about Chopin’s mazurkas that most of them came out in 4/4 or 2/4 instead of 3/4. It’s quite obvious that he used to elongate some of the beats more than others. He got very angry when you said that to him; and he would then laugh and say, well, that’s the “national character”! The problem is, there is no such thing as a mazurka. There are about six different dances that were all called “mazurkas” at the time. Some of them have a long second beat, as in a waltz, and others a very long first beat. I remember going to play for Moritz Rosenthal when I was about ten, and he played the mazurkas. And there were some where he played the second beat so long it was twice as long as the first. I too play that way. In that particular rhythm. I don’t do that ruthlessly all over the mazurkas; too systematic like that would be terrible. Chopin takes what was ordinarily a low form of salon entertainment and turns it into the greatest kind, the most profound kind of music you can write. That’s very radical in Chopin. The only time Chopin writes a fugue is in a mazurka. But that’s typical of Romanticism. The Romantics took forms and styles and things that were either despised or low or were considered not important and they made them as sublime and as important as anything else. I mean, the greatest example of early Romanticism are the Songs of Innocence and Experience by poet [William] Blake [1757–1827] What [Blake’s] imitating are those moral forms that small children at the age of three and four were given. And he’s turning out the most sublime poetry of his time in this form. They’re certainly not for children any more.
Fig. 2

Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson: “Chopin and Schumann Present a very Interesting Comparison/Contrast Here!”

John C. Tibbetts

16 February 1989, Kansas City, MO

Born in Warsaw of middle-class parents and a child prodigy, educated in several local schools, Frédéric François [Fryderyk Franciszek] Chopin moved to Paris in 1830 and established himself as both teacher and composer. Chopin distinguished himself from other Romantic composers by writing almost exclusively for solo piano. In 1835 he became a French citizen, although he loved his native land and employed Polish melodies in a number of works. A celebrated piano virtuoso who suffered from poor health—probably tuberculosis—throughout most of his life, Chopin performed publically in Paris on no more than thirty occasions.

The first American to win the prestigious International Frederick Chopin Competition in Warsaw , pianist Garrick Ohlsson embraces composers from Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826) to Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924). During the late 1980s Ohlsson recorded Chopin’s complete solo piano works for Arabesque Records. In 2008 he won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Soloist for his recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas (Fig. 2).

Our conversation was more a monologue than a dialogue; it is presented here without interruptions.

JOHN C. TIBBETTS : Who do you consider the early nineteenth century’s greatest piano composers? And why?

GARRICK OHLSSON: Chopin and Schumann are the two greatest geniuses of the piano of their generation, with all due respect to Mendelssohn (who was more of a genius than many people think he was). In terms of sheer depth I think they both outclass Mendelssohn and Liszt at that time. But they didn’t get along that well. Chopin’s most Schumannesque piece is the F-major Ballade, which he dedicated to Schumann. It has that Florestan-Eusebius series of contrasts you might expect.1 For such an elegant guy, Chopin’s contrasts have no transitions at all; they are of such a brutality that they are almost unspeakable. But his music hangs together, nevertheless.

Chopin might have said, “Here, my dear Robert, this is you!” I do think that Schumann had a more generous temperament than Chopin. Schumann was more of a Californian, shall we say, in the sense of “Hey man, wow, isn’t it cosmic!?” And that was his reaction when he heard Chopin. Chopin, being more the Old World arrogant snob and polished aristocrat, was perhaps a bit disdainful of this overly mammalian enthusiasm. You can see all sorts of reasons why the two men did not click. Chopin didn’t think very much of Liszt, either, possibly for reasons of jealousy. And when Liszt began adding ornamentations to his Etudes, Chopin said, “Keep that pig out of my garden!”.

We have a very interesting comparison/contrast here. Chopin has many things in common with Schumann. All the early Romantic composers did. They were all the children of [Karl Maria] von Weber. Because, although Weber was never as progressive harmonically as Beethoven or Schubert were in their last years—Schubert and Beethoven went way beyond anything Weber ever did and pointed directly to the end of the nineteenth century—but Weber invented the sound of the music of that generation around 1810–1813: Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Berlioz. He almost invented these composers.

Chopin and Schumann could not have been possible before then. They have things in common that other famous pairs of composers have had in common. How many music lovers have said, “I can’t tell the difference between Haydn and Mozart”? But the more you know about them, the more their differences become crystal clear. Now, Chopin was kind of an exotic in this middle European world. He was like a flower from Tahiti dropped into the Paris musical scene, with his wild, Slavic temperament; but with aristocratic style and polish. He was the consummate technician and composer. And he had a sense of balance of texture and form that is really unparalleled. In small forms he a craftsman of a jeweler’s precision.

My feeling about Chopin was that he was in touch with his deepest demons and could control them as you might control wild stallions. My feeling about Schumann was that his feelings got the best of him a lot of the time, compositionally and temperamentally. Schumann sometimes gets so carried away with himself that he loses me. I also think it has something to do with the sheer flow of his inspiration and emotional flow, that perhaps he didn’t edit very carefully. I get the feeling with Chopin that he chewed on his ideas to the point where you don’t recognize any mastication. It’s all done for you. With Schumann, maybe he should have chewed a little bit more.

I am one of the pianists who has problems with Schumann. I don’t know if the others pay him lip service or not. It’s true that among musicians he’s a deeply, deeply beloved figure. But at the same time, among chamber players, they do admit to problems. But generally, the heart is so warmed by the music, that most musicians feel, “Yes, it’s problematic but deeply fulfilling.” There’s something about my temperament and Schumann’s which don’t mix. Which is my loss, I suppose. That doesn’t mean that I’m problem-free with the music. I’ve played a great deal of Schumann, including the Piano Concerto and the solo works, including the Abegg Variations (one of my favorites), the Davidsbündler,2 the Carnaval, the G-minor Sonata, the Humoreske, the Symphonic Etudes (which I’ve played only once). Just as like falling in love, but sometimes you might fall in love with somebody, and the more you get to know him or her, you realize you’re not such a good match, after all. I personally have difficulties with motor rhythms. Thus, a lot of Baroque music is out the window for me. A lot of Schumann’s music has tremendous Baroquish energy. It doesn’t endear Schumann to me, but it does to a great many other people.

And when you come to the piano cycles, like the Davidsbündler, I confront a really personality thing. There is a lot of “in” stuff in Schumann—all the lettering and the names and the fact that the cycle goes toward the key of C in the middle and at the end—“C” means Clara—which is very beautiful and very touching. But sometimes I get impatient with “in” things and closed societies. Somehow I feel excluded. It makes me feel like I’m a voyeur peeking in on someone else’s happy little thing. I don’t mean to be nasty about this. I personally feel left out with all this “in” stuff, that I don’t know the password to the secret door. Parts of the Davidsbündler are terribly beautiful, but I feel the whole of it starts to ramble—just as I am doing now! I just don’t respond to this sort of thing. But maybe this is my own personal demon.
Fig. 3

Leslie Howard, with a profile of Liszt

Leslie Howard: “I Think We Have to Get Rid of the Liszt Stereotypes”

John C. Tibbetts

1989, Kansas City, MO; 1999 and 2007 in his London Home

Perhaps the most famous pianist who ever lived and one of the nineteenth century’s most celebrated composers, Franz Liszt was born in a village that then belonged to Hungary, spent most of his youth in Paris, later become known as a member of the New German School , and devoted much of his later life to teaching and religious composition. Liszt’s name is almost invariably associated with “program music” and the “ symphonic poem ,” neither of which he invented (although he popularized them through performances of his symphonic works). Liszt’s elder daughter Blandine (1835–1862) married Emile Ollivier (1825–1913), who later became Prime Minister of France; Cosima (1837–1930), Liszt’s younger daughter, married the pianist, composer, and conductor Hans von Bülow (1830–1894), then left him for Richard Wagner.

In 1986, the centenary of Liszt’s death and the 175th anniversary of his birth, Leslie Howard began recording all of Liszt’s solo-piano and piano-orchestral music: a feat unparalleled in recording history. Born in Melbourne , Howard has garnered many awards, including Membership in the Order of Australia , the Pro Cultura Hungarica Medal, Hungary’s Ferenc Liszt Medal Of Honour, and—six times—France’s Grand Prix du Disque. In 1876 he became an instructor at the Guildhall School of Music , and he also gives master classes at London’s Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. The BBC Music Magazine praised Howard’s “formidable intellectual grasp” of Liszt’s music, and that “his vastly superior performances continue to carry the day” (Fig. 3).

These conversations spanned the years 1989–2007 when Howard recorded his Complete Liszt Cycle for Hyperion Records.

JOHN C. TIBBETTS : When did the music of Franz Liszt first reach your ears?

LESLIE HOWARD: Hearing Vladimir Horowitz’s recording of the B-Minor Sonata. I have to say, with best respects to the great old man, that it’s the only Liszt recording of his that I like. The piece grabbed me straightaway; and I couldn’t imagine anybody writing a better piece of music than that.

How old were you at this time?

Oh, I was still at school. I suppose I must have been around fifteen. I mean, I knew some other piano pieces. Everybody played the Liebesträume [Dreams of Love] No. 3. I played the Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody, and I was starting to prepare the “Transcendental Etudes.”

I started to look into it and found that Liszt wrote a tremendous amount of music, most of which was out of print (if it had ever been printed). Although everybody cautiously acknowledges that he was one of the great figures of the Romantic era, somehow a little bit of mud had clung to his reputation; and that had been sufficient for him never to have had so great a Collected Works edition as Brahms has had or like Wagner has had, or [Anton] Bruckner [1824–1896]. That struck me as something of an injustice.

Did your interest in Liszt also interest you in his life, his biography, the musicological aspects of the music itself?

I think it’s enormously important with almost every composer to know, if possible, why a piece was written, or why a composer worked in the way he did—who he knew, what were the influences in both directions. As far as I’m concerned, the more you find out, the better off you are, even if you can’t actually pinpoint why it helps to know that Mozart played billiards. It’s just part of knowing the sort of a bloke he was. You have to absorb everything you can to give as fair an account of a man’s work as possible. That’s why I’ve never understood piano players who don’t go to the opera or don’t listen to string quartets or don’t accompany songs (let alone the ones who don’t go to the theater or to art galleries).

Before we get to the music, what do we need to know about Liszt?

I think we have to get rid of some stereotypes. There’s one time when, in a sort of tired, resigned mood, he said he was “half priest and half Zigeuner [i.e., Gypsy].” That was said to one of his students; but I don’t think it was really meant to be taken seriously as his self-analysis! I think it’s really rather appalling that Ernest Newman [1868–1959] seized upon it as the basis for a book which only can be described as unbridled character assassination! I think you have to throw out all of this rubbish about Liszt being only a flashy composer, simply because there was a certain amount of flashiness attributed to his performances when he was working as a concert pianist. Most people don’t even stop to realize that this concert-playing period of Liszt’s ran only from 1838 to 1847. But after that, he was as serious a musician as you would ever find. He was a serious musician before, of course. There’s no doubt he was swayed by the business of playing, but he was also extremely tired of it well before he stopped. He heaved a great sigh of relief when he played his last recital in 1847.

Are the stories true of his platform antics, his breaking pianos and women throwing their gloves onto the stage?

I think all of that is true, but it would be wrong to assume that every time he played, that sort of thing happened. When he was touring Europe, he had to play on amazingly awful instruments. There are some splendid accounts of his tour in Britain in 1840, where half the pianos he played were those square pianos. If you can imagine what the “Norma” Fantasy must have sounded like on a square piano! I think it’s a miracle that the thing wasn’t completely destroyed. They just weren’t designed for that kind of music.

People want to pin a “Mick Jagger ” label onto him.

It’s probably a fair commentary on his big concertizing period. He really was followed around by groupies wherever he went. In his case, the groupies were very frequently people with lots of spare time and lots of money. He had this ability to attract titled women wherever he went. But then, everybody was fascinated by him. He knew everybody.

Yet you say he gave up public recitals before he was forty years old.

I think he remains, like any human being, enormously complicated, but endlessly fascinating, because there was a lot of ego in what he was doing as a soloist. But he also spent a lot of time during that period—and certainly during the rest of his life—trying more or less to recede into the background, even while he was trying to do new things musically. First, when he gave up playing in public, and he went to work in Weimar in the late 1840s, he bought back from his publishers all the plates of all of the music that had been printed of his original work—not of his transcriptions—so that he could rewrite these works and issue them in a form that showed what his brain was capable of doing. Then there was that dreadful manifesto3 by Brahms and Joseph Joachim [1831–1907] suggesting that the “new music” coming out of Weimar by Liszt, Wagner, Berlioz, and [Peter] Cornelius [1824–1874] be stripped from the musical vocabulary. It was a critical cabal against him. Liszt actually asked his students not to play his music, and he asked his friends not to conduct it. “Don’t perform my Mass in Paris, because it won’t be successful.” It’s easy to knock him as a character because he lived his life under heavy public scrutiny. I’m sure there’s many a composer in the nineteenth century who was extremely jealous of his popularity.

We can’t go very far with Liszt before we realize how much time and energy he devoted to the music of others. I’m thinking now of his piano versions of songs, operas, and symphonies.

I think of Berlioz, who owed a great deal to Liszt and who ruefully remarked in his memoirs how wonderful it would be to play the piano like Liszt to get into places where he [Berlioz] couldn’t go. And, of course, there’s the famous story about the role Liszt played in getting the Symphonie fantastique before the public. The original score hadn’t been published, and at the time Berlioz couldn’t get it published. So Liszt made a piano transcription in 1834 with the sole purpose of bringing the piece to critical attention. It would be fourteen more years before the score was published. In the meantime, Liszt had circulated it in a form that was more accessible.

And, somehow, Schumann gets into the act and writes about it. Had he heard it in performance?

Not then. Schumann wrote a review of the [Symphonie fantastique] based on Liszt’s transcription. There was no way he could have seen the original score, which Berlioz kept—as he did all of his music—in a suitcase, which he took with him wherever he went. But Liszt had indicated the instrumentation the best he could on two staves, and Schumann was able to get more than a rough idea of how the piece went. He wrote, I think, quite a perceptive and intelligent account of it.

Liszt started out transcribing with aims I suppose not much different from everybody else’s—which was to say, that in the late 1820s, if you were a performer, you were expected to improvise on well-known themes from operas. You could write them down in order to make a little money. Liszt’s first published venture in this regard was based on a tune from a long-forgotten opera by [Daniel François Esprit] Auber [1782–1871], called La Fiancée. It’s already more interesting than your average hack potpourri. It stretches piano technique. It already shows that Liszt at the age of nineteen was somebody to be reckoned with.

With all his paraphrases and transcriptions, Liszt temporarily became a traveling jukebox.

I suppose at one level he was, but every time he got hold of somebody’s tune, he either had a duty to do something wonderful with it, or else write a whole new piece involving new decisions about structure and harmony and so on. The Don Juan fantasy, for example, is a pure piece of Liszt; somehow it manages to convey the drama in [Mozart’s] opera [Don Giovanni] just by the way he combines the themes. You play a little fragment of “The Drinking Song” and the statue and his mysterious chromatic scales sort of creep into the middle of it so that you knew even before he sings the Don’s “Drinking Song” that he’s on a doomed road. It’s really uncanny. I think his wisdom with other people’s music was almost always spot on. There are very few of these transcriptions where you can say that he pulled a gaffe, because he didn’t understand what the real spirit of the thing was.

Have any of these pieces ever tested your patience, if not your musicianship? Is he kind to the poor pianist? I mean, are these things playable?

A lot of people think that Liszt is basically unplayable altogether, but I think actually when you get close to it, you find that there are very, very few passages that resist a happy explanation technically, because he wrote so well. He never wrote anything that was sort of pigheadedly awkward. There’s never anything in Liszt as awkward as the end of the Scherzo in Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, for example. There are plenty of things in Liszt that look like they’re hair-raisingly difficult—and make no mistake about it, you can’t sight-read the transcription of the Symphonie fantastique !—but by and large, you can always stay within the bounds of possibility.

What part of Liszt’s life and work do we find in your recordings that we didn’t know about before?

I think you come away impressed with his devotion to the [Roman Catholic] Church. You have to take Liszt’s Christianity absolutely as he tells it to you. Which is to say, when he was young, he was fanatically enthusiastic, and he had visions of being a priest-musician. And he used to go into fits of quasi-religious ecstasy when he was performing. That kind of religiosity, as it might be thought, never appealed to me particularly. But in Paris he went to the people he considered the most radical religious thinkers of the day and got to know them personally. Yet, even with his efforts to keep abreast of religious thinking, and to do everything else he was doing as a musician, it was only in his fifties that he took the formal [minor] orders of the priesthood and became Abbé Liszt. He became much more formal about his religion as he got older, but that was partly because he then got to know more clerics and, I think, suddenly enjoyed the traditions of the church better, and he liked the liturgy much better, too. Of course, he started writing motets when he was thirty, and he wrote his first mass when he was thirty-seven. Especially in the later years he wrote a lot more church music, and of course tried very hard to make a success of two completely different ways of writing oratorio, and by then you can see how very, very careful he is with the words. I always wonder how this relates to the perceived physical deterioration in his last years.

Were it not for you [ and your Hyperion recordings], we would not know about the great majority of those pieces.

Hmmm. A lot of them. Liszt already realized that the church, in its wisdom, was a bit wary of his religious music, mostly without looking at it. Think of the number of Ave Marias [plural of “Hail Mary”] and Pater nosters [plural of “Our father”] and other such things that he published, that the church didn’t quite take up. None of those motets ever achieved any kind of broader popularity, and they’re only known to the people who’ve gone hunting for them. He did do piano versions of many of them. If we look at the collection called Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, or at least the set that he published, because that was in fact his third go at a volume of pieces under that title, the Ave Maria that’s its second piece is quite a straightforward transcription of music for chorus and organ. You can’t imagine why this wonderful work wouldn’t be a satisfactory motet in a church and why it would never have achieved popularity.

Liszt’s religious music is almost totally unknown, because people don’t perform it. It’s important that pianists should look at the transcriptions from Christus and from St. Elizabeth, because they’re well worth playing. They’re beautiful just to work at. And they come out sounding like quite a different composer, in many ways, from the chap who wrote the Transcendental Etudes some decades earlier. He reserves some of his most radical musical thoughts for some of his religious pieces. I mean, anyone who knows the Via crucis [Stations of the Cross] will know that he risked great opprobrium by trying to depict the sufferings of Jesus in such harmonically graphic terms. People thought he’d taken leave of his senses. His publisher rejected the work and sent it back. He knew he was right, and he made a version of it for solo piano, and a version of it for solo organ, and a version for piano duet, quietly confident that one day people would see the light and publish them. Which indeed they are doing as we speak. Actually, the Via crucis is the only one of Liszt’s religious works that gets performed in Britain, along with the Missa choralis . There’s a quality of thought in there which is quite astounding, and its musical form is different from anyone else’s religious piece in all time as far as I can see.

Apparently, at least for you, Liszt is the best composer to live with year after year, decade after decade.

Well, he is, because he had the broadest mind, and he knew more music by other composers, I should think, than almost any composer ever. He was indefatigable in his interests outside his own work. The efforts to which he went to mount other people’s operas and to perform other people’s orchestral music in Weimar, and to promote their piano music—not that he played it himself, but that he had his students play all sorts of musicians—shows a breadth of taste and knowledge which I don’t think … it’s certainly not equaled in the nineteenth century, or any century, for that matter.

For me, Liszt keeps being so interesting because you can never quite pin him down. He’s always surprising you. Of all the great nineteenth century composers, he’s the one who’s been the most shamefully neglected, either in [terms of] serious musicology, serious performance, or publication. We don’t bother to laugh about bad Beethoven or inferior Mozart or anything like that, and I think that it is high time that we stop worrying about Liszt’s imperfections because there are too many things of real and genuine interest to get our teeth into.


  1. 1.

    Schumann invented characters that expressed different aspects of his personality. “Florestan” represented his vigor, “Eusebius” his tendency to passivity.

  2. 2.

    Or “Band of David,” Schumann’s name for an imaginary band of musical revolutionaries.

  3. 3.

    A derogatory document, probably in 1860 written by Brahms and eventually signed by some twenty musicians, that appeared in the Berlin music magazine Echo and was parodied in Schumann’s Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

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© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • John C. Tibbetts
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Film & Media StudiesUniversity of KansasLawrenceUSA

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