Parallel Lives: Liszt & Busoni

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Parallel Lives: Liszt & Busoni, performed on Dec 11, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

The piano was central to the musical culture of the 19th century. It defined that culture’s aesthetics and perception of music’s meaning and logic. During the first decades, within Beethoven’s lifetime, the piano experienced dramatic technological changes affecting primarily its range and sonority. Attention was paid in particular to its action, the capacity of the piano to speak clearly and rapidly. When Franz Liszt first became famous as a virtuoso, the pianos he used were still more akin to those of Beethoven’s era than they were to the ones the venerable Liszt played in the 1880s, the last years of his life. The trajectory of the piano’s evolution can be gleaned from what seemed so electrifying about Liszt’s playing in the many accounts from the 1830s. Liszt possessed a theatricality with a range that included his literally demolishing instruments during a concert, replete with strings breaking and hammers flying. The Viennese piano manufacturer Ignaz Bösendorfer (1796–1859; father of his more famous son, Ludwig) won its first publicity victory by building a piano sturdy enough to withstand the young Liszt’s power and enthusiasm. Piano manufacturers sought to build a more stable and sonorous instrument that could match Liszt’s techniques, with his thundering dramatic climaxes more akin to the sound of an orchestra than the gentle Pleyel instrument favored by Chopin. Ironically, Liszt retired from the concert stage as a traveling artist (except for charity events) before the 1850s, when the piano was decisively transformed by American engineering. The metal frame, cross stringing, and modern wood lamination were introduced into the design, rendering the piano a virtual orchestra—much to Hector Berlioz’s delight. By the second half of the 19th century, the piano, in its modern industrial version, was established as the primary instrument of domestic music-making, music education, and public concert life. It spearheaded changes in the use and design of most orchestral instruments, from the violin to the flute and french horn.

The centrality of the piano forces us to realize that the audience for concert music during the 19th century was an audience of amateurs, not mere spectators. Yet on some level, audiences today “know” the music better than any of their predecessors, because we have access to repeated hearings of sound documents, reproductions of music for massive ensembles, including operas. Our predecessors did not have that advantage. All they had was access to piano versions of larger scale music, written for one or two players. But the audiences before modern sound reproduction actually had something better. They knew that the musical experience was only partially defined by the clumsy effort to notate an elusive event in time that could never truly be replicated. They could read and play music. Using the piano, they had to imagine what an orchestra might sound like. They were forced to develop acute musical memories. Those memories became instruments of the imagination. They were not lulled into the security of being able to listen to a fixed reproduction and version of any work of music at their leisure. These audiences reveled in the varieties of interpretation and in novelty, not in repetition and routine.

Amateurs reveled in virtuosity, much as sports enthusiasts—club tennis players, for instance—lionize the top professionals. But virtuosity of the sort Liszt pioneered became a contested achievement in the 19th century. Flashy, athletic skills were often derided as superficial virtues. The terms of the controversy involved a presumed tension between true art and mere virtuosity. Robert Schumann was a key figure. But the brunt of his criticism was never directed against Liszt. Liszt, despite his reservations, was the ideal musician, the consummate virtuoso whose greatness lay beyond his capacity to play brilliantly, to improvise, compose, and above all interpret. Liszt recreated known repertoire, he developed his own improvised preludes to his performances of Beethoven piano sonatas. He embellished everything he touched. He made the music of others his own in service of his version of respect for the spirit and authenticity of a composer’s intentions. Liszt did not define respect for the past as a bloodless exercise of reconstruction of texts and performance practices. The greatness of the past masters was revealed in the power of their work when it was rendered modern and relevant to the moment of performance.

Liszt’s greatness as a performer from the start of his career rested in his genius as a composer. The two tasks were never separate, just as they were never separate in the case of Beethoven or Mozart. All his life, Liszt cultivated the myth that Beethoven himself had placed a kiss on Liszt’s forehead as a child. Liszt saw himself as the true heir of Beethoven, a pianist, an improviser, and a great composer.

Indeed Liszt’s contribution to the history of music, as a composer, cannot be overestimated. He innovated by expanding harmonic language, and transforming instrumental music into a narrative medium. In his hands, music would not only help tell a story but could, as in the Faust Symphony (perhaps his greatest work of instrumental music), communicate the distilled essence of human characters and philosophic and religious ideas. Liszt never wrote an opera, but he knew the repertoire well, both as a conductor and as a composer of countless fantasy improvisations on well-known operas. His uncanny instinct for the theatrical element in music led him to pioneer in the development of organic-sounding musical essay-like forms that had a circular structure and were dependent on recognizable, single thematic units.

This concert pays tribute to the astonishing fact that Ferrucio Busoni was Liszt’s true heir in so many ways. Busoni, too, was a great pianist. He was also a composer. Like Liszt before him, Busoni’s contacts transcended warring schools of musical thought. He was admired by Brahms and by Wagnerians just as Clara and Robert Schumann and their friend Joseph Joachim had, despite themselves, begrudging admiration for Liszt. Busoni was a fantastic teacher and mentor, just as Liszt had been before him. Two composers whose lives Busoni changed come to mind: his lifelong friend Jean Sibelius, and his pupil Kurt Weill. Like Liszt, Busoni was a gifted teacher, and never too proud not to be associated with an academic institution such as a conservatory. Busoni taught in Helsinki and Berlin, and Liszt helped found the conservatory in Budapest.

Both men were ardent polemicists. Busoni’s writings earned him an honored place in 20th-century musical history; he found himself attacked by Pfitzner and defended by Alban Berg. Liszt wrote the first great biography of Chopin, and pioneered the study of ethnic folk music in his book on the “Gypsy” style. Both men were great improvisers and transcribers. Liszt concentrated on the operatic repertoire; Busoni on reviving Bach.

Last but not least, both men did not regard music as a discipline separate from philosophy and literature, and they challenged the apparent boundaries between different forms of music. In view of the protean and almost unbelievable range of their achievements, it is not surprising that the literary icon with which Liszt and Busoni were most obsessed was Faust, the indisputable metaphor of the human struggle and the character of human ambition in modernity. Both men were tortured by the idea that for all their fame they were not really taken seriously as great creators and composers. They would have made any pact possible with any proverbial devil to attain the status that Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart had achieved with their own music. It was Liszt’s own daughter, Cosima, who was the leader of a public relations campaign to diminish her father’s influence and importance late in his life. His old age was lived in the shadow of his more lionized composer son-in-law, Wagner, who stole blindly from him.

For his part, Busoni throughout his lifetime was overshadowed by contemporaries and pupils. These included Sibelius, Weill, and more obviously Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Reger. Like Liszt, Busoni tried his hand at Faust, writing what probably still is the most persuasive operatic treatment of the subject, Doctor Faustus. Yet the opera remains consistently derided by critics. Liszt’s posthumous reputation as a composer has had a somewhat better fate, but only somewhat. Most of Liszt’s tone poems and choral music remain unperformed because of a critical assumption that they are too programmatic and rhetorical to be serious. The truth of the matter is that Liszt’s music has an enduring allure that has everything to do with its capacity to cast a spell on the willing listener through the use of sonority, repetition and the cultivation of atmosphere.

Even in Liszt’s enormous output of music, the work on this program has all the attributes of a masterpiece, and deserves to take its place next to the symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler. It has outstanding and unique virtues in terms of ideas and form. The same must be said for Busoni’s piano concerto, among the finest of Busoni’s large-scale instrumental compositions. His violin concerto is, in contrast, more compact, fine a work as it is. But this piano concerto belongs next to Liszt’s Faust symphony because of its truly Faustian ambition to combine music with the spiritual and philosophical. For both men, whose combined lifespan represents the apex of a distinct cultural tradition, in the life of any composer and performer, there was much more at stake than just music. We would be well advised as musicians to emulate them on the occasion of this Liszt anniversary. Busoni’s achievement deserves an honored place alongside one of the greatest works by the very composer-pianist from the past whom he most closely resembled, Liszt.