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.

Ferruccia Busoni, Piano Concerto

By Byron Adams

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

Ferruccio Busoni was a protean figure: a pianist of fearsome virtuosity, a marvelous composer, an influential conductor, and a subtle writer. Like his great hero, Franz Liszt, Busoni’s magisterial ability as a pianist obscured his reputation as a composer. Born to a musical family in Italy, the young Busoni was taken to Vienna, where was befriended by Brahms and met Liszt. Busoni’s mother, who was of German heritage and a fluent pianist, had already introduced her precocious son to Liszt’s music. Through a profound reverence for Bach, Busoni was able to reconcile the dual influences of Brahms and Liszt, creating an inimitable style that was admired by Mahler, Schoenberg, and Berg. A sophisticated aesthetician as well as a practicing musician, Busoni wrote an extended essay in 1907 that he entitled Sketch of a New Aesthetic in Music. In this remarkable production, he anticipated such later 20th-century musical developments as microtones and electronic music. In this essay, Busoni declared his credo: “Music was born free; and to win freedom is its destiny.”

Like many of his contemporaries, such as Mahler, Elgar, Franck, and Bruckner, Busoni participated in a post-Wagnerian brand of modernity predicated upon the manipulation of the listener’s apprehension of time over long musical spans. Nowhere is Busoni’s Wagnerian modernity more apparent than in his Piano Concerto in C major, op. 39, completed on August 18, 1903 and premiered in Berlin the following year with the composer as soloist. Far longer than even its mightiest predecessor, Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, op. 83 (1881), Busoni’s concerto is an unparalleled example of a fin de siècle composer chaffing against the bonds of time and the limits of human endurance. Cast as an enormous arch of five movements whose capstone is the central section of a tripartite third movement, Busoni’s concerto welds together a developmental density worthy of Brahms with a harmonic daring derived from Liszt.

In the fourth movement, “All’italiana (Tarantella),” which sounds like a swirling, gargantuan homage to the tarantella of Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli (1859), the virtuosity demanded of both soloist and orchestra reaches a vertiginous climax. By contrast, the finale, “Cantico,” is an introverted setting for an offstage male chorus of a poem drawn from the 1808 German version of the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger’s poetic drama, Aladdin, or the Magic Lamp. (Oehlenschläger was inspired to make this translation by a 1806 visit to Goethe, who was finishing the first part of his own verse drama, Faust.) Although there existed a clear precedent in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, op. 80 (1808), the intrusion of a chorus at the conclusion of a concerto for piano and orchestra so disconcerted Busoni’s British biographer, Edward J. Dent, that he tried to explain it away as a mere sonorous effect: “The actual meaning of the words hardly matters. The chorus is directed to be invisible; it sings in plain chords, like a body of soft trombones added to the orchestra.” Blinded by his own aesthetic prejudices, Dent is willfully obtuse about the composer’s purpose. Busoni’s inspired strategic deployment of Oehlenschläger’s text is the key to the expressive intent of the entire concerto, which is transformed from the virtuoso display of the tarantella into a searching meditation on time, transience, and eternal renewal: “Thousands and thousands and once again thousands/Of years –serene in their power then as today–/Flash by purely with radiance and strength,/They display the Indestructible.”

© Byron Adams, 2011

Mr. Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside, and his music has been performed across Europe and the U.S. He has published widely on the subject of English music of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Franz Liszt, Faust Symphony

By Peter Laki

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

The unknown authors of the broadside The History of Dr. Johann Faust, written around 1580 immortalizing a real-life figure, never suspected they had created a true modern myth—a story that was open to being recreated and reinterpreted in virtually endless ways. In the hands of Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832), whose involvement with the subject spanned some 60 years, the Faust theme had grown from the original pact-with-the-devil story to a vision of extreme complexity, encompassing the material and the spiritual, the trivial and the sublime, philosophy and poetry. One could hardly overestimate the importance of Goethe’s Faust in the history of literature. It is a work from which most educated Germans can still quote long stretches from memory, and many of its lines have become common turns of phrase.

It wasn’t long before composers began to draw inspiration from this gigantic dramatic poem. One of the most original of these was Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust (1846). Here Berlioz offered a highly original take on Goethe, with a quasi-operatic presentation of selected scenes and a very un-Goethean ending where Faust goes to hell instead of heaven.

The French composer dedicated his work to his friend Franz Liszt, who conducted parts of it in Weimar, where Goethe had lived, and where Liszt served as the music director of the Grand Duke’s orchestra from 1848 to 1858. Soon after performing Damnation, Liszt produced his own Faust-Symphony, which he dedicated to Berlioz, returning the favor. But his Faust could not have been more different from his friend’s. Instead of a dramatization of (parts of) the story, Liszt presented a set of three “character pictures,” with each of the three movements based on one of the drama’s protagonists: in turn, Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. In other words, we get nothing of the plot, only the composer’s thoughts and feelings “after reading” the poem (similar to what we find in his piano sonata Après une lecture du Dante).

To Liszt, Faust is a tormented Romantic artist who struggles with fate, initially triumphs, but is finally defeated. The fundamental idea underlying the piece is that Mephistopheles is nothing but a reflection of Faust: he represents the dark side of Faust’s soul but has no real existence independent from him. For this reason, the themes of the third movement are all variants— distortions, even caricatures—of those of the first; only the central movement—the pure and angelic Gretchen—represents a separate entity.

This basic concept allowed Liszt to reconcile the literary program with the dictates of classical symphonic form: we have a traditional fast-slow-fast sequence, but the motivic connections between the first and last movements unify the piece in a way that has no precedent in earlier symphonies. Harmonically, the brooding opening is one of the most innovative passages Liszt composed prior to his visionary later works. Liszt, who earlier had to enlist younger colleagues to help him orchestrate his tone poems, here appears in full command of his craft.

The symphony was originally fully instrumental. Yet three years after completing it, Liszt added an “appendix” with tenor solo and men’s chorus setting the “Chorus mysticus” that concludes lines of Faust, Part II, extolling the spiritual power of Das Ewig-Weibliche (“the eternal feminine”).

Mr. Laki is a Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College since 2007 and has also taught at Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, amongst other universities.