The Virtuoso Liszt

Article excerpt

The Virtuoso Liszt. By Dana Gooley. (New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism.) New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. [xv, 280 p. ISBN 0-521-83443-0. $75.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

In the afterword to his study of Franz Liszt's virtuoso piano career, Dana Gooley describes the process by which he came to write this book: "I began by pursuing the question of how he historically anticipated the modern popular star, only to 6nd that his popularity rested on unfamiliar premises quite specific to the 1830s and 1840s" (p. 266). This confession highlights two of the strengths of the work-first, the study draws on a remarkable array of sources to shed light on the cultural climate unique to the time, and second, Gooley demonstrates a flexible intellect that allows him to look at old questions in new ways, challenging his own preconceptions and those of his readers in the process.

Liszt's virtuosity has been the subject of countless popular and scholarly studies starting in his own lifetime and continuing to the present. Considering the amount of attention that has been devoted to the topic, one would assume that there would not be much left to discover in the way of documentary evidence. Gooley demonstrates the fallacy of this assumption with the introduction of a quantity of previously unexamined sources. These include articles in small provincial newspapers and journals as well as writings in difficult and seldom accessible languages, for instance a Croatian account of Liszt's 1846 visit to Zagreb (pp. 142-45).

More important than the new documents, though, are the new perspectives on familiar events. Gooley deconstructs some of the most famous events of Liszt's performing career, in each case challenging assumptions that have been perpetuated by the biographical traditions that have grown up around his performances.

In chapter 1, "Liszt, Thalberg, and the Parisian publics," Gooley looks at the famous duel between Liszt and his greatest rival. He goes beyond the question of who was the better pianist and also transcends the issue of the two pianists' different playing styles, concentrating instead on the audience that each pianist hoped to attract. He posits that Thalberg's aristocratic manners and vocally oriented style of playing were designed to appeal to the dilettanti of the conservative aristocracy, who attended the Théâtre des Italiens and belonged to the landed gentry whose fortunes had suffered since the July Revolution. Gooley argues that rather than aiming for the broad bourgeois public, as other biographers have claimed, Liszt set his sights on a different faction of the aristocracy. The target audience for Liszt consisted of the "aristocracy of wealth" (bankers and merchants) as well as the "aristocracy of talent" (artists and literary figures). The real reason, then, why Liszt found Thalberg so threatening was that he split the aristocracy into factions and kept Liszt from conquering all of fashionable society as he had hoped. Perhaps the most intriguing assertion in Gooley's discussion is that the real winner of the famous duel was Thalberg, who emerged with a stronger social position than his rival (p. 19).

In chapter 2, "Warhorses: Liszt, Weber's Konzertstück, and the cult of Napoleon," Gooley discusses Liszt's efforts to create a persona modeled after Napoleon. He argues that Liszt's playing-particularly of his most frequently programmed piece, Weber's Konzertstück-evoked martial images that allowed him to capitalize on the growing fascination with Napoleon. On a deeper level, he writes that Liszt's playing was inherently violent: "Liszt turned the virtuoso concert into a spectacle of cultivated aggression, and his unprecedented popularity can be attributed in part to this fact. The aggressiveness of his playing was protected by the alibi of 'art,' with its much-trumpeted civilizing mission, and this alibi continues to shield Liszt's virtuosity from full view" (p. …