Transcending the Material

By Williams, Peter | Musical Times, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Transcending the Material


Williams, Peter, Musical Times


Transcending the material The virtuoso Liszt Dana Gooley New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2004); xv, iSopp; £45, $75. ISBN 0 521 83443 0.

Virtuosity and the musical work: the Transcendental Studies of Liszt Jim Samson Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2003); viii, 24Opp; £47.50. ISBN ? 521 81494 4.

IT is a measure of the low value placed on music by some literary people that George Eliot, in a long essay on the three months she spent in Weimar during the 18505, makes no mention of the town's then most extraordinary resident, Franz Liszt. It is ironic that she has thoughts only for the local dead poets Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Wieland, since it was against Weimar's very background as 'a major institution of German culture' (Gooley) under the support of the Duke of SaxeWeimar that Liszt was able to make 'himself the most influential figure of the New German school' of composition (Searle, Grove 6'). When JS Bach worked in Weimar 150 years earlier, the duke threatened musicians with ioo lashes if they absconded; in Liszt's time, the dukes were still bravely doing their duty by the arts, less aggressively one hopes. In comparison, the contribution made to music in England by their erstwhile neighbour Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was feeble, though appropriate for a nation whose absurd politicians still come up with phrases like 'Minister for Culture, Media and Sport'.

So: just into his thirties and already conqueror of who knows how many listeners (especially female) across more or less the whole of Europe south of a still-dormant Scandinavia, Liszt comes to Weimar and, over the years, settles in as much as he ever did settle, still playing the piano with unrivalled virtuosity but from that base taking up conducting more and more and becoming a Great Figure. (Near the top of my list of 'premieres I wish I had heard' is Liszt conducting the Lohengrin Prelude at Weimar in 1850.) In a town so significant to the growing German national consciousness he would be a king of sorts, for although he was not German, and his more-or-less native town of Sopron was just as charming as Weimar, he was practical enough to recognise that Weimar was central geographically as well as culturally. How well the town suited Liszt's striking duality! - a poet-artist sensitive to the high calling of music in German Kultur and at the same time a showman-rhetorician needing easy access to his widely scattered, well-paying admirers.

Dana Gooley is aware of the significance of Weimar, where Liszt became 'folded [?] into nationalist culture by virtue of his identity as a virtuoso, not as a composer', but as he is more concerned with the composer's previous career he does not make very much of it. This seems to me a missed opportunity, for if one is to grasp what being 'folded into nationalist culture' after a tinsel career in Paris and elsewhere must have meant at the time, an account of that predominantly literary culture would be useful. Only there could Liszt re-group his redoubtable forces and move towards the originality of thought typical of his later music. In being 'sympathetic to the postmodern image of culture as a web of complex, indeterminate relationships among nearly all elements in the field of discourse', Gooley may show himself au jait with the discours de nos jours but not necessarily what it was like to be a musical virtuoso deliberately settling in a town of such significance.

Nevertheless, the book is useful on a variety of things, for the Liszt story up to the mid-iS/jos is already full of incident and intriguing scenarios: salon concerts, competition with Thalberg, piano techniques, Parisian tastes, doting admirers, the weird hero-worship of Napoleon, Berlin as a growing city, charity concerts (and Liszt's mixed motives for them), his improvisatory techniques, piano recitals and their audiences, the repertory itself and of course Liszt as the wild Hungarian genius and Bohemian showman.

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