Academic journal article Notes

Virtuosity and the Musical Work: The Transcendental Studies of Liszt

Academic journal article Notes

Virtuosity and the Musical Work: The Transcendental Studies of Liszt

Article excerpt

WORKS, PERFORMANCE, CREATIVITY

Virtuosity and the Musical Work: The Transcendental Studies of Liszt. By Jim Samson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. [viii, 240 p. ISBN 0-521-81494-4. $75.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

For some time now, musicology has sought a methodology that offers a persuasive response to the assertions of the Critical Studies discipline (called Theory in the U.K., as opposed to Music Theory) regarding musicology's insufficient acknowledgment and treatment of the social, cultural, and economic context of a work (sometimes called its "thick context"). The criticism has a long history; it is true that musicological preoccupations were, for a long time, bibliographical and editorial. It is also true that the discipline's putative myopia regarding all other kinds of inquiry has been exaggerated to the point of falsity, with "the music itself" and cognate phrases now carrying talismanic power to belabor the discipline from within and conjure up the Bad Old Days. An example of this would be Matthew Head's identification of "a recourse to 'the musical' " as one of the contemporary musicological ploys that "amount to an unscholarly resistance to ... cultural theory. There is no scholarly escape route from this theory." ("Musicology on Safari," Music Analysis 22/1-2 [2003]: 218.) According to this common paradigm, Theory first, then (maybe) the music, as it relates to Theory.

Whatever the music, and whatever the cultural complications, there is still a good deal to be said for the responsibility of a discipline devoted to the scholarly study of music to address the music, and to do so without fear of the kind of reflexive criticism that has sometimes resulted when a discussion has wandered too far from a particular political agenda, such as that just quoted. In this volume, Jim Samson meets the challenge head on; as he says in the introduction, "I believe that a direct, close-to-thetext engagement with musical materials is likely to prove more revealing than the seductive hermeneutics of the 1980s and 1990s, and that such an engagement may provide the necessary ballast for a more thoroughly grounded, evidence-based hermeneutics" (p. 2). A more direct (yet still civil) statement of difference to some of the recent trends in musicology and cultural criticism cannot be imagined. While Samson does not specifically offer this book as the catalyst of a major hermeneutic paradigm shift, that, it seems to me, is its potential: thick context (including musical context), "musicking" (i.e., the understanding and treatment of music as practice), and the tracing of a genre's development in one composer's hands against the backdrop of the broader musical environment. Theory is here, too, and it informs some of the questions asked and complications identified, but it is neither melody to Liszt's accompaniment nor treated with fundamentalist awe.

Samson's book draws on the traditions of two musicological genres: studies devoted to a specific large work or group of small works, such as the Cambridge Guides (same publisher, different series), and a genre history such as William Newman's monumental, three-volume study of the sonata. It is a happy pairing, due to the special history of the Transcendental Studies; the set was published in three different versions, each dating from a crucial period in Liszt's life. The first incarnation was the Étude en 12 exercices, op. 1 (1826; the first published salvo of the young virtuoso); 12 grandes études followed, dedicated to Carl Czerny (1837; from the midst of his career as a touring virtuoso); and finally Liszt revised it again, and it took its most familiar form, the Etudes d'exécution transcendante (1851), also dedicated to Czerny, and dating from the crossover period when the composer had stopped touring and was moving directly into more concentrated composition and conducting. He was also revising earlier versions of other works, such as the Paganini Studies and what would become the Hungarian Rhapsodies. …

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