Franz Liszt

by May Bends

It Ain’t Gonna Stop, It Ain’t Ever Gonna Stop
There comes a time in every young man’s life where he must determine, or answer to, his true calling. For composer Franz Liszt, the impulse was not simply to be immortalized in the canon of classical music, but to be immortalized in the canon of 1990s to early aughts dramatic whimsy. You might ask if a leap is being made here, and we’d ask right back if you lost the rhythm long ago, if you think Tabasco is “exotic,” if you think cargo shorts are suitable day garb. And if you’d answer affirmatively, we’d ask you to stop reading, because this is a love letter, [with excerpts selected by The Liszt Ferenc Memorial Museum and Research Centre from the 1887 book Francois Liszt: Recollections of a Compatriot, translated from the French of Janka Wohl by B. Peyton Ward] okay? A love letter to Franz, a love letter to the ivory tinkering on for centuries, long after the seats have gone cold and the janitorial team besets, nodding along to the resonance of the Hungarian talent’s beautiful mortar.

1. Liszt Requires Respect for the Art Even From the Sovereigns Liszt and Czar Nicholas [1842-43] “Liszt, as we know, was as happy as he was quick in repartee, and was even cutting, when he thought it necessary. Chivalrous though he was, and in spite of his courteous manners, the artist in him always predominated over the man the moment he felt that the dignity of the artist was attacked. A want of respect or a sign of inattention wounded him deeply; nor could he bear anyone to speak while he was playing. He told us the following anecdote on this subject:

During a soirée at the court of St.Petersburg, where he was always very well received, it happened that the Czar Nicholas, who did not care much for music, began talking with a lady, and, caring little for Liszt’s playing, talked very loud. All of a sudden Liszt stopped dead, and went away from the piano. The Czar was puzzled, and approaching the master said to him:

‘Why have you stopped playing?’

‘When the Emperor speaks, one ought to be silent’ was the Machiavellian answer of the wounded artist.”

[Editor’s Note: One may be reminded of a similar scene illustrating a disturbance in ego functioning from 2003’s Bad Santa: The lead, Willie—played by Billy Bob Thornton—arrives home dejected and intoxicated, and makes the decision to binge eat a selection of biblically molded confitures from an advent calendar, belonging to the young boy of the home he’s crashed. We’d like to respectfully suggest Liszt’s “Piano Sonata in B Minor, S. 178,” as a pairing for the scene.

Here’s why: Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor is divisive. An uploaded mp3 of the arrangement on YouTube yields comments ranging from ”The Romantics certainly were enabling more distant modulation and relationships between keys, as well as longer tonally unstable sections than what had been used before. Even if this Sonata is firmly rooted in tonality, Liszt certainly paved the way for atonal music” to “In the pantheon of the most overrated, contrived, pretentious, and simplistic pieces of music that has passed for great art, this sonata gets the No. 1 position. What boring, repetitive, empty dreck.”]

2. Liszt, a Magnanimous Genius Count Géza Zichy [1870s] “[…] Another pupil, whom Liszt loved like a son, was Count Géza Zichy. He lost his right arm, as you know, through a shooting accident when he was only fifteen years old. The young nobleman had given himself a year to learn to take pleasure in life again, after being thus mutilated. […]

This young hero, who was a born poet, and gifted with great talent, as well as an iron will, succeeded in becoming an artist, and an artist of merit, and really unique in his style. He is a distinguished composer, and never plays anything but his own compositions. In this way he is compiling a musical collection exclusively intended for execution with the left hand. […]

Liszt sometimes showed kindnesses which savored of the courtier, but which at the same time proved the unparalleled goodness of his heart. One evening, when we had a crowd of guests, Madame de Bl[askovits], one of the most charming women of our aristocracy, went to the piano to play some Hungarian airs with her usual entrain, when the master, ‘jealous of her success,’ as he said asked her to let him take her place. He also played a Hungarian fantasy, which none of us knew, and we noticed that Count Zichy went up to the piano with a puzzled look, his face showing that he was thoroughly surprised. The rendering which was as brilliant as it was captivating, completely electrified the audience, and the piece was hardly finished before Zichy threw himself on the master’s breast.

‘Are you satisfied?’ asked Liszt. ‘Have I done it well?’

Then Zichy told us how he had shown his new composition that very morning to Liszt, not wishing to write the score until he obtained his opinion of it. This was the very piece the master had just given us the treat of hearing. It was a wonderful feat of memory, and a most charming proof of that delicacy of heart which made him so irresistible.”

[Editor’s Note: The eidetic memory—occasionally the mark of a savant, though largely unconnected to intelligence level—allows for a total recall of information within an individual’s memory without the help of mnemonics. Such was the case in 1994’s City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold: After a series of unpleasant incidences resulting in the loss of a map, Glen—played by Jon Lovitz—shares that he remembers the map in full detail and successfully leads his companions, including Jack Palance and that irresistible Billy Crystal, to Curly’s Gold, elucidating City Slickers’ position as a comedy over a tragedy within the confines of ancient dramatic genres.]

3. Liszt’s Music to Move the Hearts Liszt and Pope Pius IX. [1863] “Pius IX was passionately fond of music. He was in regular correspondence with musicians of celebrity, and Rossini, for instance, left quite a collection of the letters of the Maecenas Pope. It is said that he sometimes sang, getting Liszt to accompany him. […] Pius IX used to pass whole hours listening to good music without moving or speaking, in an ecstasy too deep for outward expression. He admired and loved Liszt, and called him ‘his dear son,’ ‘his Palestrina.’ Liszt, on his side, had a grateful recollection of him, and the only order he ever spoke of before us was the one which the Pope had added to his collection.

One day Pius IX came to see the master in his solitude at Monte Mario, where he was living in an old Dominican monastery. The Holy Father was sad, and directly he arrived he asked Liszt to understand that he had come on purpose to be cheered up by his talent. He begged him to improvise. He also was particularly fond of this kind of music, maintaining that the originality and the individuality of the artist was more clearly marked when nothing fettered the inspiration of the soul.

‘I played, therefore,’ said the master, ‘as the spirit moved me. Perhaps my sympathetic hearer inspired me; but, without wishing to praise my [strumming], I must tell you that the Holy Father was deeply affected, and when I had finished he said rather a curious thing to me:

The law, my dear Palestrina, ought to employ your music, if however, she could get it otherwise than in this spot, in order to lead hardened criminals to repentance. Not one could resist it, I am sure; and the day is not far distant, in these times of humanitarian ideas, when similar psychological methods will be used to soften the hearts of the vicious.’”

[Editor’s Note: Speaking of softening hearts, Nora Ephron’s tear-jerking rom-com Sleepless in Seattle echoes Liszt’s playing “therefore,” moved by the spirit, as demonstrated by a spindly and young Tom Hanks, who says to his pesky son, “It was a million tiny little things that, when you added them all up, they meant we were supposed to be together, and I knew it. I knew it the very first time I touched her.” Add it all up, and we’re right where we started.]

4. Liszt Celebrated as a King Buda-Pesth [June, 8th 1867] “I have often seen Liszt applauded by a perfectly fanatical audience, who covered him with flowers and laurels. But that was nothing when compared with the ovation, unique in the annals of the fetishism of Art, which he received in 1867 at Buda-Pesth at the coronation of our reigning sovereign.  I was present at it when quite a little girl. It was after the terrible years of stagnation, which followed the revolution of 1848, a stagnation steeped in the blood of our martyr-patriots.

[Ferenc] Deák, of blessed memory, had begun to unravel the tangled skein of our politics, and was filling up the abyss, which must ever remain when a sovereign forces the allegiance of his people. At this time the feuds had been quelled by this peaceful and far-seeing man, and the coronation of the monarch was meant to ratify the new treaty of mutual loyalty. Liszt was desired to compose the coronation service. [...]

The master came on purpose to conduct the execution of his great work himself. To understand the never-to-be-forgotten scene, which followed, you ought to imagine the surroundings. You must have before your eyes the majestic river—the blue waters of the Danube; the suspension bridge, that striking link which joins Buda to Pesth. You must picture the fortress of Buda and the royal palace with its girdle of gardens; you must see the smiling and picturesque landscape stretching along the right bank facing the long row of palaces on the other side of the river. And, above all, you must see them wreathed in flowers, dressed in their best, and bathed in the spring sunshine.

Here an immense crowd of eager sightseers was waiting—on stands, in windows, on the roofs, and in flag-bedecked boats—to see the royal procession which was soon to cross the bridge. The Emperor of Austria, after being crowned King of Hungary at the church of Our Lady, was to go and take the traditional oath on a hillock, formed of a heap of earth collected from all the different states of Hungary, which had been built up opposite the bridge on the left bank of the river.

When the feverish suspense grew intense, the tall figure of a priest, in a long black cassock studded with decorations, was seen to descend the broad white road leading to the Danube, which had been kept clear for the royal procession. As he walked bareheaded, his snow-white hair floated on the breeze, and his features seemed cast in brass. At his appearance a murmur arose, which swelled and deepened as he advanced and was recognized by the people. The name of Liszt flew down the serried ranks from mouth to mouth, swift as a flash of lightning. Soon a hundred thousand men and women were frantically applauding him, wild with the excitement of this whirlwind of voices. The crowd on the other side of the river naturally thought it must be the king, who was being hailed with the spontaneous acclamations of a reconciled people. It was not the king, but it was a king, to whom were addressed the sympathies of a grateful nation proud of the possession of such a son.”

[Editor’s Note: Remember the grateful nation of Americans who watched Billy Campbell’s rippling back pump out a round of push-ups on his living room floor for a full 90 seconds in one of the more memorable opening sequences of a television show ever? We do. And we know that while Darren Star, Melrose Place creator, scored that scene to ripping electric guitar, he drove to the studio that morning listening to Franz Lizst. The sun was shining, he had a hit, and life was great.]