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A Liszt Odyssey: An interview with Alan Walker, part II

Alan-Walker

In the September/October issue, awardwinning biographer and former BBC producer Dr. Alan Walker shared discoveries and reflections on the life and work of Franz Liszt. Dr. Walker also discussed the early years of his own career and his evolution as a biographer and a leading Liszt authority. 

How has Liszt's reception evolved since his death? 

AW: In answering this interesting question, it is useful to start with one of the most infamous comments ever made about a composer. Sir George Macfarren, the Principal of the Royal Academy of Music in London, used to discourage his students from listening to Liszt's music lest it corrupt them. As he himself put it shortly after Liszt's death: "Were you to preach temperance at a gin-shop door, and let the congregation taste the poison sold therein, that they might know its vileness, they would come out drunkards."1 Sir George had no idea that he was merely storing up laughter for future generations. But he was not alone. In Berlin the situation was worse. Students at the Hochschule für Musik could be dismissed for studying Liszt's music. That was a long time ago, of course. But it set the scene for a century of neglect. 

The reception of Liszt's music in modern times has been helped enormously by the record industry. Practically everything he composed is now available on CDs. Liszt himself would surely be astonished at how easy it has become to get to know his works. A Complete Edition of his printed music is well underway with Editio Musica Budapest. When it is finished there may be over seventy volumes in this edition, making all the scores universally available for the first time. Moreover, Liszt competitions are springing up all over the world, bringing his music to an ever wider audience. It is today possible to fill a concert hall with an all-Liszt recital, something that would have given our grandfathers pause. There are also about twenty-five Liszt Societies around the world, which exist to promote his music. The American Liszt Society, for example, has about 600 members and it arranges annual Liszt festivals across North America. Liszt would be astonished to learn that the biggest society bearing his name is in the New World, a part of the planet he never visited. 

If Liszt were living today, do you agree he would still be a major influence in the piano world? What aspects of teaching, performing, or composing might he address? 

AW: Liszt has been dead for 125 years, yet he remains a major influence in the piano world. So why would that influence not be still greater were he alive today? I like to say that Liszt is to piano playing what Euclid is to geometry.We turn to his music in order to understand the natural laws governing the keyboard. It is impossible for the modern pianist to keep Liszt out of his playing—out of his biceps, his forearms, his fingers—even though he may not know that Liszt is there, since modern piano playing spells Liszt. 

As for teaching, Liszt disparaged institutionalized instruction.When he was displeased with the way a pupil played, he would sometimes utter the dreaded words, "Go to a conservatory!" 

Liszt himself never taught technique, but preferred in his masterclasses to concentrate on interpretation.When he reluctantly accepted the appointment of President of the newly created Royal Hungarian Academy of Music in 1874, he had the chance to make a difference. He insisted that all piano students take composition lessons and all composition students take piano lessons. For the auditions he set the bar very high. The incoming students had to pass tests in sight-reading, in improvisation, in playing from a full orchestral score, and in transposing a piece, sight unseen. Those who failed were shown the door. Liszt believed in the "oneness" of music, and not in specializing in its separate parts. Almost without exception, his best piano students—Bülow, Tausig, Rosenthal, Sauer, d'Albert, and Lamond— all composed, and some of them conducted as well.

Alan Walker playing a Brahms Intermezzo to his music appreciation class at McMaster University, c. 1975.

This opens the door to a controversial topic.We often hear the question, "What sort of success would such pianists have today?"They were so individualized in their approach to interpretation that they would probably not be successful in an international piano competition. 

AW: You are probably correct, but that tells us much more about the narrow world of piano competitions than it tells us about these remarkable musicians. It is instructive to reverse the question, and ask, "What sort of success would today's young gladiator of the keyboard have had back then?" By most accounts, scarcely any. He would be unable to improvise. He would be unable to transpose. He would be unable to read fluently from a full orchestral score. He would probably be inept as a composer. Is there anything left that he would be able to do? He would be able to play the piano after his fashion, and probably be roundly condemned by our forefathers for his slavish adherence to the printed notes, his ignorance of the singer's art of bel canto, and his possession of a rubato that was so parsimonious as to make a stop-watch sound erratic. Above all, his tone production would lack personality, so he would be condemned to occupy the ranks of the anonymous.

Tell us something about Liszt the man. As an example, you often mention Liszt's life motto, 'Génie oblige!'—With genius comes obligations. What should modern day musicians learn from studying the life of this remarkable man, even beyond his musical achievements? 

AW: Liszt was the first musician in history to articulate a great idea: Music functions best when placed in the service of some ethical or humanitarian cause. His watchword 'Génie oblige!' takes us to the heart of the matter. Since music is a gift from Nature, even from God, Liszt argued, we have a duty to give something back. During his heyday as a performer, a river of gold poured in, but a river of gold also poured out. Liszt gave generously to many charitable causes: to the victims of the Danube floods, to the casualties of the Great Fire of Hamburg, to the building fund of Cologne Cathedral, to the foundations of schools and music conservatories, and towards the erection of statues to Beethoven and to Bach. And he also did much good by stealth, giving away money to people who needed it but hardly knew him. His Hungarian pupil Janka Wohl recalls seeing Liszt in old age, sitting at his desk, putting bank notes into envelopes and addressing them to people in Budapest, some of whom he had never met, who had pleaded with him for financial help. 

This idea of giving something back for the gift that nature has given you led Liszt to a profound dislike of Mammon worship, of making the accumulation of wealth the chief motif for entering the profession of music. It came out strongly at the time of the death of the famous pedagogue Theodor Kullak, who had founded one of the largest music conservatories in Europe. When Liszt read in a Berlin newspaper the details of Kullak's will, he became angry. Kullak had left a fortune of more than one million marks, to be divided among his sons. "No one should be allowed to rake in a million marks from music without making some sacrifice on the altar of ART," Liszt exclaimed. He then wrote a letter to the newspaper pleading with Kullak's sons to establish a foundation for needy musicians. Of course, nothing happened. Not everybody shared Liszt's idealistic views. And many people thought, as you and I might, that a man's hard-earned money is his to dispose of as he wishes. But if anybody had a right to protest it was Liszt, who at this stage of his life was living in genteel poverty, having given away much of the wealth acquired in earlier years.2

Where did such views come from, and why did Liszt hold fast to them with such conviction? 

AW: The answer is of compelling interest to all teachers and students. Music for Liszt was a vocation, a calling, a term of which we hear too little today. He once wrote: "The musician does not choose his profession; his profession chooses him." In brief, music is innate. The musician is chosen by nature. This is a deeply romantic notion. Music, Liszt argued, must never be confused with a trade, although it frequently is. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick- maker can all exchange places with one another; but not one of them can exchange places with a musician. After all, no one is chosen to become a candlestickmaker! In Liszt's time we know that there were candlestick-makers in the music profession. And there are many more today, people for whom music is a trade, a way of merely making a living, and no more than that. Liszt held them in low regard. They not only lacked a sense of vocation, he argued, they also lacked what he called "a sacred predestination." 

If we think this through, that would mean that one could no more determine to become a musician than one could determine the colour of one's eyes. You can develop your talent, but you cannot acquire it. This is a deeply Freudian notion, and Freud himself found the words for it in his timeless aphorism, "We are lived." We are not drawn from in front but pushed from behind. Such a fatalistic notion was not unknown even to Arnold Schoenberg, who once declared that the true musician is in the grip of forces he cannot understand but has no alternative but to obey. I think that Liszt would have liked that idea. 

Are there any other aspects of Liszt the man that you found unusual? 

AW: I have always been deeply impressed with Liszt's stand against the death penalty, which must have been formed early, and which was advanced for its time. Already he perceived it to be state-sponsored murder. He wrote to his friend Baroness Olga Meyendorff: "The death penalty is an abominable social crime. It is obvious that we are all more or less guilty, deranged, or crazy, but it does not follow that we ought to be guillotined, hanged, or, as an act of mercy, shot."3 That last phrase "an act of mercy" reveals a special irony. How kind of the state, he seems to say, to put on display for the benefit of those condemned to die the varied forms of its final solution—and then deny the accused any choice in the manner of his execution.

Liszt's general opposition to suicide sprang from the same source: his abhorrence of all killing. The German noun Selbstmord [literally 'self-murder'] puts it with brutal frankness. (Even though the English possess the richest language in the world, they have no word to describe this ultimate act of violence against oneself, and they continue to use the French word "suicide.") Liszt knew that the Roman Catholic Church forbade suicide, of course, and as a minor cleric he understood better than most that those people who discarded their lives in this way would not be buried on consecrated ground but would be excommunicated, their souls sent to purgatory. But even on this issue he was ahead of the Church and foresaw a time when all that would change, as it has. Meanwhile, Liszt understood what it was to confront what Winston Churchill used to call "the Black Dog" (depression). He empathized with those who were overcome by it, because he himself suffered from it. 

Which aspects of Liszt's music are especially valued in our time? 

AW: The late music has attracted a cult following among professional musicians today. The experimental works of Liszt's old age continue to stimulate our imagination, and they arouse astonishment at how frequently they anticipate the music of Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Schoenberg, Messiaen, and others. These composers all followed Liszt into the future. For this reason alone, it would not be wrong to describe him as "the father of modern music." Even if you are one of those musicians who does not particularly like Liszt's compositions, you cannot rob him of this central role in music history. p 

Editor's Note: 

After we went to press with the September/October issue, Alan Walker was notified that he is being honored by the Hungarian government with the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit, one of Hungary's highest distinctions. 

On behalf of the staff and readers of Clavier Companion, I wish to express deep gratitude to Dr. Walker for this interview and his enlightening work as a biographer, and many congratulations for this most recent acknowledgement of his profound contributions to Liszt scholarship. —Helen Smith Tarchalski 

1Banister, Henry C. (1891). George Alexander Macfarren: His Life,Works and Influence. London, G. Bell and Sons. 2

Liszt's unusual letter is addressed to the editor of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, and is dated 'September 5, 1885.' It is reproduced in Ramann's 'Lisztiana: Erinnerungen and Franz Liszt', p. 297. 

3The Letters of Franz Liszt to Olga von Meyendorff, 1871-1886, p. 14.Translated by William R.Tyler. Introduction and Notes by Edward N.Waters. Cambridge, MA, 1979.

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