Music and Vision homepage

 Harmony: functional and dysfunctional

 by Professor Wilfrid Mellers

 Part III (B): Two cosmopolitan romantics:
 Chopin, Poland, and Paris;  Liszt, Hungary, and Europe.

Although a piano virtuoso of harmonically subversive tendencies, Chopin was never the unconscious rhapsodist he has sometimes been parodied as; the probity and lucidity of his figurations often reflect his veneration for the Preludes and Fugues of J.S. Bach. Franz Liszt, his successor and admirer, also came from a remotely 'barbaric' land (Hungary), but was a romantically self-dramatizing artist, as compared with Chopin's 'inwardness'. Liszt became a leader of the cultural vanguard, which Chopin neither was nor wanted to be; and his leadership depended on his assimilating Hungarian, especially gypsy, wildness into his sophistication which - as he travelled throughout Europe, first as piano virtuoso, then as conductor - embraced the musical legacies of France, Italy and Germany. A superb instance of the fusion of these contradictory impulses is provided by the piano piece Funérailles, an elegiac 'oration' dedicated to the memory of friends who died in the Hungarian Revolution of 1849. A slow introduction exploits, quasi-orchestrally, the percussive depths of the keyboard: leading to a funeral march Berliozian in (French) grandeur and Verdian in (Italian) virility. As so often in Liszt's melodies, the interval of aspiring rising sixth is prominent both in the main tune, and in the complementary melody, marked lagrimoso, in the relative major. Here Italian bel canto comes into its own, reinforced by the 'sob' of a Neapolitan chord; and from this passionate lamentation a Grand March over an ostinato bass mounts in triumph: only for the orator's voice to break in tangled reminiscences of the previous, contradictory moods, petering out in sensuous mediant modulations and remote references to the 'revolutionary' ostinato. Personal regret for martyred friends merges into a wild coda reminding us of the epical significance of their deaths.

Chopin's grandest Polish polonaises remain heroic personal testaments; Liszt's comparable works tend to be imposingly public frescoes. Even so, his most significant works changed the inner spirit of European music as well as its outward facade: in particular, his one-movement piano sonata proved to be a prototype for the romantic symphonic poem, in which all the contradictions inherent in sonata form are telescoped into a single entity (or person). In his final years, moreover, Liszt made piano music remote from the flamboyance of his youth. As the mane of hair grew white instead of golden, the operatic melodies and arpeggiated accompaniments in a piece like Aux cypres de la Villa d'Este became spare and epigrammatic; and although mephistophelian fire still darted from his eyes, the dizzy virtuosity of the last mephisto valses is brittle, and the more scary for being restrained. The Czardas Macabre anticipates Bartók in being based largely on 'barbaric' parallel fifths, while Nuages Gris is prophetic of Debussy's wispily directionless augmented triads. Most remarkable of all, the two versions of La Lugubre Gondole form a spectral elegy on an operatic life, opening in unisonal recitative, rocking on chords of the diminished seventh, and intermittently chromatically atonal. When an arpeggiated accompaniment in barcarolle style tentatively intrudes, it oscillates between major and minor, suggesting the enigmatic bitonality of Liszt's virtuoso successor, Italian-German Busoni. But the waves of arpeggios, unable to flow, clog in chromatically drooping 6 3 chords and in dissonantly fragmentary recitative:

Liszt: La Lugubre Gondola II (1882)
(Beginning only)
Liszt: La Lugubre Gondola II

This ultimate fragmentariness goes home to us painfully, for we live in the wake of the disintegration that Liszt so honestly recorded. His stammered ejaculations are touching in their very incoherence. We accept them as our birthright. We would complete them if we could.

Copyright © 1999 Wilfrid Mellers

Continue >>