If I was to be cast away in some isolated place, far from the civilized world and its trappings, and where the music of only one composer was permitted -- assuming a request could be made -- I would consider it worth while asking for the complete works of Liszt.
If this were to be interpreted as an expression of my enthusiasm for the legendary master, it would be gravely in error, for there are surely very few composers accorded the description of 'great' who have written so much awful music. He was, however, so obsessed by his own genius, and managed to acquire such phenomenal technical prowess as a pianist, that his place as a 'great' composer in the histories has been assumed rather than justified.
He was, in fact, a great pianist, even among distinguished contemporaries of his time, in a period of our history when the piano as a grand concert instrument was in its youth and growing rapidly. Liszt's extraordinary pianistic showmanship made him a performer in huge demand and both stimulated and challenged the ingenuity of piano makers, not least the Erard and the fine instruments with ash and beech cabinets by Pleyel, much preferred by Chopin. (A love affair with French pianos is the enthralling subject of Thad Carhart's delightful book The Piano Shop on the Left Bank -- a Vintage paperback.)
But as a composer, poor Liszt suffered the affliction of the great improviser. Both his early teachers, Salieri and Czerny, warned of his indulgence in what came too easily, and sure enough this, and his insatiable compulsion to attract and please beautiful women, manifested in his early teens, detracted him from acquiring the technical resource to be a sincere and committed composer. He was perhaps always haunted by glorious intentions -- and many of his grand compositional projects are full of spiritual fervour -- but he lacked the craft which could have realised them satisfactorily. His innumerable 'salon' piano pieces and many songs are perfect decorations, but then, so are countless 19th century 'salon' pieces.
It was however as an arranger of other people's music that he excelled. In so doing, he brought many composers to audiences to whom they and their works were unfamiliar. His transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies introduced them to a Paris very poorly disposed toward their composer, and his operatic fantasies advertised both the works and composers with spectacular generosity. His virtuosic hands transformed the work of others into the sort of music he wanted to create for himself, and this huge repertoire of arrangements should quite satisfy anyone who wanted a representative library of 18th and 19th century music.
Acknowledge a considerable arranger, but not really a composer.
Copyright © 30 June 2007 Patric Standford,