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Alkan's and Chopin's works were mainly for their own instrument, whereas Liszt, like his other distinguished contemporaries, eagerly explored several other genres and media. Mr Standford, however, remarks that, 'as a composer, poor Liszt suffered the affliction of the great improviser'; the fact that all of his great contemporaries (except perhaps Verdi and Wagner) were also, like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and many others before them, 'great improvisers' did not obviously stand in the way of their compositional developments, so what was so different about Liszt -- and why? Well, Mr Standford appears to think that something was, noting that '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'. Quite why what came easily to Liszt should necessarily have interfered with his development remains unclear (did this happen also to Chopin? -- or to Medtner, a later composer who, like Chopin, seemed to arrive on the scene without having had to undergo anything akin to an apprenticeship?); similarly, no evidence is given as to why and how Liszt's attitude to women as portrayed here was also an intractable obstacle to that development.

Mr Standford's view of Liszt -- a man of great and ambitious intent unable to fulfil his desires as a composer -- is couched in terms that question -- indeed pour scantly disguised scorn upon -- his 'craft'; the back-handed compliment about his 'salon pieces' and songs categorises them merely as 'perfect decorations', yet he neither defines what he thinks they decorate nor justifies why he does not think them to be superior to 'salon pieces' by lesser 19th century mortals. A brief consideration of some of Liszt's piano works should lead us to ask if it is really reasonable -- or even credible -- to consider Années de Pelèrinage, Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, the Transcendental Studies or the Rapsodies Hongroises, for example, as mere decorative morceaux de salon?

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Copyright © 5 July 2007 Alistair Hinton, Bath UK


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All Risks Musical - an irreverent guide to the music profession by Alice McVeigh