The following arises from a lecture given in Bergen op Zoom as part of a three-day symposium, ‘Liszt meets Ibach’. I was asked to give a general overview of the significance of Liszt’s keyboard music to complement the more specialised masterclasses, performances, and lectures.
In considering the significance of Liszt’s keyboard music, one can and should consider its significance both as keyboard music and more broadly in general musical terms, bearing in mind that, although Liszt often expressed himself best through his own instrument(s), he was not narrowly a ‘keyboard composer’, nor even a ‘piano composer’. That is not to say that I intend perversely to spend most of my time speaking about his symphonic poems, wonderful and neglected though many of them might be. (Even there, I might add, there would be a good deal to say with respect to the organ, not least in terms of Orpheus, transcribed in 1860 by Alexander Gottschalg, court organist in Weimar, but crucially – and in this, Liszt’s practice has something in common with his essay writing, early versions sometimes being penned by others – then carefully revised by the composer himself.)
Let us start in earnest nevertheless with some of Liszt’s extraordinary achievements in terms of keyboard technique and ambition. First and perhaps foremost, we have Liszt as the quintessential piano virtuoso. Just as we immediately think of Paganini as the exemplar of the type for the violin, however much the technical difficulties of his music may since have been superseded, so we do for Liszt and the piano – and more broadly, perhaps, the keyboard family. (It is less clear, by the way, that all of the technical difficulties of Liszt’s music have been superseded, even though an unhealthy number of musicians now seem able to toss off, say, the B minor Sonata, the Transcendental Studies, or indeed the organ Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale, ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.’)
There is, as Dana Gooley has pointed out, in his book, The Virtuoso Liszt, something of the magician to the virtuoso. He writes, ‘Virtuosity is about shifting borders. The musician, the athlete, and the magician are potentially virtuosos as soon as they cross a limit – the limit of what seems possible, or what the spectator can imagine.’ Of course, then, ‘Once this act of transgression is complete, the border shifts, and the boundaries of the possible are redrawn.’ However, as Gooley also points out, there is a considerable difference between the ‘clichés of the professional magician – mere craft,’ and what she describes as a ‘truly surpassing virtuoso,’ whether of the magical or musical variety. ‘To be a truly surpassing virtuoso,’ he writes, our artist ‘must have his own tricks,’ and I shall add in passing that the ‘his’ is indicative of a notably gendered role here too, ‘inventing new impossibilities to be transcended, for these are the only impossibilities that will any longer seem truly impossible’. Liszt then, as Gooley summarises, ‘remains the quintessential virtuoso because he was constantly and insistently mobilising, destabilising, and reconstituting borders. … None of his protégés and imitators … came even close to him in extending the virtuoso’s relevance qualitatively – beyond the sphere of music and into the social environments he entered.’
To be a virtuoso pianist or indeed to be a virtuoso upon any musical instrument during the nineteenth century was also to be a composer. There still exist musicians who ‘do both’ and indeed who do various other things too, though many of you will be aware of the distrust with which some instrumentalists, perhaps especially pianists, meet when they take up conducting. (To digress briefly just for a moment, that seems to have been the reason Maurizio Pollini cut short his conducting career, and even Daniel Barenboim took a long time indeed properly to be accepted as a conductor, nevertheless gaining reassurance from Arthur Rubinstein, very much an old-school pianist, who rightly encouraged him. Such, in any case is a modern division of musical labour which would have astonished Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Bartók, and many others, as well as a host of ‘lesser’ names and, of course, audiences.) So Liszt, in terms simply of being a composer, was not different from his ‘rivals’ – and I think I use the term advisedly, ‘competition’ being very much an issue in the world of the nineteenth-century virtuoso.