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Letters of Franz Liszt, Volume 2: From Rome to the End

by Constance Bache Franz Liszt

The Austrio-Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was a pianistic miracle. He could play anything on site and composed over 400 works centered around "his" instrument. Among his key works are his Hungarian Rhapsodies, his Transcendental Etudes, his Concert Etudes, his Etudes based on variations of Paganinini's Violin Caprices and his Sonata, one of the most important of the nineteenth century. He also wrote thousands of letters, of which 399 are translated into English in this second of a 2-volume set of letters (the first volume contains 260 letters). Those who knew him were struck by his extremely sophisticated personality. He was surely one of the most civilized people of the nineteeth century, internalizing within himself a complex conception of human civility, and attempting to project it in his music and his communications with people. His life was centered around people; he knew them, worked with them, remembered them, thought about them, and wrote about them using an almost poetic language, while pushing them to reflect the high ideals he believed in. His personality was the embodiment of a refined, idealized form of human civility. He was the consummate musical artist, always looking for ways to communicate a new civilized idea through music, and to work with other musicians in organizing concerts and gatherings to perform the music publicly. He also did as much as he could to promote and compliment those whose music he believed in. He was also a superlative musical critic, knowing, with few mistakes, what music of his day was "artistic" and what was not. But, although he was clearly a musical genius, he insisted on projecting a tonal, romantic "beauty" in his music, confining his music to a narrow range of moral values and ideals. He would have rejected 20th-century music that entertained cynical notions of any kind, or notions that obviated the concept of beauty in any way. There is little of a Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Cage, Adams, and certainly none of a Schoenberg, in Liszt's music. His music has an ideological "ceiling," and that ceiling is "beauty." It never goes beyond that. And perhaps it was never as "beautiful" as the music of Mozart, Bach or Beethoven, nor quite as rational (Are all the emotions in Liszt's music truly "controlled?"). But it certainly was original and instructive, and it certainly will linger.

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