Franz Liszt Fantasizing at the Piano (German: Franz Liszt, am Flügel phantasierend, sometimes as Eine Matinée bei Liszt), a painting (119 x 167 cm) of Franz Liszt playing in a Parisian salon a grand piano by Conrad Graf, who commissioned the painting; on the piano is a bust of Ludwig van Beethoven by Anton Dietrich; the imagined gathering shows seated, from left, Alexandre Dumas (père), George Sand, Franz Liszt, Marie d'Agoult; (standing) Hector Berlioz or Victor Hugo, Niccolò Paganini, Gioachino Rossini; a portrait of Byron on the wall behind them, and, on the far left,  a statue of Joan of Arc.

Franz Liszt Fantasizing at the Piano (German: Franz Liszt, am Flügel phantasierend, sometimes as Eine Matinée bei Liszt), a painting (119 x 167 cm) of Franz Liszt playing in a Parisian salon a grand piano by Conrad Graf, who commissioned the painting; on the piano is a bust of Ludwig van Beethoven by Anton Dietrich; the imagined gathering shows seated, from left, Alexandre Dumas (père), George Sand, Franz Liszt, and, propped against the piano, Marie d’Agoult; (standing) Hector Berlioz or Victor Hugo, Niccolò Paganini, Gioachino Rossini; a portrait of Byron is on the wall behind them and to the right; on the far left is a statue of Joan of Arc.

Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine, in full Christian Johann Heinrich Heine, original name (until 1825) Harry Heine  (born Dec. 13, 1797, Düsseldorf, Prussia [Germany]—died Feb. 17, 1856, Paris, France), was a German poet whose international literary reputation and influence were established by the Buch der Lieder (1827; The Book of Songs), frequently set to music, though the more somber poems of his last years are also highly regarded. From 1830 until his death in 1856, Heine kept German periodicals supplied with Parisian news of all kinds. The need to entertain his readers often led him to exaggerate or to make “good stories” out of scant materials. In this extract, the “facts” about his friend Berlioz are, to say the least, fanciful.

Now, what is music? This question occupied me for hours before I fell asleep last night. Music is a strange thing. I would almost say it is a miracle. For it stands halfway between thought and phenomenon, between spirit and matter, a sort of nebulous mediator, like and unlike each of the things it mediates–spirit that requires manifestations in time and matter that can do without space.

We do not know what music is. But what good music is we know well enough; and even better, we know what music is bad. For of the latter our ears receive a larger quantity. Musical criticism must accordingly base itself on experience, not on a priori judgments; it must classify musical compositions only by their similarities, and take as standard only the impression that they create upon the majority.

Nothing is more futile than theorizing about music. No doubt there are laws, mathematically strict laws, but these laws are not music; they are only conditions–just as the art of drawing and the theory of colors, or even the brush and palette, are not paintings, but only its necessary means. The essence of music is revelation; it does not admit of exact reckoning, and the true criticism of music remains an empirical art.

A magnificent performance by French virtuosos François-René Duchâble (piano) and Gérard Caussé (viola) of Liszt’s transcription of Berlioz’s Harold en Italie. In 1833 Paganini encouraged Berlioz to write a work especially for his new Stradivarius viola; Berlioz in turn was inspired by Byron’s poem ‘Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage’: ‘My intention was to write a series of orchestral scenes, in which the solo viola would be involved as a more or less active participant while retaining its own character. By placing it among the poetic memories formed from my wanderings in the Abruzzi, I wanted to make the viola a kind of melancholy dreamer in the manner of Byron’s Childe-Harold.’ He also used recycled material from his discarded concert overture, Rob Roy.

Apart from Meyerbeer, the Parisian Académie Royale de Musique [note: The Paris Opera] boasts few composers of whom it would be worth the trouble to speak at length. Nonetheless the French Opera is most flourishing or, to speak more precisely, its box office greatly flourishes day by day. This state of prosperity began some six years ago with the directorship of the famous Dr. Véron, whose principles have since been adopted, with the same success, by the new director, M. Duponchel. I say “principles” because Dr. Véron did in fact have principles, born of meditation upon the world of art and science; and just as in his capacity as druggist he invented an admirably musical expectorant, so as an opera director he discovered a cure for music. [Note: Véron’s fortune came from a patent medicine.}

Having noticed that a show of Franconi’s gave him more pleasure than the best opera, he became convinced that the greater part of the public received the same impression; that most people went to the Opera out of habit, and enjoyed themselves there only when the beauty of the scenery, the dances, and the costumes gripped their attention so strongly that they could quite overlook–or overhear–the fateful, inescapable music. The great man thereupon had the stroke of genius by which he decided to satisfy the people’s lust for spectacle so completely that the music scarcely annoyed them at all; and so well indeed that they could enjoy at the Opera the very same delights they found at Franconi’s.

Vladimir Horowitz performs Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Serenade. One of the most detailed descriptions of Liszt’s extravagant performing style comes from Caroline Boissier, mother of Liszt’s pupil Valerie Boissier. In the winter of 1831/1832, Caroline kept a diary of her daughter’s lessons with the master. In part she observed: ‘M. Liszt’s playing contains abandonment, a liberated feeling, but even when it becomes impetuous and energetic in his fortissimo, it is still without harshness and dryness. […] [He] draws from the piano tones that are purer, mellower and stronger than anyone has been able to do; his touch has an indescribable charm. […] He is the enemy of affected, stilted, contorted expressions. Most of all, he wants truth in musical sentiment, and so he makes a psychological study of his emotions to convey them as they are. Thus, a strong expression is often followed by a sense of fatigue and dejection, a kind of coldness, because this is the way nature works.’

From these considerations you will have grasped the significance of French Grand Opera at the present time. It has made its peace with the enemies of music; and the well-to-do bourgeoisie crowds the Académie de Musique just as it does the Tuileries. [Note: Where Louis-Philippe held court.] Meanwhile the best society has quitted the field. The true aristocracy, the elite distinguished by rank, birth, breeding, fashion and leisure, has fled to the Italian opera, that musical oasis where the great nightingales of music forever trill, while round about the level sands stretch away, a Sahara of music.

Still, a few good concerns spring up now and again amid this waste and afford to the friends of music uncommon relief. This winter the Sundays at the Conservatoire were of this kind; again, a few private soirées in the rue de Bondy [Note: in the hall of the Ambgu-Comique theater, otherwise devoted to melodrama.], and especially the concerts of Berlioz and Liszt.

Leonard Bernstein conducts the Orchestre National de France in the 5th movement of Berlioz’s towering Symphonie Fantastique (1830). Performed in Paris, 1976.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Wiener Philharmonic in an entire performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique in Salzburg, December 8, 2007

These last named are indeed the two most remarkable phenomena in the contemporary musical world; I say the most  remarkable, not the most beautiful or the most rejoicing. From Berlioz we shall soon have an opera. Its subject is an episode from the life of Benvenuto Cellini, the casting of the “Perseus.” Something extraordinary is expected, for this composer has already accomplished the extraordinary; his inclination it toward the fantastic, not so much linked with soul as with sentiment. He has a close affinity with Callot, Gozzi and Hoffmann. Even his outward appearance suggests this. It’s a pity that he has had his monstrous, antediluvian head of hair cut off; it used to bristle upon his brow like a forest upon a craggy cliff. That was how he looked when I saw him for the first time six years ago, and thus he will remain in my memory. It was at the Conservatoire, where a great symphony of his was being played–a bizarre night-piece, lighted up only at times in a sentimental way by the flitting about of a woman’s dress, or elase by the sulphurous gleam of irony.

The best part of it is a Witches’ Sabbath in which the Devil read the mass and the liturgy is parodied with the most horrifying. Bloodiest grotesqueries. It is a farce which gaily releases in us all the hidden snakes that we carry in our hearts. My neighbor in the next seat, a talkative young man, showed me the composer, who stood at the far end of the hall, in a corner of the orchestra, playing the kettledrums–for the drum is his instrument. “Do you see,” said my neighbor, “a plump Englishwoman in one of the forward boxes? That is Miss Smithson. For three years M. Berlioz has been madly in love with her, and it is to this passion that we owe the symphony we shall hear today.” And indeed there sat, in a forward box, the famous actress from Covent Garden. Berlioz looked unswervingly in her direction, and whenever her glance met his, he beat upon his drum like a man in a fury. Miss Smithson has since become Mme. Berlioz and her husband has since let his hair be cut. As I heard his symphony again this winter at the Conservatoire, he sat once more behind the drums in the orchestra, the plump Englishwoman sat once more in a forward box, her blances once more met his–but he no longer struck the drums so furiously.

Liszt bears the closest relation to Berlioz and is the best performer of his works. I need not speak to you of his talent; his fame is European. He is without doubt the artist who finds in Paris the most unreserved enthusiasm, as well as the keenest opposition. It is significant that no one speaks of him with indifference. A man who lacks positive stature cannot in this world arouse either favorable or antagonistic passions. It takes fire to enkindle men, whether to hate or to love. What speaks most for Liszt is the respect with which even his enemies recognize his personal merits. He is a man of unruly but noble character, unself-seeking and without falseness.

‘Liszt bears the closest relation to Berlioz and is the best performer of his works’: pianists Monica Egri and Attila Pertis perform Liszt’s transcription for four hands of themes from Berlioz’s opera, Benvenuto Cellini, Bénédiction et Serment: Deux motifs de Benvenuto Cellini.

Most noteworthy are his intellectual tendencies. He has a bent toward philosophizing. Even more than in his art, he is interested in the speculations of the several schools that attempt to solve the great all-embracing problems of heaven and earth. For quite a while he glowed with enthusiasm for the Saint-Simonian ideal; later he was wrapped up in the spiritualist, or, rather, the vaporistic ideas of Ballanche; now he is fervent about the Catholic republicanism of Lamennais, who has put the Jacobin’s cap upon the cross. God only knows in what spritual stall Liszt will next find his hobby horse. But his untiring search for divine light and leading remains praiseworthy; it testifies to his sense of holiness and religion.

That so restless a head, driven hither and thither by all the demands and doctrines of the day, a heart that feels the need to care for all the ills of humanity, and to stick his nose into every pot in which God cooks up the future, makes Franz Liszt anything but a peaceful pianist for settled citizens and complacent bourgeois–that goes without saying. When he sits at the piano and, having repeatedly pushed his hair back over his brow, begins to improvise, then he often rages all too madly upon the ivory keys and lets loose a deluge of heaven-storming ideas, with here and there a few sweet flowers to shed fragrance upon the whole. One feels both blessedness and anxiety, but rather more anxiety.

I freely confess that, much as I love Liszt, his music does not affect me agreeably. This is all the more so that I am a Sunday child and can also see ghosts where other people only hear them–that is to say, as you know, in each note struck by the master’s hand, in each corresponding melodic phraise, in short, music is visible to my inner eye…

Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 as performed by Martha Argerich, filmed in Munich, 1966.

It was in the concert for the benefit of the unfortunate Italians [Note: Exiles after unsuccessful uprisings.] that I last heard Liszt play this past winter. I forget what he played but I would swear it was variations upon themes from the Apocalypse. At first I could scarcely make them out, those four mystical beasts; I only heard their voices, especially in the roaring of the lion and the croaking of an eagle. But the ox with the a book in its mouth was very plain to see. What he played best was the Valley of Jehoshaphat. There were lists as in a tournament, and like spectators around the huge space were crowded the resurrected peoples, coffin-pale and trembling.  First came Satan galloping in the lists, black-besaddled on a milk-white charger; and, riding slowly behind, Death on her pale horse. Last came Christ in golden armor, on a black steed. With his holy lance he first thrust Satan down, then Death–and the beholders rejoiced loudly. Stormy applause greeted Liszt’s valiant playing. He left the piano exhausted, bowed to the ladies, and upon the lips of the beauties there was that melancholy-sweet smile.

It would be wrong of me to miss this occasion to mention another pianist who next to Liszt is most honored. I refer to Chopin, whose accomplishment is great not solely as a virtuoso of brilliant technical mastery but also as a composer. He is a man of the first rank, the darling of the elite which seeks in music the highest spiritual pleasure. Chopin’s fame is aristocratic, it is perfumed with the approval of good society, it is as distinguished as his person.

Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, performing Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23: Chopin, writes Heinrich Heine, ‘is a man of the first rank, the darling of the elite which seeks in music the highest spiritual pleasure.’

….Yes, one must grant Chopin genius in the fullest sense of the world; he is not simply a technician, he is a poet and can express for us the poetry that lives in his soul; he is a poet in sound, and nothing is quite like the delights he lavishes on us when he sits at the keyboard and improvises. At such times he is neither Pole, Frenchman, nor German; he betrays a far higher origin, and seems to come from the land of Mozart, Raphael, and Goethe: his true native shores seem to be the dreamland of poetry.

LETTERS ON THE FRENCH STAGE (1837)

For more on Liszt, visit our CLASSICAL PERSPECTIVES department for a review of Christopher O’Riley’s acclaimed new interpretations of the master’s work, O’Riley’s Liszt.