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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 5 Virtuosos
Richard Taruskin

By the time the nineteen-year-old Liszt heard Paganini in Paris he had himself been a concert artist for almost ten years, and a working composer for more than five. He was born in the village of Raiding (now Dobojan) in the vicinity of the old Hungarian town of Sopron (then called Ödenburg) near the Austrian border. As the alternate naming of the localities suggests, the region had a mixed Hungarian and German culture. The composer's family name is German, but spelled in the Hungarian fashion. (If it were spelled List, it would be pronounced “Lisht” in Hungarian.) His father was an overseer at the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, the nephew and namesake of Haydn's patron. His mother hailed from Krems, a town in lower Austria. Liszt grew up speaking German, not Hungarian, although he showed an early interest in the music of Gypsy bands, and later in life drew on his experience with it to construct an exotically Hungarian “persona” for himself with which to fascinate audiences.


ex. 5-2d Niccolò Paganini, I palpiti, Variation II as edited

In the spring of 1821, before he turned ten, the boy and his family moved to Vienna so that he could develop his precocious gifts. He studied piano with Carl Czerny (1791–1857), a pupil and disciple of the still-living Beethoven, and composition with old Antonio Salieri, still (aged seventy) the nominal Imperial Kapellmeister. Czerny lost no time presenting Liszt as a prodigy. His first Vienna concert took place in December 1822, the second in April 1823. At the latter, Beethoven is reputed to have planted an anointing kiss on the eleven-year-old soloist's forehead; in later life, Liszt recalled having been taken to Beethoven's quarters by Czerny and receiving the kiss there. In any case, having received Beethoven's blessing, Liszt was asked to contribute a variation to Diabelli's famous “patriotic anthology” (Ex. 5-3).


fig. 5-4 Franz Liszt in 1860 with his daughter Cosima (1837–1930), then married to the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, later to Richard Wagner.

Liszt's international concert career began that fall. On the way to Paris, he gave concerts in a whole string of south German towns. In the French capital he studied composition with Paer and with Anton Reicha (1770–1836), the leading theory professor at the Paris Conservatory (where Liszt was refused admission because of his foreign nationality). After a sensational Paris debut in May 1824, Liszt conquered London with a program that featured the twelve-year-old prodigy, amid the sundry vocal and orchestral numbers that the “variety show” format of contemporary concerts required, showing off his talents in a concerto by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837), a set of orchestrally accompanied variations by his teacher Czerny, and an “Extempore Fantasia on a written Thema, which Master Liszt respectfully requests may be given to him by any Person in the Company.”

All of this music, no doubt including the “extempore fantasia,” was virtuoso fare in the light and blithesome style brillant purveyed by the popular performers of the day, and so were Liszt's early compositions, as their very titles proclaim: Variations brillantes sur un thème de G. Rossini, or Impromptu brillant [i.e., a medley] sur des thèmes de Rossini et Spontini. His first noteworthy original composition, called Étude en douze exercices, consisted of twelve Czernyesque “concert studies,” display pieces without orchestra for use on the road, in which (in the words of Alan Walker, Liszt's biographer), “the boy makes the keyboard sparkle from one end to the other.”6 In probable collaboration with his other teacher, Paer, the young prodigy also fulfilled a commission from the Académie Royale de Musique for a one-act opera, Don Sanche, ou Le château d'amour (“Don Sanchez, or the castle of love”), premiered at the Salle Le Peletier on 17 October 1825, five days before the composer's fourteenth birthday. Though he lived another sixty years, it would be his only work for the operatic stage. His destiny lay on a stage of a different kind.


ex. 5-3a Franz Liszt's “Diabelli Variation” (Variation 24 from Diabelli's “Patriotic Anthology”)

And then came Paganini. “Quel homme, quel violon, quel artiste!” Liszt gushed in a letter to a friend. “What a man, what a violin, what an artist! O God, what pain and suffering, what torment in those four strings!”7 The restless and ambitious prodigy had grasped something more than the rest of Paganini's audience: he knew that in order to equal the Italian's achievement and join him at the pinnacle of instrumental mastery he would have to submit to a tremendous test of endurance. He became obsessed with the famous response of the Italian painter Correggio, reported in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, to a masterpiece by Raphael: “Anch'io sono pittore!” (“I, too, am a painter!”). Although, like many others, Liszt misattributed the remark to Michelangelo, he understood it well; he knew that it was not a boast but an acknowledgment of responsibility, a promise of self-sacrifice.

The prodigy went into seclusion, a seclusion he described enthusiastically in a famous letter to his pupil Pierre Wolff, dated 2 May 1832. He was reinventing his technique from the bottom up, spending four to five hours a day on “trills, sixths, octaves, tremolos, double notes and cadenzas,” but also reinventing the expressive purposes the technique would serve, for which reason he spent an equal amount of time devouring Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Weber, along with the literary classics he never read in school (because he didn't go to any): Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, as well as the latest romantic fare—Lord Byron, Victor Hugo, and especially Harmonies poétiques et religieuses of the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, which he tried at various times to “translate” into music. “If I don't go mad,” he promised, at the end of the ordeal “you will find in me an artist! Yes, an artist such as is required today.”8

The first creative fruit of Liszt's seclusion was a series of Paganini transcriptions in which the pianist sought equivalents on his instrument to the violinist's sublime diableries. Before the year 1832 was out Liszt had composed a Grande fantaisie de bravoure sur La Clochette de Paganini (Big Bravura Fantasy on Paganini's “Campanella”), based on one of the pieces he had actually heard Paganini perform, the finale of the Second Concerto. One little section is actually called “Variation à la Paganini,” and it is, inevitably, a study in leaping around the topmost register of the instrument, the way Paganini could do with his patented harmonics (Ex. 5-4). Elsewhere, Liszt makes no attempt actually to imitate the violin, preferring instead to create in pianistic terms the frightening atmosphere of “black romanticism” that Paganini uniquely evoked, at the very opposite extreme from the “brilliant” or “sparkling” style of traditional instrumental virtuosity.

There was, briefly, another side to this goal, as Liszt dabbled for a while in revolutionary politics. In the circles he frequented—notably the utopian religious socialists who called themselves “Saint-Simonians” (after Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, a philosopher who wished to marry traditional religion with modern science)—“an artist such as is required today” meant an artist willing to “seek out the PEOPLE and GOD, go from one to the other; improve, moralize, console man, bless and glorify God,” so that “all classes of society, finally, will merge in a common religious sentiment, grand and sublime.”9 These quotes, capitals, italics, and all, are from an essay by Liszt that appeared in a Paris newspaper during the years of his Paganinian self-transformation. Art, as he wished to practice it, would be an instrument of social transformation. The virtuoso would become a sublime, rabble-rousing public orator on behalf of social progress, much as the poet had become in the person of Victor Hugo.


ex. 5-4 “Variation à la Paganini” from Franz Liszt, Grande fantaisie de bravoure sur La Clochette de Paganini

While it cannot be said that Liszt actually played such a role in life, his imagining it is already powerful testimony to the new status and concept of musical virtuosity. The magnetic, socially engaged performer-virtuoso (which in those days implied a composer, too) was the public face of romanticism, as the Beethovenian or Schubertian ideal of withdrawn and concentrated subjectivity was the private face. While the national side of this dichotomy can easily be (and certainly has been) overdrawn, it nevertheless accords with a long tradition that Liszt's self-transformation, and its literary expression, were stimulated and realized in the French capital in the heady atmosphere of the July Monarchy.

Liszt's final tribute to Paganini was a new set of concert studies, Études d'exécution transcendante d'après Paganini (“Etudes for transcendental technique after Paganini”), first published in 1838 (by which time several of them existed in various manuscript versions) and reissued with revisions in 1851, reflecting refinements the composer had introduced over the years in the course of performing them. Besides a streamlined version of La campanella, the set included five of Paganini's Caprices freely transcribed, including two of these given above in Ex. 5-1a. Liszt's versions are shown in Ex. 5-5.

Liszt's transcriptions hew pretty close to the originals, while greatly magnifying their effect in the true spirit of emulation, succeeding brilliantly in having them sound as though they were originally conceived for the piano. They are especially full of surprises—in range, in texture, in harmony—for listeners who know the originals (and that makes it especially fun to follow Liszt's transcriptions from Paganini's score). In the E♭ Etude, Liszt pulls off an especially apt surprise by accompanying Paganini's octaves (split between the two hands phrase by phrase) with some pseudo-Bachian imitative counterpoint by inversion, showing off “erudition” as an especially prizable aspect of the new virtuosity (Ex. 5-5b).


ex. 5-5 Franz Liszt, Paganini Etudes (1851 ed.), no. 2, mm. 6-11


ex. 5-5b Franz Liszt, Paganini Etudes (1851 ed.), no. 2, mm. 24-28


ex. 5-5c Franz Liszt, Paganini Etudes (1851 ed.), no. 6, mm. 1-16

In the A-minor variations, which Liszt made the finale of his set just as Paganini had done, the pianist occasionally manages to set the theme off in one hand against Paganini's variation in the other, and in the last variation (Ex. 5-5d) reaches a level of sheer sonority that was in itself a pianistic breakthrough; one can easily imagine it being greeted with scenes of mass hysteria like the one shown in the famous Berlin caricature of 1842 (Fig. 5-5), manifestations such as had formerly been confined to the opera house. On the way, a number of witty allusions to past piano masterpieces pass in review; perhaps the most resonant is the reference to the rapt final movement of Beethoven's last sonata (op. 111) in Variation 10 (Ex. 5-5e). It was surely a matter to ponder and debate, whether by placing Beethoven in proximity with Paganini, Liszt had debased the former or ennobled the latter. Either way, the underlying point remained the same—the new virtuosity was a truly all-encompassing medium.

Caricatures like the one in Fig. 5-5, set beside the one in Fig. 5-2, are all the evidence we need that Liszt made fair claim to Paganini's mantle as demonic possessor of all who heard him. Concerts like his were cathartically purging in a way that only rock concerts have remained in our time, and the cult of worshiped personality that he inspired is something to which only rock musicians openly aspire now. His consciousness and cultivation of “dark forces” came most clearly to the fore, just as it had with Paganini, when after his self-transformation he made a reprise de contact with opera.


ex. 5-5d Franz Liszt, Paganini Etudes (1851 ed.), no. 6, var. 11, mm. 1-4


ex. 5-5e Franz Liszt, Paganini Etudes (1851 ed.), no. 6, var. 10, mm. 1-8


fig. 5-5 “Franz Liszt Exerts His Spell on the Ladies in the Audience,” caricature from the periodical Berlin, wie es ist … und trinkt (mid-1840s). The name of the journal, “Berlin, as it is … and drinks,” is a rather clumsy pun (ist means “is”; isst means “eats”).

His Réminiscences de Don Juan (1841), known informally as the “Don Juan Fantasy,” while ostensibly a potpourri on “airs” from Mozart's Don Giovanni, is quite obviously more than that. Charles Rosen calls it Liszt's self-portrait (for, like many champion performers, though not the relatively old and unbeautiful Paganini, he nurtured a reputation as a “Don Juan” himself; Paganini's turn came long after his death, in an endearingly ridiculous Viennese operetta by Franz Lehar).10 But Liszt's Fantasy also makes an astonishing comment on the opera, and on the way romantic audiences interpreted it.

By juxtaposing the Don's seduction of Zerlina, evoked through a set of variations on their duet, “Là ci darem la mano” (“There, give me your hand”), and the Statue's seizure of the Don—which, as Liszt brilliantly reminds us by suddenly citing it (Ex. 5-6a), happens on an almost identical line (“Dammi la mano in pegno!” [“Give me your hand in pledge”])—Liszt casts Mozart's hero as predator and prey alike, at once stalker and stalked. The medley starts right off with the Statue's ghastly speech in the graveyard: “You'll laugh your last laugh ere daybreak,” made more gruesome than Mozart had made it by eliding out the recitative that connects and harmonically joins its two tonally remote lines.

Next comes the wild diminished-seventh chord that brings the Statue on stage for the final confrontation, and a repetition of the graveyard speech, now accompanied by the violin figuration that attends the Statue's later appearance. Thus the two grimmest, most “diabolical” scenes in the opera are conflated in a devil's brew that will eventually include the scary syncopations and scales familiar from the Overture's introduction, the Statue's horrifying line “It is not human food I eat,” and ending with a shuddering join (Ex. 5-6b), over a sustained harmony, between the Statue's graveyard intonations and Don Giovanni's lecherous “come hither” to Zerlina (“Vieni, vieni”).


ex. 5-6aFranz Liszt, Réminiscences de Don Juan, transition to “Duetto” (“Là ci darem la mano”)


ex. 5-6b Franz Liszt, Réminiscences de Don Juan, juxtaposition of Seduction and Perdition

That kind of intensifying conflation, the very opposite of the loose stringing of tunes implied by designations such as “medley” or “potpourri,” runs through the whole of Liszt's Fantasy. Later, the statue's creepy chromatic scales will rumble sarcastically beneath the coda of the seduction duet, where the Don sings to Zerlina, “Andiam, andiam, mio bene” (“Let's go, my sweet”), turning the line before our ears—provided we can recall the words when hearing the music—into the Statue's leering summons to perdition. Even more pointed is the irony when the grandiose bravura paraphrase of Don Giovanni's “Champagne” aria that finishes the medley, rather than providing the ultimate in “sparkling” virtuosity, is darkly framed by the Statue's chromatically tortured line, “Ah, tempo più non v’è” (“You're out of time”). As the aria races to its frenzied climax (marked più animato and fortississimo), one hears the Statue's clanking tread in the bass, represented by the violin figuration from the finale, inexorably keeping pace (Ex. 5-6c). The last word is the Statue's—a taunting reminder of his opening graveyard threat, transposed up a half step in triumph.

George Bernard Shaw, who earned his living as a concert reviewer before his playwriting career took off, recognized the special quality of the “Don Juan Fantasy.”

When you hear the terrible progression of the statue's invitation suddenly echoing through the harmonies accompanying Juan's seductive Andiam, andiam, mio bene, you cannot help accepting it as a stroke of genius—that is, if you know your Don Giovanni au fond [through and through],

he wrote, paying tribute as well to the “riotous ecstasy” of the “Champagne” aria, and the way it is “translated from song into symphony, from the individual to the abstract,” by virtue of Liszt's transcendent virtuosity, recognized as an integral part of the poetic idea. That is music criticism of a high order.11


ex. 5-6c Franz Liszt, Réminiscences de Don Juan, “Champagne” aria accompanied by “Statue's tread”

But so is the fantasy itself. While surely “readable” in conventional moralizing terms, as a divine judgment on the Don's lascivious conduct, Liszt's juxtapositions impose a new layer of romantic interpretation on Mozart's opera. Without the use of words, Liszt interprets the opera very much the way it was interpreted in the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard's almost exactly contemporaneous tract Either/Or (1843), a bible of “existentialism,” where Don Giovanni is said to reveal the links between the erotic and the demonic, and between love and death as the only truly transcendent experiences.

Kierkegaard claimed that the opera disclosed the secret of all music, and its hold on us. Listening to Liszt's fantasy, one is hard pressed to disagree; but, if that is so, then it took the new virtuosity to finally unleash music's essential power. Nor should one allow this remark to pass without noting that in pursuit of the thematic or conceptual unity that would haunt romantic artists from then on, Liszt has allowed himself to forget all about tonal unity, up to now the chief criterion of coherence, at least for instrumental music. He quotes everything in its original key, which allows the piece to begin in fantasialike tonal limbo, proceed to A major, and end quite nonchalantly in B♭ major.

After emerging from his chrysalis of self-imposed labor, Liszt spent about a decade (1838–48) crisscrossing Europe in a cyclone of touring and concert-giving that revolutionized the musical life of the continent, and its music business as well. It was not just the level of his playing that was unprecedented. Liszt was the first virtuoso to dare appear solo for an entire evening, thus inventing the instrumental “recital” as we know it today. And Liszt was the first traveling virtuoso to retain the services of a personal impresario, or what we would now call a manager, an advance man who handled his professional correspondence, booked his halls, advertised his appearances, negotiated and collected his fees, and took care of his personal needs (even preparing his food) on the road. The powerful modern concert booking agencies and “artist managements” that run (and sometimes ruin) the lives of musical performers today are the descendents of Gaetano Belloni (“Liszt's poodle,” as an envious Heinrich Heine dubbed him),12 who served Liszt in this capacity from 1840 to 1847.

Belloni was also suspected of hiring claques (or paying “ovation expenses,” as Heine dryly put it), but there is no evidence that Liszt ever needed one—quite the contrary, if contemporary observers and reviewers are to be believed. The novelty of his solo recitals, and the nature of his touring repertoire, are both fascinatingly revealed in a memoir by Vladimir Stasov (1824–1906), a prolific Russian writer on the arts, who attended Liszt's St. Petersburg debut in April 1842.

“Everything about this concert was unusual,” Stasov recalled:

First of all, Liszt appeared alone on the stage throughout the entire concert: there were no other performers—no orchestra, singers or any other instrumental soloists whatsoever. This was something unheard of, utterly novel, even somewhat brazen. What conceit! What vanity! As if to say, “All you need is me. Listen only to me—you don't need anyone else.” Then, this idea of having a small stage erected in the very center of the hall like an islet in the middle of an ocean, a throne high above the heads of the crowd, from which to pour forth his mighty torrents of sound. And then, what music he chose for his programmes: not just piano pieces, his own, his true metier—no, this could not satisfy his boundless conceit—he had to be both an orchestra and human voices. He took Beethoven's [concert aria] “Adelaide,” Schubert's songs—and dared to replace male and female voices, to play them on the piano alone! He took large orchestral works, overtures, symphonies—and played them too, all alone, in place of a whole orchestra, without any assistance, without the sound of a single violin, French horn, kettledrum! And in such an immense hall! What a strange fellow!13

There were two pianos set up on the stage, and Liszt alternated between them, “facing first one, then the other half of the hall,” as Stasov recollected. In addition to the vocal numbers to which Stasov referred, the program included Rossini's William Tell Overture, Liszt's “Don Juan Fantasy,” and the sextet from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, act II (Ex. 1-11). The only item that was not an arrangement from another medium was the grand finale, Liszt's own showstopping Galop chromatique, a tour de force of velocity, but something of a throwback to the old style brillant. At his second St. Petersburg concert, the program included the “scherzo and finale” (including the storm) from Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. Only at the third concert, when he played Beethoven's “Moonlight” Sonata, did Liszt play the sort of repertoire that is now considered standard “recital” fare.

The inclusion of so much orchestral repertory in keyboard arrangement was partly Liszt's own predilection, partly a reflection of the “provincial” venue (an outlying capital with, as yet, no full-time resident orchestra), and partly a concession to the expectations of an audience used to variety entertainment at public concerts. (The kind of repertoire we now associate with solo recitals—sonatas and other “purely” instrumental compositions—were still reserved, in the main, for salons; Liszt played many, by invitation, at aristocratic St. Petersburg residences.) The program, in short, could be called a traditional one; all that was not traditional was the uniform medium—and, of course the unheard-of style of the playing, which caused Stasov and his companion at the recital to vow “that thenceforth and forever, that day, April 8, 1842, would be sacred to us, and we would never forget a single second of it till our dying day.”14


(6) Alan Walker, Franz Liszt, Vol. I: “The Virtuoso Years, 1811–1847” (New York: Knopf, 1983), p. 118.

(7) Letters of Franz Liszt, Vol. I, ed. La Mara, trans. Constance Bache (rpt. ed., New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1968), pp. 8–9.

(8) Letters of Franz Liszt, Vol. I, p. 8.

(9) Liszt, “Concerning the Situation of Artists and Their Condition in Society” (Gazette musicale de Paris, 30 August 1835), trans. Piero Weiss, in P. Weiss and R. Tauskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, 2nd ed., p. 311.

(10) Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 528.

(11) Bernard Shaw, Music in London 1890–94, Vol. I (New York: Vienna House, 1973), p. 81.

(12) Quoted in Walker, Franz Liszt, Vol. I, p. 365.

(13) Vladimir Stasov, Selected Essays on Music, trans. Florence Jonas (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968), p. 120.

(14) Stasov, Selected Essays, p. 121.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Virtuosos." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-005002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Virtuosos. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-005002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Virtuosos." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-005002.xml