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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 5 Virtuosos
Richard Taruskin

For these reasons, among others, Liszt's concerto, and the compositional approach it embodied, despite their claim of descent from Beethoven, were widely regarded by cultured musicians at the time as monstrosities. It is precisely at this point, in fact, that a chronic rift begins to open up between a compositional avant-garde, to which Liszt and many other “creative virtuosos” belonged, and a conservative establishment. This rift has been a constant factor in the history of European (and Euro-American) music ever since, and reached a crisis in the twentieth century. To a considerable extent, its story will be the main story of this book from now on.

Among the factors contributing to the rift was the wide and rapid spread of conservatories, to the point where they became the standard institutions of higher musical education everywhere, so that composers, no less than pianists and violinists, received a standard training administered with the aid of didactic texts. Conservatories are preservative institutions, both by etymology and by ideology: conservatories are called that because they were originally orphanages (conservatorio in Italian), preserving the lives of children, to whom musical training was given to make them employable. By the end of the eighteenth century, the word had lost that literal meaning, and designated instead a public institution whose primary purpose was the preservation of musical standards through standardized instruction.

As soon as those standards began to apply to composition, the idea of “classical music” (with a canonized “classical period” or golden age to validate its practices) was born, and with that came the notion of a classical tradition that had to be preserved through education in “classical forms.” The “classical period” received its official christening (from the Leipzig critic Johann Gottlieb Wendt) in 1836, the year of Les Huguenots and A Life for the Tsar. Most significantly, the theory of “sonata form” (as a tripartite or “aba” construction unfolding through a bithematic exposition, a development, and a recapitulation) dates from this period, not that of Haydn or Beethoven.

A Divided Culture

fig. 5-6 “We're delighted! Held in thrall! Jenny has turned the heads of all,” caricature of a concert by Jenny Lind (the “Swedish nightingale,” as P. T. Barnum dubbed her), Hamburg, 1845. Now it's the gentlemen's turn to run amok.

The books that first describe the form in these terms and give instruction in composing along these lines were the textbooks written by the transplanted Bohemian Anton Reicha for use at the Paris Conservatory (Traité de haute composition musicale, 3 vols, 1824–26) and Adolf Bernhard Marx for Berlin and Leipzig (Die Lehre von der musikalischen Composition, 4 vols, 1837–47). Thus by 1847, one could say that the conservatory canonization of the classical period, and of classical forms, was complete. Its dominant historical idea was that of a sacralized heritage—a golden age, a “classical period”—from which no advance was possible, only propagation or decline. Tradition meant maintenance.

As against that pessimistic view was another idea of history—the one vouchsafed by nineteenth-century science (Darwin, Comte)—that saw history as perpetual progressive evolution. According to this happy, self-confident outlook, tradition meant advance, and the heritage of the past was raw material to be transformed. That was the idea Liszt espoused in word and musical deed. It, too, claimed validating descent from Haydn, Mozart, and (especially) Beethoven, as Liszt's deliberate allusions to Beethoven emphatically attest, but it regarded their legacy not as a perfected heritage but as part of a dynamic process that continued into the present.

The conservatory view, it could seem, was an Enlightened backlash: a sui generis form such as Liszt achieved in his concerto was something atrocious rather than admirable, no matter how demonstrable its thematic coherence, because it represented merely subjective rather than universal truth. Its arbitrary freedoms were merely “liberties” that diminished the value of the product. And the attempt to create the impression of “improvisatory” spontaneity of gesture is unmasked as contradictory, even ludicrous, the moment someone other than the composer plays the piece. In an even tougher, more literalistic variant of such a stricture, the very participation of the orchestra makes pretentious nonsense of the composition's—that is, the composer's—willful uniqueness.

But while such criticism surely underestimates an audience's powers of empathy (or of what writers and critics of fiction call “the willing suspension of disbelief”),18 it contains a nub of truth that points to a genuine paradox. What Mendelssohn's jeweled Violin Concerto and Liszt's impetuously “temperamental” Concerto in E♭ have in common—and where they differ from every previous “classical” concerto we have examined (including Mendelssohn's own piano concertos, intended as vehicles for his own performances)—is that they contain no provision at all for actual improvisation. Their every note is preplanned and put in place, hence controlled, by the composer—even (or should we say especially?) their cadenzas, which now take on a previously unaspired-to “structural” role. Mozart, who lived at a time, and played before audiences, that valued truly spontaneous behavior at musical performances (both from the player and from the listener), would have been quite dumbfounded, not to say aghast.

Mendelssohn and Liszt were brought up at the tail end of that “Mozartean” time. They were both steeped in the art of genuine improvisation, and displayed it with alacrity. In a fascinating letter to his sister Fanny, dated 30 January 1836, Mendelssohn described his cadenzas to a concerto by Mozart (the D-minor, K. 466), performed ex tempore the day before to great success. After jotting down a few passages to show how he had cleverly juxtaposed and developed two of Mozart's themes, he added that one of the second violin players,

an old musician, said to me afterwards, when he met me in the corridor, that he had heard it played in the same hall by Mozart himself, but since that day he had heard no one introduce such good cadenzas as I did yesterday—which gave me very great pleasure.19

As for Liszt, we not only have the evidence of his London program, already quoted, that he was in the habit early on of ending his appearances with “Extempore Fantasias” on submitted themes, but also a curious complaint from Glinka, quoted by Stasov, that

sometimes Liszt played magnificently, like no one else in the world, but other times intolerably, in a highly affected manner, dragging tempi and adding to the works of others, even to those of Chopin, Beethoven, Weber, and Bach a lot of embellishments of his own that were often tasteless, worthless and meaningless.20

This remark of Glinka's is wonderful testimony to the change of taste (perceived as a change in ethics) that was taking place under the impact of changing customs and institutions, and in response to the new musical “work-concept” that arose in the wake of Beethoven and his romantic reception. Glinka, as we learned in the previous chapter, had spent a year in Berlin, where he had “had his ideas on music put in order” by Siegfried Dehn, an apostle of the new “classicism” that was passing itself off as antiquarianism, a return to old (or eternal) values.

His strictures against Liszt were not received all that well by Glinka's Russian interlocutors, one of whom commented (in the language of Russian high society), “Allons donc, allons donc, tout cela ce n'est que rivalité de métier!” (“Come now, come now, all that is just professional jealousy”). But eventually the idea that musical scores are inviolable texts, and that improvisation is a debased form of musical art, affected even Liszt, as his meticulously notated, “organic” piano concerto confirms. By 1849, not even spontaneity could be “merely” spontaneous. And pianists trained in conservatories spent all their time (like Liszt in 1832) on “trills, sixths, octaves, tremolos, double notes and cadenzas”—but not on their own cadenzas. Improvisation was no longer part of the curriculum, and by the end of the century, for artists in the European literate tradition, it had become a lost art—which is to say, the literate tradition had become more truly and literally and exclusively literate. There are now probably hundreds if not thousands of conservatory-trained pianists in the world whose techniques at trills, octaves, and double notes are the equal of Liszt's, but hardly a one who can end a concert with an extempore fantasia. Should we call this progress?


(18) See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), Chap. 4: “That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constituted poetic faith.”

(19) Felix Mendelssohn, Letters, ed. G. Selden-Goth (New York: Vienna House, 1973), p. 257.

(20) 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. 29 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-005004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Virtuosos. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-005004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Virtuosos." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-005004.xml