Anti-Ode to Liszt

Gripings and grumblings on the Liszt piano transcription of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, specifically the final (4th) movement of this work, with its choral centerpiece, the Ode to Joy. Which Apple Music was bringing to me during my 2 am whizz break. The Beethoven is one of the monuments of Western music, and though I have heard it over a hundred times in my long life, it still moves me deeply, at several levels. It comes with the intellectual and emotional satisfactions of two other lifetime favorites, Handel’s Messiah and one of the Beethoven’s antecedents, Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli (with which it shares more than the timpani).

But, alas, I was not getting the Beethoven, I was getting Liszt’s flashy piano fantasy on the score of the Beethoven, which pretty much annoys the hell out of me. Some of Liszt’s piano transcriptions have the virtue of bringing out the thematic or motivic structure of a work. God knows the Beethoven is complexly structured; there is something of an industry devoted to unpacking this marvelous complexity. But I can’t see anything structurally revelatory in the Liszt, with its plinky bits and its bombastic bits, all showy technique.

The problem might be insurmountable: the piano is percussive in its sound, extraordinarily so in a work of great drama. The Beethoven does use those timpani (and some other percussion instruments), but as amplifying notes in a work that’s richly and variously sonorous. It’s carried along by the string section, the winds (especially the brass section; it’s scored for 4 horns, 2 trumpets, and 3 trombones, which resound brightly in triumph and delight), and of course the human voice. Do it on the piano as a bravura display, and it has no soul.

But now about me. This is, first of all, another Posting Through Pain — my hand joints are as miserable as before — so achieved in short bursts over a longer period. In fact, yesterday was a mostly lost day, almost entirely given over to exhausted sleep. But I did a little posting, managed to make myself dinner, and went to bed.

Slept 8 to 2, mostly very unhappily — suffered from a terrible unshakable failure and persecution dream; got up to whizz roughly every hour, each time hoping to direct my dreams in a better direction but getting sucked back into the old torment.

Then came the 2 am whizz and my annoyed response to the Liszt transcription, which really and truly woke me for a while (to listen to the 4th movement of the Beethoven all the way through). After which I was refreshed, emotionally and physically, and was able to slip back into two hours of   fine sleep, accompanied by a fabulous dream of success, great sex, and loving relationships, which put me in a really great mood on awakening at 4. (My waking vital signs were especially splendid.)

My hands were still horrifically painful, but it looked like a good day nonetheless, and indeed in the morning I managed various complex domestic tasks competently and practiced some shapenote singing on-line. I’m supposed to sing as a pulmonary exercise, but I was also hoping to gear up for Sacred Harp singing with the Palo Alto singers by Zoom today, 1-3. Successfully; I have just finished that. My voice has been better — but I could sing without any strain or flagging, was still bright after two hours of fasola-ing at my computer. (For the SH-informed, I chose four songs: Cambridge 287, Love Shall Never Die 278t, The Christian Warfare 179, and Panting for Heaven 384.)

It’s still unpleasantly cold here, and my fingers still hurt like hell, but at the moment I don’t care. As a bonus, my Apple Music is about to get to Beethoven’s actual 9th symphony; tonight’s the night.


3 Responses to “Anti-Ode to Liszt”

  1. kenru Says:

    I know zilch German; but am quite acquainted with Beethoven’s 9th. So as tribute to your post I attempted to type my version into Google and came up with “freuda sherda goetterfunken tochter aus elysium”. Needless to say Google came through without castigating me at all.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Giggle; what has befallen “Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
      Tochter aus Elysium”? But you might be entertained to know that I. / Y. L. Peretz wrote (sometime around 1900) a Yiddish counterpart to the Schiller / Beethoven text. Not so much a translation as a rejoinder. No classical allusions, in plain everyday Yiddish rather than elevated German, and celebrating diversity and the mixing of peoples rather than universal principles. From the beginning:

      Ale mentshn zaynen brider,
      Gel(b)e, broyne, shvartse, vayse,
      Felker, lender, un klimatn,
      S’iz an oysgetrakhte mayse.

      Vayse, shvartse, broyne, gel(b)e,
      Misht di farbn oystsuzamen!
      Ale mentshn zaynen brider,
      Fun eyn tatn, fun eyn mamen.

      A fairly literal translation:

      All people are brothers,
      Yellow, brown, black, white,
      Nations, races, and climates,
      That’s all a made-up story. [that is, an Enlightenment fiction]

      White, brown, black, yellow
      Mix the colors all together!
      All people are brothers,
      From the same father, from the same mother!

      [Yiddish spellings from Peretz. Don’t fuss at *me*. Material from a long-ago posting I never finished.]

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I have never been a fan of Liszt’s transcriptions and “reminiscences” (piano fantasies using the themes of famous operas, generally ). I can understand a reason for the existence of such things in an era without recordings, as a way of allowing people to get acquainted with music they might not otherwise hear (although playing through the Liszt transcriptions would require unusual levels of skill), but I cannot think of any good reason for present-day radio stations (or streaming services) to broadcast them. (I should note that I take some pleasure in playing through piano-four-hands transcriptions of classical symphonies, but I would never dream of treating them as performance pieces.)

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