Lisztomania enters the 21st century

As a follow-up to my posting yesterday, “Anti-Ode to Liszt” (slamming his piano transcription of the Ode to Joy section of Beethoven’s 9th symphony), an amazing New Yorker piece by Alex Ross, in print in the 9/11 issue (under a version of the title above), on-line on 9/4 under the title “The Greatest Show on Earth: Liszt defined musical glamour. But pianists now see substance behind the spectacle”.

I was pointed to the Ross piece by Lise Menn in e-mail. Apparently, I saw a thumbnail announcement of it in my New Yorker feed but missed it in scanning through the issue when it came out (I lose days, sometimes more, of attention to the media through medical or personal crises, so these reminders are genuinely helpful to me).

Now, a section from Ross’s synoptic view of Liszt — his life, his career, and his music. From here on, it’s all Ross:

[The Sonata in B Minor] was a heady introduction to the lustre of Liszt, who remains at once one of the most outwardly recognizable figures in musical history — the flowing shoulder-length hair, the aquiline nose, the eerily long, flexible fingers — and one of the most enigmatic. Despite his enduring fame, Liszt has never found a secure place in the pantheon of composers. The late musicologist Richard Taruskin, in an essay titled “Liszt and Bad Taste,” noted that high-minded connoisseurs have been perennially embarrassed by Liszt’s “interpenetration of the artistic and the vulgar worlds” — his seemingly irreconcilable positions as a progressive thinker and as a brash entertainer. The man who reached the brink of atonality in his later scores also concocted the rambunctious Second Hungarian Rhapsody, without which cartoon music could not have existed. His contradictions are subliminally present on the Sonata’s opening page: on the one hand, the pan-European inheritance of the ancient Phrygian mode, and, on the other, the Hungarian-folk flavor of the verbunkos scale.

As new Liszt recordings and books piled up — about twenty traversals of the Sonata have appeared in the past couple of years, alongside six renditions of the complete Transcendental Études — I decided to grapple with the composer as I never had before. I listened not only to the familiar warhorses but also to the vast remainder of Liszt’s output: the clattery technical showpieces, the bombastic ceremonial marches, the freewheeling paraphrases of other composers, the cryptic fragments of old age. (Leslie Howard’s hundred-CD survey of the piano music, on the Hyperion label, swamped my desk.) I began to realize, as Taruskin insisted, that Liszt’s awesome messiness, his oscillation between the sublime and the suspect, cannot be separated from his historical importance. His roles as performer, composer, thinker, and showman blur together in a phenomenon that overrides the barriers we try to erect among sectors of musical experience. In that sense, Liszt is absolutely modern.

Liszt! Mephisto at the keyboard! The spectacle caused leading writers to become giddy with excitement. Hans Christian Andersen saw in him a “demon nailed fast to the instrument”; Baudelaire perceived a “Bacchant of mysterious and passionate Beauty.” Heinrich Heine, who coined the word “Lisztomania,” heard a “melodic agony of the world of appearances.” George Eliot declared, with uncharacteristic breathlessness, “For the first time in my life I beheld real inspiration.” Kings, queens, emperors, and sultans fell silent in wonder. (Tsar Nicholas I made the mistake of chattering away during one recital, causing Liszt to break off in mock deference.) To have not met him was to be unimportant. His glamour persisted well into the Hollywood age, with Dirk Bogarde, Roger Daltrey, and Julian Sands portraying him onscreen.

I cannot imagine the energy and endurance it took for Ross to listen to and reflect on the whole of Liszt’s output. Or to research the background from the times. And to weave this learning lightly into an account that easily embraces modern popular culture.

But that’s Ross’s territory. From his Wikipedia entry:

Alex Ross (born January 12, 1968) is an American music critic and author who specializes in classical music. Ross has been a staff member of The New Yorker magazine since 1996. His extensive writings include performance and record reviews, industry updates, cultural commentary, and historical narratives in the realm of classical music. He has written three well-received books: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007), Listen to This (2011), and Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (2020).

… Ross married director Jonathan Lisecki in Canada in 2006. He is now based in New York City, living in Chelsea, Manhattan.

(Yes: sadly, he is taken.)

More detailed commentary on his writing, from the publisher’s blurb for Ross’s 2011 book:

These pieces, dedicated to classical and popular artists alike, are at once erudite and lively. In a previously unpublished essay, Ross brilliantly retells hundreds of years of music history ― from Renaissance dances to Led Zeppelin ― through a few iconic bass lines of celebration and lament. He vibrantly sketches canonical composers such as Schubert, Verdi, and Brahms; gives us in-depth interviews with modern pop masters such as Björk and Radiohead; and introduces us to music students at a Newark high school and indie-rock hipsters in Beijing.



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