Franz Liszt, God, and Civilization

Liszt around age 35

In Anno Domini 2011 the civilized world celebrates the bicentenary of the composer and performer Franz Liszt (died 1886), piano virtuoso, Nineteenth-Century rock-star equivalent, youthful revolutionary, prodigious lover, Kapellmeister of the Saxe-Weimar Court Theater, father-in-law of Richard Wagner, innovator of the “symphonic poem,” Hungarian nationalist, political reactionary, friend to the Pope, latterly the Abbé Liszt, and the author, in the artistic wake of his son-in-law’s Tristan and Isolde (1854), of two massive oratorios on Catholic themes, The Legend of Saint Elizabeth (1856) and Christus (1866). No composer’s critical status has described such a roller-coaster profile as Liszt’s, whose reputation as a manipulator from the keyboard of audience – and especially of female – emotions early fixed the folkloristic picture of him as an ivory-tickling Svengali whose main talent lay in his ability to dazzle people in the concert hall so as to leave them reeling psychically after the meteoric flash of his manifestation. In the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1846), for example, Liszt creates a pianistic essay in pseudo-Gypsy musical effects including virtuosic runs, tolling bell-like syncopated passages, and adrenaline-stimulating accelerandi, to the cumulus of which even musically over-sophisticated listeners find it hard not to respond with gooseflesh and voluble hurrahs. Has any other item from the “classical music” repertory inspired two award-winning animated shorts?

The Cat Concerto, which won an Academy Award in 1946, sees Hannah and Barbera’s cat and mouse characters Tom and Jerry competing for audience attention during Tom’s highbrow recital in what appears to be Carnegie Hall. In Rhapsody Rabbit (also 1946), Friz Freleng’s long-eared trickster-protagonist Bugs Bunny wages war during his solo concert with a Jerry-like mouse who pesters Bugs as Bugs usually pesters others.

In impeccable concert dress and with facial expressions of artistic full-focus, transport, and ecstasy, Tom and Bugs carry on a tradition of virtuosic solo performance perfected by Liszt, whose model, the Genoese violinist Nicolò Paganini (1782 – 1840), took care not to quash the rumor that he had obtained his amazing fiddle-playing prowess by trading his soul to the Devil. In his Six Paganini Etudes (1838; revised 1851), Liszt would acknowledge his debt to the Italian. The Third Etude gives an instance of the strategy of much of Liszt’s early, solo-piano, work: It transfers Paganini’s unaccompanied violin etude to a new medium and works to lift something that had become familiar – even a bit banal – to a higher level at which the audience might experience the genius of the musical invention anew. The gesture is redemptory. The principle is evident in the scores by which Liszt made his early extravagant impression, many of them being in the “transcription” genre. See for example: La Sonnambula Fantasy, after Bellini (1839); Reminiscences of Don Juan, after Mozart (1841); and The Faust Waltzes, after Gounod (1861).


I. An inveterate and prolific composer, Liszt produced musical scores from his early youth through to his old age. Liszt tried every musical genre excepting only opera, from keyboard miniatures in the style of Frederick Chopin (a friend) to large-scale symphonic scores to masses and oratorios. The number of Liszt’s original works runs to 350 in composer-musicologist Humphrey Searle’s catalogue (in The Music of Liszt [1954; revised 1966]), beyond which Searle counts something approaching six hundred transcriptions and arrangements. In Liszt’s case, the line between an original work and a transcription or arrangement can blur somewhat. Even the relatively early Reminiscences of Don Juan thoroughly absorbs Mozart’s arias and patter songs making of them a formally balanced eighteen-minute composition for keyboard. Pianist Louis Kentner called the Reminiscences a “symphonic poem,” lacking only the orchestral guise of the later symphonic poems, properly so-called. In developing borrowed melodic material Liszt progressively discovered and clarified his later explicit technique of thematic transformation or metamorphosis, which would so greatly influence younger composers such as César Franck (1822 – 1890), Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949), and Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951). A good way of making preliminary sense of Liszt’s prodigious output and grasping the drama of his spiritual and philosophical growth from young virtuoso to mature creative artist who saw in music a civilizing and redeeming force is to consider the major keyboard works.

Liszt at twenty years old

Three important trends emerge in such a survey. First, Liszt’s sources for non-original themes and motifs change from the opera house to Catholic plainsong and Protestant chorale. Second, Liszt increasingly conceives his original work on a large scale, as in the three albums of Les années de pèlerinage (1855, 1858, and 1883), with their ballades, sonatas, and meditations. Third, the composer’s interest shifts from the “secular” medium of the grand concert piano to the “sacred” medium of the cathedral organ while the musical purpose becomes religious and ethical rather than aesthetic only. The Fantasy and Fugue on Ad Nos ad Salutarem Undam (1852) and the Weinen Klagen Sorgen Zagen variations (1862) provide examples of the latter manner. In a larger but parallel movement, Liszt’s attention leaves the keyboard, whether piano or organ, as the exclusive medium of his artistry and turns to the orchestra, on a symphonic scale, and to the chorus, the latter in masses and liturgical works. Over the same period Liszt gradually elaborates his idea of “program music” based on thematic metamorphosis. In the chronicle of Liszt’s life the curtain rings down on his virtuoso phase in 1848. The orchestral entries in Liszt’s oeuvre begin to appear – for the most part – in the 1850s.

An exceptional score from 1834-35, one long lost that resurfaced only in recent decades, anticipates Liszt’s compositional undertakings during the ten years when he served as Kapellmeister in Weimar. De Profundis: Psaume instrumental pour orchestre et piano sprang in part from Liszt’s interest in Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais (1782 – 1854), a Catholic social philosopher who deplored the rampant de-spiritualization that ensued from the Enlightenment and the Revolution and urged the restoration of religion at the center of civilized life. Lamennais’ Paroles d'un croyant (1834), which Liszt read on Marie d’Agoult’s recommendation, adopts a Psalm-like penitent style, echoing in its lyrical prose Psalm 130’s main verbal motif: “Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord.” Liszt dedicated the score to Lamennais, to whom he wrote: “I shall have the honor of sending you a little work... It is an instrumental De Profundis [using] the plainsong that you like so much” (14 January 1835). In his important study of Revolution and Religion in the Music of Liszt (1987), Paul Merrick remarks on the formal qualities of the work that it “appears to contain Liszt’s earliest ‘thematic transformation’ used to express triumph, a common feature of his later works where slow music is transformed into fast music using the same thematic material.” The Psaume differs from the two piano concertos (1830 and 1840) in being much less a showpiece for the composer’s own pianistic bravura and in suggesting a more serious meaning. The Psaume nevertheless complements the character of another piece that Liszt conceived in 1838 although he did not bring it to fruition until 1849, his Totentanz, another concerted score for piano and orchestra

Where the Psaume took inspiration from Lamennais’ contemporary prose, Totentanz or “Dance of Death” grew from Andrea di Orcagna’s fresco of The Last Judgment in the Camposanto at Pisa, which Liszt encountered in 1838. Where the Psaume strives to articulate the struggle to overcome the sinfulness of the modern Babylon, Totentanz attempts to illustrate hell on earth, the pride of the wicked, and the awfulness of their destruction under God’s judgment. Like the Psaume, Totentanz draws on plainsong, in this case on the famous Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass, which Hector Berlioz had used to good effect in the finale of his Symphonie Fantastique (1830). Liszt’s score is a set of continuous evolving variations on the basic melodic trope, ending with a fugue and chorale. “Its shuddering, clanking rhythms,” writes Sacheverell Sitwell in Liszt (1934; revised 1955), and “its sounds as of dancing bones, are of the weirdest achievement possible.” Merrick links the work to the “Mephisto Waltzes,” which likewise explore the realm of the demonic. Merrick judges Totentanz quite as religious a work as the Psaume. “Both canon and fugue,” of which the score makes extensive use, “are particularly associated with the Church,” Merrick writes. Liszt never endorses the demonic. He merely sees in it a prevalent and disfiguring component of modernity, the milieu from which, as he matured, he increasingly shied.

Can music bear a cognitive content? Is it really a spiritual force? Oswald Spengler wrote, in The Decline of the West (Vol. I), that in the creative works of “Faustian Man,” the arts tend away from their generic distinction into a type of pan-generic synthesis, where verbal, plastic, and musical media, such as a scene by Shakespeare, a landscape painting by Claude Lorraine, and a fugue by J. S. Bach would all equally express the same yearning for transcendence in the infinite. The “completely bodiless” character of music attracts and subsumes the bodily or material characters of the other arts. Disdain for complacency – identified with bourgeois complacency and material values – belongs to the “Faustian” program of heavenly aspiration and the spiritualization of matter. Mephistopheles, whom Liszt understood in Goethe’s version of him as the spirit of negation standing in the way of transfiguration, thus haunts the composer’s creative activity. One remarks, however, that God and Satan chez Liszt constitute an antithesis without possibility of compromise, unlike Apollo and Dionysus chez Friedrich Nietzsche, because Apollo and Dionysus function in Nietzsche’s scheme as complementary elements destined for final unity.

Liszt lacked the propagandistic inclination of his son-in-law Wagner, so he wrote no grand theoretical statements explaining his music. Liszt’s inveterate reading and constant humble submission to tutors rendered him, however, a massively literate man whose philosophical identity defined itself as carefully and with as much conviction as Wagner’s. Liszt’s conviction differed from Wagner’s especially in their view of the Christian religion.


II. Well before Wagner, Liszt presented himself to the public as a composer difficult to understand who flouted conventions – an irony given Liszt’s conscious dedication to tradition generally and to musical tradition, particularly. The specter of that last great musical figure, Ludwig van Beethoven, whose symphonies the young recitalist transcribed for keyboard, glowered over Liszt’s early maturity, during the years of his continental tours. The most prominent among working composers at the time were Felix Mendelssohn (1808 – 1847), Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856), and Berlioz (1803 – 1869). The symphonies of Mendelssohn and Schumann, however pleasing, fell short of Beethoven’s in their inspiration and originality. Only Schumann’s Fourth (1841), compressing the four movements of the canonic symphony into a single continuously developing musical structure suggested the future. On the other hand, audiences positively liked Mendelssohn and Schumann – and Frederik Chopin, and numerous pianistic arrangers of operatic and popular airs. To innovate ran afoul of settled sensibility.

It is possible to sample Liszt-criticism quite deliciously backwards, starting with the Puritanical Philip Hale, writing in the Boston Journal (25 March 1894): “Liszt’s bombast is bad; it is very bad; in fact there is only one thing worse in music, and that is affected and false simplicity.” Then there is the anonymous critic of Era (London 29 April 1882): “Liszt despises all system, all order, all coherence.” And then there is another anonymous critic, writing for The Musical World (London 20 March 1880): “Not even the weird fancy of the Middle Age painters has conjured up anything equivalent in repulsiveness to the noises of Liszt.” Other comments are: “An insult to art,” “filthy and vile,” and “a snob out of Bedlam” (1872, 1870, and 1843 [Source: Nicolas Slonimsky, A Lexicon of Musical Invective]).

Wagner and Liszt at Bayreuth

Liszt had defenders. Mendelssohn, for all his conventionality, was one although he died before Liszt turned to orchestral composition. Wagner, who married Cosima (née Liszt) von Bülow in 1870 after six years of cohabitation and three bastard children, was prominently but ambiguously another. He inducted Liszt into his pantheon of contemporary worthies in two essays, The Symphonic Poems of Franz Liszt (1859) and The Music of the Future (1860). Whereas The Music of the Future never mentions Liszt by name, it nevertheless outlines, as Wagner saw it, the crisis to which Liszt’s instrumental music constituted one response, Wagner’s “music dramas” being the other. According to Wagner, Early Medieval plainsong inspired the High Gothic church-composers and their successors, from Palestrina to J. S. Bach, to bring music to its highest metaphysical meaning in choral and orchestral polyphony. Haydn and Beethoven, building on the legacy, ushered in “an entirely new period in the history of universal Art.” In the Eighteenth Century, however, opera – a “feeble,” “trivial,” and “vapid” convention of “platitude and absurdity” – overthrew “Christian Harmony” and corrupted the taste of the German aristocracies. In oratorio, symphony, and particularly in fugue, the authentic score offered its auditors a glimpse into “the ideal.” Opera catered to the “anarchy” of the vulgar soul.

In The Symphonic Poems of Franz Liszt, Wagner revisits the link between purely instrumental music using the broad palette of the modern symphony orchestra and the metaphysical “ideal.” Liszt’s coinage of Symphonische Dichtung itself, Wagner argues, “could only have arisen with the invention of a new art-form.” Insofar then as these symphonic poems recall the ‘overtures’ of the previous masters,” they nevertheless also exceed their models in formal originality. In Beethoven’s Leonora, while the thematic material is ingenious and the intention audacious, yet the form, that of the concert-overture using sonata procedure, remains conventional and Eighteenth Century. Liszt’s creativity consists in his judgment that novel content should dictate the spontaneous form proper to itself. Liszt might take inspiration from a literary text or legend or myth, but he then would seek, not the literal representation of a narrative or a lyric outburst, but rather an essence beyond verbal or pictorial summary. Whenever Wagner heard Liszt’s scores in concert, he has been, as he writes, “struck by the great plainness with which the subject (der Gegenstand) proclaimed itself to me.” Wagner continues: “Naturally this was no longer the subject as described by the Poet in words, but that quite other aspect of it… whose intangible and vaporous quality makes us wonder how it can display itself so uniquely clear, distinct, compact and unmistakable, to our Feeling.”

In 1858 Liszt issued a set of twelve symphonic poems, adding a thirteenth, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, in 1883. In the 1858 ordering the compositions bear these titles: Bergsymphonie (“Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne”);Tasso – Lamento e Trionfo; Les Préludes; Orpheus; Prometheus; Mazeppa; Festklänge; Héroïde Funèbre; Hungaria; Hamlet; Hunnenschlacht; and Die Ideale. To the thirteen symphonic poems so-called should be added the Two Episodes from Lenau's Faust (1862) and the two “St. Francis Legends”: St. Francis of Assisi – His Sermon to the Birds and St. Francis of Paula Walking on the Waters (both 1863). The order in the publication of the symphonic poems ignores the order by date of composition. Some of the scores go back to sketches from the 1830s; some are orchestrations of works first written out for keyboard performance. Héroide Funèbre, for example, began as a “Revolutionary Symphony” in 1830; St. Francis of Assisi – His Sermon to the Birds began as a keyboard study.

Liszt takes inspiration from a wide range of topics, Victor Hugo’s poems “Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne” and “Mazeppa,” Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem “Les Préludes,” Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Die Ideale,” Nicholas Lenau’s verse-drama Faust, a painting by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (Hunnenschlacht), Greek Myth, Medieval Hagiography, and the Crusades (Tasso). Plainsong provides thematic material in Hunnenschlacht, the Two Episodes, and both of the “St. Francis” pieces. The two mythic characters – Orpheus and Prometheus – stand out for having been conflated with Jesus Christ in the period of Pagan-Christian syncretism. In his writings of the 1850s, contemporary with Liszt’s symphonic poems, Wagner made much of antique “Orphism.” Liszt’s Orpheus belies the “bombast” epithet aimed at the composer by snobs like Hale; it is a quiet work throughout with a prominent part for the harp.

Of the thirteen canonical symphonic poems, Les Préludes best explains itself, so to speak, by foregrounding its procedures. The opening motif, with the cellos and basses playing pizzicato, is immediately apprehensible and memorable. Listeners are in a position once they have grasped the motif to follow its transformations through the four “moods,” each one also characterized by a distinctive tempo and by the mixture of instrumental colors. The “form” generated by the motif thus resembles the four-movement layout of a compressed symphony, but with a more flowing, uninterrupted and concentrated effect. Sitwell and Searle agree that Les Préludes is not the most striking of the symphonic poems, but it remains important for having brought forth so many a musical progeny. Bedrich Smetana’s Vltava (1875) comes to mind, as does Antonin Dvorak’s Noon Witch (1897); and one might mention Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 9 (1907) and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen (1945).


III. Given Wagner’s proto-Nietzschean disdain for Christian doctrine and established churches, the Bayreuth Master’s positive invocation of “Christian Harmony” might seem odd. The term nevertheless applies without oddity in the discussion of Liszt, who so far differed from his relative-by-marriage that he took minor orders in the Catholic Church, becoming famously the Abbé Liszt. Wagner, before Nietzsche, was a revaluator of values. Liszt, while never as verbally astute as Wagner, was a re-revaluator of values, a natural agent of the type of counter-revolution recommended by Joseph de Maistre, whom Liszt read and admired. Liszt naturally – in his life and work – understood that while Wagner had recorded history accurately, he had interpreted history inaccurately. In Wagner’s aesthetic-ethical history, the crumbling away of religious illusion opened the space for the belated self-divination of the genius or hero, who as artist-politician would redeem society from its corruption through the éclat of his example. Wagner could adore the music of Palestrina and Bach, or “Christian Harmony,” as magnificent instances of musical self-expression, but not as signs pointing to a transcendental referent – he enjoyed them shorn, that is, of the deity to whom the polyphony was worshipfully directed. For Liszt, a loss, for example the loss of faith, was real, and could only be made good through reinstitution.

Liszt in 1856

In reaching back to plainsong and chorale, in resurrecting the contrapuntal ambitions of Bach, and in reviving mass and oratorio as living forms, Liszt sought first to revivify a moribund musical practice within Catholicism and second to draw the faithless back to faith.

Liszt’s life and Wagner’s intertwined with one another, not only through Wagner’s liaison with and eventual marriage to Liszt’s daughter. They shared literary and historical interests. Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser (1845) involves the figure of St Elizabeth; Liszt’s oratorio The Legend of St. Elizabeth (1862) makes the same historical person the protagonist of the spiritual drama. Wagner, taking an interest in Wolfgang von Goethe’s verse-drama, composed a Faust Overture (1840), but he never completed the symphony based on the “Faust” idea that he had planned. Liszt also took interest in the “Faust” story, mainly but not only in Goethe’s version, and Liszt did complete A Faust Symphony (1857) that stands as one of his masterpieces. With the Dante Symphony, completed in the same year, A Faust Symphony is one of the great items of its genre between Beethoven on the one hand and Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler on the other. Mahler’s Eighth (1906) links itself obviously with A Faust Symphony, Mahler setting the entire closing scene of Faust Part II where Liszt had contented himself, as the finale of his third movement, with setting the “Chorus Mysticus.”

In confronting Goethe’s Faust, Wagner would have balked at the affirmation of faith, hence his abandonment of his project once he had put the overture in order. Liszt on the other hand responded to Goethe’s argument that empires and utopias in this world amount to nothing if a man forfeit his immortal soul. Goethe’s plot of sin and redemption through transfiguration neatly matched the technique, which, by 1857, Liszt had consummated – his thematic metamorphosis.

The Dante Symphony too illustrates the complication of the Liszt-Wagner friendship. Liszt’s “original idea,” as Searle reports, “had been to write three movements, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, to correspond with the three parts of Dante’s Divina Commedia; but unfortunately Wagner managed to persuade him that no human could dare to portray the joys of Paradise, and therefore Liszt wrote instead a Magnificat which replaces the third movement.” It is difficult not to suspect a type of jealous interdiction in Wagner’s counsel, or at least hostility to the religious part of Liszt’s ambition for his new score. Writing of Liszt’s oratorio Christus (completed 1866), which Wagner openly disparaged, Merrick asserts that the work “has suffered neglect not from musical, but from religious prejudice.” In Merrick’s analysis, “the nineteenth century, as a secular age, could not take seriously a mammoth work devoted ostensibly to religion and the Church, especially from a man as worldly as Liszt was supposed to be.”

Merrick cites as typical of the misunderstanding of Christus Searle’s own unnecessarily apologetic remark that the work lacks effectiveness as musico-dramatic story telling, as though the composer had striven to compose a grand opera and had failed. “Searle is mistaken in using the word ‘story’ for the simple reason,” as Merrick writes, “that for Liszt it was not a story: it was true.” For Merrick, “the divinity of love, seen as God’s gift to man” pervades Liszt’s life from the days of his association with Lamennais through the voluntary poverty and charitable work of his final decade.

Liszt differed from Wagner as much in his attitude towards money and material chattels as he did in his attitude to religious dogma. Sitwell’s book includes a chapter whose purpose is “to assess the true position of Liszt in the history of Art,” but which treats of its subject’s moral character as well. Had Liszt not discontinued his virtuoso career, as Sitwell points out, he could have made himself rich many times over, as other touring virtuosi did. “Instead, he chose poverty, and devoted himself to furthering the music of others,” not least that of his son-in-law, whose Tannhäuser and Lohengrin he staged at Weimar. Like Merrick after him, Sitwell thought that non-acceptance of Liszt’s music stemmed in many cases from non-musical causes such as national parochialism and puritanical snobbery. The English and the French, Sitwell speculates, dislike the metaphysical aspiration of Liszt’s musical experiments, the English being positively offended by them.

Puritans tend to see in Liszt only what Hollywood exploitatively saw in him when it filmed his life in 1960 as Song without End, George Cukor taking over the director’s chair when King Vidor died after only a few days of shooting. The rather un-masculine actor Dirk Bogarde played Liszt as a moody libertine flitting from la Comtesse Marie d’Agoult to la Princesse Carolyn von Sayn-Wittgenstein while detouring ad libidum as he fancied. Ken Russell’s outrageous Lisztomania (1972), with rock-and-roll guitarist Roger Daltry in the lead, cannot have helped Liszt’s reputation, descending as it does into pornographic farce. Liszt might also have suffered through association with his daughter Cosima, who stoked her husband’s already considerable anti-Semitism with her own strong bigotry. She outlived both the husband, who predeceased the father-in-law, and the father, dominating Bayreuth until her own death in 1930. Cosima arranged the marriage between her son Siegfried, who was homosexual, and the English anti-Semite Winifred Klindworth, whose pro-Nazi sentiments included a personal relation to Hitler that led at one time to rumors of impending marriage. The Nazis exploited Liszt as a supposed “Aryan” composer. The finale of Les Préludes figured in the early 1940s as the title-music for the official Reich newsreel, Deutsche Wochenschau.


IV. Liszt lived seventy-five years. He composed from his late teens until his death, something like fifty years of creative endeavor. After the phase that saw the big, public works, religious and secular, such as the Missa Solemnis (1856), St. Elizabeth, Christus, and The Hungarian Coronation Mass (1867), Liszt entered a final phase of his development, picking up old unfinished scores, composing anew, and issuing a spate of works that, like Bach’s Art of the Fugue, were hardly intended for anything beyond private performance. In this period Liszt returns to piano and organ but at the same time he reaffirms the roots of his genius in the achievement of past masters and ancient musical traditions. As much as these works reach back into Renaissance and Baroque procedures, they also point beyond Liszt to the ripeness of the early Twentieth Century in such works as those of Max Reger (1873 – 1916), Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924), and, once again, Schoenberg.

Abbé Liszt in 1880

A specimen item of this late productivity is the Prelude and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H, for organ. Searle reports that, while Liszt began it in 1855, in the middle of the Weimar decade, he renewed his concern with it and revised it in 1870, making a new version for piano. “It makes advanced use,” Searle writes, “of the chromaticism inherent in the motto theme; the opening of the fugue… in particular contains a long passage which [shifts] tonality so frequently that it is impossible to say what key it really in.” Chromatic and enharmonic effects fascinated Liszt. The opening theme of A Faust Symphony contains all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Searle says of the B-A-C-H piece that it “may be regarded as a more or less direct link between Bach and Schoenberg.”

Searle, Sitwell, and Merrick all praise the companion composition of the same period, the Fantasy and Fugue on Ad Nos ad Salutarem Undam, after Meyerbeer, for organ (Busoni later transcribed it for piano). Liszt takes his theme from Meyerbeer’s opera Le prophète (1849), whose topic is the piety and persecution of the Huguenots and whose climax is the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (24 August) of 1572. Searle describes the Fantasy and Fugue as “a big work… the conclusion of which “contains a triumphant statement of the chorale theme.” In Sitwell’s judgment, The Fantasy and Fugue “belongs to the greatest things in organ literature,” demonstrating Liszt’s “magical powers of transmutation.” Merrick, who devotes three full pages to his analysis of the Fantasy and Fugue, cites the incomprehension of the score’s first auditors, and remarks about the chorale’s role in Meyerbeer’s opera that it – “is sung by the three Anabaptists who urge the people to be rebaptized in the healing waters.” In so vitally developing its unpromising material, in achieving what Merrick calls the “triumphant statement at the end of the work,” The Fantasy and Fugue “represents the effort needed to raise ourselves up to that level [where] we see God face to face, as it were.”

Merrick’s discussion of the Fantasy and Fugue occurs in the chapter of his book called “Liszt’s Programmatic Use of Fugue.” Fugue “is difficult to write; the “struggle” to write a fugue “corresponds with effort,” in the spiritual sense; so “fugue represents purposefulness, and God is our purpose,” Merrick states. Liszt is thus reviving a compositional technique associated with the Protestant Reformation in the service of his own Catholic theological convictions. Liszt’s musical project had become the project of re-spiritualizing Western Civilization and redeeming a degenerate culture from its own banality and desolation. Liszt’s brave successors tried to carry on his passionate fusion of musical art and religious conviction. Reger, Busoni, and Schoenberg were all building on the Lisztian example in the first two decades or so of the Twentieth Century.


Abbé Liszt in his study

Reger shared Liszt’s Catholic spirituality. He must have seen himself as one of Liszt’s heirs. The “plan” or “form” of Lisztian scores like Totentanz and Ad Nos – the hybrid of melodic variation and motivic development – becomes standard working procedure for Reger, who composed his own Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H (1900) and gave Liszt’s Ad Nos boon companions in the Symphonic Fantasy and Fugue for Organ (1901) and the Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue (1906). Reger has also to his credit extended works for piano solo: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Bach (1915), Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Telemann (1915), and Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven (1904; for orchestra, 1915). And for full orchestra: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Hiller (1904) and Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart (1914). Christian P. Bohnenstengel writes in Max Reger’s Telemann Variations, Op. 134 (2007): “Although Reger is a composer from the late romantic period, his compositions were often subjected to harsh criticism due to their modernism.” Contemporaneous critical reaction to Reger’s compositions resembles that in response to Liszt’s: “Pretentious rubbish,” “an acoustical shock,” “could not be listened to,” and “swollen… myopic” (Source: Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective).

Busoni, in youth a famous touring virtuoso, shared Liszt’s fascination with Bach’s counterpoint and the Faust Legend. In Fantasia Contrapuntistica (1910), Busoni attempted to solve the “problem” of completing Bach’s Art of the Fugue. The score could be renamed Fugues and Interludes on B-A-C-H. Wilfrid Mellers remarks that in Busoni’s Piano Concerto (1904), “ we can observe how his hero Liszt was the catalyst who showed him how the Italian and German traditions might be fused.” The Piano Concerto, in five movements with a chorus added for the finale (the text is from Adam Oehlenschläger’s Aladdin, a high point of Danish Romanticism), is related to A Faust Symphony. All of Busoni’s work, according to Mellers, concerns “the artist as visionary,” not least his uncompleted-at-his-death opera Doktor Faust, for which he wrote his own libretto. This “highly personal reinterpretation of the Faust myth… emphasizes the isolated artist’s visionary significance,” Mellers writes; “Busoni… suggests that the visionary moment is an alternative to the turmoil of world, flesh, and devil.”

Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra (1925), incorporating the B-A-C-H theme, would be a direct descendant of Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue; Verklärte Nacht (1899) and Pelleas und Melisande (1903) are ultimate developments of the Lisztian symphonic poem, and so too is the Chamber Symphony. Is Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (1932 – incomplete) a Lisztian opera? Unified by its “tone row,” in its libretto a pointed critique of godless secularity, and withal expressive of its composer’s acute sense of God’s reality, Moses und Aron articulates in Mellers’ words a “new world of spirit.” One of Liszt’s earliest significant works was a De Profundis (the Psaume); and Schoenberg’s last work of all, as Mellers points out, was his De Profundis. In the opera, Mellers writes, “Schoenberg associates himself… with Moses, the spirit’s deliverer, as against Aron, the man of practical affairs.” Like Schoenberg, Liszt was a prophet, and it is the doom of the prophet not to be welcome in his own time and place.

Continuing the Liszt discussion

On the “Zappa-Liszt” question, I agree with Mpresley that aesthetic value is related to an absolute and is thus objective, from which it follows that aesthetic objects exist in a hierarchical relation to one another, some approaching closer to the absolute than others.  On the other hand, I would like to make a concession to Kappert concerning Frank Zappa.  Whatever his endowment of talent (his achievement, no matter how admirable, is less than Liszt’s, and less even than Count Basie’s), he was an intelligent person who grasped a number of points that escape most modern people.  One of those points is that music has moral consequences, such that bad music has bad effects, if only in the dulling and stultification of taste.  Zappa also made serious attempts to extend his own musical expression, studying the scores of Edgar Varèse and befriending and learning a great deal from the remarkable composer-performer-musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky.  Zappa, whatever his limitations, strove to overcome them and did so because he too saw that beauty is objective.  Understood in this way, Zappa’s success or failure as a composer is not necessarily the central point; the central point would be his acknowledgment that higher forms exist than those that he had mastered within the confines of his career as a rock-and-roll satirist.  I am fairly certain that Zappa himself would have seconded this proposition.

Zappa in perspective...

What Dr. Bertonneau writes of I will not disagree with, if only because my familiarity with Mr. Zappa's music ends with my discovery of higher forms.  Also, one ought not argue too much with those who know more; in any case I cannot really comment on whatever Z believed in his later years, if indeed this is what is being referenced by Professor Bertonneau.  I will, however, agree to agree with the label that Mr. Zappa once used for his band: "a rock oriented comedy group."  Taken as comedy one has a different perspective, and the aesthetic bar is not quite as high, probably.

I also cannot argue that he wasn't intelligent, yet intelligence is not always aligned with understanding or knowledge. Or moral substance, for that matter. But, then again, apart from the saints, who is actually born with any of these things? One must study, experience, judge and repeat the process. Without an idea and appreciation of our natural end, it is all simply an academic exercise at best.

When approaching music, or any artform for that matter, one must ask how the artifact evokes the higher end toward transcendence? Much of what is taken for exceptional art is simply garbage, and falls backwards to decrepitude. We all know too many examples of it.

Aesthtetic artifacts can be likened to the ladder. It is a rather hackneyed analogy, but nevertheless apt. Each step provides a foundation, however once one ascends to a higher rung there is not any reason to fall backwards, as it would retard one's goal.

On a personal note, some years ago I gathered up most of my records from the era, including a dozen or so Zappa Lps, from Freak Out through about One Size Fits All and gave them to a friend who owns a second hand record shop. I had frankly (no pun, but it would be a good one) ceased to understand whatever it was that Zappa was about, or perhaps I understood too well. In any case I've never looked back. 

And we must understand that the process of aesthetic valuation never stops. Strangely I am in the process of reconsidering some aspects of Wagner's interpretation of the Nordic sagas. Not that I would ever deny his musical genius, but it is only my interpretation of his mythology that is undergoing a change.

It never ends.

(PS: from the time stamp on Dr. Bertonneau's comment, I wonder if he ever sleeps?)

Art for art's sake


One may love Zappa, one may hate Zappa. Personally, I cannot bear Italian opera! Art and Music depend on individual feelings to identify with. Surely we may discuss on the 'greatness' of Bach's piano variations, the 'virtuosity' of Liszt, Scarlatti, Rachmaninoff or Paganini, the 'popmusic' of Mozart, Johann Strauss, The Beatles or Abba, and the bombastic instrumentation of Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikovsky. But there is also the unexpected: Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Kurt Weill, Carl Orff, Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, András Ligeti, Frank Zappa, Philip Glass, … 'classical' music has this infinite power to turn sounds to music.

music, subjectivity and hierarchy

Art and Music depend on individual feelings to identify with.

Friend Kappert: music does not depend upon feeling, but may evoke it. Music may also evoke intellectual and ethical experiences, too. I am always concerned about the argument that aesthetic judgment is merely subjective, and dependent upon whim, or whatever one happens to "bring to the table." If this were the case, then there would be no particular reason to favor one example over the other, and anarchic nihilism would prevail.

The ancients understood it better, and we may turn to their stories for guidance. In a footnote to the chapter, Syncope of the Western Tradition in Revolt Against the Modern World,  Evola writes:

“In the myth, Apollo turned King Midas' ear into ass's ears, since the latter had preferred Pan's music to his own...”

That is, by preferring Dionysian pantheism and orgiasm to the Apollonian, the possibility of evolution (in the true sense of the word—that is, conscious spiritual evolution) was made impossible, and only devolution could ever manifest.

We also remember Plato's distinction, in Symposium, between the two Muses, the sisters:

"Urania the fair and heavenly muse, and of the duty of accepting the temperate, and those who are as yet intemperate only that they may become temperate, and of preserving their love; and again, of the vulgar Polyhymnia, who must be used with circumspection that the pleasure be enjoyed, but may not generate licentiousness...”

I understand that we commonly refer to musical appreciation as a "subjective" judgment. But this is wrong. It is objective, and must be predicated upon a more sophisticated judgment based upon a certain aesthetic criteria, or theory. One must integrate aesthetics into the end (or final cause) of man. It is only then, once it is done, that one may reliably discriminate on sound ground [no pun intended].


the Rest is Noise

I do not know if our judgement to like or dislike a particular music needs aesthetic criteria or profound theories. In his treaty on music in the 20th century, Alex Ross documents lots of reasons do prefer, dismiss, support or ban music. Worthwhile to read: Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise - Listening to the Twentieth Century.

Liszt Songs

Liszt lacked the propagandistic inclination of his son-in-law Wagner, so he wrote no grand theoretical statements explaining his music.

Music flowed naturally and gracefully from Wagner.  Not so much with his written words. 

Liszt can sometimes overwhelm, as if there is really too much going on in too short a span, and in "subjective" aesthetic matters I've found Chopin to be a bit more compelling a composer for piano.  At the same time I am enchanted with our subject's lieder.  I can cite one record from my collection that made a particular impression on me: a set by Hildegaard Behrens and Cord Garben on DGG, that I understand is still available from Arkiv.  An hours worth of 15 songs recorded March 1986, mine is on LP, but I suspect a CD offers better dynamics with less low level grunge.

Not being very talented, and certainly not possessing much artistic skill, I am really quite envious of those who can play this material, not to mention the inspired composer creating it, or, perhaps, who taps into whatever Muse is gracious enough to bestow her pleasures. 


I share Mpresley’s admiration for Richard Wagner’s vital, surging “endless melody.”  I also find in Wagner’s literary output a rewarding, if wordy, discussion of aesthetic, ethical, political, and anthropological topics.  In this I disagree with Wagner scholars like Bryan Magee who find Wagner’s prose so convoluted as to be unquotable and perhaps (except by the devoted) unreadable.  Not so.  Friedrich Nietzsche read him and once one has read Wagner it becomes clear how dependent the early Nietzsche of The Birth of Tragedy was on his elder sponsor and advisor.  As to Liszt, he is so different a composer from Wagner that a comparison seems hardly justified.  In my essay, I omitted the names of Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartók; but they too, as much as Reger and Busoni, belong to Liszt’s legacy.  In particular, whether or no he confused the urban café music of Budapest with authentic Gypsy music, Liszt brought folk music into art-music and inspired large domains of Romantic and Twentieth-Century music making.  Liszt’s absorption of plainsong is already a type of folk-based art-music; and all those peppery “Hungarian Rhapsodies” only put an exclamation point on the observation.  Without Liszt’s example, which inspired Bartók’s example, what would have become of George Enescu, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and Sergey Rachmaninoff?  Farther afield, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the New Orleansian Créole composer, is hard to conceive without the example of Liszt and so is the Brazilian, Heitor Villa-Lobos. 

Inseparable from “Traditionalist Conservatism” is the inveterate exploration and curatorship of ancestral custom, habit, institution, and (not to be left out), what the Greeks call Melos, which has a strong connection with what the Greeks call Ethos.  Liszt’s grounding intuition was that Melos andEthos communicate with one another intimately and inextricably.

@ Prof. Bertonneau

Literature, Films and Music cut to the core of each.

Of course it's all the same when it reaches that subliminal stage of real art.

One more thing which reaches that rare stage are your essays professor.


Thank you again and again.

great composer

Very nicely written. Ferenc Liszt's legacy extends to future composers. His 'poems', 'B-A-C-H', and variations inspire(d) great musicians from Theolonious Monk, Miles Davis, to Jon Lord and Frank Zappa. We surely will hear more from Liszt.

Franz or Frank


His 'poems', 'B-A-C-H', and variations inspire(d) great musicians from Theolonious Monk, Miles Davis, to Jon Lord and Frank Zappa.

I would hardly call Mr. Zappa great. Certainly he was talented, that cannot be denied. His best work was really the comedic, or some of the extended improvisations performed during the late 60s, early 70s (Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Weasels, and Chunga's Revenge). I'd also cite the tune, Blessed Relief off Waka/Jawaka as worthwhile, and actually pleasant.

Still, the best of his comedy never rose much above an adolescent junior high school level, and centered around bathroom sexuality. I remember first viewing his 200 Motels in high school.  My parents would have been shocked that I snuck out to the theater, and at the time it all seemed very sophisticated.  But, if so, it was mostly because I was not. In an attempt to reclaim my childhood I recently viewed the movie again. Of course it was funny in some parts, mostly it was ugly, although probably a reasonable lampoon of the times.  As expected, it did not offer anything new, or anything I didn't already know.

Certainly Frank was happy to critique the "rock" scene, but he was really unable to move beyond it. Frank's orchestral compositions contained nothing particularly interesting, and aside from a small orchestral snippet located within his “ballet,” Lumpy Gravy (and also found on We're Only In It for the Money), they are particularly unlistenable.

Titles for his tunes were clever, I'll give him that.

Frank's music underscores an old pop adage I just made up: once pop music, always pop music.




Thank you Professor B not only for some new insights into Liszt, but also for some interesting observations on innovation and the role of a visionary figure in transforming the field in which he/she labors.