Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/26/16: Faust Symphony by Liszt

Liszt lived out Faust's life in reverse. He experienced the life of pure being and whirlwind excitement in its proper beginning, and then retired humbly to ascetic contemplation. All throughout, he composed volume after volume of music with the ease that the rest of us eat lunch. When Leslie Howard recorded the complete piano music of Liszt (which is nowhere close to his entire output), it was a project that eventually stretched to 99 CD's.

If composing can be said to have a 'Greatest Generation', it was probably Liszt's - a generation that also includes Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, and Offenbach. 

Liszt was perhaps the greatest musical genius of all those illustrious names - able to compose, arrange, conduct, play piano, and was said to play any music perfectly as he was looking at it for the first time. Was Liszt as great a composer as his gift allowed? Well.... who cares?

Liszt is an inescapable composer with whose music we all have yet to come to terms. Without him, no Wagner, no Bruckner, no Smetana, no Tchaikovsky, no Mahler or Strauss. Without more ascetic, nearly atonal, late music, the entire twentieth century would take a very different course. Even so, it's very difficult to escape a sinking feeling that there's something a little too facile and slick about Liszt. Short of Berlioz, concert music does not get more fun than his. The excitement bursts from the seams of his staff paper, yet what does it express?

In many ways, the Faust Symphony was supposed to be his answer to those who thought the slam-bang virtuosity and embarrassingly gorgeous melodies of his music was shallow excitement and beauty without any meaning. Instead, he simply doubled the helpings of both, and his music remained an empty emotional experience. There is something a little childish about this level of programmatic content: "this beautiful melody represents this beautiful woman," "these creepy chords represent the devil and these fast string figures represent the lacerations of hellfire." The fact that it's an innovative way to present music can't be denied, but the composer doth protest too much. If an artist is striving this hard to seem deep, it's probably because there wasn't that much depth to begin with. As Woody Allen would phrase it in a different context, the Faust Symphony is an empty experience, but as far as empty experiences go, it's one of the best..

It was also a Faust Symphony, thirteen years ago, that counts as the greatest regret of my musical life. Thirteen years ago, I heard Ivan Fischer conduct the Budapest Festival Orchestra in A Faust Symphony - it was one for the ages. To this day, I have never heard another orchestra sound quite like that. In a fit of pique, I wrote a letter to the webmaster Ivan Fischer's webpage, thinking there'd be no harm done if no one ever responded, and I asked for him to ask Fischer how he achieved certain effects with his orchestra. A month went by with no response, but suddenly I got a response saying that if I want to learn how to do that, I should apply to Fischer's apprentice conducting program. 

I nearly fell out of my chair when I read it. I thought to myself that that would be amazing, but even at the time, it was a non-starter. I wasn't even a declared music major yet at a third-tier music school with hardly any piano ability. A year later, I heard from the conductor at my school that Fischer's program was actually easy to get into because it was considered tantamount to slave labor. I don't know if I could have lasted more than a week, but nevertheless, I absolutely wanted to apply, but when I got to his website, the link was down, and in those days of AOL and CompuServe before every email was autosaved, the email link had long since disappeared. Thus, my contact with Ivan Fischer was over before it even began. 

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