Seeds of ideas and Liszt twists

I was in England three months ago.

The farm where I had been staying looked like this:

I was there last week and this is what has grown in the intervening time:

It is the first time the farm has grown corn in five years. It is vibrant.

Without pushing a metaphor too far, the success of the planting had me thinking about changes coaches make to their pre-season and within season plans.

A conversation about Franz Liszt on Classic FM focused my thoughts about innovation and variation.

The theme of the discussion was ‘how do you transform convention?’.

Franz:

  • Intensified and extended his practice sessions (“a conscious rebuilding
    of an already impressive facility” 1828-1832)
  • Appeared alone on stage in solo recitals
  • Was the first to position the piano at right angles to the stage so the audience could see him in profile
  • Opened the lid of the piano to project sound
  • Was the first to enter from the wings onto the stage
  • Performed from memory
  • Played the entire keyboard repertory including his own music

The changes to his concert performances, according to Heinrich Heine, brought about ‘Lisztomania’ (which was the subject of a Ken Russell film in 1975). One contemporary observer noted that his playing style (and that of Chopin) was “distinguished by the invention of new passages and difficulties, and consequently the introduction of new effects”.

Alan Davison’s (2001) PhD thesis provides a comprehensive account of Franz’s pianism. He notes:

Like no other musician before him, except perhaps Beethoven, Liszt was the subject of a staggering number of images from the time he was a child prodigy [ … ] to his death [ … ] The images employed all major visual media of the nineteenth century: photography, oil painting, oil miniature, pastel, drawing [ … ] watercolour, silhouette, wood engraving, steel plate engraving, lithography, sculpture, relief [ … ] and caricature. (2001:4)

Alan provides a counter to what he regards as the mythology about Liszt as a pianist. He notes “Liszt left no comprehensive account of his technical approach to piano playing in his own words” (2001:233). One of his pupils, Amy Fay, wrote of his technique:

Liszt has an inconceivable lightness, swiftness and smoothness of execution [ … ] when he was playing scales or passages, his fingers seemed to lie across the keys in a slanting sort of way, and to execute these rapid passages almost without any perceptible motion. (2001:241)

Alan concludes with the assessment:

Liszt’s genius, however, remains undiminished within a revised model of the history of nineteenth-century pianism in which the development of a lasting and comprehensive physical approach to technique, including arm-weight, is credited to later pianists. Apart from his playing and teaching, one of Liszt’s greatest contributions to the piano lies in the fact that he “was the first composer in history to understand fully the musical significance—dramatic and emotional as well as aural—of new techniques of execution.” Liszt’s achievements seem all the more astonishing when placed in their proper context. (2001:245)

Which brings me back to thinking about the energy in seeds of ideas and individual adaptation. For me, it is an attempt to extend my understanding of performance and how we might account for transformation of conventional wisdom.

This will lead me I believe, through another Classic FM prompt, to contemplate John Barry’s ‘beyondness’.

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