For Liszt, Experimentation Was a Form of Greatness
In January, during my Top 10 Composers project, a two-week series of deliberative articles, blog posts and videos to come up with a list of the greatest composers in history, Liszt was never really a contender. Among comments from readers, there were surprisingly few calls to include him in this select group.
But if this exercise, an intellectual game played seriously, had involved coming up with the Top 10 musicians in history — those creative artists whose overall contributions had enormous influence on the art form — Liszt would easily have made the list. In fact, Liszt, born 200 years ago this Oct. 22, might have been my choice for the top spot.
One person who would agree is the musicologist Alan Walker. In his monumental three-volume Liszt biography and in two supplemental books, Mr. Walker makes a case for Liszt, who died in 1886, as the towering musical figure of the 19th century. Last month, during the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College the New School for Music, Mr. Walker gave a lecture, “Liszt at the Keyboard,” focusing on that master’s contributions to the piano. But he began by describing the stunning breadth of Liszt’s accomplishments, which unfolded, he said, “simultaneously in six directions.”
First and foremost, Liszt was a colossal pianist, the most awesome virtuoso of his era, who in his playing and his compositions for piano pushed the boundaries of technique, texture and sound. As a composer, beyond his works for piano, Liszt was the inventor of the orchestral tone poem and an inspired songwriter, and he produced a body of sublime sacred choral works. As a conductor, he introduced seminal scores, including Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” in Weimar.
Liszt was the most consequential piano teacher of his time. He taught some 400 students over 40 years, in line with his notion of “génie oblige,” the obligation of genius, and never accepted payment for the lessons, much to the chagrin of rival pedagogues. Liszt was also, Mr. Walker emphasized, a festival organizer and an important writer of essays, program notes and criticism.