Thursday, 2013 July 25 – Keynote Address: Franz Liszt as the Culteral Ambassador of the 19th Century, by Alan Walker
Franz Liszt was a pianist, composer, organizer of events, and also cultural ambassador for his country. As a pianist, he created the recital. As a conductor, he create a series of gestures and body movements still used today. As a teacher, he created the master class. As a composer, he created new forms. And he truly was an ambassador of his time.
Being an ambassador is not easy. An ambassador is someone who thinks twice before saying nothing!
If he had not been a musician, Liszt could have been the first diplomat of Europe.
Mr. Walker than played the first minute of the 3rd Liebestraum, a well-loved composition across the world. 30 years later, he wrote a little-known piano piece called “Unlucky Star.” This piece is the stuff of nightmares! It contains conflicting harmonies and a sense of hopelessness and budding insanity. We might wonder, how is it possible that these two pieces came from the same pen.
Liszt’s life is perhaps much different from the Hollywood, Elvis-like persona we sometimes hear. Mr. Walker stated that he would paint quite a different picture of Liszt for us today.
Because music is a gift from God, Liszt stated it was important for the musician to give back. He gave money anonymously frequently to those in need he didn’t even know. He also would not take a penny for his lessons. In his old age, he ended up in a life of poverty. Music for Liszt was a vocation and a calling – and never confused with a trade.
Liszt visited hospitals, prison cells, insane asylums, and poor houses, bringing his music to them. He truly was what were today call a music therapist. Music was a divine fire from heaven to warm the souls on earth. For the artist, the goal of music is the improvement of the human soul.
When Liszt relocated to Weimar, he wished to restore Weimar to its former glory. He truly became a cultural ambassador. He planned festivals and organized music societies for contemporary music. He was also playing and teaching, and writing books and articles. He came out with an edition of the Beethiven sonata and John Field Noctures and more. He composed piano works, orchestral works, an oratorio, and 50 lieder. He often worked at night.
Liszt later felt his efforts in Wiemar as a failure. He was often the target of music critics for being avant garde. His efforts to promote the music of Wagner and others were met with criticism and A lack of thankfulness. His son and daughter passed away. After the last straw, Liszt packed his bags after 30 years in Weimar.
He moved to Rome and later assumed the role of Abbot. He accepted an appointment by the Hungarian government at the academy and planned the curriculum for the pianists.
Liszt’s master classes never lost their social aspect from the 1850’s. The musicians in the audience soon were joined by writers, artists, and others. His housekeeper would serve goodies.
Liszt never talked technique – “Wash your dirty laundry at home.” He was only concerned with music. Everyone wanted to be a student of Liszt.
Once a young woman he never met claimed to be a student of Liszt. He visited her lodgings followed by a master class audience. He commanded her to play the piano. She played the first movement of a Beethiven sonata. Her gave her many suggestions and asked her to play it again. He said, “Now you can say you are a student of Liszt.”
Liszt at a point in his life contemplated suicide, but his Catholic faith prevented him. Suicide would be self-murder, as the German version of the word makes clear.
Liszt lived a human life. Many composers were ambassadors for themselves, but Liszt was truly an ambassador for others. We are overlooking much if we only see Liszt as a great pianist. Much of what happened in the 19th and 20th century can be traced to Liszt’s efforts.
If the art of music is to be more than a trade and touch the human soul, we must look to the past. Mr. Walker ended saying he finds it a privilege to play a part, however small, in reviving the interest of such a great cultural ambassador.