Monday, 6 June 2011

Listening to Liszt

The BBC Radio Three programme about Liszt and gypsy music (we can apparently use the word gypsy' in this context without offence) is in preparation. Last week it was Simon Broughton, tomorrow it will be Leslie Howard to interview. So my morning is spent listening to the double CD of Howard playing Magyar Dalok & Magyar Rapszódiák (Hungarian / Gypsy Songs & Rhapsodies) on the Hyperion label. The treat above is a later work.

I have also been reading Liszt's treatise on The Gypsy in Music, not regarded now as wholly reliable, and salted with anti-Semitism. Essentially, Liszt compares the lives and contributions of Jews and gypsies, and identifies the first with meanness and money and law tra-la, the latter with nature, melancholy and a kind of cultural autism. He far prefers the gypsies. However, Liszt's text was probably corrupted by his mistress, Princess Carolyne, who was certainly anti-Semite in the Wagner vein.

But that is beside the point here. What is fascinating to hear are the elements of the jagged, barbaric, sometimes slushy, but always energetic material Liszt embraced from his sources. The syncopation, the modal twists and turns, often from major to minor and back again, the characteristic highly-stressed endings, the fancy cadenzas, the melancholy and the furious quickly succeeding each other. I have been familiar with some of themes and modes from early childhood (my mother liked at times to dress as a gypsy: I imagine she might have met some gypsy women in Ravensbruck and Penig, and always asserted how much she liked the gypsies she had met). Liszt turns them into concert pieces and Howard plays them brilliantly. It makes me curious about the balance between village inn and concert hall.

There is, in any case, considerable overlap between various kinds of 'gypsy' music and folk music. The most interesting piece on the album is the odd man out, the rarely performed Rumanian Rhapsody (no 20) that, as Howard points out in his notes, has a distinctly Bartókian air and is rather different from the Hungarian gypsy material. Another distinction. Where did it come from?


Gwilym Williams said...

Radio today -

Listening to Liszt
(it could be Lißt)
the popstar of his day
as they now him do portray
I was struck by some Liszt that was used in a Hitchcock movie and it's striking resemblance to Wagner's theme in Tristan and Isolda. Who copied rom whom? that is the question.
It's not well known that Richard cribbed stuff from almost every Italian composer known to man ... but I know for a fact that it's true.

Gwilym Williams said...

Just a way of thinking you understand. Bellini, Puccini, Verdi etc., so why not from Liszt?

George S said...

Well, Liszt was born in 1811 and was a friend of Chopin while Wagner was born in 1813, so Liszt had two years start. Then they became friends and Liszt married Cosima so it all gets confused. Mind you who said bad poets borrow, good poets steal?

Wagner is generally accounted the more important composer so maybe people think Liszt stole from him. But to be honest I don't know, and you could well be right.

I am in the strange position of writing a programme about music while knowing a lot less than you, Gwilym. Indeed less than a good number of very well qualified people. It's weird, but then my whole life has been like that. 'Can you do that,' someone asks. 'Why me?' I ask back. 'We just think you can do it.' So I answer: 'I'll have a go.' I learn something, on the job as it were, and have done so time and time again. Some of it sticks. I'm just a lucky boy. And I'm learning.

Ken Russell: Lisztomania starring Roger Daltrey. Did you ever see that? Late full-buffoon Russell, razzle-dazzled with pop and his own genius.

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J. Marles said...

it's striking resemblance to Wagner's theme in Tristan and Isolda.

It probably is the theme from Tristan and Isolde. Liszt composed a famous piano transcription of it. Liszt certainly had some influence on Wagner's musical development, but I can't remember the details at the moment. He also became Wagner's father-in-law, of course. Liszt is a much underappreciated composer.

It's not well known that Richard cribbed stuff from almost every Italian composer known to man ... but I know for a fact that it's true.

Hmm, I don't think that's true. The only contemporary Italian composer Wagner really liked was Bellini, but he wasn't much influenced by him. The theme from Rossini's aria "Di tanti palpiti" crops up in Wagner's Die Meistersinger, but that's about it. Wagner was mostly reacting against Italian operatic practice. He influenced Verdi (in Otello and Falstaff) and Puccini, not vice versa. There is no way Wagner could have borrowed from Puccini, even if he had wanted to. Puccini's first opera only appeared in 1884, a year after Wagner's death.

Gwilym Williams said...

Hello J Marles - I knew I'd missed one off my list - yes, Rossini!

I think Richard needs to be looked into by an expert. His years in Venice, where there a bust of him alongside Verdi . . .

If I ever crib somethi9ng of yours George, I'll let you know.

I have a forthcoming poem in "Sons of Camus" but I composed it around a short story by long gone SF writer ... I guess I'm a sinner too!