Franz Liszt : Reconsidered


Franz Liszt’s life is the stuff of movies.  He was arguably the greatest pianist in history, for many years he lived as a virtuoso performing all across Europe and having a few scandalous (for the period) love affairs in the process.  Then at the height of his fame, he retired abruptly from the concert stage choosing to live in partial seclusion devoted to composition and finally taking lower orders in the Catholic Church, ending his life as an Abbé.

Liszt was a tireless promoter of other composers, among them Wagner (especially during his long exile from Germany and its music scene), and Berlioz, as well as proselytizing styles from the past such as Bach’s sacred music and Gregorian chant. His operatic transcriptions were a unique way of promoting new music and his piano reductions of Beethoven symphonies brought these works to places where they might not have been heard. Although he was a target in the so-called “War of the Romantics” of the 19th century, he was not a active participant and was gracious when meeting with Brahms, much more so than Brahms was towards him.

His wrote some of the most technically demanding music for the piano, innovative music for orchestra, and spiritually sublime music for organ and choir.  His influence was huge, however, for decades his impact as a composer has been undervalued, if not ignored entirely.

Alfred Brendel wrote in the introduction of major Liszt biography,

“Arguably, Liszt and Haydn are the most frequently misunderstood among major composers; their biographers afford little food for pity.… In old age, Haydn reigned over the musical world as its undisputed leading light. For this, the nineteenth century punished him—as it punished Liszt for his undisputed supremacy as a performer.… Not until our century did a greater number of composers—from Richard Strauss, Ravel, and Busoni to Schoenberg, Bartók, and Boulez—appreciate Liszt by taking him seriously.”  (Burger, p. 7-8)

As Brendel indicates, acknowledgement of Liszt’s influence on his contemporaries and 20th century composers has been late in coming, but was not insignificant.

Liszt’s art bridged all genres.  At the heart of his music for the piano was improvisation, his piano music sought to mirror an art that was spontaneous and tied to a moment of performance; His elaborations and fantasies for the piano based on the operatic works; his transcriptions of works by Bach and Beethoven, both looked back to the Baroque period ( and earlier) when improvisation was common and expected, as well as forward to our own time when jazz and other forms of free form performance are commonplace. (Botstein)

Liszt was a tireless innovator, never content to repeat himself. Without Liszt’s experiments in the uses of harmony and sonority and the shape of musical form (for example, the stress on single melodies and motives and therefore imaginative repetition in works of considerable duration) much of late Romanticism and Modernism, particularly that associated with Wagner, would be unthinkable. (Botstein)

Liszt experimented with using non-tonal elements in his compositions, whole-tone scales, even a twelve tone row (although not in the manner of Schoenberg), and anticipated much in Debussy, Ravel and others.  Without Liszt, Chopin’s, or Debussy’s or Richard Wagner’s music might sound very different, and it was through Debussy and Wagner that the music of the 20th century was born.

debussyClaude Debussy: Similarities can be found between Liszt’s B-minor Sonata and that of Debussy.  Works such as Pour le piano, L’Isle joyeuse, various of the Préludes, all show that Debussy appreciated and learned much from Liszt’s piano writing. (Biget, pp. 155–63.)

Liszt’s pioneering use of whole-tone patterns, chords composed of the intervals fourths and fifths, pentatonic passages, and other “Impressionistic” effects found their way into the music of Debussy.  Portions of Liszt’s Années de pèleinage, Via crucis, Unstern!, are echoed in Debussy’s Images.  (Gut, pp. 63–77.)

ravelMaurice Ravel: Ravel’s early works were also influenced by whole-tone and chromatic scale patterns related to the diminished-seventh chord derived from Liszt’s works such as Totentanz and Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este.  (Weiss-Aigner, 323–326.)

Arnold Schoenberg: To a considerable extent a comparison of Liszt’s B-minor Sonata with Schoenberg’s String Quartet no. 1, shows the influence of Liszt.  What William Newman called Schoenberg’s “double-function form” can also be traced to Liszt. (Dahlhaus, 202-213.)220px-Arnold_Schoenberg_la_1948

Liszt pioneered in rendering music an art form connected to literature, painting, and narration, This is particularly the case with respect to the connection between spirituality and religion and music.  During the 19th century the idea of symbolism in art was introduced.  This idea was often expressed by writers and philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, an extremely influential thinker of the period.

“Everything can only be understood symbolically, and everywhere something else is hidden behind it.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in a letter to the chancellor Friedrich von Müller, 1821).

“All communication between the composer and the listener is based on a convention that this or that motif or musical symbol, or whatever one might otherwise call it, functions as an expression of this or that thought or actual intellectual concept.  This will be especially obvious to everyone in Wagner.  But also Beethoven and more or less ever artist has a particular manner of expression for what the artist wants to say which can be comprehended by the public.  (Gustav Mahler, in a letter to Natalie Bauer-Lechner, 1896.)

Goethe was writing prior to and Mahler after Liszt’s creation of the “tone poem” or symphonic form which used symbols to an exceeding degree and influenced composers from Wagner and Mahler to Richard Strauss.  Certain specific symbols such as sighs, cries, or night, the Christian cross – all found their way into the music of Mahler and other composers after Liszt introduced them in his symphonic poems.

Liszt’s Dante Symphony and Faust Symphony both drew on literary works: Goethe’s Faust and Dante’s Inferno, and both see Liszt dealing with the idea of Satan and Redemption.  Liszt met with Berlioz in the 1840s prior to Berlioz writing Damnation of Faust, and both discussed the ideas in the Faust legend.  Liszt first wrote the Dante Sonata for piano and later expanded the material into the orchestral work.

mahlerGustav Mahler: Liszt incorporated chorale tunes and endings in many of his works, among them the Faust and Dante symphonies which arguably exerted some influence upon Mahler’s Second “Resurrection” Symphony. (Williamson, 115-125.)

Other ways in which Liszt may have influenced Mahler musically was with the use of symbols in his music.   Even though Mahler eventually wished to distance himself from programmatic composition,  he continued to have programmatic elements in his works but simply stopped printing them in concert descriptions or commenting on them publicly.  Liszt symbols such as appearances of the Ewigkeit (“eternity”) motif in Mahler’s works can be found.  Also, links between Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the conclusion of Liszt’s Faust Symphony can be seen. (Zychowie, 1–18.)

richard_straussRichard Strauss: The concept of an extra-musical stimulus whose aesthetic and formal design would shape, and in turn be shaped by, the musical structure, is a hallmark of Strauss which he derived from Liszt. And Liszt’s hand can easily be found in Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica as well as his Don Juan, Don Quixote, and Till Eulenspiegel.  (Birkin, 73-92.)

The musical relationship shared by Liszt and Richard Wagner during much of their lives was almost as complex as it was important.

wagnerWays in which Liszt may have influenced Wagner, especially after 1856, include, specifically, the anticipation in Tasso of Alberich’s obsessive will in Rheingold.  Liszt’s use of Leitmotifs and symbols in his tone poems, for example Les Préludes, appear to have had some influence on Wagner’s Eine Faust-Overtüre, Rheingold, Siegfried, Tristan und Isolde, and Die Walküre. (Arnold, 3-20.)

Finally, Liszt ought to remind us that our approach to music should not be dependent on some construct of nationality that helps prop up the popularity of a composer.  His reach as an artist and composer transcended national categories and reminds us of the limitations of nationalist appropriations and stereotypes. (Botstein)

The concept of nationalism in the 19th century was different from our own.  Liszt’s idea of nationalism was both more universal and cosmopolitan, which is actually the opposite of how we approach the idea.  Some of this might be a product of his own biography.  Liszt was born in Raiding, Hungary which in 1811 was populated mostly by Germans.  When he was twelve years old he left for Paris, and twelve years after that he began a series of sojourns through Switzerland and Italy which lasted nearly five years.

Despite being born in Hungary, Liszt was ignorant of that language, German being his native tongue.  But French was the language he took up after moving to Paris, and was the language he preferred for the rest of his life.  This is all to say that any idea of nationalism concerning Liszt is problematic: he born in an area of Hungary populated mostly by Germans, spoke French for most of his life, and lived a nomadic lifestyle for long periods of time, all of which lent to Liszt and his music a more cosmopolitan aspect.

Franz Liszt wrote in all genres of music, piano music , choral, orchestra, lieder, chamber, even opera.  For decades Liszt’s compositions were shunned as the work of a melodramatic hack – but for some time now he and his music has undergone a positive reappraisal, and one which has been long overdue.



Arnold, Ben. “Wagner and Liszt: Borrowings, Thefts, and Assimilations Before 1860.” Journal of the American Liszt Society 30 (1991): 3–20.

Biget, Michelle. “Etude comparée du geste pianistique chez Liszt et chez Debussy.” In Actes du Colloque international Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Tenu dans le cadre d’l’Université de Paris IV–Sorbonne, 27–30 octobre 1986, ed. Serge Gut; entire triple issue of La Revue musicale nos. 405–406–407 (1987), pp. 155–163.

Birkin, Kenneth. “‘Ich dirigiere mit Vergnügen…’ Liszt’s Influence on Richard Strauss—Strauss Conducts Franz Liszt.” Studia Musicologica 43 (2002): 73–92.

Botstein, Leon. “What Makes Franz Liszt Still Important?”, The Public Domain Review, (accessed June 5, 2015).

Burger, Ernst. Franz Liszt: A Chronicle of His Life in Pictures and Documents, trans. Stewart Spencer; foreword by Alfred Brendel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Dahlhaus, Carl. “Liszt, Schönberg und die große Form. Das Prinzip der Mehrsätzigkeit in der Einsätzigkeit.” Die Musikforschung 41 (1988): 202–213.

Floros, Constantin. Gustav Mahler and the Symphony of the 19th Century. Frankfurt am Main: PL Academic Research, Imprint of Peter Lang GmbH, 2014.

Gibbs, Christopher H, and Dana A. Gooley. Franz Liszt and His World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Gut, Serge. “Liszt et Debussy: Comparaison stylistique.” Referate des 2. In Europäischen Liszt-Symposions: Eisenstadt 1978, ed. Serge Gut. Liszt-Studien, 2. Munich and Salzburg: Emil Katzbichler, 1981, pp. 63–77.

Liszt, Franz, and Janita R. Hall-Swadley. The Collected Writings of Franz Liszt: Volume 3, Part 1. eBook 2014.

Saffle, Michael. Franz Liszt: A Research and information Guide. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Weiss-Aigner, Günter. “Eine Sonderform der Skalenbildung in der Musik Ravels.” Die Musikforschung 25 (1972): 323–326

Williamson, John. “Liszt, Mahler and the Chorale.” Proceedings of the Royal Music Association 108 (1981–1982): 115–125.

Zychowie, James L. “Liszt and Mahler: Perspectives on a Difficult Relationship.” Journal of the American Liszt Society 36 (1994): 1–18.

Jazz “A.C.” : After Coltrane


The recordings John Coltrane made in the 1960s with his “classic quartet” (Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison) were a major landmark in the history of jazz.  Jazz was not the same before or after and all jazz players felt an obligation to respond to Coltrane’s music.  Some chose to pay homage and created their own music much in the same vein; others, mainly saxophonists, had to grapple with playing their instrument in the wake of John Coltrane’s evolution.  But as the ’60s progressed, Coltrane’s music became more and more detached from the tradition of jazz.  The classic quartet broke apart from the stress Coltrane put on it due to his demands for a freer and more dissonant music.  Adding a second bassist, or second drummer, or second sax, all changed the delicate balance of the classic quartet to the point that Elvin Jones, then McCoy Tyner felt they no longer had a place in the group..

Coltrane’s final bands would often include Pharoah Sanders, Rashied Ali, Archie Shepp, and his wife Alice Coltrane.  The last recording, The Olatunji Concert on April 23, 1967, occurred just three months before his death from liver cancer.olatunji

The band was made up of drummer Rashied Ali, bassist Jimmy Garrison, pianist Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders on tenor sax and Algie Dewitt on bata drum (a Yoruba instrument). Coltrane spent the last years of his life engaged in a mission that few could understand. As witnessed on A Love Supreme and other recordings during those later years, his ultimate objective was that of a continued spiritual awakening. Whereas the objective itself was not that difficult to grasp, Coltrane’s means of attaining it were far from conventional. Abandoning the preconceived notions of tonality, and immersed within a musical state of dissonance, Coltrane’s music became a communicative attempt at reaching a higher plane.  (Pitchfork, John Coltrane: The Olatuni Concert: the Last Live Recording. Luke Buckman, October, 15, 2001.)

The band plays only two songs, “Ogunde” and “My Favorite Things”, but Coltrane’s relentless solos leave no stone unturned and become an anguished cry for release or spiritual reunion with his source.  This is demanding music but your perseverance is rewarded by a transcendent experience.

After his death these sidemen would go on to further develop his legacy.  Alice Coltrane began immediately to release records under her own name, but it would take a few years before she created a cohesive sound and band with the release of three recordings from 1970-1972.

220px-Ptah,_the_El_Daoud_(Alice_Coltrane)Ptah, the El Daoud featured horns for the first time since she began making records as a leader in her own right.  Her band included Joe Henderson (tenor, alto flute), Pharoah Sanders (tenor, alto flute), Ron Carter (bass) and Ben Riley (drums). while she played harp and piano.  All the compositions were written by Coltrane. The title track is named for the Egyptian god Ptah, “the El Daoud” meaning “the beloved”. “Turiya”, according to the liner notes, “was defined by Alice as ‘a state of consciousness — the high state of Nirvana, the goal of human life”, while “Ramakrishna” is named after the 19th-century Bengali religious figure; this track omits the horns. The origin of the title of “Blue Nile” is self-explanatory and, in it, Coltrane switches from piano to harp, and Sanders and Henderson from tenor saxophones to alto flutes. “Mantra” returns to piano and saxes. (Wikipedia)

220px-Journey_in_Satchidananda_(Alice_Coltrane)Journey in Satchidananda was released in 1970 and featured a band with some regular sidemen as well as African and Indian instruments: Pharoah Sanders (soprano saxophone, percussion), Vishnu Wood (oud, track 5), Charlie Haden (bass, track 5), Cecil McBee (bass, tracks 1-4), Tulsi (tambura, tracks 1-4), Rashied Ali (drums), Majid Shabazz (bells, tambourine).  Its title (and title track) reflects Coltrane’s inspiration by Swami Satchidananda, to whom she had become close, and whose disciple she was.  Paul Weller has often cited this album as a favorite, including it in a “12 Albums You Must Hear Right Now!” list he compiled for Mojo magazine in 2005.  The Allmusic review by Thom Jurek awarded the album 4½ stars stating “this is a remarkable album, and necessary for anyone interested in the development of modal and experimental jazz. It’s also remarkably accessible.” (Wikipedia)

alice03Finally, Alice Coltrane culminated this period of her career with Universal Consciousness.

Recorded between April and June of 1971, this recording is arguably her classic statement. While many regard Universal Consciousness as a “jazz” album, it transcends even free jazz by its reliance on deeply thematic harmonic material and the closely controlled sonic dynamics in its richly hued chromatic palette. The group she assembled included herself on harp and organ, Jimmy Garrison, bass (1, 3, 4, 5); Jack DeJohnette, drums (1, 3, 4); Clifford Jarvis, drums (4, 5), percussion (4); Rashied Ali, drums (2, 6), wind chimes (6); Tulsi, tamboura (4, 5); John Blair, Julius Brand, Leroy Jenkins, Joan Kalisch, violins (1, 3, 4). The string arrangements on tracks 1, 3 and 4 were by Alice Coltrane with transcriptions by Ornette Coleman.

“Dynamic, improvisational logic and tonal exploration become elemental figures in an intimate yet universal conversation that has the search itself and the uncertain nature of arrival, either musically or spiritually, at its root. This ambiguity is the only way a recording like this could possibly end, with spiritual questioning and yearning in such a musically sophisticated and unpretentious way. The answers to those questions can perhaps be found in the heart of the music itself, but more than likely they can, just as they are articulated here, only be found in the recesses of the human heart. This is art of the highest order, conceived by a brilliant mind, poetically presented in exquisite collaboration by divinely inspired musicians and humbly offered as a gift to listeners. It is a true masterpiece.” (Thom Jurek, Allmusic)

If one musician more than others can be credited with carrying forward the banner of John Coltrane’s music it would have to be Pharaoh Sanders.  A master of the tenor saxophone, described by Ornette Coleman as “probably the best tenor player in the world”,  Sanders’ records in the 1970s represent the logical continuation after Coltrane.

sanders01Karma, released in 1969, emerged in the wake of racial unrest and a growing movement among African Americans celebrating an ethnic identity based on African dress, instruments and folkways.  Coltrane had begun the trend with his incorporation of elements of Indian and African music: as early as 1961, he recorded the song “India” at the Village Vanguard with Ahmed Abdoul-Malik on tampura, and, in 1965, he recorded “Kulu se Mama” with narration in Entobes by Juno Lewis.

The influence of African music was seen as a link to the heritage of the many black musicians involved in jazz, and with some, such as Archie Shepp, it became associated with a defiant expression of black identity, in the fight for freedom and equal rights. Though the ideological strain was much more obvious in Shepp’s music than Sanders’, the musical influence was just as pronounced: virtually all of his recordings as a leader from this late 1960s – early 1970s period contain some kind of African percussion, and other non-western features such as Leon Thomas‘ distinctive yodelling, apparently learnt from African pygmies. In addition, his song titles, like Coltrane’s, often have religious significance.

Karma is Sanders’ third recording as a leader, perhaps the most famous of a number of spiritually-themed albums released on the Impulse record label in the late 1960s, early 1970s, which have ensured his reputation today.  It features Sanders on tenor sax, along with two of his most important collaborators, the aforementioned Leon Thomas and pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, as well as a supporting cast of musicians who were major musicians in their own right: flautist James Spaulding; French-horn player Julius Watkins; bassist Reggie Workman, who had played with Coltrane earlier in the 1960s; second bassist Richard Davis; drummer Billy Hart, and percussionist Nathaniel Bettis. (Wikipedia)


In many ways Archie Shepp represents an independent stream, parallel to John Coltrane. Shepp was an established saxophonist prior to Coltrane’s emergence as the leader of his generation but Shepp always had more of a political edge and many of his recordings carry the Afrocentric message of Black liberation from social injustice.

Shepp, recorded the Four for Trane sessions in 1964, then cut Ascension with Coltrane in 1965, and his place alongside Coltrane at the forefront of the avant-garde jazz scene was epitomized when the pair split a record (the first side a Coltrane set, the second a Shepp set) entitled New Thing at Newport released in late 1965.  Shepp’s 1967 The Magic of Ju-Ju also took its name from African musical traditions, and the music was strongly rooted in African music, featuring an African percussion ensemble. At this time, many African-American jazzmen were increasingly influenced by various continental African cultural and musical traditions; along with Pharoah Sanders, Shepp was at the forefront of this movement. The Magic of Ju-Ju defined Shepp’s sound for the next few years: freeform avant-garde saxophone lines coupled with rhythms and cultural concepts from Africa. (Wikipedia)

shepp01 shepp02 shepp03

Trane’s legacy continues to inspire jazz musicians as each new generation of players carry it forward adding their individual contributions.  John Coltrane’s music represents one of the greatest musical achievements , not only in the realm of jazz, but across all stylistic expressions and genres.

I urge you to listen to this music, you will be better because of it.

new work : percussion | piano | choir [2015-27]

This work, another in the series for bassoon, horn, double bass, percussion and choir is scored only for percussion (xylophone, chimes, gong and bass drum), including piano (technically a percussion instrument) and choir.

The percussion enters slowly, with a few motifs and the choir comes in underneath .  Each voice has a two note melodic cell, which they sing in overlapping fashion.  A new section begins with the entrance of the piano, and the choir again enters underneath with another section where each voice has a different two-note motif.  The piece ends with percussion and piano repeating some of their earlier material.

Dennis Johnson’s “November” : minimalism before minimalism was cool

dennis johnson1

Back in 1960 three friends, all students at UCLA, invented minimalism:  La Monte Young, Terry Jennings and Dennis Johnson (Terry Riley would soon join them but he was not at UCLA).  Of these, Dennis Johnson is credited with writing the very first piece of music that later came to be called Minimalist: his four (to six) hour work for piano called November.

Dennis-Johnson-letterLa Monte Young met Johnson in 1957 after overhearing him practicing the Webern Variations for piano, they quickly became friends.  Along with Terry Jennings they would form the nucleus of a style that later inspired Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  But back in the late ’50s, 1957-1959 to be exact, Dennis Johnson was writing works like Din, with 40 performers in a darkened hall clapping, screaming, shuffling feet, and so on; or a work using only four pitches, titled The Second Machine, and in 1959 November, a slow piano piece that was only available for years on a cassette with terrible fidelity, and which cut out after the first 100 measures.
JohnsonNovember-ms-1 That cassette offered the “only” 112 minutes of November, a work that was rumored to last as long as six hours but there was no score, or anyway to realize the work without Dennis Johnson’s help. The problem was that Johnson left music in 1962, and, in fact, dropped off the map entirely shortly after.  No phone, no internet; he went as much off the grid as a person could get.  Dennis Johnson was finally found with the help of other California composers, and he sent a six page score of melodic cells and a graph offering a method of connecting them to Kyle Gann.

Gann transcribed the entire work and made a recording. (Kyle Gann is a composer and author of five books on American music. He was new-music critic for the Village Voice from 1986 to 2005, and has taught music theory and history at Bard College since 1997.)

Recorded July 24th, 2012 by R. Andrew Lee on the Richard Cass Memorial Steinway, White Hall, University of Missouri, Kansas City – can be purchased here.

new work : bassoon | double bass | piano | choir [2015-26]

In “bassoon | double bass | piano | choir” [2015 – 26] the piano performs an ostinato figure that is permuted and transposed throughout the piece, but with periods of silence. The other instruments engage in duos and ensemble sections, and at one point also take up the piano’s figure, but transformed in sometimes drastic fashion.

Listening : Britten Song Cycles for Tenor


Because of Benjamin Britten‘s long personal and professional partnership with the great tenor Peter Pears, for whom he wrote all his vocal music, Britten wrote three song cycles for the tenor voice: Les Illuminations, op 18; Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, op. 31 (1943); and Nocturne, op. 60 (1958).  These works span much of Britten’s career, and showcase different periods of his style, as Ian Bostridge says in his notes, from the “tonal orientation and direct expressiveness of the first, through the greater emotional depth and variety of the second, to the descriptive, sardonic, wild, passionate rhetoric of the third.”

The Serenade has been recorded several times, twice by Peter Pears in 1944, with horn player Dennis Brain, and 1964 with Barry Tuckwell, and both are generally considered reference recordings, although in the 1964 recording, Pears’ voice is showing some signs of age.  Anthony Rolfe-Johnson recorded it in 1991 with Michael Thompson (horn) and Bryden Thomson (conductor), a release that garnered generally good reviews when it came out.

Philip Langridge, who is some what similar to Rolfe-Johnson, released a recording in 1994, now on Naxos.  And then an earlier Bostridge recording that came out in 1999, and finally to the one I am listening to today which was released in 2005.

There are many reasons to own the first Pears, or the second Pears, but if all you want is to hear these works in beautiful recorded sound with a very good vocal performance, then Ian Bostridge’s latest recording of Britten’s three song cycles for tenor will do very nicely.  Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic strings certainly play with precision and warmth, and the first horn of the orchestra, Radek Baborak, is Tuckwell’s equal in excitement. British critics have acclaimed this recording as the only modern recording equal to Pears/Britten.

That said, depending upon your preferences for the other works that fill out the various recordings, any of these will be a well worthwhile investment of time and treasure.