Thursday, 10 November 2011

Happy Birthday Franz Liszt

Lang Lang
Liszt wouldn't know it was his birthday of course, as he's been dead for 125 years. The 22nd October 2011 was the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Now jazz might be my favourite music genre, but I've also had a great love for classical music as well. I may not know as much about it as I do jazz, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying it to the full.

I'd appreciated Liszt's piano concertos for years, but knew little of his other works, and even less about the man. What brought me to look closer at the man and his music? The answer to that is simple; it was the Chinese pianist Lang Lang.

I'd not heard much about him either to be fair, until I saw him play at this years BBC Last Night of the Proms. He played Liszt's Piano Concerto No 1, and I was captivated by the beauty and passion of his playing. Lang Lang has made a speciality of playing Liszt, calling him "My Piano Hero". When did this love affair begin? Lang Lang traces it back to when he was two years old, and was watching an eight minute film on Chinese television, produced by Metro, Goldwyn, Mayer. It was a Tom & Jerry cartoon, made in 1947, and called "The Cat Concerto". This was Lang's first encounter with Liszt's music, as he later found out that the piece being played was Hungarian Rhapsody No 2. Lang describes it thus. "Tom, the cat, is a concert pianist in this episode. He performs in a dinner jacket and bows to the public. Then he starts to play - and plays superbly. A cat in a dinner jacket playing the piano! I thought it was hysterically funny". I don't think that I've seen this cartoon for over 40 years, and I include it below, if only because it's so funny still.

I don't believe in fate, but if I did, I would say that it guided me to the Classical CD Music shop in Goose Gate, for there was a new CD by Lang Lang, with specially chosen pieces of Liszt's music to celebrate the 200th anniversary. Lang Lang obviously had a vivid imagination, for it is said that while he sat practising at the piano, "his thoughts often took flight". He said on one occasion, "When I saw Elvis Presley on TV, I was inescapably reminded of Franz Liszt. Liszt was a rock star - he was wild, and women idolised him. In my imagination he rode a motorbike at breakneck speed and flew jet planes that were faster than light. In contrast to most other composers, Liszt did not die young. He found a way of living and keeping his story going while he bounded from one exciting adventure to the next".

Franz Liszt 1811 - 1886
Liszt was born in Hungary on the 22nd October 1811, and moved to Paris with his family at the age of twelve, where he soon became the darling of Europe. I don't propose to give a history of his life, as fascinating as that is; you can find a web site dedicated to him here. Instead, I'll focus on three areas that contributed to his unique position as pianist and composer. 

In one sense, it could be said that Liszt "invented the profession of the international pianist". His amount of travel in those days was almost unimaginable, as he cris crossed the Europe of his day. During an eight year period between 1839 - 1847 he played over 1000 concerts, sometimes performing three or four times a week. These were not short distances you understand, as he went from St Petersburg to Lisbon, from Glasgow to Constantinople. Most journey's overland had to be by coach, which led him in 1840 to acquire his own coach. This could only have been done with great organisation, and a strong constitution. His reputation meant that more and more people wanted to hear him, and it has been said, "he played for Kings, Princes and Counts, for the Queen of England, the Sultan of Constantinople and the Tsar of Russia". A truly international pianist.

He was an innovator in where the piano was placed on stage, as well as in a way, being the inventor of the piano evening. Previously, pianists had to share the stage with others, but Liszt made solo appearances, and the stage was his. In addition, he had the piano moved to the position that we see today, that is at right angles to the rows in the auditorium, so that the pianist could be seen. Before this, the piano had been lined up with the audience, which meant that the pianist was partly hidden from view. He also learnt all the music by heart, which meant that he was one of the first pianists to play with no sheet music propped up on the piano. Speaking of these innovations, Oliver Hilmes said, "The pianist's profile, expressions and gestures, his posture - all of this was placed at the centre of attention. In a word, Franz Liszt was the first concert pianist in the modern manner".

His compositions also proved key to the manufacture of better pianos. This came to a head with his composition, Paganini Etudes. Liszt had heard Nicolo Paganini play his violin in Paris in 1832, and thought of him in a sense to have reinvented the playing of the violin; "such virtuosity, elevated to the realm of ecstasy, overwhelmed Liszt". (How I would have loved to have heard Paganini play). In 1851, Liszt published his Paganini Etudes, the aim of which was to transfer to the piano, Paganini's mastery of the violin. Hilmes said, "Like a juggler, Liszt whirls the notes all ways up and sets off a firework display of pianistic effects; trills, cascading chords, thundering octaves for both hands, madcap leaps, pizzicato effects and more besides". To Lang Lang, "With pieces like this, Liszt had a material influence on the development of piano making, as his sensational technique required better and better pianos. The spirit of invention and musical progress really went hand in hand here".

For Lang Lang, "Liszt is my hero", because "he changed classical music completely. As a performer he revolutionised piano playing, and as a composer he opened the door to modern music". Happy birthday Franz Liszt.

It seems right to finish with music by Liszt. While my favourite piece I think is his Piano Concerto No.1, I've chosen Grandes Etudes de Paganini. Happy listening.

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