Liszt as Visionary


In many ways, Liszt epitomizes the ideals of the Renaissance artist, in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci; he is “a universal artist, cosmopolitan in nature.”[1] A virtuoso pianist and a prolific composer, Liszt was the radical precursor of modernity with his Zukunstmuzik (music of the future), anticipating impressionism and even an ascetic form of expressionism – “was he not one of those who started the battle against tonality?”[2]. In early years, Liszt revolutionized the piano recital and became the first pop sensation - “Lisztomania.” In his music of maturity, Liszt developed a religious outlook encompassing Christian-socialist-utopian theories, and a visionary mysticism which permeates even his most Mephistophelian works. As the chosen representative of the New German School, Liszt established an important music culture in Weimar, and was a devoted supporter of composers and pianists of the younger generation including Saint-Saëns, Grieg, Borodin, Smetena, Zarębski, Anton Rubinstein and even Brahms. Liszt was also of seminal influence on the rise of Richard Wagner, and developed critical relationships with Berlioz, Chopin, and Schumann. In compositional spheres, he pioneered omni-tonal and omni-rhythmic techniques, formal synthesis and thematic transformation. An ardent proponent of inter-disciplinary associations of music with literary and dramatic arts, Liszt nevertheless succeeds in transcending the categories of “program” and “absolute” music. Liszt: “My sole ambition is to hurl my javelin into the infinite space of the future”.


[1] Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924): Italian pianist, composer, scholar, pedagogue.

[2] Selected writing of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951): Franz Liszt’s Work and Being, 1911

Lecture-Recital at the University of Saskatchewan, Music as Visionary Conference, September 29-30, 2019

The Liszt - Clara Schumann dialectic


The eventual outcome of meeting Clara Schumann (1819-1896) in Vienna in 1839, resulted in Franz Liszt dedicating his Paganini Variations to her. Both pre-eminent concert pianists of their time, Liszt maintained friendly relations with Clara from his early years as a travelling virtuoso and later as the kapellmeister in Weimar – the two pianists even performed Liszt’s Hexameron Variations for piano duet during a concert in Weimar in 1841. Although Liszt’s playing had initially made a profound impact on Clara, she gradually became disillusioned by the theatrics surrounding the “Lisztomania” episodes which transpired during his visits to Leipzig. Notwithstanding their affiliation to opposing trends in German music (Weimar vs Leipzig), Liszt responded to Clara’s pleas for support in arranging an all-Schumann concert in 1854 – dedicated to her ailing husband Robert – in which Liszt conducted and Clara performed as soloist. During this difficult period, Liszt published a glowing article about Clara in the columns of the Neue Zietschrift, with the intention of helping her relaunch her concert career. Clara eventually came to reject Liszt’s compositional style and neglected to include Liszt’s Sonata in B minor in her repertoire. Liszt, however, would continue to be inspired by Clara’s talents not only as a pianist but also as a composer, transcribing three of her Lieder to the piano in 1872. As pianists, both Liszt and Clara Schumann were dedicated to championing the works of their predecessor Ludwig Van Beethoven. Clara had performed Beethoven’s Appasionata Sonata since 1838, whereas Liszt had introduced the little-known Hammerclavier Sonata to European audiences. Both Liszt and Clara were also personally associated with Frederic Chopin and performed his works throughout their performance careers. Chopin himself held both virtuosos in the highest esteem, saying of Clara, “sie spielt, wie man es besser nicht kann.”

Lecture-Recital at Cornell University, NY, Performing CLara Schumann: Keyboard Legacies and Feminine Identities in the Long Romantic Tradition, November 16-17, 2019

The piano cycle Métopes, Op. 29 (1915) by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski


As a result of his voyages to the Mediterranean in 1914, the fascination with classical antiquity and eastern cultures led to the creation of Szymanowski’s unique compositional idiom in the works of 1914-18. Alongside the profusion of musical influences within the European milieu before the First World War, Szymanowski draws on a variety of ‘exotic’ sources. Szymanowski was particulary fascinated by Sicily, and the inspiration for his Métopes, Op. 29 came from the famed reliefs (Métopes) from the temple of Selinunte (an ancient Greek archaeological site) in Sicily. The three piano pieces are intended to outline stages in a history, in this case based on Homer’s Odyssey: L’isle de Sirènes, Calypso, and Nausicaa.


Much of the difficulty in analysing the harmony of the Métopes stems from the fact that Szymanowski made a unique synthesis of very different stylistic worlds. The polarities expressed in the music of Debussy and Schoenberg, seek a resolution in the expression of Szymanowski’s Métopes – in this work, the ‘impressionist’ aesthetic is developed within a higher harmonic complexity found in Debussy, resulting in a highly intractable density of dissonance bordering on Schoenbergian provenance. By virtue of the subtle integration of the various musical currents in Europe leading up to the First World War, Szymanowski successfully defies classification in adhering to any one of the prevailing musical trends. Szymanowski’s blending of musical styles is analogous to his new philosophical perspectives in regards to his awareness and appreciation of the influence of exotic cultures.

Lecture-Recital at the Canada Congress, University of British Colombia, June 5-6, 2019