Franz Liszt at an artistic crossroads

Franz Liszt / painting by Henri Lehmann, 1839

Franz Liszt / painting by Henri Lehmann, 1839

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, a social division arose between two kinds of music.

Some loved what they called classical music. They quarreled with people who preferred what William Weber has called high-status popular music.

Classical music specifically meant the masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and a few others.

High-status popular music included popular operas by Rossini, Meyerbeer, and others. It also included traveling virtuosos who performed largely in salons.

That is, they performed before invited guests in the homes of aristocratic or upper-middle-class hosts.

Robert Schumann began his career as a critic specifically to protest against the emptiness of most of the piano virtuosos. They specialized in dazzling arrangements of operatic tunes or variations on popular melodies.

These pieces had little musical substance. They did not reward repeated hearing. But the audience for them preferred novelty. They had no interest in hearing the same pieces over and over.

Schumann recognized greater musical substance in some of them, including Franz Liszt. In his early career, then, Liszt represented high-status popular music. But without the musical emptiness and technical gimmicks that Schumann so despised.

Weber points out that the old aristocracy and upper middle class essentially merged around mid-century and that classical music and high-status popular music likewise grew together.

Previously popular operas, including most of Rossini’s, eventually disappeared from the repertoire, but their overtures became acceptable fare on symphonic concerts.

The virtuosos who did not make some move towards classical music likewise lost public favor.

The new  Liszt

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Franz Liszt conducting / unknown artist, ca. 1918

In 1846 one of Liszt’s admirers, who also loved classical music, challenged him to play Beethoven’s music on his programs. So he did.

As a composer, he had always concentrated on solo piano music, occasionally with orchestral accompaniment. Like other virtuosos, he wrote a lot of variations on popular tunes. He did not compose sonatas or other classical forms.

Beginning about the time he started playing classical music in concert, he began to compose differently. He produced purely orchestral music, choral music (both sacred and secular), and songs. His piano music became more serious.

He still didn’t use classical forms. He based his music on literary programs. As a result, he devised his own formal procedures.

Liszt also experimented with new harmonic structures.At least one of his late piano pieces is almost atonal.

They had a profound influence on composers all over Europe who wanted to come out from under the domination of German musical culture.

Liszt made the transition from high-status popular music to the newly defined classical music world so easily and naturally that only in retrospect can scholars discern a transition at all.

Not all remained unified in classical music, however. Some composers (Brahms, for example) continued to write in classical forms, using harmonies, techniques of orchestration, and so on, that built on Beethoven’s legacy gradually and incrementally.

The group represented by Brahms and the group represented by Liszt argued as intensely as formerly groups that preferred “classical” music or “popular” music had argued.

By this time the idea of classical music becomes problematic. Once it meant music with standard forms high artistic ideals. It was mostly old music, or modeled on old music. It required repeated hearings to understand it.

Liszt and allies wrote new music not based on standard forms. It was less listener-friendly and demanded even more of the audience. They still aspired to high artistic ideals. But the world of classical music could no longer agree on what that meant.

Revised September 7, 2016

Source: Music and the middle class: the social structure of concert life in London, Paris, and Vienna / William Weber (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1975)

Photo credits:
Public domain.


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