Q & A: Leon Botstein on Franz Liszt

Classic Arts Features   Q & A: Leon Botstein on Franz Liszt
Commentators have described Franz Liszt — from his lifetime all the way down to ours — as many things: a brilliant virtuoso, a mega-star, a libertine lothario, a raging egotist, even in league with the Devil. Yet, however popular his spectacular keyboard works may be with pianists and audiences, Liszt is rarely described as a truly great composer.

Leon Botstein is out to change that. President of Bard College in New York's Hudson River Valley and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, Botstein brings his two main jobs together every summer as artistic director of Bard SummerScape and the Bard Music Festival, based at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts (designed by Frank Gehry) on the Bard campus. With this year's Bard Music Festival — titled "Franz Liszt and His World" and running for two weekends beginning August 11-13 — Botstein and his colleagues and guests focus on one of the most fascinating musical figures of the 19th century — and, Botstein hopes, help to revive his reputation as a composer and artist.

In the interview below, conducted by Albert Imperato of 21C Media Group, Botstein discusses the prejudices many people have about Liszt and why he believes that Liszt's music deserves our renewed attention and appreciation. Making the case for Liszt presents "a great challenge," says Botstein, "but there's no reason to make apologies for his music! In fact, there's no case where the disparity between the reputation of a composer and the frequency with which you encounter his music is greater!"

Q: After festivals dedicated to Janšcek, Shostakovich and Copland, how did the idea of the Bard Music Festival focusing on Liszt this year come about?

Leon Botstein: First, the composers we focused on over the past three seasons were 20th century figures. Since we wanted to vary the time frame in which we work _ with Elgar, who is both 19th- and 20th-century, next year and Prokofiev, another 20th-century figure, after that, we decided that we needed to go backwards. And when you think about the 19th century, the most famous, the most widely traveled, the most influential composer was Franz Liszt. But, as with past Bard Music Festivals, this selection creates a problem. People know Liszt, but there's a huge prejudice about his music.

Q: What do you feel are the roots of this prejudice?

LB: The early music for piano is viewed as virtuosic, considered a must for pianists. But it doesn't have the reputation of having the originality of Chopin, whose music outshone Liszt's in the 1830s and 1840s. Liszt's reputation as a traveling virtuoso doesn't positively influence our idea of him as a composer. Thus, his music came to be viewed as theatrical spectacle.

In Liszt's middle period he is credited by history as an innovator — the inventor of the tone poem, for one thing. He influenced Tchaikovsky and Grieg and Wagner and Smetana and Strauss. But still, the perception is that his music isn't any good. Two pieces do well in the standard orchestral repertoire, Les Pr_ludes and the First Piano Concerto, but that's about it.

The third problem is that Liszt becomes a huge figure whose reputation overshadows his own music. He lived for a long time — he met Beethoven and lived until Debussy's time — and was terribly kind and knew everyone. He was incredibly generous to all and knew everyone from A to Z — quite literally from Alkan to Zichy! Bart‹k and Schoenberg both wrote complicated essays about how they respect Liszt for his ideas but they were nonetheless nervous about him as a composer. And of course there were stories of Brahms falling asleep listening to Liszt play!

And there's another "problem": in the early 20th century people discovered late Liszt — attenuated, static, harmonically ambitious, ambiguous, Zen-like music. This music develops a cult following, but none of this amounts to a big concert success. Reputation success and historical success — yes. But not concert success.

Q: So he is credited for many great achievements and contributions but not especially for the quality of his music.

LB: There's a lot going on here. Not only is he very prolific in music, but also as a writer of books and pamphlets and, of course, articles about the gypsies. Sometimes his mistresses helped him turn out these materials. He's a one-man industry in terms of the numbers of students he had. But still, everyone is a little embarrassed by the music.

Q: So why play so much of his music at one festival?

LB: It's a great challenge, which is appealing to us, but there's no reason to make apologies for this music! In fact, there's no case where the disparity between the reputation of a composer and the frequency with which you encounter his music is greater! So it seems to me that there's a great opportunity here. The Wagnerians — Liszt's daughter Cosima, the wife of Richard Wagner, chief among them — didn't promote his career. In the 1830s he was the forerunner of Wagner, but Cosima pushed the idea that Wagner, and not her father, was the great innovator, which is historically untrue.

With the Brahmsians against him too, he was left with no defenders.

Q: It's strange that the man who knew everyone is somehow the "odd man out!"

LB: That's a good way to put it. He was a Hungarian but he didn't seem Hungarian — in part because he was loyal to the [Habsburg] Empire. His language was French; his major career and greatest influence were in Germany. He's owned by everyone and by no one. And since we love to speak in national stereotypes, he doesn't quite fit the model.

Q: Can you sum up some of some of his musical achievements?

LB: Well, he was very prolific and wrote plenty of church music, orchestral music, piano music. He invented music tools in the areas of narration, drama and theme-recognition that composers used later. He took a world interested in operatic music and introduced elements of that music into symphonic music. He abandoned traditional classical sonata form. With Liszt, music expanded to epic dimensions.

Q: How much of Liszt's public persona was "created" and how much was real? Was he putting on a show or was this who he was?

LB: Both. He was a performer. This is who he wanted to be. He was a showman — a man of enormous, theatrical, charismatic gifts. But he was also a very complicated, deeply spiritual individual. As a child he wanted to be a priest. He fell in love in the 1830's with the utopian socialists. He believed art was the prophet of social justice. His life was a search for spiritual fulfillment. At the same time he was a great Lothario — the seducer of all time. He was a theater producer, writer, composer and priest! Wagner was like this, too; people were not compartmentalized the way they are now.

Liszt told musicians that going to a conservatory was a waste of time. Music wasn't about technique or mechanical reproduction or narrow professionalism. Remember, Liszt was self-educated. Like Mozart, he was a child prodigy with an ambitious and musically knowledgeable father. With everything that Liszt was, he is a mirror of the 19th century.

Q: Looking at what you'll be conducting this summer, what are some of the Liszt pieces you are most excited about?

LB: Overall, the Festival starts with Czerny and ends with Wagner. I'm very excited to do the "Gran Mass" — the Missa Solennis [named for the place in Austria where it was first performed]. We performed the piece in New York about five years ago.

I'm looking forward to the Ernst Violin Concerto. Ernst was something of an "All About Eve" figure vis-_-vis Paganini. He competed with him but was also a groupie. Some of Liszt's tone poems are great — we're going to do the Battle of the Huns with the painting that inspired it projected above the orchestra. We'll do From the Cradle to the Grave, Orpheus and Die Ideale. We specifically chose all the tone poems that are rarely done but are nonetheless very strong pieces.

Q: What are some of the principal things you want people who visit Bard for this year's festival to take away with them in terms of their attitudes and ideas about Liszt?

LB: Just as with the opera we are doing this year — Schumann's Genoveva — I'd like people to re-think their prejudices towards Liszt. Liszt forces people to think about the role of music in culture. Liszt represents the highpoint of the importance of music in the definition of people's values in life. Music at that time was important in religion, politics — all over. He was a pioneer in the way that he helped music broaden out and become more meaningful in the culture of the time. Liszt's life and work present a means of thinking about our own attitudes towards musical culture.

We're very proud that the festival is doing music you can't hear anywhere else in the world — and not because it's bad music! From Alkan and Volkmann to Tausig and Joachim Raff. Even if all you want to hear is Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet you should be interested in Liszt because Tchaikovsky took a lot from him and his contemporaries. Knowing Liszt's Faust Symphony changes one's whole impression of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 — Mahler without Liszt is unthinkable. If you love Mahler, you should be only too thrilled to hear Liszt.

I'm doing standard repertory works in Israel with the Jerusalem Symphony [Botstein recently finished his third season as music director of the orchestra], pairing them with "new" and unfamiliar old stuff, and just like at Bard we're trying to create an opportunity with our programming for you to better understand what you really like. People don't go to the same restaurant every night, but when it comes to music too many people cling to the familiar. The absence of curiosity is startling and I really don't understand it. Sure, I can understand how much fun it is for a musician to do the same repertoire over and over again; that musician gets to know the piece inside out. But for me there's so much excitement that goes along with learning new repertoire.

Q: With a rarity like Schumann's Genoveva being presented this summer at Bard [five performances July 29 through August 5], along with two weekends centered around Liszt's music, were you afraid that this festival would be particularly difficult from the commercial vantage point?

LB: No. Liszt, in the end, is a household name — even if people don't really know his music. You have a basic recognition and curiosity factor. And, after 17 years of presenting the Bard Music Festival, we have our own audience. They know they've had rewarding experiences in the past and they trust us not to bore them. It would be harder to sell someone more obscure. It's the same with Genoveva: people don't have to ask "Who is this composer I've never heard of." Genoveva is to Schumann what Fidelio is to Beethoven.

Q: But Fidelio is a repertoire staple.

LB: But I think Genoveva belongs in the repertory!

A: After doing the Bard Music Festival for so many years, do you ever worry that you will run out of seminal composers who could sustain the kind of focus that Bard famously brings to bear in exploring the life and career of a composer?

LB: No. I could plot out the next decade. There's an endless supply. The history of music is too rich!

Q: Has the audience for the Bard Music Festival broadened since you introduced the SummerScape festival four years ago?

LB: The broadening has less to do with SummerScape than the new building. The acoustics and surroundings and the comfort and beauty of the Richard B. Fisher Center are attractions. So, that's the big change.

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