The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major

About the Work

Image for Liszt Composer: Franz Liszt
© Thomas May

The gulf between the opera house and the concert hall, which Tobias Picker's new Opera Without Words bridges in such an imaginative and original way, featured as a key front for one of the most famous culture wars in the history of music. This was none other than the confrontation between the self-described avant-garde in the second half of the 19th century-spearheaded by Franz Liszt (1811-1886), the operatic revolutionary Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and their followers-and the upholders of the Classical legacy, whose hero became Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). In some ways, this battle got replayed throughout the 20th century until it was rendered irrelevant by the polyglot, promiscuous, anything-goes aesthetic that emerged victorious over the past several decades.


To simplify crudely, the questions both sides were grappling with centered around defining what music at its core is "about" and how a piece of music should be communicated to audiences-questions that very much continue to be actively debated today. Should compositions be associated with narratives, concepts, or images that are outside the realm of music (as in the symphonic poems pioneered by Liszt, or, say, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition), or should they be thought of as purely self-contained, "about" nothing more than what the notes themselves tell us (as in a symphony or chamber piece by Brahms)? If you think of these options as occurring along a continuum, at either extreme you would find what became pigeonholed as "program music" (music linked to the non-musical realm) and "absolute music."


These positions were reinforced by philosophies of how to compose music, what shape to give it. The proponents of program music championed novel musical forms, while those committed to absolute music tended to argue for the conservation of the tried-and-true genres of the symphony and concerto (as practiced by masters like Beethoven). For that reason, the former became associated with the "progressive" view (Wagner's own rallying cry was "the music of the future"), the latter with a "conservative" perspective.


In reality, of course, this never played out so schematically. While their followers frequently imagined themselves to be engaged in enemy camps, Wagner and Brahms themselves developed responses to these questions too complex and contradictory to be codified as a simple-minded manifesto. You can find Wagner veering toward the "absolute" side of the equation-he famously once described his music dramas as "deeds of music made visible"-while Brahms seeded his most abstract compositions with tantalizing personal references to his close circle.


Alan Walker, author of an extensive biography of Franz Liszt, suggests that the alleged polarity between program and absolute music may indeed be an illusion: "To put Liszt's view of the matter at its simplest, no composer of program music expects his program to be divined from the notes of the score alone. The program merely invites us into the composer's workshop. ... A good program can never save a bad piece; a good piece can never be harmed by a bad program. Music remains music, whatever its origin."


Liszt's "progressive" approach to the Classical tradition actually diverged significantly from Wagner's ideas about the "music of the future." Still, both composers came to be viewed as the antithesis of Brahms because of their conviction that the old forms would no longer do. While Wagner carried out his reformation in the opera house, Liszt (only four years older, though he would become Wagner's father-in-law) was depicted as the avant-garde standard bearer for the field of instrumental music-largely on the basis of the symphonic poems he composed during his period as music director at the court of Weimar from 1848 to 1861.


It was during this period as well that Liszt refined the three piano concertos he published in his lifetime, drawing on material dating back to the 1830s: the First and Second Concertos and Totentanz ("The Dance of Death"), a piece that fuses elements of the symphonic poem with the concerto. (The Piano Concerto No. 3, a much later posthumous discovery, likely dates from earlier in Liszt's career; he is also known to have composed two concertos as a teenager, but neither of these has survived.)


The mere fact that Liszt grappled with the genre of the piano concerto during these years points to the first phase of his career and to the identity that had made him famous to begin with: Liszt as the super-virtuoso and celebrity performer, who transformed the piano into what he called "the microcosm of music." Ironically, by then Liszt had abandoned his public career as a piano soloist and was determined to focus on his mission as a composer and a kind of guru to a new generation of composers. In fact, Liszt had one of his students premiere the Second Piano Concerto, while he played the role of conductor. This took place in Weimar in 1857, though Liszt had started writing the score in 1839, a year in which he embarked on an ambitious touring scheme. He obsessively revised the piece over the years until 1861, allowing it to be published only in 1863.


So the Second Piano Concerto straddles two of Liszt's disparate identities as a Romantic artist: the virtuoso superhero at the keyboard and the forward-looking composer intent on creating a new brand of music for a dynamic age. Liszt attacks the concerto genre's association with dazzling but superficial music-making head-on by turning the focus away from virtuosity in favor of poetry and ingenuity of form. Significantly, he labeled the piece a concerto symphonique-implying a synthesis of concerto and symphony, and more specifically, of the symphonic practice cherished by the Romantics (including Brahms) of transforming musical ideas that are organically interconnected at their root.


Liszt rejects the three-movement Classical design conventionally used for a concerto. He replaces it with a single-movement span comprising diverse but interlinked sections. His model was the groundbreaking Wanderer Fantasy, which Schubert composed for solo piano in 1822. Liszt even orchestrated that score, transforming it into a de facto piano concerto whose length is roughly the same as that of the Second Piano Concerto (a little over 20 minutes).


This idea of a mega-single movement design is similar to what is found in other crucial compositions by Liszt (most famously, in his Sonata in B minor from 1853). The various sections fulfill the function of variety we typically find in multi-movement compositions-the statement of themes, a high-energy scherzo, a dreamy slow movement, high drama for a finale-but they are deeply integrated through Liszt's technique of metamorphosis: in essence a glorified technique of variation of a handful of core themes, which resemble characters in a play or a novel who are subjected to the pressures of experience.


Liszt's innovations extend to his harmonic language, which is immediately apparent in the opening gesture: a beguiling, mysterious sequence of chords in the woodwinds. Although no explicit program is appended to the Second Concerto, this captivating thematic idea underpins all that is to follow like a poetic invocation. Notice, too, that the pianist, who soon enters, is first identified in the guise of poetic rhapsode, not fleet- fingered virtuoso athlete (though there will be plenty of that to follow).


Liszt uses mini-cadenzas to link the various sections together. From the rapturous opening, the music switches gears several times, becoming aggressive and agitated, and then reined in to prepare for a gorgeous duet between solo cello and the keyboard-a spellbinding "slow movement." Liszt infuses diabolical energy and eventually reaches a climax in a march-like passage filled out with militant brass and crashing cymbals. (Here he seems to be borrowing from a detour Beethoven makes in the tenor solo section of the finale of his Ninth Symphony-the granddaddy of the concept of a vast movement of thematic "metamorphoses.") In the final pages, Liszt supplies a coda of manic, assertive energy, as if wrapping up an ordinary virtuoso concerto rather than the innovative vision to which we have just been made witnesses.