The Sunday Pianist

Alexander Borodin
Alexander Borodin

Franz Liszt was not only a masterful pianist and a world-class composer. He also fostered the talent of other composers. Alexander Borodin wrote of a formative encounter with Liszt in July 1877.

When I told him that I was only a Sunday pianist, he quipped, “but Sunday is always a feast day, and you are just the right person to preside.”

After tea our hostess led us to the piano in the drawing room and handed Liszt one of his own rhapsodies, asking him to show us how certain passages ought to be played. Liszt laughed. “You want me to play it! All right, I will. But first I want to play Monsieur Borodin’s symphony with him.” He asked me, “Do you play treble or bass?” I flatly refused to play, but finally I convinced the baroness to play just the andante, which she did with Liszt playing the bass. I was a fascinating performance and I was the only listener.

Liszt, however, was not content. “The baroness is very kind, but I want to play with you.” He took my hand and made me sit down at the bass while he took the treble.

First we tackled the finale, then the scherzo, then the first movement. Then we played the entire symphony, including all th e repeats. Liszt wouldn’t let up. After every moment he turned the page saying, “Let’s continue.”

Whenever I left something out or made a mistake, Liszt would say, “Why didn’t you play that? It’s so splendid.” When we had finished, he repeated several passages, complimenting their originality. He critiqued my symphony in great detail, and said that the andante is a perfect masterpiece.

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