The Master

Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt (Photo by Haufstaengl ca1858)

At age twenty, Franz Liszt was already a spectacular pianist. Paris had plenty of virtuosi, but seeing a spectacular violinist perform took him to a new summit of musicianship.

In April 1832 Liszt attended a benefit concert for cholera victims. The performer was Niccolò Paganini, who, to Liszt’s way of thinking, not only played the violin better than anyone else, but played the instrument as well as it could be played, and seemed to be at one with his violin.

The stunned pianist wrote a letter to his student, Pierre Wolff, Jr., attributing to Michelangelo an utterance generally believed to have come from Correggio:

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For two weeks now my mind and my fingers have been working like two lost souls. Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Byron, Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber are all around me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them with fury. Besides this, I practice four or five hours of exercises (thirds, sixths, octaves, tremolos, repetition of notes, cadences, etc., etc.) Ah! As long as I don’t go mad, you will find an artist in me. Yes, an artist such as the one you desire, such as is required these days.

“And I too am a painter!” cried Michelangelo the first time he beheld a masterpiece. Your friend, though insignificant and poor, can’t stop repeating those words ever since Paganini’s last performance. René, what a man, what a violin, what an artist! Heavens! What sufferings, what misery, what tortures in those four strings!

…As far as his expression and his style of playing are concerned, they come from his very soul!

Liszt’s new goal was to create a piano repertory that would enable him to emulate some of Paganini’s most dramatic effects–leaps, glissandos, and bell-like harmonics. But from watching Paganini on that spring evening, he also learned that the artist himself could become a work of art. Next we’ll see how Liszt dazzled concert-goers with his showmanship….

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