Russell Lichter                                                                                                   June 2004

 

A summer evening, temperate, calm, almost timeless. You’d never know it’s early March. As the horizon fades from blue to blue on the recumbent hills where I live, it is easy to imagine a time long ago when the world was quite new and everything bristled with an almost magical potential. Just like in the fairy tales. I’ve got the doors and windows open, the volume controls on the Modulus turned down for the sake of the neighbors. And from Anées de Pèlerinage, I am listening to Aux Cyprès de la Villa d’Este II played by the great Lazar Berman [Deutsche Grammophon 437206-2]. I don’t remember where I first picked up the idea that Liszt was merely full of technical high jinx and showmanship, with no real substance to speak of. Perhaps from that bygone era (recalled by Mike Silverton in his letter to the editor in Stereophile) when the term serious music had meaning? As Alfred Brendel has noted, there once was an all too common perception of Liszt’s music being composed of “…bombast, superficiality, cheap sentimentality, formlessness…striving after effect for effect's sake.” Or possibly my prejudice against Liszt was simply an anachronism of those days of my early youth when, under the influence of J.W.N. Sullivan’s book, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, all composers other than Beethoven (maybe excepting Johannn Sebastian Bach) were of rather secondary importance? Years later it was, finally, my friend Yosuke (the Julliard piano student) who bade me pay attention to Liszt. That I did. And my attention led to a discovery that has served me well over the ensuing decades. True enough, Liszt shows off his extraordinary pianism and love of drama. But this music is not bombastic, cheap, full of empty effects and no substance. Quite the opposite, it is the utterly unique expression of an honest, sincere and humane spirit, who had a simple and great love of life, and a great ability to convey these emotions in music. Understanding this was, as it so often is, a matter of learning a new language. And we do, we humanoids, have a tendency to pour new wine into old skins.

I can remember how serious opinions, even aesthetic opinions, seemed when I was a newly fledged college student; the heated arguments I savored, about such earth-shattering questions as whether beauty was intrinsic or extrinsic. Being then, as now, of the former conviction, I was often up against it trying to make my point. And so I would continue to be if I still believed, as I did then, that the salvation of mankind depended on the ability to perceive and appreciate aesthetic content. If only, I used to think, everyone could really hear Beethoven’s C-sharp-minor Quartet, it’d save the world. It’s a bit more complicated than that, is the salvation of mankind. But I still think the question of aesthetic inherence an important, or at least a very interesting, one.

Consider these lines from a poem by Julaluddin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks.

Take an axe to the prison wall.
Escape.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.


My web site (now defunct) used to have a page devoted to poetry, including this one. A few years ago, a number of yahoos who were involved in the same thread on a Usenet group (purportedly devoted to audio, but very apt to digress a bit if the potential for flaming arose), visited my site in their spare time. It didn’t take a subtle mind to discover they did not care for Rumi, though in fairness a few acknowledged that poor translation might be responsible. Comments ranged from “doggerel” to “sophomoric drivel,” if memory serves. Granted, most of us are not in a position to evaluate a translation from the Persian, but some of us can tell good poetry when we read it, and this is poetry of a high order. (Question: do lines of poetry necessarily constitute a poem?) It is composed of simple and direct language, the merely verbal is transformed into the musical, where meaning multiplies in complexity and intensity. It is spiritual didacticism of such humble and heartfelt immediacy that the intervening centuries (Rumi died in1273) disappear like a mirage, and one can almost feel the presence of the God-drunk poet in his fragrant, moonlit garden.

Or is it nonsense clothed in doggerel?

I had a similar experience on the job some years ago. I was playing a recording of a Mozart Fantasia in my computer’s CD-ROM drive, and during a slow and particularly poignant passage, the guy in the next cubicle started laughing at the music. Now, I had experienced any number of responses to classical music by the uninitiated, but laughter was a new one. I remember him characterizing the music as silly and sentimental. I also seem to remember my characterizing him as an ignorant, Budweiser guzzling, philistine, though just between you and me, I understood his viewpoint. If one hasn’t grasped the language, the way Mozart uses musical conventions, the passage could pass for something simplistic and even silly. The casual listener would miss it. The uninitiated listener would too.

So, when we make an aesthetic judgement about a work of art, how can we be sure we’re on the right wavelength? We can’t. But if we’ve done our homework with an open mind, and especially with an open heart, we have a chance of being something more than just sincere in our judgement. We have a chance of perceiving a part of what’s inherent in that work of art. The artist can speak to us. I don’t know how many visits I made to Philip Johnson’s impressive Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica (“Give yourself a human treat”), New York, parking myself in front of their “minor” Jackson Pollock for thirty, forty, sixty minutes at a stretch, trying to fathom what’s going on on the canvas. I got it eventually: I learned Pollock’s language. I really learned Pollock’s language. It is thus the incomprehensible become richly illustrative; the chaotic, highly ordered; the seemingly simplistic, complex; the empty, full. It is with the work of art as it is with the guy in the red sweater you bump into outside downtown McDonalds: do you care to take the time to understand?

I’ve been blithely going along talking about content and language, which, of course, are terms someone would freely use who believes aesthetic content is intrinsic. This is an easily assailable and an unprovable point of view, but admitting this fact does no discredit to the viewpoint. So are many of the beliefs on which we found our behavior, our relationships, our jurisprudence, our culture. Joe Blogs walks into a room in which two other people are waiting. He chats with both of them and leaves. They are then asked to objectively evaluate Joe’s intelligence and character. One finds him stupid and vague. The other finds him insightful and precise. Looking at these data, are we free to postulate, because of their contradictory nature, that Mr Blogs has no inherent qualities, that it’s all in the mind of the observer? Like beauty, according to our extrinsic friends?

Most of us abhor the notion we are simply automatons, that nobody’s home. And if somebody is home, then to some degree their speech, their actions, and the things they make (such as sonatas and art institutes and birdhouses), have meaning, in the sense that they reflect an internal state. It follows from this that a composition by Beethoven, a painting by Vermeer, even a poem by yours truly, has content. And by language I simply mean that which conveys content, a level of organization beyond the mere formalities of a given aesthetic discipline. Mozart’s simple passage in the Fantasia is not the same thing as an equally simple passage—take your choice—in a Clementi sonata, although both composers use similar conventions and forms. The differences are of much greater significance than the similarities, and the differences are dictated by the demands of content, as well as the talent of the artist.

The first two books of Anées de Pèlerinage were written during Liszt’s four years of travel with the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult in Switzerland and Italy, beginning in 1835. The last book, which includes Aux Cyprès de la Villa d’Este II, dates from 1867-77. Not surprisingly, there is a notable profundity in the last book, giving voice to Liszt’s increasing interest in spiritual matters and increasing introspection. What Liszt is doing in the Anées de Pèlerinage is conveying with music internal impressions, of locales, buildings, nature, poetry, even the execution of Emperor Maximilien. Each piece does have a title, but I think one would be mistaken to view the Anées a programmatic music. The cypresses at Villa d’Este, where Liszt had a suite of rooms, were reputed to be the largest in all of Italy, but what one hears in the music is not a portrait of magnificent trees in an ancient landscape, rather one hears a pensive voice musing on a life’s experience, full of drama and sweetness. It is a voice that, to me, rings very true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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