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Liszt and Modern Music

Were the seeds of Heavy Metal planted by Franz Liszt?
That question may sound a bit far-fetched, but once one closely listens to some of Liszt's pioneering compositions-- filled with brutal moans, groans, and diabolical angst --they suddenly find out why it was said that "Liszt hurled his Lance into the Future."

Liszt was the ultimate experimenter of his era, much like Leonardo Da Vinci during his. Both great men analyzed, formulated and recorded brilliant and visionary ideas that far exceeded the limited scope of their own generation. Thus, they both fell prey to suspect and even ridicule by some of their contemporaries, being called dreamers, demented or worse. Only the more astute could realize that the being before them was of a celestial, higher order - the ultimate genius of their day, misunderstood by the masses.

Liszt brought to music unprecedented emotional and psychological impact that  previously never existed, paving the way for *Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Puccini and many others that followed. Though Beethoven previously touched upon a heavier style with the Coriolan Overture, or Mozart with Don Giovanni, or even Boccherini's La casa del Diavolo, they never delved as deep into the brutal darkside of mankind, nor into the darkest and most demonic realms of evil as did Liszt. Liszt wasn't deterred from inventing menacing harmonies of diabolical and dissonant proportions to portray this evil phenomenon. Meanwhile, all others shied away from such endeavors; fearful of offending the religious traditions ingrained in society for thousands of years, which not only mocked progressive people toying with the subject but even persecuted or burned them at the stake for such evil endeavors.

That a Heavy Metal band like Black Sabbath was barraged by religious groups for being evil is testament to how toying around with evil music is still seriously frowned upon. Moreover, like Black Sabbath, whose lyrics happened to have been all pro-Christian, Franz Liszt was a diehard Catholic. In fact, he was even more religious in that he took minor orders to become an abbé. Moreover, one look at how he conducted his life, giving free lessons, free concerts as fundraisers, helping aspiring artists at the expense of his own career, and writing celestial oratorios and masses, we instantly, and quite assuredly, know that Franz Liszt was an angel, not Mephistopheles.

Henceforth, Liszt was certainly not a devil worshipper, as some foolishly suspected, as he simply revealed all facets of the human experience. His era was one of great instability, revolutions, war and death. To turn a deaf ear, and close one's eyes, to this aspect of life is, after all, pure ignorance. That a novelist can write about the evil side of mankind, like Shakespeare did in "Hamlet", Goethe did in "Faust" or Dante did in his "Divine Comedy", Liszt felt the same freedom as a composer.

Detesting war and violence, Liszt broke the man-made shackles that prevented composers from bringing this part of reality into the limelight. We must remember, the ugliness that mankind perpetuates in life was not introduced or executed by Liszt, he merely recreated in sound our failings... much to the shock and utter bewilderment of his contemporaries. The raw and brutal power that Liszt unleashed in his new works understandably left many in his day horrified. Yet, we must always remember, Liszt did not only show us the darkside, as his numerous religious pieces and romantic pieces attest. However, too many people, then and now, have unjustly overlooked the full breadth of Liszt's works due to these radical avant-garde pieces. Quite unfortunately, his oratorios and masses continue to be neglected masterpieces, due primarily to ignorance.

Liszt's amazingly modern Faust and Dante symphonies, along with pieces like Prometheus, Héroïde Funèbre, Czardas Macabre and others each showcased ferocious harmonies that swelled into cataclysmic waves of sound that barraged and intimidated the frail senses of Liszt's 19th century audience. One only needs to listen to these pieces along side works of his contemporaries, while purging one's mind of all 20th century music, to feel the power of Liszt's scoring. Then one can similarly begin to understand the disdainful reaction by his pristine audience that were born and raised on the centuries old tradition of music being stately, pretty, glorious or even consistently rhythmic.

Rhythmic fluctuations punctuated many of Liszt's works, and this too caused uneasiness, for the steady metronomic beat was practically set in stone by the earliest of musicians. Then Liszt came along and launched his Faust Symphony and Hamlet symphonic poem in a series of very slow rising and diminishing moans that taxed those with traditional ears or attention deficit, while intriguing the astute who could actually feel the music echo the inner cries of the piece's main characters, while simultaneously peeking their curiosity as to what will happen next. And what happened next was the wild ride into the modern world of music. A world that would be deeply influenced by these radical harmonies and eventually win over the stately and traditional modes of composition that dominated mankind since the beginning of time. Thus, Liszt sharply immersed his era into a new symphonic world of heavy music that would eventually evolve and be called Heavy Metal.

But Liszt's pieces aren't all heavy metal and thunder, for even amorous music previously never reached such climaxes of heartfelt ecstasy as in Liszt. He released the very soul and repressed passions of mankind. In essence he opened new doors, so we all could relate, evaluate, and appreciate the various realms of life we all share and experience. Even the sides we generally wish to conceal or ignore. Hence, the ones that cannot relate to such music are either cold, inhuman cadavers or they are afraid to embrace the totality of life - warts, hidden pleasures and all.

As for Liszt's portrayals of death and destruction, it's not that we should promote or succumb to evil, but we must address its existence, as even the Bible has no problem doing. As with anything in life, the more we confront and study a subject or phenomenon the better we understand it, and the better we'll know how to address it, rather than ignoring it or shying away in fear. Narrow-mindedness breeds prejudice and stagnation, as the Middle Ages clearly attest. Fortunately for the Renaissance mankind and civilization began to be reborn, and eventually flourished, all because of a thirst for knowledge and a lack of fear of the unknown.

Liszt Liszt composed Hamlet in the 1850's well over a hundred years before Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix or even Iron Butterfly. Yet, unlike modern Metal bands Liszt was not pigeonholed into writing only heavy, radical music. His vast output was perhaps the most varied ever written by a single composer. Which is why he is such an enigma. Humans tend to categorize in order to make their learning easier, but Liszt is not easy. From romance to virtuosity, heaven to hell, simplicity to profound philosophy Liszt's music embraced every facet of life, for Liszt was multifaceted.

HAMLET: Play Hamlet audio clip. The midi orchestration that you'll hear playing was sequenced by Peter Parkanyi, yet I took the liberty to change the instrumentation utilizing some modern synthesizer instruments to make it sound more current. It must be remembered that I did not alter or add any notes. They are all as the great master wrote them, only some of the instruments are different - with a few adjustments in Peter's dynamics. It is an exercise to show just how far Liszt hurled his lance into the future. The 2 minute clip playing here appears in the work's early to mid section when Hamlet finally let's loose his revenge, the entire work generally runs about 14 minutes long.

Liszt's Dante Symphony, Héroïde Funèbre, Totentanz, Prometheus and many others also contain advanced soundscapes that make Liszt look like a modern time traveler stuck in an ancient civilization. I hope you enjoy your journey here into Liszt's universe, as this is only one facet of a very complex and beautifully unique diamond, one never to be buried or lost!

Liszt's Hamlet: Liszt's symphonic poem ingeniously portrays the various psychological mood swings that plague Hamlet throughout Shakespeare's intense play. At the start we can sense Hamlet's vexing thoughts and doubts. We hear the music oscillate, aptly echoing his indecision, but then the tormented Hamlet slowly rises, only to sink back into confusion. Slowly he begins plotting his revenge. The music begins to swell, building and building, until suddenly he snaps into a violent frenzy; we feel his mind crack as he bursts into a psychotic rage. It's a grinding movement, pumped with pure adrenaline. Then abruptly his rage halts... a soft delicate melody interrupts portraying Ophelia. Yet since the meek and delicate Ophelia is incapable of rising or maintaining on Hamlet's level her melody is brief and fleeting. Hamlet returns with his various strident, brooding and contemplative moods. The end draws near as he eventually releases a dark moan and fatal quiver. With the last and final heart beat, Hamlet expires. So ends a truly original, very radical masterpiece of 1858 by Franz Liszt.

- Rich DiSilvio

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Wagner and Liszt

* To address a common reaction, "What about Wagner!?!" - contrary to the fabricated, or misinformed, theories of some historical detractors in the past, Liszt gave more than he received. It is now common knowledge that Wagner, in his own private words, admitted that his new style in music was due to Liszt, yet adamantly demanded that it be kept secret. Wagner scrutinized Liszt's ingenious innovations fully realizing the master's genius, despite the public's growing condemnation of Liszt's musical absurdities. Understandably so, since Liszt was the most radical and advanced composer of his era. But, Wagner astutely recognized their artistic value, and seized the opportunity to appropriate these harmonic inventions from Liszt's luminous laboratory.

Here is a small sample of two of Wagner's private letters to Liszt. The first is from July 20, 1856, concerning his symphonic poems:

"With your symphonic poems I am now quite familiar. They are the only music I have anything to do with at present, as I cannot think of doing any work of my own while undergoing medical treatment. Every day I read one or the other of your scores, just as I would read a poem, easily and without hindrance. Then I feel every time as if I had dived into a crystalline depth, there to be all alone by myself, having left all the world behind, to live for an hour my own proper life. Refreshed and invigorated, I then come to the surface again, full of longing for your personal presence. Yes, my friend, you have the power! You have the power!"

And later on December 6, 1856, Wagner wrote:

"I feel thoroughly contemptible as a musician, whereas you, as I have now convinced myself, are the greatest musician of all times."

Those are powerful words, especially from a man who never, or very rarely, offered praise to anyone. But it is quite true to Wagner form that he demanded that these confessions remain private and out of the public arena. Wagner succeeded in concealing this for over half a century, swaying the views of the public, critics and historians, which more often than not made Liszt out to be a small pilot fish clinging on the back of the huge Wagnerian tiger shark. I bring this all to light not to demote Wagner, but to lift Liszt to his rightful place, and thus set the record straight by raising truth to the surface.

So it was that the 19th century public openly embraced and hailed Wagner for his historic Tristan chord, which we now know was lifted from his friend and father in-law, Franz Liszt. The stolen chord in question was from the song "Ich mochte hingehn" composed by Liszt earlier in 1845, a full decade before Wagner unleashed Tristan. So, although the world saw Richard Wagner as a towering figure, we must remember... he stood upon the shoulders of Franz Liszt. Wagner's output previous to knowing and studying Liszt was mainstream German Opera with moments of budding talent. But Lohengrin utilizes chords from Liszt's Faust Symphony, while The Ring and Parsifal are strategically built upon Lisztian harmonies. So, the colossal Wagner edifice that we know and cherish today, I being one of them, was in fact not only founded upon a Lisztian foundation, but was partially constructed with Lisztian steel, block and mortar, without which the towering Wagnerian shrine could never have been built. Hence my point, if Liszt never existed neither would the Ring or many of Wagner's works that made him world famous. Therefore, this is the reason why Liszt must stand above his genius son-in-law Richard in the arena of invention. This does not refer to the end result, which both equally crafted to the highest levels of Art, nor does it imply that Wagner had no inventions of his own, as his remarkable ability at orchestration attests, but simply that at the root level the most crucial and profoundly advanced harmonies that blossomed in Wagner's lush gardens did indeed spawn from Liszt's fertile seeds. Return



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All text and Liszt portrait © Rich DiSilvio