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Even though she never traversed the Atlantic to tour or visit the New World, Clara Schumann was a regular subject of the American press in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, her widespread celebrity meant that daily newspapers, trade journals and leisure periodicals fashioned Schumann in many different – and sometimes competing – ways. On the one hand, factual reports informed readers of her professional activities, personal life and European reception. On the other hand, such information could be used by editors like John Sullivan Dwight, critics like George Upton, writers like Aubertine Woodward, and publishers like John Church, to advance their own agendas. As a result, the Schumann depicted in the American press in the aggregate during her lifetime might more accurately be characterized as ‘Schumann’ – a symbolic figure who not only appealed to America’s nascent celebrity culture, but who could also be invoked to shape important aesthetic, social and artistic issues.
The Countess Marie d’Agoult, an extraordinary woman of letters who wrote under the pen name Daniel Stern, recalled an early encounter with Franz Liszt:
[He] was drawn to the innovations in letters and arts which threatened the older order: Childe Harold, Manfred, Werther, Obermann, all the magnificent or desperate revolutionists of romantic poetry were the companions of his sleepless nights. With them he rose to a proud disdain for the conventions, he shuddered as they did under the hated yoke of the aristocracy, which had neither genius nor virtue as its foundation; he desired no more subjection, no more resignation, but a holy hatred, implacable and avenging, toward all iniquities.1
For d’Agoult, who within a year would begin a scandalous affair with the pianist that resulted in the birth of three children, Liszt was a man urged on by the literary heroes of the new Romantic movement. These figures, as d’Agoult proudly suggests, boldly defied artistic and social traditions in order to advance a new world in which the arts and their practitioners would assume central importance. While many of her contemporaries shared this outlook, in her estimation, Liszt went much further. Not only did he promote Romantic artistic principles in his music, writings and behaviour, but he actually embodied the very literary figures themselves. And while the heroes of French Romanticism were fundamental in shaping Liszt’s early artistic identity, he continued such assimilative practices throughout his entire life. As a result, literature and poetry routinely complemented his musical offerings, from the early Symphonie révolutionnaire and Album d’un voyageur to the esoteric song settings of his last years.
Every instrument has one, some many: a person whose expression is revelatory, whose technique is both effortless and boundless and whose audience never wants to stop applauding. These extraordinary musicians may still be alive, selling out concerts and racking up views on YouTube and likes on social media. Others have been gone for decades, even centuries, their historical distance only adding to their mythic reputation. Andrés Segovia or Joe Satriani on the guitar, Luigi Boccherini or Yo-Yo Ma on the violoncello, Niccolò Paganini or Hilary Hahn on the violin – such musicians have shaped the identity of their instrument by dint of unparalleled technical and artistic mastery.
On a sunny afternoon in the music room of the Hofgärtnerei in Weimar, seven pianists carried out a rite that had naturally crystalized over the last decades: from a pile of scores stacked atop one of two grand pianos, Franz Liszt selected works by Robert Schumann, Fryderyk Chopin, Anton Rubinstein, Jean Louis Nicodé and himself to hear that day. Those compositions had been offered by Emil von Sauer, Maximillian van der Sandt, Alexander Lambert, Georg Liebling, Louis Marek and Augusta Fischer, who in turn played them before Liszt and their peers. For the most part, the seventy-two-year-old master was pleased with the hearings. His student August Göllerich noted how Liszt conducted along while Marek played the Meyerbeer-Liszt Illustrations de l’Africaine, grimaced playfully throughout Lambert’s performance of Rubinstein’s Fourth Piano Concerto and played through almost the whole of Chopin’s third Ballade, during which ‘he exquisitely caricatured the manner in which [the first] theme is played in the conservatories!’1
Few compositions escaped the transcriber’s pen in the nineteenth century. New and old symphonies, operas, quartets, art and popular songs and myriad combinations of chamber and vocal ensembles were repackaged to meet the needs of a public eager for music that could be played, studied or discussed in the domestic sphere. While indefatigable transcribers such as Friedrich Mockwitz and Otto Singer Jr – to say nothing of those who went uncredited and thus remain unknown – provided much of this material, the practice in fact spread far beyond the staff of the major publishing houses of the day. Ludwig van Beethoven arranged or oversaw arrangements of his large-ensemble and chamber works, as did Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms decades later. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ignaz Moscheles, Felix Mendelssohn and even the cash-strapped Richard Wagner adapted numerous foreign symphonies, overtures and operas. And Georges Bizet, for reasons that remain unclear, rendered an enormous number of works by Charles Gounod, Jules Massenet, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ambroise Thomas and others for two- and four-hand piano.
This chapter explores the environment of programmatic music-making that centered on the so-called “progressive” composers Liszt, Wagner, and their acolytes, contextualizes the ongoing debates between absolute music and program music that they occasioned, and considers various programmatic compositions outside of that narrow tradition. It gives particular attention to the forty-year period between the appearance of most of Liszt’s symphonic poems and Strauss’s tone poems, in which Hans von Bronsart, Hans von Bülow, Alexander Ritter, Felix Draeseke, and other students of the New German School sought to develop tenets of program music with limited success. Just as integral to the success of program music were the sites and contexts of its performance, as Vienna, Paris, Madrid, and New York welcomed and rejected program music in equal measure. These circumstances shaped Strauss to be a composer open toward, but also healthily suspicious of, program music and its past practitioners.
As the Western world celebrated the dawn of its third millennium, devotees of nineteenth-century art music started to prepare for a spate of bicentennials. By 2013, Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner had been honoured with symposia, concerts, exhibitions and premieres the world over. These events offered opportunities for participants to take stock of who these composers once were, who they are now, and how they might endure to the next milestone anniversary.
About three-quarters of the way through Vallée d’Obermann, the anchor of the first book of Franz Liszt's Années de pèlerinage, the pianist is confronted with a difficult choice: either play the reading given in normal type at measure 181 and following (ex. 4.1) or select the one above it in slightly smaller print marked “ossia.” At first glance, both passages seem to share much in common, including sonorous, open-position right-hand chords and expansive left-hand arpeggios. As each passage develops, however, the differences start to outnumber the similarities. The “ossia” passage introduces accidentals in measure 182 that give the ethereal melody a decidedly melancholic character, while the other remains decidedly in the tonic; only later, at measure 183, does it seem to catch up.
Yet, by that point, the ossia has not only moved much further afield harmonically, but it has also returned to interrogating the piece's main motive, which Liszt has already presented in several clever permutations. Above this primal motivic reprise floats a new arpeggiated figure that seems to have developed out of the preceding left-hand accompaniment and is keen to run through chains of characteristic Lisztian thirds. Meanwhile, the passage in regular type has introduced a hypnotic, oscillating right-hand triplet accompaniment whose high altitude on the keyboard underscores the plaintive features of the melody—another rendition, this time in inversion, of the ubiquitous falling motive—that lies beneath.
To be sure, today it is relatively uncommon to find ossia passages in printed music. Rachmaninoff has a famous one in his Third Piano Concerto, op. 30, as does Beethoven in the first movement of his Fifth, op. 73. Ossia passages can help pianists negotiate some of the thornier spots in Brahms's Piano Sonata in C Major, op. 1, or Glazunov's “Sascha” Suite, op. 2; on the flip side, they can also enhance a performer's virtuosic credentials by providing more difficult or showy readings of shopworn music.
In his autobiography, published in 1936, Igor Stravinsky asserted that
music, by its very nature, is essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. … Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have often come to confuse with its essential being.
This view of music – its nature, limits, and impact on the senses and intellect – was controversial, but not new. Twenty years earlier, author Jean Cocteau, composer Erik Satie, and impresario Sergei Diaghilev collaborated to produce the ballet Parade, a conscious experiment in non-expressive, non-meaning art. Sixty years before that, critic Eduard Hanslick professed that “the content of music are forms moving in sound.” And almost a half-century earlier, the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann voiced preference for instrumental music, “which scorns all aid, all admixture of other arts – and gives pure expression to its own peculiar artistic nature … [It] leaves behind all feelings circumscribed by intellect in order to embrace the inexpressible.”
Given that many of the expressive devices found in instrumental music in the second half of the eighteenth century were first tested and approved on the operatic stage, it was natural that the opera overture soon became one of the main sites for significant programmatic innovation. In the famous preface to the printed score of his “reform opera,” Alceste, from 1769, Christoph Willibald Gluck stressed how “the overture ought to apprise the spectators of the nature of the action that is to be represented and to form, so to speak, its argument.” Writing over seventy years later, Richard Wagner pinpointed the aesthetic difference between the sectional, mono-expressive overture before Gluck, and those that subsequently “weld[ed] the isolated sections to a single undivided whole, whose movement [was] sustained by just the contrast of those different characteristic motives.” Accordingly, outstanding examples of the poly-characteristic opera overture resolved “the conflict between [opposing] musical themes in a manner analogous to the resolution of the drama in question.” Yet the most outstanding overtures went even further, Wagner argues, by shedding the claustrophobic mandate to analogously reenact and resolve the upcoming stage work in favor of creating self-sustaining, independent instrumental dramas. And while he singled out notable examples in the history of the opera overture’s development since Gluck – including W. A. Mozart, Luigi Cherubini, and Carl Maria von Weber – for Wagner the epitome of the dramatic overture was Ludwig van Beethoven, whose concert overtures not only heavily influenced the composition of the overtures or preludes to Wagner’s own operas from the period, such as Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin, but also the single-movement dramatic or poetic overtures of Beethoven’s contemporaries.
Mendelssohn’s Scottish complex and Liszt’s German Hungaria
On 7 August 1829, from the town of Tobermory in the Scottish Inner Hebrides, Felix Mendelssohn dispatched a letter to his family that contained the first twenty-one measures of what would become his “Hebrides” Overture. The next day he and his traveling companion, Karl Klingemann, sought out Fingal’s Cave, a picturesque destination made popular by James Macpherson’s “translations” from the 1760s of the ancient Scots-Gaelic bard Ossian. Composition and revision occupied Mendelssohn for more than five years after his visit to the Hebrides, and he never did settle on a definitive title for one of his most admired orchestral works: On 11 December 1830 he described the work as an Ouverture zur einsamen Insel (Overture to the Solitary Island), five days later as Die Hebriden (The Hebrides); it was premiered by the Philharmonic Society in London on 14 May 1832 as The Isles of Fingal, a title Mendelssohn also sanctioned for the London publication sixteen months later of the four-hand piano arrangement. On the continent, however, that same edition appeared as Ouverture aux Hébrides (Fingals Höhle) (Overture to the Hebrides [Fingal’s Cave]). Orchestral parts appeared in June 1834 for Die Hebriden, while the full score from April 1835 advertised itself as Die Fingals-Höhle. However, one constant among the myriad titles Mendelssohn vetted is his subject matter’s exotic distance from its intended European audience. Indeed, few figures captivated readers (and listeners) as forcefully in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: A long-dead, quasi mythic poet (Ossian) chronicles the deeds of his father (Fingal) in a mysterious, long-abandoned realm (Fingal’s Cave) in a remote part of the Western world (the Hebrides).
Writing of the contemporary Austro-German musical landscape in 1912, the Munich-based critic and theorist Rudolf Louis posited three competing tendencies among composers of instrumental music: “the first, program-musical tendency leads via Berlioz and Liszt to Richard Strauss; the second, diametrically opposed direction leads via Schumann to Max Reger; and the third, which in a certain sense mediates between them, leads to Gustav Mahler.”
Louis’s valiant efforts in creating a stylistic taxonomy of music fall short vis-à-vis program music. His Strauss–Reger–Mahler trichotomy seeks to extend the philosophical divisions of the 1850s, which, as Chapter 5 contends, were at best practiced inconsistently by composers who often fled from one camp to the other – a situation perhaps implicitly acknowledged by Louis, who enlists Schumann on Reger’s behalf. Similarly, none of the contemporary composers mentioned by Louis (including Mahler, who had recently died) can be confined to any single category. Even Strauss, the public face of program music by the century’s end, routinely equivocated on the degree to which his music should assert programmatic agendas. Perhaps the single element that binds together composers active around the fin de siècle is an uneasy sense of place in history, for their compositions are as much about breaking away from tradition as they are about maintaining it.
In a review from December 1899 of Hector Berlioz’s recently published “private letters” (“lettres intimes”), Camille Saint-Saëns tried to put his finger on what made Berlioz, who had been dead thirty years yet whose position in French music was still being fiercely debated, tick:
Like the mystics who reached the point of experiencing the pains of the Passion in their own bodies, Berlioz experienced the torments of Faust, Hamlet and Manfred. He incarnated in himself these poetic creations, whose imaginary sufferings were metamorphosed in him into real ones. Was it Camille and Henriette he loved, or rather Ophelia and Ariel? At some moments it is no longer he who lives, but Shakespeare who lives in him. We are observers of a curious phenomenon of poetic mysticism, leading, like the religious kind, to serious disorders of the nervous system and to a cruel and interminable torture that slowly eats into one’s existence and ceases only in death.
Saint-Saëns admits that Berlioz was perhaps too Romantic for his own good, having let himself get immersed in the fictional worlds of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Shakespeare, and Lord Byron to the detriment of his reputation and personal life. The criticism, of course, says as much about Saint-Saëns’s musical aesthetics as it does Berlioz’s (see Chapter 9); but the reviewer nevertheless hits the nail on the head when, in a more extended consideration from the same year, he characterizes Berlioz as “a paradox made flesh.”
Toward a “Beethoven of the future”: Liszt’s “Dante” Symphony
In early 1839, Franz Liszt began to plan symphonic compositions based on Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. By the end of the year, he had written in a public letter to Hector Berlioz that “Dante has found his pictorial expression in Orcagna and Michelangelo, and someday perhaps he will find his musical expression in the Beethoven of the future.” The ensuing decade of intense concertizing meant that he would not be able to realize his plans in earnest until the 1850s, but in the interim he was able to devote considerable energy to a piano piece eventually published as “Après une lecture du Dante – Fantasia quasi Sonata” in Book 2 (“Italy”) of the Années de pèlerinage (1858). During its long gestation, Liszt assigned it various titles: “Fragment dantesque” (1839); “Paralipomènes [Postscript] à la Divina Commedia: Fantaisie Symphonique pour Piano” (c.1848); and “Prolégomènes [Preliminary Discourse] … ” (c.1852).
In good programmatic fashion, the work references, but does not directly cite, two ostensibly incompatible models: Victor Hugo’s poem, “Après une lecture de Dante” (“After Reading Dante”), and Ludwig van Beethoven’s two piano sonatas, op. 27, each a “sonata quasi fantasia.” Hugo distills the thirty-three cantos of Dante’s Hell into almost as many lines of poetry (see Text Box 5.1), and Beethoven – especially in op. 27, no. 1 – infuses sonata structures with spontaneous, improvisational outbursts. Along the same lines as its models, Liszt’s “Dante” Sonata is both poetic and musical gloss, offering “a reading of the Dante” – note the definite article – by way of elaborate thematic transformations and elastic formal structures akin to the Piano Sonata in B minor and Les Préludes.