Liszt and Chopin - Piano-Forte
As well as the piano, these two composers had depression in common.
Liszt, Chopin, depression, and the piano. The two are virtually synonymous with the word piano. They were born a year apart and came of age in an era fully receptive to their genius, when to be labeled as a Romantic was to be considered an innovator, one who not only broke with traditions of how music was composed and played but how it was listened to, as well.
There the similarities seemingly end. Franz Liszt was the Elvis of his day, and his recitals had ladies swooning in the aisles. Modern musical criticism, however, has consigned Liszt and his pyrotechnics to the lower rungs of composers, just above say Salieri.
By contrast to Liszt, Frederic Chopin made his reputation as a pianist based on fewer than 30 public appearances. The delicacy of his technique, an apparent extension to his frail health, stood in direct counterpoint to the showy keyboard acrobatics that were the rage of Europe at the time. But to reduce both men to simple contrasts is to do them a grave injustice, as there is much more to both men than meets the ear.
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Lisztomania was the name of a Ken Russell movie some 30 years ago. Lisztodepression may have been more like it. A piece in a Sunday New York Times dating from the early 2000s challenges the notion of Liszt as a second rate composer and flashy showman, dredging up long-neglected works such as the oratorio Christus and the Faust Symphony in support of a deeper and more meaningful Liszt.
Citing Alan Walker's three-volume biography, we learn "Liszt comes off less like Elvis and more like Jesus, less a sinner than one sinned against, more to be pitied than censured." He promoted the careers of Wagner and Berlioz, amongst others, put on probably the first benefit performances in history, and gave most of his money away.
Walker's scholarship unearthed a number of previously unknown facts about the composer's life, chief amongst them that Liszt suffered depression so severe he contemplated suicide and was deterred only by his strong Catholic faith. According to the article: "Current knowledge of the pathology of depression ... gives a greater understanding of what Liszt was experiencing."
One can explain Liszt's monumental contradictions - his worldly Elvis Liszt and spiritual Liszt (who took his initial vows to be a priest) - only in terms of mythical transfiguration, of resolution into a being who manifested a humanity and godliness few of us can recognize and even fewer comprehend.
If there is any fault in his music, it is in its over-reaching ambition, in its noble but doomed effort to be as large in art as Liszt was in life. Had Liszt been a creature of lesser stature, he might have achieved the transcendence and sublimity he strived for simply by composing music far more unassuming.
Yet, even though Liszt is rarely performed in the concert hall these days, he deserves his place in the same pantheon of composers as Mozart and Beethoven for the simple reason music would not have been the same without him. The term "recital" comes from Liszt. Budding piano players learn from his piano pieces. He pioneered the symphonic poem, which freed orchestral music from the constraints of the classical symphony. His emotionally-charged works helped create the language of Romanticism. He virtually invented the art of conducting, bringing a piece to life rather than simply beating time.
And all the composers that came after - many whom he befriended - drew their inspiration from him, from Wagner to Debussy. By the time he died in 1886, the Romantic movement for which he was so responsible was in full flower, with foreshadowings of modernism for which he also deserves credit.
Frederic Chopin's life, by contrast, seems far more straightforward but no less interesting: A man who found himself an exile from his native Poland after a failed revolution while on a trip abroad, he eventually wound up in Paris not only as part of a thriving Polish émigré community, but as member of an exalted musical scene that included Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Liszt (who would be one of Chopin's greatest admirers).
There would follow a 10-year relationship with the flamboyant novelist George Sand, six years his elder, who would be all things to him, from intellectual companion to lover to mother figure. And always, there was the matter of his health. He nearly died after a bitter winter on the island of Majorca with George Sand. Somehow, he managed to make it another 10 years to age 39.
If there is any doubt about Chopin's depressive temperament, one need only read it straight from the man, himself:
Why do we live on through this wretched life which only devours us and serves to turn us into corpses? The clocks in the Stuttgart belfries strike the midnight hour. Oh how many people have become corpses at this moment! Mothers have been torn from their children, children from their mothers - how many plans have come to nothing, how much sorrow has sprung from these depths, and how much relief!... Virtue and vice have come in the end to the same thing! It seems that to die is man's finest action - and what might be his worst? To be born, since that is the exact opposite of his best deed. It is therefore right of me to be angry that I was ever born into this world!
Take out the reference to the belfries of Stutgart, and one could easily mistake that passage for something straight out of Ecclesiastes. His depressive temperament was a constant leitmotif throughout his life. The crushing of the Polish Revolution devastated him. An early engagement ended in sorrow. The breakup of his relationship with George Sand and the failure of the revolutions of 1848 left him a broken man. Undoubtedly, depression contributed to his ailing health, and he died not long after in 1849, having seemingly giving up on living.
Yet his compositions are associated with long happy summers at Nohant, George Sand's country house in the south of France. It was here the composer seemingly came to life and gave expression to the endlessly rich musical inventions that took shape in the depths of his conscious. The styles of piano pieces he wrote have many names - mazurkas, waltzes, ballades, etudes, preludes, nocturnes, polonaises, and fantasias - and we'll leave it to the music experts to distinguish one from the other. Suffice to say, such is the deeply personal nature of his work that he is recognizable by the first few notes, if not the first note.
It was as if the piano were that great black monolith that appears in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Chopin were the first person in history to give it meaning, to exploit its hidden secrets and draw forth harmonic nuances that eluded all the others. Yes, there had been great masters of the keyboard before him, but in them the individual notes formed part of a greater pattern, like an aural mosaic. In Chopin, even though we know something as obvious as a mazurka or a waltz is being played, the pattern is somehow subservient to the individual note. Such is the power of a Chopin moment, one could easily break off a piece in mid-measure, before the music has a chance to resolve itself, and just savor the reverberations.
Because he confined himself almost exclusively to the piano, some would deny Chopin his rightful place alongside the musical giants who composed orchestral and choral works. But that is to belie the master's true genius. With but a single piano, he could take one where no one had gone before.
Had he lived longer, he might have tried his hand at a symphony, for he was no stranger to the orchestra, having composed two concerti for piano and orchestra in his youth. But we'll never know what the mature Chopin would have sounded like. He had two strikes going against him, his physical and mental well-being, and his untimely death would ultimately be our loss.
Published early 2000s, reviewed Jan 17, 2011
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