Franz Liszt: Les Preludes

Some pieces of music I associate with a particular person. Take Franz Liszt’s “Les Preludes.”

It seems that I might have heard it on a request show once or twice before moving to the French House at Indiana University in 1975. There is an orchestral version of it which often appears on compilations of Mega, Blockbuster, Greatest Classical, Thundering Hits of All Times! (by Time Life). That of course is a fun piece, but it also exists as a work for solo piano, which I first heard played by an inmate of the French House.

I had written before about a guy who lived in our dorm, whose name was Kevin. He was a thin, fastidious, well dressed kid from a well-to-do family. Nothing wrong there. In fact he had superb manners and never seemed condescending to the likes of the little people like me who came from working class families. He did not get along with the people in the artsy campy clique with which I associated, and so kept to himself. I moved pretty freely among all groups in the house and he and I had a few nice conversations about music.

For his junior recital, he played an extraordinary program. It had Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” which is no piece for a shrinking violet, AND “Les Preludes.” Now Liszt was a firebrand as a concert pianist. The Mick Jagger of his day, women would swoon at his concerts and throw articles of intimate apparel at him on stage. Liszt wrote many pieces for these audiences. Les Preludes dates from the time Liszt was in his late 30s, just about the time he was giving up performing to devote the next 40 years of his life to composition and teaching. It would have been a nice swan song to cap his career as a performer.

Listening to the orchestral version today, I realized that for many years I thought “Les Preludes” was actually written by Wagner.  It has bubbling string arpeggios, bright French horns, and trumpet fanfares that are quite uplifting.  Born two years apart, Liszt was part of the circle of composers known as, “Neudeutsche Schule” (“New German School”) to which the younger Wagner belonged.  Near the end of the work, I also hear strains that remind me of the ending of the much later work, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” by Ricard Strauss.  Funnily enough, about half way through, I swear I hear the tune, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” which is based on a French folk theme that celebrates the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709.

After his concert, Kevin moved out of the dorm, and I have no idea of what happened to him. I do remember him walking onto the stage in his tuxedo, flipping his tails out as he sat down on the bench, and the intensity with which he threw himself into his performance. One of the bad things about being a dilettante and autodidact, is that you never ever master anything like that. I wonder what it would be like to perform at that level of intellectual and emotional intensity. Is everyone capable of doing that? And what if everyone had the training to reach that? Of course, there probably wouldn’t be anyone left to work at McDonalds, but I think that is a small price to pay.

Wikipedia on Les Preludes

Liszt Biography

Download MP3s or buy CD of Liszt: Les Préludes

 

Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14 in F Minor

One of the first composers whose name I learned was Franz Liszt. That was a result of my Hungarian ancestry. My grandfather came to the United States in 1904, and my father, though born here, grew up speaking Hungarian. I once had a friend named Nick, who used to call me a hot-blooded Magyar, but in truth, in my youth, I was shy, and part of that also had to do with my background.

My grandfather settled in northern Indiana after going through Ellis Island. My home town, South Bend, was a huge manufacturing center because of Studebaker’s, which made Conestoga wagons in the previous century and had become a major automaker in the first half of the 20th. Huge numbers of Europeans migrated to South Bend and to the Gary, Indiana and Chicago area around the time my grandfather did. Our city had large Polish, Hungarian, Italian, Belgian and German communities. The Poles and “Hunkies” even had their own radio shows on Sunday afternoons on the local AM radio station, WSBT.

On Saturdays, we visited my Hungarian grandfather’s house and on Sundays, my Belgian grandmother’s. On both sides of the family, I had many aunts and uncles and countless cousins, so these visits in the early 60s were quite fun for me. Of course, I liked Christmas time the best, but especially at my Hungarian grandfather’s house. My dad’s sisters used to cook wonderful sweets: kifli--which were small buttery croissants of flaky pastry filled with ground walnuts, egg whites, and sugar–and kolach, a sweet yeasty bread roll filled with ground, moistened and sweetened poppy seeds.

My aunts and uncles used to talk about the culture of the Austro-Hungarian empire and particularly the composer Lizst. What’s odd is that I don’t remember ever hearing any of them play Lizst on visits to their house and none played any musical instruments that I know of. Even stranger still is that I somehow feel more of a connection to my Hungarian roots than my Belgian. Something about being Hungarian seemed to set me apart.

That feeling began to develop when my Hungarian grandfather died in 1964. My father had a younger brother named George, who at the age of 18 was crippled by arthritis, which bent his body into a 90 degree angle. Uncle George never married and lived with his parents. When grandpa died, the task of caring for grandma fell to Uncle George. He was helped in that by his sister, my aunt Helen, who was married but didn’t have any children. My father used to visit to help Uncle George fix things around the house, garden, or just relieve Helen who kept house during the week.

Often, I was left inside to watch grandma, who spent most of the next six years until she died in a trapezoidal area whose corners were formed by the television, her bed, the kitchen and the bathroom. Eventually, the poor circulation in her legs limited her range to the triangle of the bed, kitchen and bathroom. My job then was to help her, when she called to me, get out of bed and shuffle to the bathroom. She spoke one word of English: “Eat!” which she would tell me as we passed through the kitchen if Helen had left some treat out for me.

This was a confusing time for me as I spent hours sitting alone in the house as the shadows lengthened, trying to occupy myself as best I could. Usually, I sat in the parlor which had huge paintings. In one Our Lady of Lourdes appeared to the children, and in another, the sacred heart of Jesus–on fire and encircled with a ring of thorns–floated in front of a life size portrait of the saviour. Sometimes I read Reader’s Digestand did the “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power” quizzes, or I would just watch television.

When my grandmother died in 1970, I had just turned 15 and I was nominated to be a pall bearer. For an adolescent, I can’t think of anything more traumatic, but I tried to take my job seriously and act dignified. Making it more affecting was the fact that that was the first time I ever saw my father cry. I thought I had pulled it off fairly well, but then afterwards people started asking me, “Was it heavy?” which seemed to me kind of sacrilegious.

Around this time, I found Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14 in F Minor in a stack of used records at a garage sale in Nowheresville, Indiana. It quickly became one of my favorite pieces and not just because Liszt was Hungarian.

Supposedly Lizst was one of the first mega-stars of serious music. He toured quite a bit performing the works of Scarlatti, Chopin and himself.  He was kind of the Michael Jackson or Tom Jones of his day. Women flocked to his concert and would throw their long white gloves onstage while he played, just as women in the 1960s would throw their underwear at Tom Jones.

Because of this, Liszt has sometimes been dismissed as more of a showman than a really great composer. True, he made his own pieces increasingly showier and technically more challenging. My friend John Kim tells me that modern pianists can only play about 60 per cent of the piano music that Liszt wrote.

But listening to the Rhapsody No. 14, you hear much more profound feelings. It begins with a funeral march, and a short melody is is played in a stately manner. You think it’s going to be a somber piece. But then Lizst starts improvising on the melody. He plays impossible chords and then these incredible glissandos at lightening speeds. They are so fluid that they always remind me of water. It finishes joyously and brings one out of any morose one might have had.

For a quiet, shy boy from Indiana born in an immigrant community, this music helped me find solace for my loneliness and gave me a glimpse of the glory to be found in art.

Franz Liszt: Les Preludes

Some pieces of music I associate with a particular person. Take Franz Liszt’s “Les Preludes.”

It seems that I might have heard it on a request show once or twice before moving to the French House at Indiana University in 1975. There is an orchestral version of it which often appears on compilations of Mega, Blockbuster, Greatest Classical, Thundering Hits of All Times! (by Time Life). That of course is a fun piece, but it also exists as a work for solo piano, which I first heard played by an inmate of the French House.

I had written before about a guy who lived in our dorm, whose name was Kevin. He was a thin, fastidious, well dressed kid from a well-to-do family. Nothing wrong there. In fact he had superb manners and never seemed condescending to the likes of the little people like me who came from working class families. He did not get along with the people in the artsy campy clique with which I associated, and so kept to himself. I moved pretty freely among all groups in the house and he and I had a few nice conversations about music.

For his junior recital, he played an extraordinary program. It had Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” which is no piece for a shrinking violet, AND Les Preludes. Now Liszt was a firebrand as a concert pianist. He was the Mick Jagger of his day and women would swoon at his concerts and throw articles of intimate apparel at him on stage. Liszt wrote many pieces for these audiences. Les Preludes dates from the time Liszt was in his late 30s, just about the time he was giving up performing to devote the next 40 years of his life to composition and teaching. It would have been a nice swan song to cap his career as a performer.

After his concert, Kevin moved out of the dorm, and I have no idea of what happened to him. I do remember him walking onto the stage in his tuxedo, flipping his tails out as he sat down on the bench, and the intensity with which he threw himself into his performance. One of the bad things about being a dilettante and autodidact, is that you never ever master anything like that. I wonder what it would be like to perform at that level of intellectual and emotional intensity. Is everyone capable of doing that? And what if everyone had the training to reach that? Of course, there probably wouldn’t be anyone left to work at McDonalds, but I think that is a small price to pay.

Wikipedia on Les Preludes

Liszt Biography

Download MP3s or buy CD of Liszt: Les Préludes

 

Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14 in F Minor

One of the first composers whose name I learned was Franz Liszt. That was a result of my Hungarian ancestry. My grandfather came to the United States in 1904, and my father, though born here, grew up speaking Hungarian. I had a friend named Nick Humphrey who calls me a hot-blooded Magyar, but in truth, in my youth, I was shy and part of that also had to do with my background.

My grandfather settled in northern Indiana after going through Ellis Island. My home town, South Bend, was a huge manufacturing center because of Studebaker’s, which made Conestoga wagons in the previous century and had become a major automaker in the first half of the 20th. Huge numbers of Europeans migrated to South Bend and to the Gary, Indiana and Chicago area around the time my grandfather did. Our city had large Polish, Hungarian, Italian, Belgian and German communities. The Poles and “Hunkies” even had their own radio shows on Sunday afternoons on the local AM radio station, WSBT.

On Saturdays, we visited my Hungarian grandfather’s house and on Sundays, my Belgian grandmother’s. On both sides of the family, I had many aunts and uncles and countless cousins, so these visits in the early 60s were quite fun for me. Of course, I liked Christmas time the best, but especially at my Hungarian grandfather’s house. My dad’s sisters used to cook wonderful sweets: kifli--which were small buttery croissants of flaky pastry filled with ground walnuts, egg whites, and sugar–and kolach, a sweet yeasty bread roll filled with ground, moistened and sweetened poppy seeds.

My aunts and uncles used to talk about the culture of the Austro-Hungarian empire and particularly the composer Lizst. What’s odd is that I don’t remember ever hearing any of them play Lizst on visits to their house and none played any musical instruments that I know of. Even stranger still is that I somehow feel more of a connection to my Hungarian roots than my Belgian. Something about being Hungarian seemed to set me apart.

That feeling began to develop when my Hungarian grandfather died in 1964. My father had a younger brother named George, who at the age of 18 was crippled by arthritis, which bent his body into a 90 degree angle. Uncle George never married and lived with his parents. When grandpa died the task of caring for grandma fell to Uncle George. He was helped in that by his sister, my aunt Helen, who was married but didn’t have any children. My father used to visit to help Uncle George fix things around the house, garden, or just relieve Helen who kept house during the week.

Often, I was left inside to watch grandma, who spent most of the next six years until she died in a trapezoidal area whose corners were formed by the television, her bed, the kitchen and the bathroom. Eventually, the poor circulation in her legs limited her range to the triangle of the bed, kitchen and bathroom. My job then was to help her, when she called to me, get out of bed and shuffle to the bathroom. She spoke one word of English: “Eat!” which she would tell me as we passed through the kitchen if Helen had left some treat out for me.

This was a confusing time for me as I spent hours sitting alone in the house as the shadows lengthened, trying to occupy myself as best I could. Usually, I sat in the parlor which had huge paintings. In one Our Lady of Lourdes appeared to the children, and in another, the sacred heart of Jesus–on fire and encircled with a ring of thorns–floated in front of a life size portrait of the saviour. Sometimes I read Reader’s Digestand did the “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power” quizzes, or I would just watch television.

When my grandmother died in 1970, I had just turned 15 and I was nominated to be a pall bearer. For an adolescent, I can’t think of anything more traumatic, but I tried to take my job seriously and act dignified. Making it more affecting was the fact that that was the first time I ever saw my father cry. I thought I had pulled it off fairly well, but then afterwards people started asking me, “Was it heavy?” which seemed to me kind of sacrilegious.

Around this time, I found Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14 in F Minorin a stack of used records at a garage sale in Nowheresville, Indiana. It quickly became one of my favorite pieces and not just because Liszt was Hungarian.

Supposedly Lizst was one of the first mega-stars of serious music. He toured quite a bit performing the works of Scarlatti, Chopin and himself.  He was kind of the Michael Jackson or Tom Jones of his day. Women flocked to his concert and would throw their long white gloves onstage while he played, just as women in the 1960s would throw their underwear at Tom Jones.

Because of this, Liszt has sometimes been dismissed as more of a showman than a really great composer. True, he made his own pieces increasingly showier and technically more challenging. My friend John Kim tells me that modern pianists can only play about 60 per cent of the piano music that Liszt wrote.

But listening to the Rhapsody No. 14, you hear much more profound feelings. It begins with a funeral march, and a short melody is is played in a stately manner. You think it’s going to be a somber piece. But then Lizst starts improvising on the melody. He plays impossible chords and then these incredible glissandos at lightening speeds. They are so fluid that they always remind me of water. It finishes joyously and brings one out of any morose one might have had.

For a quiet, shy boy from Indiana born in an immigrant community, this music helped me find solace for my lonliness and gave me a glimpse of the glory to be found in art.

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