Sunday, January 3, 2010

Liszt and Brahms

My brother George borrowed my Jan Swafford biography of Brahms and has been reading it and I have been re-reading it through his eyes. Here is one thing that had him laughing and now I am laughing at it too.

We have it on pretty good authority that when Liszt was playing the B Minor Sonata, and he got to a particularly affecting moment, he looked up to gauge the effect on his audience. This is page 68 I am reading from. Liszt looked up and Brahms was asleep.

Ha, ha!

"Liszt kept playing, but at the end he brusquely rose from the keyboard and left the room."

Writing my book on Pennario I find I am partial to the Liszt B Minor Sonata the way he plays it. It has warmth and drama. I would not be asleep listening to that. It does not look as if the people in the above painting are asleep either. My favorite part of that picture is the bust on the piano. Who the heck is that? Bach? Mozart? All I can figure is it was someone very un-Liszt.

Someone like Brahms, in other words. I am glad Brahms was asleep, listening to Liszt play that sonata! That is the kind of story I love. I love stories that involve two great figures from music, interacting in funny ways.

This Swafford bio is the kind of book I love.

Very well written and interesting all the way through.


  1. An opinion exists that Brahms, who was on tour with the violinist Remenyi, was completely exhausted when they stopped to visit Liszt, and that's why he fell asleep. I don't know if the story is true, but Brahms did speak in awe of Liszt's playing( "We all can play the piano, but we only have a few fingers of his hands").

    I wonder where that story came from. I just finished a bio of Hans Von Bulow (umlaut over the "u") which demolishes a story about Bulow, told by Max Kalbeck, so thoroughly that it casts a shadow over the whole Kalbeck bio. Could the "Brahms asleep" story have appeared first in there and be just an anti Liszt-and-his-school canard?

  2. According to the caption for this painting on Wikipedia, that bust over the Graf piano is of Beethoven. Based on most portraits we see of him, the bust here pictured must have been meant to portray Beethoven on a 'good hair' day.

  3. Caption reads...(I am not saying this is correct, but it is on Wiki this way so...)

    Franz Liszt Fantasizing at the Piano (1840), by Danhauser, commissioned by Conrad Graf. The imagined gathering shows seated Alfred de Musset or Alexandre Dumas, père, George Sand, Franz Liszt, Marie d'Agoult; standing Hector Berlioz or Victor Hugo, Niccolò Paganini, Gioachino Rossini; a bust of Beethoven on the grand piano (a "Graf"), a portrait of Byron on the wall, a statue of Joan of Arc on the far left.

  4. Prof. G, that must be the new book on Hans von Bulow, that just came out! Is it?? I am going to read it. Norman Lebrecht in the Wall Street Journal said it's good.

  5. And Steven, thanks for the scholarship on the Liszt picture. I just went through the whole thing matching up the people and things to what you wrote out. I should have recognized Rossini! I never would have recognized Joan of Arc.

  6. Yes, the Bulow book is new and it's by Alan Walker, who has also written a fascinating 3 volume bio of Liszt. I'm going to offer a Prof G know - it- all opinion, however, and opine that for all of its excellence, I think it suffers from a tiny defect that runs through the Liszt tomes; the author so admires the subject and wants to set records straight that hagiography occasionally peeps through. Still, both works are definitive reading for anyone interested in both people. I identify with Bulow. I have some talent, but am aware that it's not first class, and I have a depressive personality linked to a caustic viewpoint, as did Von Bulow. I do not share his anti-semitism. Still, I have the book and am glad someone did a full length bio in English. I'm also pleased that Norman Lebrecht, who I admire, gave it a favorable review. In his book on conductors, The Maestro Myth, Lebrecht described Bulow as a rape victim (emotionally).

  7. One quickie from the book and it's not a spoiler: Bulow learned to speak and write in English fairly well, and wrote the following admirable aphorism (in English) in an autograph album:

    "A true artist should hate respectability
    And respect ability."