The Liszt Centenary at Heidelberg (1912)

[This is taken from Camille Saint-Saens' Musical Memories.]

The Liszt centenary was celebrated everywhere with elaborate festivities, perhaps most notably at Budapest where the Missa Solemnis was sung in the great cathedral—that alone would have been sufficient glory for the composer. At Weimar, which, during his lifetime, Liszt made a sort of musical Mecca, they gave a performance of his deeply charming oratorio Die Legende von der Heiligen Elisabeth. The festival at Heidelberg was of special interest as it was organized by the General Association of German Musicians which Liszt had founded fifty years before. Each year this society gives in a different city a festival which lasts several days. It admits foreign members and I was once a member as Berlioz’s successor on Liszt’s own invitation. Disagreements separated us, and I had had no relation with the society for a number of years when they asked me to take part in this festival. A refusal would have been misunderstood and I had to accept, although the idea of performing at my age alongside such virtuosi as Risler, Busoni, and Friedheim, in the height of their talent, was not encouraging.

The festival lasted four days and there were six concerts—four with the orchestra and a chorus. They gave the oratorio Christus, an enormous work which takes up all the time allowed for one concert; the Dante and Faust symphonies, and the symphonic poems Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne and Tasso, to mention only the most important works.

The oratorio Christus lacks the fine unity of the Saint Elisabeth, but the two works are alike in being divided into a series of separate episodes. While the different episodes in Saint Elisabeth solve the difficult problem of creating variety and retaining unity, the parts of Christus are somewhat unrelated. There is something for every taste.  Certain parts are unqualifiedly admirable; others border on the theatrical; still others are nearly or entirely liturgical, while, finally, some are picturesque, although there are some almost confusing.  Like Gounod, Liszt was sometimes deceived and attributed to ordinary and simple sequences of chords a profound significance which escaped the great majority of his hearers. There are some pages of this sort in Christus.

But there are beautiful and wonderful things in this vast work. If we regret that the author lingered too long in his imitation of the Pifferari of the Roman campagna, on the other hand, we are delighted by the symphonic interlude Les Bergers a la Creche. It is very simple, but in an inimitable simplicity of taste which is the secret of great artists alone. It is surprising that this interlude does not appear in the repertoire of all concerts.

The Dante symphony has not established itself in the repertoires as has the Faust symphony. It was performed for the first time in Paris at a concert I organized and managed at a time when Liszt’s works were distrusted. Along with the Dante symphony we had the Andante (Gretchen) from the Faust symphony, the symphonic poem Fest Kloenge, a charming work which is never played now, and still other works. It would be hard to imagine all the opposition I had to overcome in giving that concert.  There was the hostility of the public, the ill-will of the Theatre-Italien which rented me its famous hall but which sullenly opposed a proper announcement of the concert, the insubordination of the orchestra, the demands of the singers for more pay—they imagined that Liszt would pay the expenses—and, finally, complete—and expected failure. My only object was to lay a foundation for the future, nothing more. In spite of everything I managed to get a creditable performance of the Dante symphony and I had the pleasure of hearing it for the first time.

The first part (the Inferno) is wonderfully impressive with its Francesca da Rimini interlude, in which burn all the fires of Italian passion. The second part (Purgatory and Paradise) combines the most intense and poignant charm. It contains a fugue episode of unsurpassed beauty.

Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne is, perhaps, the best of the famous symphonic poems. The author was inspired by Victor Hugo’s poetry and reproduced its spirit admirably. When will this typical work appear in the concert repertoires? When will orchestra conductors get tired of presenting the three or four Wagnerian works they repeat ad nauseum, when they can be heard at the Opera under better conditions, and Schubert’s insignificant Unfinished Symphony.


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The Christus oratorio was given at the first concert of the festival at Heidelberg. It lasted three hours and a half and is so long that I would not dare to advise concert managers to try such an adventure. The performance was sublime. It was given in a newly constructed square hall. Cavaille-Coll, who knew acoustics, used to advise the square hall for concerts but nobody would listen to him. Three hundred chorus singers, many from a distance, were supported by an orchestra that was large, but, in my opinion, insufficient to stand up against this mass of voices. Furthermore, the orchestra was placed below the level of the stage, as in a theatre, while the voices sounded freely above. Two harps, one on the east side of the stage and one on the west, saw each other from afar,--a pleasingly decorative device, but as annoying to the ear as pleasing to the eye. The chorus and the four soloists—their task was exceedingly arduous—triumphed completely over the difficulties of this immense work and all the varied and delicate nuances were rendered to perfection.

Liszt was far from professing the disdain for the limitations of the human voice that Wagner and Berlioz did. On the contrary he treated it as if it were a queen or a goddess, and it is to be regretted that his tastes did not lead him to work for the stage. Parts of Saint Elisabeth show that he would have succeeded and the fashion of having operas for the orchestra, accompanied by voices, which we enjoy to-day, might have been avoided. He discovered a method, peculiarly his own, of writing choruses. His manner has never been imitated, but it is ingenious and has many advantages. The only trouble about it is that the singers have to take care of details and shadings which is too often the least of their worries. The German societies, where the members sing for pleasure, and not for a salary, are careful to excess, if there can be excess in such matters, and it is their great good fortune to be the interpreters of choruses written in this manner.

It is impossible to give an analysis of this vast work here. We have already spoken of the charming interlude, Les Bergers a la Creche.  This pastoral is followed by Marche des Rois Mages, a pretty piece, but a little overdeveloped for its intrinsic worth. The vocal parts, Beatitudes and Le Pater Noster, would be more suitable in a church than in a concert hall. Then come some most brilliant pages, La Tempete sur le lac de Thiberiade, and Le Mont des Oliviers, with its baritone solo, and finally, the Stabat Mater, where great beauties are combined with terrible length. But nothing in the whole work impressed me more than Christ’s entrance to Jerusalem (orchestra, chorus, and soloist) for the reading alone gives no idea of it. Here the author reached the heights. That also describes the delightful effect of the children’s chorus singing in the distance O Filii et Filiae, harmonised with perfect taste.

While I listened to this beautiful work, I could not help thinking of the great oratorios which crowned Gounod’s musical career so gloriously.  Liszt and Gounod differed entirely in their musical temperaments, yet in their oratorios they met on common ground. In both there was the same drawing away from the old forms of oratorio, the same search for realism in the expression of the text in music, the same respect for Latin prosody, and the same belief in simplicity of style. But while there is renunciation in the simplicity of Liszt, who threw aside worldly finery to wear the frock of a penitent, on the contrary Gounod appears to return to his original bent with an almost holy joy. This is easily explained. Liszt finished his life in a cassock, while Gounod began his in one. So, despite Liszt’s superior refinement, and putting aside exceptional achievements, in this branch of art Gounod was the victor.  As there is an odor di femina there is a parfum d’eglise, well known to Catholics. Gounod’s oratorios are impregnated with this, while it is found in Christus very, very feebly, if at all. The Missa Solemnis must be examined to find it to any extent in Liszt’s work.

All the necessary elements were combined at Heidelberg to produce a magnificent production of Faust and Dante. The orchestra of more than one hundred musicians was perfect. The period when the wind instruments in Germany were wanting both in correctness and quality of sound has passed. But the orchestra conductors have to be taken into account. In our day these gentlemen are virtuosi. Their personalities are not subservient to the music, but the music to them. It is the springboard on which they perform and parade their all embracing personalities. They add their own inventions to the author’s meaning. Sometimes they draw out the wind instruments so that the musicians have to cut a phrase at the end to catch their breath; again they affect a mad and unrestrained rapidity which allows time neither to play nor to hear the sounds. They hurry or retard the movement for no reason besides their individual caprice or because the author did not indicate them. They perpetrate music of such a disorganized character that the musicians are utterly bewildered, and hesitate in their entrances on account of their inability to distinguish one measure from another.

The delightful Purgatoire has become a deadly bore, and the enchanting Mephistopheles has been riddled as by a hailstorm. Familiarity with such excesses made me particularly appreciative of the excellent performance that Wolfrum, the musical director, obtained in the vast Christus concert.

Among the conductors was Richard Strauss who cannot be passed over without a word. Certainly no one will hope to find moderation and serenity in this artist or be surprised if he gives his temperament free rein, and rides on to victory undisturbed by the ruins he leaves behind.  But he lacks neither intelligence nor elegance, and if he sometimes goes too fast he never overemphasizes slowness. When he is conducting, we need not fear the desert of Sahara where others sometimes lead us. Under his direction Tasso displayed all its wealth of resources and the jewel-like Mephisto-Walzer shone more brightly than ever before.

I can speak but briefly of the numerous soloists. We neither judge nor compare such talents as those of Busoni, Friedheim, and Risler. We are satisfied with admiring them. However, if a prize must be awarded, I should give it to Risler for his masterly interpretation of the great Sonata in B minor. He made the most of it in every way, in all its power and in all its delicacy. When it is given in this way, it is one of the finest sonatas imaginable. But such a performance is rare, for it is beyond the average artist. The strength of an athlete, the lightness of a bird, capriciousness, charm, and a perfect understanding of style in general and of the style of this composer in particular are the qualifications needed to perform this work. It is far too difficult for most virtuosi, however talented they may be.

Among the women singers I shall only mention Madame Cahier from the Viennese Opera. She is a great artist with a wonderful voice and her interpretation of several lieder made them wonderfully worth while.  Madame Cahier interpreted the part of Dalila at Vienna with Dalmores, so it can easily be appreciated how much pleasure I took in hearing her.

A final word about the Dante Symphony. I have read somewhere that Liszt used pages to produce an effect which Berlioz accomplished in the apparition of Mephistopheles in Faust with three notes. This comparison is unjust. Berlioz’s happy discovery is a work of genius and he alone could have invented it. But the sudden appearance of the Devil is one thing and the depiction of Hell quite another. Berlioz tried such a depiction at the end of the Damnation, and in spite of the strange vocabulary of the chorus, “Irimiru Karabrao, Sat raik Irkimour,” and other pretty tricks, he succeeded no better than Liszt. As a matter of fact the opposite was the case.





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