His Master’s Voice

A great composer finds his perfect disciple in Canada

Last year was a busy time for Franz Liszt. Although dead for well over a century, he seemed to spring to life again in 2011, as the bicentennial of the Hungarian composer’s birth was celebrated around the world. There were concerts (especially piano recitals), recordings, colloquia and, of course, publications.

Aptly, this was the year in which the musical scholar Alan Walker chose to bring out a softcover version of one of his books about the composer who has been central to his work. Reflections on Liszt, originally published in 2005, is a collection of essays on various Liszt-related topics. Walker finds pathways to follow that are well worth the effort, if sometimes verging on the obscure.

No living person has a better knowledge of all things Lisztian than Walker. His monumental three-volume biography of Liszt, published between 1983 and 1996, took him a quarter century to write, and ranks with Ernest Newman’s volumes on Wagner for its thoroughness. As well, Walker has published extensively on other musical figures, usually from Liszt’s circle in the 19th century. For many years Walker taught at McMaster University (I was one of his students), and he runs an annual “Great Romantics” music festival in Hamilton.

Walker has been widely praised for his efforts on his favourite composer’s behalf: he has received medals from both the American and Hungarian Franz Liszt societies, and recently Hungary’s government bestowed upon him a high honour, the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit. He is a unique figure in the realm of Canadian scholarship—and there are good reasons to call him “Canada’s foremost musicologist.”

However, I suspect that many Canadian musicologists would be disinclined to say such a thing. In the context of current scholarly fashion, Walker is an isolated, anomalous figure. The problem is not that he is from another place—he was born in England, in 1930, and his four decades in Canada have had little effect on his Englishness—but that he seems to come from another time.

The stamp of Derrida, Foucault, Adorno and other popular post–World War Two cultural theorists is conspicuously absent from Walker’s elegantly readable prose. Race, class and gender are not his concerns, and he does not want to deconstruct anything. He is ideologically immersed in his chosen era—the 19th century—despite all its problems. Matthew Arnold’s quest for “the best that is known and thought in the world” is also Walker’s quest. And at times there is a whiff of Thomas Carlyle’s belief that “the history of the world is but the biography of Great Men” in Walker’s devotion to Liszt. Walker has no qualms about invoking the concept of “greatness,” or describing a work as a “masterpiece”—two terms that have been virtually banned from academic discourse on music.

And—as they say in England—there it is. My purpose in delving into the ideological underpinnings of Walker’s scholarship is not to take a stand for one school of musicology or against another. (Personally, I think a diversity of approaches is a healthy thing, and I wish that more musicologists could be less concerned with following the scholarly herd than they are.) Rather, I seek to describe the sort of book Reflections on Liszt is. What it is, mostly, is a collection of essays that examine what is often called “the music itself”—to find germs of ideas and explain how they developed, to point out what is unique and groundbreaking and why, and to shed light on lesser-known works. To this are added several essays of a biographical nature about Liszt and his contemporaries. This mixture of text-based analysis and biography is what Walker likes to do, and he excels at it.

Something that Reflections on Liszt is not is a book for the uninitiated reader. Although Walker’s essays are written as stand-alone pieces, they do presume a certain knowledge of Liszt’s life, times and oeuvre. As well, Walker does not shy away from the minutiae of Liszt’s scores—indeed, it is often the small details that most interest him. With the support of musical illustrations, he delves into Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, Liszt’s editorial elaborations on Schubert’s music and the possibility that either Liszt borrowed the opening of Tristan und Isolde from Wagner or Wagner borrowed it from Liszt. As well, there is an entire chapter devoted to Liszt’s monumental Piano Sonata in B Minor.

Walker has a charming way of enlivening technical discussions with juicy anecdotes. (Given his subject matter, this is not a hard thing to do.) For instance, in what might be a rather dry chapter on Liszt’s piano studies, he introduces us to Olga Janina, an eccentric pianist who fell in love with Liszt and later stole the manuscript of his Technical Studies. Walker also rides a few hobby horses of his own. In cleverly integrated asides he rails against music conservatories and university departments that have become insulated bureaucracies, and today’s generic concert pianists who graduate from music schools every year “en route to oblivion.”

For the lay reader, some of the most approachable passages are the biographical chapters dealing with Carl Tausig, Hans von Bülow and Walter Bache. Tausig was a child-prodigy pianist whom Liszt taught, and who died from typhus at the age of just 29. Von Bülow was another Liszt protégé—a brilliant pianist and conductor—who became Liszt’s son-in-law when he married Liszt’s daughter, Cosima. (Things got pretty messy when Cosima left von Bülow for Richard Wagner.) And Bache was an ardent Liszt enthusiast who went to extraordinary lengths to popularize the composer’s music in England.

The final chapter of Reflections on Liszt deals with Liszt as a writer. Lighter in tone than some other chapters, it includes many examples of the composer’s wit and wisdom: “New wine demands new bottles.” “Art is a heaven on earth, to which one never appeals in vain when faced with the oppressions of this world.” And “Critics! If one wants to be a critic, one begins with self-criticism!”

As well, there is a remarkable epilogue, in which Walker becomes utterly intoxicated by the spirit of the Romantic era. Dropping all pretense of scholarly objectivity, he has penned “An Open Letter to Franz Liszt”: a paean in which he addresses his hero as “highly esteemed Master.” In it, he catalogues Liszt’s virtues—perseverance, charity, compassion, helpfulness, piety and many others—and poses unanswerable questions about the motivations behind some of Liszt’s more inscrutable words and deeds. This is the sort of thing that would make many musicologists today cringe in horror.

Once again, Walker quotes a Lisztian aphorism: “It is not he who chooses his profession—it is his profession that chooses him.” It is not hard to guess that Walker sees this dictum applying to himself as much as it ever did to Liszt or anyone else. He has written about his “master” as though he were driven to do so by some supernatural force beyond his control. Perhaps he was.