Even 135 years after his death, Liszt’s glamour continues to fascinate. He was the rock star of the nineteenth century, women swooning at his feet as he performed the most demanding music of his age with almost supernatural ability. It is a powerful image and one that has inspired many biographies and films. However, that image can only go so far in explaining the enduring appeal of Liszt and the fascination he inspires. Perhaps it is his relevance that is key. He was unflinchingly modern. We might think of his modernism with respect to the avant garde music of his late years, or of his progressivism in developing the new orchestral genre, the symphonic poem, but his modernism is in evidence in his personal life and philosophy, too. His support and respect for women composers, writers and thinkers, and his progressive ideas about sexuality are startlingly modern, as is his shaping of his own mythology through complex PR strategies. It is because of those progressive views and activities that Liszt still speaks to us today and continues to offer rich new material for music scholars and audiences alike.
Liszt was multifaceted in his professional life, active as a performer, composer, conductor, and essayist. With multiple national ties, and religious views that were seemingly incompatible with his lifestyle, his personal life was equally complex. Sometimes these competing activities and identities were problematic at a time when national identities were hardening and the concept of the self as a knowable, unified entity was gaining ground. These controversial aspects of his private and professional lives have had an important impact on how his music was, and continues to be, received. His music accused of “formlessness,” dismissed as all effect and no substance, Liszt will never sit comfortably within the canon of “great” composers. Certainly, many of the criticisms of Liszt and his music have now been interrogated and questioned, but, nonetheless, his music continues to divide and his achievements remain contested ground. Even so, his influence on 19th-century musical culture, practices and aesthetics is undeniable, as is his legacy for the 20th century and beyond. Although the works of contemporaries like Chopin and Wagner might have been more successful in their conception, more perfect in their execution, Liszt’s innovations have arguably offered greater inspiration to the composers who came after him.
A skilled social being, Liszt was able to move between different groups of people with ease. This meant that he was at the centre of a large social network that included artists, musicians, philosophers, politicians, and the aristocracy. He was at the cutting edge of the progressive political, social, cultural and aesthetic movements of his day. These developments resonate in Liszt’s music and writing, and therefore Liszt’s work, perhaps more so than many of his contemporaries, must be understood against the backdrop of his time. Liszt in Context attempts just that: to return Liszt’s work to the myriad fascinating debates, movements, and events against which they were composed and should be understood.
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