The term “rock star” invokes a variety of images — Bono trotting the globe dispensing humanitarian aid, Mick Jagger with a woman on each arm, Jimi Hendrix and his trademark bandana. But Franz Liszt? Many will be surprised to discover the famed composer and piano virtuoso is widely considered the first embodiment of the rock star persona. This is but one of the intriguing qualities the Department of Music is celebrating in its month-long bicentennial festival, “Visions of Liszt.”
“The life and music of Franz Liszt is the best-kept secret in the arts, and it shouldn’t be,” said Cecil Lytle, professor emeritus of music at the University of California at San Diego. A preview screening of his film “Liszt in the World: A Documentary in Search of the Interior Life and Music of Franz Liszt (1811-1886)” kicked off the festival Oct. 17. Lytle introduced his film with a titillating performance of “Bagatelle without tonality,” one of Liszt’s last — and, according to Lytle, least appreciated — compositions. Before Liszt, atonal compositions were nearly unheard of.
“At the end of his life, he was composing truly avant-garde music that was really ahead of his time,” said James Baker, chair of the music department. Liszt pushed the boundaries of piano technique further than they had ever gone before. But he also sought to communicate to the common patron. In addition to emotional performances and composing, he pioneered the concept of conveying dramatic ideas through sound, spawning the genre of the symphonic poem.
“Liszt is actually a very friendly composer for people who don’t listen to music much. … He gives you something to relate to,” said Dana Gooley, associate professor of music. For this reason, Gooley, who organized most of the festival, said he hopes it will inspire students from outside the department, as well as the community at large, to take interest in Liszt’s life and work.
And that was something that was all the rage in the 19th century. Liszt’s impassioned performances had audiences in a tizzy like never before — ladies swooned, people fought over his discarded handkerchiefs and, if eBay had existed, entrepreneurs would have hawked his old cigar butts. Poet Heinrich Heine termed the phenomenon “Lisztomania.”
“Liszt made it seem okay not to seem so proper. … There was a release of a kind of Dionysian energy that Liszt seemed to bring out,” Gooley said.
Gooley said one goal of the celebration is to extend awareness and appreciation for the artist beyond his more eminent works, including exposing Liszt as a biographical subject.
After beginning his career as a child prodigy in Paris, Liszt led the life of a traveler. Though he was a devout Catholic, he fathered three children out of wedlock and never married. His charisma and kindness led him to brush elbows with many other great composers of his day and influence their lives and works. Historians continue to explore his infamous relationship with the musical genius and anti-Semite Richard Wagner, who eventually became his son-in-law.
“He was always provoking controversy,” Gooley said.
His generosity of spirit may have gotten Liszt into trouble, but it also led him to become a great teacher. In the later part of his life, he taught such important pianists as Hans von Bulow, Arthur Friedheim and Emil von Sauer, and was known for encouraging his young pupils to break new ground.
In that spirit, students will be able to participate in a Liszt-style master class Nov. 4, taught by renowned piano virtuoso Kenneth Hamilton.
The festival’s major event will be concerts on Nov. 4 and 5 featuring Hamilton, the Brown Orchestra, the Brown Chorus and University Organist Mark Steinbach.
Daniel Harkett, assistant professor of history of art and visual culture at the Rhode Island School of Design, will contribute to a conversation about Liszt at a symposium Nov. 4. He will be joined by Hamilton, Baker, Gooley and Susan Bernstein, professor of comparative literature and German studies, who is also an expert on Liszt. Monika Hennemann, professor in the department of modern and classical languages and literatures at the University of Rhode Island, will round out the panel.
The festival will conclude with a final performance by Hamilton Nov. 6.
“I think of (Liszt) as a very open, giving soul who gave so much to music and the arts,” Baker said. “We’ve got to bring him to the fore.”
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Assistant Professor of Music Dana Gooley as “she.” In fact, Gooley is male. The Herald regrets the error.