Where the Creative Paths of Wagner and Liszt Diverge

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 25 August 2015 | 9:18:00 pm

Poetic Music for the Theatre and the Concert Hall: Where the Creative Paths of Wagner and Liszt Diverge
Alisa Yuko Bernhard

Were Liszt and Wagner as composers and musical thinkers more similar or different? The differences are obvious: Liszt, the piano virtuoso who did not write a single opera in his mature years, was flying in the face of Wagner’s belief in the unification of all the arts in the opera — or better still, the music drama. Yet they were together the leading avant-gardists of the day, two pillars supporting the temple of the New Germans; and not without reason, for their respective prose works reveal some strikingly similar thoughts on art and music. The aim of this paper is to focus into this paradox in order to demonstrate that it is in fact not so much of a paradox: that their differences are deeply rooted in their similarities, and that their creative paths separated as a result of similar thought processes rather than differing ones. Once we begin to look beyond the conspicuous differences, such as their conflicting attitudes towards the concept of drama and their respective choices of genre and subject matter, what becomes apparent is a series of parallels between their separate paths, allowing us to view the two as artists who were working on remarkably close wavelengths.

The 1850s saw Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner crowned the corulers of an aesthetic movement, which was to become one of the two major branches that claimed to inherit the Beethovenian tradition in the latter half of the nineteenth century.1 Neither their supporters, who hailed them as the “New Germans,” nor their opponents, condemning them as the “musicians of the future,” denied them their progressive stance; and according to Hugh Macdonald, in 1853 Wagner “undoubtedly felt that he and Liszt were moving into a new world of music, leaving Schumann and his supporters far behind.”2 This aesthetic alliance is surprising when one considers the many differences in their respective lives and characters. The personal relationship between Liszt and Wagner, “a deep and generous love that survived — just about — the vicissitudes of four decades,”3 has frequently been understood as one of dependence and indebtedness on Wagner’s part, financially as well as in the production of his operas during his political exile from Germany. Hueffer described the relationship thus:

 It is a well-known French saying that in every love affair there is one person who adores while the other allows himself to be adored…. Petrarch and Boccaccio, Schiller and Goethe, Byron and Shelley immediately occur to the mind in such a connection; but in none of these is the mutual position of giver and receiver of worshipper and worshipped so distinctly marked as in the case [of Liszt and Wagner] under discussion.

Susan Bernstein, too, refers to this view of an unbalanced love affair: “[t]he formula ‘Wagner and Liszt’ is in fact a predicate modifying Wagner. It has become commonplace to link Liszt to Wagner in this way, to imply that Liszt is a mere continuation of what Wagner began.”5 It is a view which Hanslick was one of the first to express: “Only those who do not know the works of Berlioz or Richard Wagner could mistake Liszt for a musical discoverer or reformer.”


However, by emphasising Liszt’s role as virtuoso (meaning the performer, interpreter and realiser of a composer’s works) and Wagner’s dependence on Liszt in the production of his own works, Bernstein argues that Liszt’s accomplishment was to alter “the paternal relation between composer and performer to one of fraternity,” “standing side by side with, rather than beneath, the composer.”7 The hierarchy is lost, but there still remains a gap in role and position between the two: the creative flow still begins with Wagner. Detlef Altenburg presents an almost opposing view involving a reversal of primacy when he describes Liszt’s symphonic poems as having “prepared the way for Richard Wagner’s music drama” (though even here, the model of Liszt as giver and Wagner as receiver is barely escaped).8 Altenburg, like Bernstein, echoes Hueffer, in suggesting an analogy in the Liszt-Wagner and Schiller-Goethe pairings, but in the sense that Liszt “legitimised” himself and Wagner as the heirs of the earlier Weimar poets.9 Liszt is understood here as composer as well as virtuoso, and the gap between the statuses of the two composers, as shown by Bernstein, is narrowed.