Ancestor worship

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) visited Russia a few times and helped their new music scene’s innovators get exposure abroad. One of their local instigators and gurus was Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov (1824-1906) who aimed to further Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Cui, and others. Pithy writings and access to rare books as a state librarian allowed him to obtain works that went into their pipeline, resulting in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko and Borodin’s central Asian exploits.

Left: Maxim Gorki, Vladimir Stasov, Ilya Repin and Natalia Nordman in Kuokkala 1904.

Stasov brought to light a letter of Liszt’s that offers a creator’s perspective on Beethoven. Before media brought music into people’s lives one had to attend a concert or try your luck at home with sheet music. Liszt could not resist transcribing Beethoven’s nine symphonies and making a second arrangement for two pianos to capture the chorus and more in the last work:

Liszt often played the “Hammerklavier” piano sonata (Op. 106) to astonished guests. Bear this in mind when reading what Stasov shared with his circle and how Liszt’s letter liberates his current entombment as a mere piano jockey:

For us musicians the work of Beethoven is like the pillar of cloud and fire which guided the Israelites through the desert. Had I to classify the different periods of this great musician’s thought, as expressed in his sonatas, symphonies and quartets, I would not stop at dividing them into three styles, a procedure adopted by almost everyone nowadays, but, bearing in mind the questions raised thus far, I would weigh candidly the great question around which all musical criticism and aesthetics revolves at this point to which Beethoven has led us: namely, to what extent does traditional or conventional form determine the thought process.

The answer to this question, implicit in Beethoven’s works themselves, would lead me to divide them not into three styles or periods (these terms are only vague and confusing) but into two categories: the first, that in which traditional and conventional form constricts and governs the composer’s thought; and the second, that in which the thought expands, breaks, recreates and forges the form and style to fit its needs and inspirations. To be sure, we thus come face to face with the eternal problems of authority and freedom. But why should they frighten us? In the realm of the liberal arts, they, fortunately, entail none of the dangers or disasters which occur as consequences of changes in the social and political world.

Allan Evans ©2018

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