Saturday, 10 December 2011
Old-age troubles Tranströmed
I've not read enough on the biographical side about Liszt to know if he died in despair. But his later years were not happy ones, as a clutch of photos including the above underlines. An earlier chasm opening up from the loss of two children must have deepened, and - naturally prone, it seems, to depression - he knocked back the absinthe. But unlike Rossini or Sibelius, he kept on composing, and left us some of the most forward-looking fragments of gloom or despair in all 19th century music.
The suspended or abandoned tonality wasn't exactly new - check out certain Chopin - nor was he first off the line in developing the whole-tone scale (only last week I heard another American academic trotting out the line that it was really Debussy's invention, but of course it goes way back to Glinka in the 1840s and possibly earlier). But I've been hearing these epigrammatic mood-musics this week in compelling recitals by Louis Lortie and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and while Lortie made an epic balance of all-Liszt light and shade, Aimard's all-grey-to-black first half was quite a lowering experience, slipping in though he did neutral Wagner as well as unconsolable early Berg - straight out of Liszt's Nuages gris - and late Scriabin. Here's Aimard's most striking contribution - the one where the whole-tone scale and not just the tritone lollops about - Unstern! sinistre, disastro (only approximately translateable as Dark star! Sinister, disastrous)
So, no consolation for the old Abbe, nothing of Verdi's Falstaff fugue or Strauss's sunset song. By another of those many online serendipities, though, my blogger-ideal Susan Scheid on Prufrock's Dilemma - ie endlessly curious, responsive, encouraging one by an articulate enthusiasm to explore more - introduced me to a poet I'd heard of but never read, the Swedish visionary - and I hope I don't use that word lightly - Tomas Tranströmer. 80 this year, he's just received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sue's informed post was on his attitude to Haydn, the stroke that in 1990 partly inhibited movement down his right side - encouraging Swedish composers to write left-handed pieces to keep his love of piano-playing going - and a real masterpiece of a poem, Schubertiana.
So I sent off for the latest collection immediately. Do read Sue on the essence of Schubertiana, which contains for me the most profound written sequence on what music can do for struggling man, but let me get to my point. Which is that between recitals, I was able to read Sorgegondolen in Robin Fulton's translation. The poem which gives this collection, written in the year of Tranströmer's stroke, its title is centred around Liszt's two pieces both called La lugubre gondola, composed while he was staying in Venice's Palazzo Vendramin between November 1882 and January 1883.
The host was his son-in-law and junior by less than two years, Richard Wagner, whose death on 13 February 1883 the gondola pieces supposedly forecast (Liszt also wrote a musical epitaph, which Lortie included in his Italian journey). Hence the 'two old men' of the poem's first line, 'staying by the Grand Canal/together with the restless woman who married King Midas/the man who transforms everything he touches into Wagner' (Cosima, naturally). Tranströmer intersperses his visions of that Venetian trio with three 'Peep-holes, opening on 1990', counterpointing his own dreams during a more clinical near-death experience. But of course it was the lines on La lugubre gondola which struck me and came in useful for the Aimard review. I hope I'm permitted to quote them more fully, as I did in a message on Prufrock's Dilemma; sadly this format doesn't permit the right indentation.
Liszt has written down some chords that are so heavy they ought to be sent
to the mineralogical institute in Padua for analysis.
too heavy to rest, they can only sink and sink through the future right down
to the years of the brownshirts.
The gondola is heavily laden with the crouching stones of the future.
My YouTube choice would have been the interpretation of Krystian Zimerman, but these extremely evocative performances have the benefit of the score put up by the loving poster.
Redemption? I reckon it comes both through how these pieces can be programmed - Aimard was perhaps too austere in his first-half grimness - and how we approach them. Tranströmer does indeed transfigure, and what a contrast in those blue eyes (at least as captured in the cover photo for the New Collected Poems), that unsentimental glimmering optimism, to poor old Liszt. I'm reminded of what another great writer, Stefan Zweig, wrote in The World of Yesterday of another great composer, Richard Strauss, who was 68 when Zweig worked with him on the comic opera Die schweigsame Frau:
At first his face impresses as almost banal...But only one glance into the eyes, those bright, blue, highly radiant eyes, and one instantly feels some particular magic behind this bourgeois mask. They are perhaps the most wide-awake eyes I have ever seen in a musician, not daemonic but in some way clairvoyant, the eyes of a man fully cognisant of the full significance of his task.