Sunday, February 13, 2011

Is Liszt a Guilty Pleasure?

When Michael Tilson Thomas decided to introduce Franz Liszt’s tone poem, “Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo” to San Francisco Symphony audiences in March of 2009, he decided to preface the performance with some spoken remarks that seemed to verge on the apologetic.  (That stance, however, did not seem to impede his giving the music a second airing almost exactly a year later.)  I suspect that the need for apology had something to do not only with Liszt’s extravagances but also with the fact that the performance had been preceded by György Ligeti’s settings of four excerpts from the text for the requiem mass.  Personally, I felt that the prefatory remarks were not necessary, nor was any need for apology.  After that performance I wrote the following in a post to this blog:

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas introduced the work to the audience by casting it in the same extravagant mold as that of Freddie Mercury's "Bohemian Rhapsody." I suspect that the setting for "Bohemian Rhapsody" in Wayne's World might have been more appropriate; and even better probably would have been We're Only in It for the Money, Frank Zappa's absurdist retaliation against the idea of escalating rock to epic proportions. Still, given Ligeti's own appreciation of the absurd, he probably would have appreciated being coupled with his Hungarian forebear Liszt in this manner.

I suppose the real point is that the very idea of a guilty pleasure is someone oxymoronic.  There is no need to feel guilty about it, let alone apologize, if it does not frighten the horses, as they used to say.  I doubt that Ligeti ever felt particularly guilty about anything he threw into Le Grand Macabre, whether it involved the fornication in an open grave in Scene 1 or the obscenity-laden debate in Scene 3.  We should not feel any guilt in enjoying those theatrical episodes, nor should we feel it over the over-the-top excesses of Liszt’s compositions, whether for orchestra or solo piano.  There may even be knowledge to be gained from the analysis of such musical efforts, just as there is from a scrupulous examination of the polyphony that Giovanni Gabrieli wrote for San Marco (which happened to be on the same San Francisco Symphony program that coupled Liszt with Ligeti).

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