12. Liszt: Consolation No. 3

Franz Liszt: Consolation No. 3, Lento placido, 1849, Grove No. 172.

Listen to the author reading the text

The pianist here must be the child of Schoenberg, managing to turn a potentially sappy melody into a deeper inquisition into disjointed time which, in its rhythmic disfunction, acts as a deeper metaphor for our general alienation.

In 1830, Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve published a book of poems, Consolations. He never felt secure as a poet, and eventually became a literary critic, moving in a circle that included de Vigny, Hugo, and the Abbé Lamennais, all friends of Liszt. Sainte-Beuve’s overblown melancholic poetry, his musical language, and his pre-Symbolist use of concrete things to suggest the human soul appealed to Liszt, who was going spiritedly through a dispiriting period.

Chopin had just died, and Liszt, who had never touched the forms which Chopin made immortal, now began to write his own versions in homage, perhaps to keep Chopin alive. Liszt’s lover, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, was chronically ill, suffering from hideous boils and cankers which covered her skin. In leaving her husband, she had forfeited her own enormous fortune, which was being pillaged by her vindictive ex-husband and the Russian crown, as a result of which no one in Weimar would speak to her.

Liszt had to spirit Wagner into eleven years of exile to save his life, as Wagner had unwisely taken part in the unsuccessful Dresden Uprising. There was no money for the enormous concert schedule which Liszt nonetheless conducted in Weimar.

He must have known somewhere in his unconscious how many enemies he had, many of them, like the Schumanns, exploiting his friendship.

The book he was writing about Chopin was taken over by the Princess and turned into a mediocrity, causing many recriminations between them.

Orchestras everywhere were schmaltzing up Liszt’s compositions, assuring him of ignominy.

In the midst of all of this, Liszt was a pillar of strength, proselytizing the Schumanns as they vilified him behind his back, conducting Wagner when all of Germany was terrified of being associated with the political exile, sticking with the bankrupt Weimar Court out of loyalty to his friend the Duke (until the Duke turned against him), and more or less forsaking the piano after he had invented the concept of the modern pianist. As the Duke said of Liszt, “The world usually judges wrongly what it cannot comprehend.”

So what Alan Walker calls the “secret sorrow” of this piece is no longer so secret from us, and its constant reference to Chopin’s D flat Nocturne (track number 1) must have been a source of revitalization for Liszt.

How blithely, how unbitterly Liszt coasted through tragedies which would have crushed anyone less sure of his immortality. Liszt’s need for truth led him to become an Abbé later in life, and to simplify his compositions to the point that he is rightly the father, not only of modern music, but of minimalism, he who was its direct antithesis for much of his life.

So it is a great consolation to me that if such a piece could console a genius with a searing vision of the world around him, who must have seen hypocrisy and tragedy so blindingly, then it must provide at least some comfort for those of us who face lesser problems.

For all its seeming Romanticism, the piece is structurally quite modern, requiring two different time zones, one for the Venetian boat song of the bass accompaniment, which is itself a melody, and the other for the slower, outof-synch top melody. Only occasionally do the two zones coincide, causing notes to sound in unison.

Mostly, the two hands cannot agree, and battle each other delicately until the very end, when descending thirds end in unison, and you realize that what has sounded like one melody is in fact both together, and there has after all been resolution, subtle and so even more affecting, because it only dawns on you after the piece has faded away.

In keeping the timings separate, I have sacrificed easy lyricism to a more difficult, inconsolable segregation of the voices, so that the piece may seem at first quite unromantic, until the final resolution. It is, I feel, similar in spirit to Charles Ives’ modern composition, The Unanswered Question, where themes war similarly, leading to an uneasy and possibly only temporary peace.