MUSICAL AMERICA (486)
August 25, 1923
Liszt, the Man and Master as Siloti Knew Him
Memories of Student Days with the Great Hungarian Pianist and Composer—First Contact with Genius Exhilarating to Homesick Russian Youth—Lessons Free, But Only Bestowed on the Specially Gifted—His Face a Mobile Instrument to Reflect His Musical Wishes—When the Emperor of Pianists Played the “Moonlight” Sonata
By Alexander Siloti
[Alexander Siloti, or Ziloti as his name is sometimes spelled, is one of the most renowned living pianists and is noted as well as a conductor. He was born in Charkov, Russia, in 1863 and gained the gold medal at the Moscow Conservatory after studying under Nicholas Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky. As he relates, he later went to Weimar and spent three years in studying under Liszt, who regarded Siloti as one of his most gifted pupils. He has taught much and made many tours as concert pianist. In 1903 he organized his own orchestra in Petrograd and gave annual concerts, bringing forward scores by the younger Russian composers and many works by Liszt. Siloti has been heard frequently in all the important European countries and in the United States. He came to America in December, 1921, and is at present residing in this country.—Editor, MUlSICAL AMERICA.]
I WAS a boy of nineteen when I first met the master in Weimar—it was in 1883. A boy, I say, with that freshness in my heart which we Russians always keep. Although I had come from Moscow, after a training which stamped me in Russia as a finished artist, I had come to Liszt with a special letter from the Imperial Russian Musical Society, the chief school in Russia, where I studied with Nicholas Rubinstein, an old friend of Liszt. Nicholas died in 1881, and I afterward took lessons from his brother, Anton Rubinstein.
As I entered the drawing room in the fine old house, the former home of the Herzog of Weimar, the master came forward to greet me. It was the lesson hour. I shall never forget his look; it was searching, but it was succeeded at once by a smile that was all-embracing and which swept me into his heart at once. The tears come to my eyes every time I think of that first meeting. The master was a tall man, a bit of a giant indeed, although his shoulders had begun to droop. The first impression of him was really inspiring. I felt as if I were in the presence of a demi-god, and I never, no matter how familiarly I saw him afterward, shook it off. There was something tremendously masterful in every look and mood of Liszt. If he had said nothing more than “How do you do?” to you, you felt the giant in him. But he never wasted a moment in his music-room, where pupils, all with credentials of finished artists, for he would see no others, came to him from the ends of the earth; and after a word or two on both sides, he remarked simply:
“You are a pupil of Nicholas—sit down and play me something.”
His usual manner was more than aristocratic, it was kingly, all-commanding, and yet he made you feel at home in his presence at once. So I sat down and played Chopin’s Ballade in A Flat, which I had brought with me for my début.
The master stood behind the piano—a great Bechstein grand—as was his custom, looking into the player’s face. He was all alert. At the second bar he stopped me. “No, don’t take a sitz-bath on the first note,” he exclaimed. He sat down to the piano and demonstrated. I was quite overcome. “Si, Signore. Si, Signore,” he said in Italian, rising and smiling almost maliciously, a little way he had at times. There was a touch of the Mephistophelian in the master, as others have noted.
As I went on he stopped me occasionally, took my seat and played the passages out himself. By the time I was done I had already received such an inspiration from his playing and his presence that I felt like a new man, I who only yesterday had been so homesick in Weimar, where I knew not a word of the language and was indeed half afraid of this magician, that I had telegraphed to Russia that I was coming home at once! This was before I had come to Liszt. That first lesson transformed me, and I went back to my hotel and moved at once into permanent quarters. There was something absolutely magical in the master, although he had paid no special attention and I had played in the presence of twenty-five other pupils.
Liszt absorbed me: he was my heaven, my all, from that hour. The feeling only deepened with each following lesson. There were about thirty pupils with him at the time, and when we were all together, he was like a sun in our midst. Liszt was in his seventy-third year and beginning to show signs of age in his slightly stooped shoulders, but the light of his marvelous genius was as strong in him as ever, and young, gay and strong as we all were, we seemed to shrink beside him in common intercourse.
THAT music-room in Weimar was the highest plane of the divine art on the earth, and we were enraptured and lifted up within its glow. We felt as though the world outside were a world of shadows. At this period the master gave lessons regularly every week on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. These lessons were free, but to a select number only. He had no time to waste on mediocre talent, and one performance generally sufficed to prove whether you were fit for the circle. When, a young Hungarian with .the fire of genius in him, he had come up to the great school, the Conservatory at Paris, Cherubini had refused to accept him because he was a foreigner without money. “If I be what I think I shall be,” he then resolved, “never a penny will be taken by me to give what I have from God.” And throughout his life he kept this promise What Liszt gave to his pupils was given as the sunlight, the rain, the blessings of nature are given.
How shall I describe his teaching? Certainly his method was absolutely unique—startling! He either sat beside or stood opposite his pupil and indicated wholly by the constantly changing expression of his countenance the proper nuance. It follows that the pupil who became the most adroit and perfect in reading his countenance pleased him the best. For myself, after a short novitiate in this remarkable method, l found myself able to watch his face closely all through the lesson. L1szt was so full of mus1c that his face became of itself almost a musical instrument. There never was anyone else in the world who could do this. The better we understood the fine play of his expression, the better we got on. We had to understand him. He told me once that he could do nothing for a pupil who did not understand him from the start. He gave no instructions as to compositions. Each brought what he wanted to and laid the selections on the piano. The master ran them over and told us what to play. But in all the range of music he had only two standing prejudices—his own Second Rhapsody, which had been and was being played so much that he did not want to hear it, and Beethoven’s Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia (Opus 27, No. 2), which in his own prime he played as no other artist could.
I cannot say that I was his favorite pupil; I do not like the term anyway. But the master, for his part, had won me body and soul at my first hearing, and I very soon began to feel that I was sympathetic to him. He had a habit of walking up and down when a pupil was playing, and when the performance was unusually good, he would stop beside him with a glance of approval. Of course this raised me immensely in my own estimation. He also soon singled me out as one of the chosen few, a very few, whom it was his custom to invite to stay after the session. I felt very much stirred by the first invitation, but refused from shyness, pleading an engagement several times, until one day he came over to me and said simply: “You will stay with me afterward,” as if divining my reticence to accept this highest of pleasures to be one of Liszt’s guests.
It was equivalent to a king’s command, and I was the only one of his pupils asked that day. Two notable callers came, Marie Lipsius, the German musical scholar and his translator and the editor of his letters and Fräulein Marie Breidenstein, a singer. A game of whist, of which he was very fond, was proposed. I knew the game well, but the moment I sat down beside the master and realized that I was about to play a game of cards with Liszt, I was seized with a kind of stage-fright, the same sort of nervous trembling that I have sometimes felt on a concert platform. My hands shook so that I could not hold my cards firmly. Soon enough I got over this feeling and displayed unwarrantable boldness as the game advanced. ·Once when he declared trumps, I glanced at my hand and knew he could not win. “Meister, you will take no tricks,” I exclaimed impulsively. His face changed. He retorted dryly, “Young man, keep calm.” That remark of mine spoiled the rest of the game. His companions quite understood his mood, and we finished in silence. But Liszt was going to punish me. As he shuffled the cards for the final deal he turned to Fräulein Breidenstein and asked her: “Do you know the story of the celebrated Dresden comedian?” “No,” she answered. “Oh, it is a charming story. He was a great artist and was very popular in Dresden. He went abroad to act and on his return was asked: ‘Well, did you have a great success?’ ‘Yes, very great.’ ‘And did you make much money?’ ‘Yes, a great deal.’ ‘Did you learn anything?’ ‘No, I learned nothing, but I became arrogant.’”
Liszt darted a glance at me and laughed a real Mephistophelian laugh. I pressed hard upon my chair, hoping I would sink through the floor.
DURING that summer when I had neglected writing to my mother in Moscow for some days, she wrote to the master asking him how I was getting on. Remember I was only nineteen and engaged in my first courtship, too! He came to me one day at lesson, remarking, “Come here. I want to speak to you.” We went into his bedroom; which was furnished like an ascetic’s—a reminder of his monastic days. He suddenly became grave and said: “Tell me, please, when did you last write to your mother?” I was covered with shame and confusion, but tried to prevaricate my way out of it. I answered that I had written the day before, having instantly formed the purpose to write that evening. The master gave me a penetrating look—he knew I had lied. “Now, my dear boy,” he said in a strange voice, stern and yet paternal. “don’t do this again, because your mother has written to tell me she is anxious about you. You are young and there is one thing you should remember. I am seventy-three years old and have lived my life happily enough, but it is entirely owing to the fact that I have always been a good son to my mother. Remember what I say.” That scene will never lose its freshness for me as long as I live.
Of his marvelous charm of personality many have spoken and written, but I can unreservedly say that never in the course of a long professional career have I known anything to match it. His manner of greeting a lady with a chivalrous bow and his left hand pressed to his heart was a liberal education,in itself. Who but Liszt could do it!
As to his playing—at seventy-three—I will give you one little story. Anton Rubinstein, the Great, was playing at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig that summer, and Liszt advised me to go and hear him. The occasion happened to be a. recital of Beethoven’s sonatas. The great artist was at his best. His performance of The “Moonlight” Sonata was simply marvelous. I hurried back to Weimar to tell Liszt all about it. He listened to my raptures, including the statement that I had never heard anything like that performance of the “Moonlight” Sonata.
“Very good, very satisfactory,” he said composedly at the end and walked over to the piano. There was a copy of the “Moonlight” Sonata lying on it, which a young American woman had brought.
“My dear child,” he said, turning to her, “this piece must not be brought to the lessons; I allow no one to play it because when I was young it was my specialité. But as we are in a good humor today, I will play it for you.” He turned to me with a glance of deep meaning.
I held mv breath as I listened. Rubinstein had played on a perfect Bechstein in a hall with perfect acoustic qualities; Liszt was playing in a little carpeted room, in which small space thirty-five or forty people were sitting. The piano was worn out, unequal and discordant. He had only played the opening triplets, however, when I felt as if the room no longer held me, and when, after the first four bars, the G sharp came in, in the right hand, I was completely carried away. Not that he accentuated this G sharp; it was simply that he gave it an entirely new sound, which even now, after twenty-seven years, I can hear distinctly. He played the whole of the first movement, then the second; the third he only began, saying that he was now too old and had not the strength for it. I then realized that I had completely forgotten having listened to Rubinstein a few hours before. As a pianist he no longer existed.
As I have said before, I make this statement deliberately with full knowledge of what I am saying, and, as all the musical world knows my opinion of Rubinstein, they may thus gain some faint idea of what Liszt was as a pianist.
When he had finished, the master got up and came across to me. I was utterly unstrung, there were tears in my eyes. I could only say, “Meister, I am quite dazed. I never heard anything like it.” He only smiled upon me kindly and said: “We know how to play after all, eh?”
I now recalled that Anton Rubinstein had said at a banquet given in his honor in Vienna: “We all corporals and Liszt is the one and only field marshal.”
How true this estimate was! In my opinion Liszt was as far removed from Rubinstein as Rubinstein from the rest of us. I have never played that sonata in public; I have never heard it again, for if I have happened to be at a concert where it was to be played I have always left the hall. It seemed to me that I should be insulting Liszt’s memory, not to speak of the martyrdom it implied to myself.