The Liszt Sonata in B Minor: At the Temple Door
Piano practice is like having a dog. If one has lived long enough with such an unnecessary but at the same time critical circumstance, one wonders how others live without it. Thus even when concert work figuratively dies for me – when I have no cause to go to the piano for considerable stretches of time – my hours and days are still ruled by its compulsion, just as my life continues to be a ruled by a dog who has recently passed away. I rise before I need to rise, for fear that he who is now only a ghost may need to go for his walk.
And when I do not practice, my mind is still hounded by the Liszt Sonata in B Minor. I think about it, and it still influences my daily conduct even when I have no obligation to the quality of its sonic or physical recreation.
It is always the ghost dog, the Man’s Best Friend, of my midnight walks in my village near New York. But in the case of the sonata, it is I who is led by a mystic tether. One’s walks are then guided by the unseen, as one is pulled away from the obvious and straight courses of sidewalks and streets – sent overland and over-yard to any shrub or tree that beckons.
The Liszt sonata pulls me that way. It is the piece I practice even when I do not practice, when I do not listen to its recordings, when I do not consult its text, when I do not hear it in red velvet recital halls. Only after all these activities are in the past does the best part of music study take effect. The Liszt Sonata in B Minor influences my conduct beyond my responsibilities as a pianist – and acts as a reference point for my ethical and practical choices. For it is the principal tuitional grist I carry about in my conscience, the principal written record from another mind that I consult outside of my own stake in the great pool of Reason.
I discovered Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor in my early teens, when an itinerant uncle stored his records in the family home. From out of his crates I pulled Agustin Anievas’ LP recording of the work. I was made a pure apostle after one hearing. By age twenty I first performed the Sonata. And nearly thirty years later, just this past summer, I made a study of all the commercial recordings of the piece I could find. My survey placed Krystian Zimmerman’s recording among those at the top, as this clip will demonstrate:
But how does a piece of musical abstraction influence my conduct and beliefs?
So much has been written about the sonata that I will only pause at the doors of the temple to make my case as to its personal influence. I cite only the two complementary descending scales delivered in the opening bars: G-F-Eb-D-C-Bb-Ab (bars 2 – 3); and G-F#-Eb-D-C#-Bb-A (bars 5 – 6). Even one with rudimentary piano skill can easily play these two scales. We need not give the theoretical names usually applied to them, nor the precise registers or rhythms of their rendering in the score. The notes alone will do. The Liszt sonata is the sole work in which I find the subtle yet vast potential of modality to be nothing less than a suggestive miracle.
Note the static letter names shared by the two scales. But the astounding chromatic differences between the pair steal across the ear like the founding of a Faith! The two scales stand in analogy to translations. Of late in my runs in the woods I have thought that a translation is like a bushwhacked path that lies near and parallel to a blazed and groomed trail. The blazed path is the original; the parallel bushwhack trail is the translation. For the latter has the same course and distance as the former, but it forces leaps and jumps and differences upon a run of the same aim. One trail is in the language of man; the other is in the tongue of deer hooves. Or perhaps the bushwhack trail, with all its roughness and peculiar meanings, is the original.
The opening scales of the Liszt sonata are like such parallel trails; they are translations of one another. Yet they are both utterances of an abstraction. They are as translations wherein neither one nor the other is necessarily the original. The comparison of this pair in succession is the only passage in music that makes me cock my head like the RCA Victrola dog – and really mean it. But whose is the master’s voice I recognize?
There is vast debate in the historical literature as to whether the Liszt sonata follows a program. But if even just these opening scales fuel a thrall in the private mind that neither the one nor the other is the original, could the listener or player, then, via the most careful attention, identify with the impersonal scales in a proprietary spiritual sense? Is Liszt’s greatest achievement as a programmatic composer, as a tone poet, his mastery over a musical second-person language? Does he invoke sublime generosity? Does he tell your mind’s intellectual program over his motivic foundation?
And thus in making it uncertain which of the paired scales is the gold standard and which is the paper, does one start to feel the stirrings of a reassurance, that the body is not a mere original for a hoped-for spiritual complement?
By making the original of something in music uncertain – the same in letter-names, but different in exquisitely slight and magically chromatic ways – perhaps I have more faith that a mystic counterpart is also sure to follow or precede or coexist with my fleshy self? My body shares the same space with an enharmonic ghost? My modal soul shares the same space with a carbon shape? When I am outside of the temple doors again at the sonata’s end, and hear the final utterance of these scales, I feel no fear of the grave.
There is something of the better-or-worse optometrist’s question in these first two scales. One is still looking at the same chart of letters as both scales go by in the sonata’s opening, but Liszt is figuratively flipping the lenses on the same letters, on the same row in the chart – inviting one to look at a group of finite symbols through shifting chromatic prescriptions. “Sit still,” Liszt sayeth. “Yet I will make things grow within, though they seem to shift without whilst keeping their identities.”
There are intuitional means by which one may grapple with mortality. But the Liszt sonata is the only source of guidance from tuitional means that has reconciled me soundly to an end – to dissolution as necessary, in manner beautiful, part of the process of gaining comprehensive and ultimate humility.
Top right photo: A drawing of Jack Kohl, the author of this essay, by Michael Johnson.