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I’m saddened by Liszt’s low opinion of his later works, particularly Csárdás Macabre. I understand they weren’t received well at the time and many of them he kept to himself — they were too futuristic, too different from what the world was accustomed to hearing (not to mention that it got to the point that he begged his students not to play his works in public for fear that they would become the brunt of great ridicule). A bit cacophonous at times, I suppose, but I like that now and then. They had great depth, plunging into realms that music had never touched before.

I was struck that on Csárdás Macabre, he wrote the following dismal words:

May one write or listen to such a thing?

How disheartening — it amazes me that he even went through the effort of composing these works if he had such negative thoughts about them. It almost sounds as if he was ashamed to have written such music. True, it was a dark time of his life, and this must have served as a release for him. But he did “write such a thing,” however, and as he foresaw, more unusual works were to be composed by others in the future.

What surprises me about his reaction to Csárdás Macabre is that it isn’t one of those later works that wander into atonality, like Nuages gris or Bagatelle sans tonalité, and it isn’t as desolate as his La Lugubre Gondola pieces (I’ve heard some call Macabre atonal; I disagree). The csárdás almost reminds me of some of his earlier works, like some of the Hungarian Rhapsodies, or even Totentanz, which definitely shows glimpses of what his music would become in the future, especially in the opening bars. But he wasn’t that harsh to Totentanz, scrawling such pessimistic things on the manuscript! And I even feel that parts of his Sonata in B Minor seem futuristic — another piece that was received with some consternation at first, but again, he was not harsh about that piece.

Openings bars from totentanz piano solo version

Openings bars from Totentanz piano solo version: nice, explosive stuff for a piano! I personally think it’s far better, and much more powerful than the orchestral version. Then again, I usually favor a solitary piano over an orchestra. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I suppose Liszt would think me a deranged person, considering that, yes — I actually listen to such things with great pleasure. One of the first pieces I ever heard by him was none other than Csárdás Macabre. I thought it a very intriguing and dichotomous piece of music with its interesting mixture of levity and sinister qualities (it’s actually quite catchy), and it was that work that he had such gloomy misgivings about that sparked my interest in Liszt’s music in the first place. So it can’t be that dreadful!

I’m thankful he didn’t toss it, even though he might have had a burning desire to do so.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Franz Liszt