October 28, 2020

Liszt and Poe Join Horowitz In a Halloween Production of “The Mephisto Waltz”

By Stuart Mitchner

Is there really a composer who paints the infernal, the macabre, better than Liszt?

—James Huneker (1857-1921)

I’ve been listening to Horowitz Plays Liszt (Red Seal RCA) ever since the composer’s October 22 birthday. I hadn’t planned on doing Liszt for Halloween, at least not until I read the liner notes describing his fascination with the Faust legend, and how sometimes “one wonders whether it was Faust who attracted him or the Devil himself.” And how when Liszt embraced the church, he was dubbed “The Devil in Monk’s clothing,” alias “the diaboliszt,” who “feared God, but loved the devil.”

When I wrote celebrating Liszt’s 2011 bicentenary, the music that most impressed me was a recording by André Watts of “Fountains of the Villa d’Este.” I played the same piece in my personal concert hall (the front seat of a 2000 Honda CRV) on my way to the dentist the other day, saving Horowitz and “The Mephisto Waltz” for the drive back. While the “Mephisto” sounded much as I described it nine years ago — exhilarating, vehement, audacious — I was more aware of the “charlatan” Charles Rosen refers to in a chapter titled “Disreputable Greatness,” from The Romantic Generation. According to Rosen, “The early works are vulgar and great; the late works are admirable and minor.” For Rosen, it was “useless to try to separate the great musician from the charlatan: each one needed the other in order to exist.”

While “The Mephisto Waltz” seemed a good fit for Halloween, along with Poe and the usual suspects, I hadn’t counted on Horowitz’s rendition of “Funérailles,” which the liner notes describe as “one of the most persuasive funeral pieces ever composed.” Because Liszt dated it October 1849, “popular belief has singled it out as having been written in memory of Chopin,” who had died at the age of 40 on October 17. However, several Liszt biographers “prefer to believe” it was written to honor “other friends who had lost their lives in that year of political revolution.”

Something Happened

So I’m driving down Witherspoon in the direction of Paul Robeson Place, “Funérailles” is on, sounding at first like the “persuasive funeral piece” promised in the notes. Then, as happens a lot lately, my thoughts veer in the direction of November 3, thoughts of hope and dread, fear and loathing, the music all but forgotten. Horowitz sounds as far away as the date of the actual performance on December 19, 1950, a tolling of bells fading into a slow march, then a muted fanfare, a ghost of melody from 1849, “the year of political revolution” and suddenly that’s what it’s all about. Horowitz is back, and he’s not alone. Chopin and Liszt are riding shotgun, ahead of a marching army of Hungarian and Polish revolutionaries, and my humble Honda has become a pianistic juggernaut thundering up Witherspoon (there’s no “down” in this sound storm) toward Election Day, and there’s a red Mephisto mist steaming from the hood of the 20-year-old CRV that just passed its inspection and is good to go until May 2022.

The lanky patrolman who waves me over bears a suspicious resemblance to Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. He looks thoughtful, bemused, perhaps a bit wary as he comes around to my rolled down window after giving a long hard look at the hood, which he started to touch and then thought better of it. No, I wasn’t speeding. I wasn’t weaving. It was the music. I’m wondering is there such a thing as DUIL, Driving Under the Influence of Liszt? “What was that sound?” he wants to know. “I heard you coming a block away.” Not about to try pronouncing “Funérailles,” I just say “Liszt.” He says, “You better have someone at Honda look under the hood.” When I open my eyes he’s gone and I’m in the Community Park lot, across from the firehouse. Yep, my George Bailey cop was a benign hallucination. But not the music. That was all too real.

When I got home I tried to find some online evidence that I hadn’t imagined all that sound and fury. I didn’t know what to call it except that it was made by one man, Vladimir Horowitz, born in Kiev, October 1, 1904. A sentence from the liner notes jumped out at me: “The New York Times reported that the piano “smoked at the keys” during Horowitz’s American debut, January 12, 1928. So maybe the red mist rising from the hood had been for real.

Online I found what I was looking for in a 1993 Baltimore Sun article by Stephen Wigler, who marvels at how Horowitz’s performances had “a multidimensional quality that made it difficult to believe they were coming from a single source.” And when he played “the famous left-hand octaves in Liszt’s ‘Funérailles,’ he made the piano roar so threateningly that listeners could be persuaded there was more inside the instrument than an inanimate steel frame, springs and felt-covered wooden hammers.” Horowitz could make the piano sound “as if it contained an orchestra of demons.”

Poe’s On Board

When I quoted Charles Rosen’s theory that it was useless trying to separate “the great musician from the charlatan,” that in Liszt “each one needed the other in order to exist,” I thought of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Always a likely subject for a Halloween column, Poe lives on the same wave length as Liszt and Chopin (1809-1849). In fact, Poe died just 10 days before his Polish birthyear mate, on October 7, and while it’s unlikely that the author of Tales of Mystery and Imagination was in Liszt’s thoughts when he composed “Funérailles,” he can surely be heard in the “biting, broad humor and Satanic suggestiveness” of “The Mephisto Waltz.” And Poe is the obvious answer should you give a literary turn to James Huneker’s rhetorical question “Is there really a composer who paints the infernal, the macabre, better than Liszt?” Reading Huneker’s chapter on Liszt in Mezzotints in Modern Music (1899/1927), it’s hard not to see prose deliriums like “Ligeia” and “The Masque of the Red Death” in “the swirl of intoxicating colors [that] goes kaleidoscopically on” in Liszt’s B minor sonata. This is particularly true given that the previous chapter, “The Greater Chopin,” includes a rhapsodic pairing of Chopin and Poe, “two supremely melancholy artists of the beautiful” who “lived and died almost synchronously.”

Poe’s Haunted House

From that mansion, I fled aghast … my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder–there was a long, tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters ….

—from “The Fall of the House of Usher”

When I read an article in Sunday’s New York Times about the impact of the pandemic on “the haunted-attractions industry,” I couldn’t help wondering if Poe, a haunted-attractions industry unto himself, would sympathize with the professional purveyors of horror “fighting to survive this Halloween.” Would the author of “The House of Usher” be amused to read about Blood Manor, the haunted house located in his old Lower Manhattan neighborhood? With his weakness for rhetorical extremes, he’d likely be susceptible to the phrasing of superspreaders crowded together “screaming out untold droplets within inches of strangers’ faces.”

D.H. Lawrence’s examination of Poe’s work in Studies in Classic American Literature begins by citing the “mechanical quality” of his style (the Poe industry, in effect) and the “mechanical rhythm” of his poetry, claiming that he “never sees anything in terms of life, almost always in terms of matter … — or in terms of [scientific] force,” and that his “cadences … are all managed mechanically.” That said, Lawrence can’t resist giving the reader a quick tour of Poe’s most famous haunted house with “‘its vacant and eye-like windows.’ Minute fungi overspread the exterior of the house, hanging in festoons from the eaves. Gothic archways, a valet of stealthy step, sombre tapestries, ebon black floors, a profusion of tattered and antique furniture, feeble gleams of encrimsoned light through latticed panes, and over all ‘an air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom.’” By paraphrasing most of the Poe’s “rather overdone, vulgar fantasy,” Lawrence seems to be appropriating Poe’s prose without actually taking responsibility for the excesses, as if to suggest, “This is Poe’s haunted house, he furnished it, I’m just showing you around the premises.”

Lawrence ends his chapter by accusing Poe of trying to make the “ghastly disease” of love “fair and attractive,” thereby demonstrating “the inevitable falseness, duplicity of art, American art in particular.”

Never mind the duplicity, it’s a Barnum and Bailey world, where charlatans rule and masters of the infernal and macabre like Liszt and Poe continue to be draw large crowds to their tents at the great fair of art.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Frankenstein

The prologue to James Whale’s film Bride of Frankenstein, which shows Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron in Byron’s lavish villa chatting about Mary’s book of horrors, ends with a sly, fetching Mary (Elsa Lanchester, who also plays the Bride) setting the stage for the sequel. Today, October 28, is Elsa Lanchester’s birthday. To see her in the dual role of a lifetime, try streaming The Bride of Frankenstein on Amazon Prime. You can also see clips on YouTube. A colleague has just reminded me that the not-to-be-missed series Penny Dreadful with Rory Kinnear’s peerless performance as the Creature, alias John Clare, is available on Netflix.