One of my commitments this term is to a set of lectures with what I suppose one could call a group of extremely enthusiastic music aficionados. My association with them started many years back when I left Trinity College of Music and transferred to Birkbeck College, but not having taught in adult education before, I was sent to the outer reaches of west London to cut my teeth.
Birkbeck cut their links some years ago, but I was retained in a freelance capacity and, twelve times a year, I trek out to Ickenham of a Monday morning to offer my thoughts about a certain musical topic. Over the years people have come and gone, but the core remains, and it is one of those areas of my work that I would be reluctant to drop.
After around two hundred or so classes, you might think that there is no more music left to discover, but the truth of the matter is that there is always something else interesting out there, and we have explored the mainstream, the hidden, the profound and, sometimes, the absurd. All the listening, all the writing, and all the analyses tend to feed back into my compositional process as well, of course.
On Monday we will be studying the late works of Liszt, a figure still grossly underestimated in terms of his influence, and strangely misunderstood. Many know him merely as the virtuoso pianist, the composer of piano works of phenomenal difficulty and showmanship, but the real story of the man goes much deeper than that, as one might expect from somebody who gave their last proper recital in 1847 but lived nearly thirty more years.
He was the most photographed person of the nineteenth century, the second most sculpted (after Napoleon), travelled widely and incessantly, invented the solo piano recital, the masterclass, thematic transformation, the symphonic poem, was the person to turn the piano sideways in recital so that the sound projected towards the audience, promoted the music of Wagner (and became his father-in-law), donated vast sums of money to charity, shook the hands of Beethoven and Debussy at either end of the 1800s, and, at the end of it all, composed those dark, brooding, otherworldly pieces that hint at the twentieth century, atonality, impressionism, and many other things that we do not associate with him at all. As far as Liszt is concerned, most of us – including me – have only just scratched the surface.