[For some background on Franz Liszt, see this first post in the series on Legendary Liszt Performers].
We know little of this German pianist, who was not only one of the last students Liszt was to take on before his death in 1886, he was probably the greatest pianist to study under Liszt. At least Liszt thought so. What we know of Stavenhagen comes from his biography in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which is the foundation for the Stavenhagen biography on Wikipedia.
Bernhard Stavenhagen was born in Germany in 1862. When his family moved to Berlin in 1874 he began musical studies under Theodore Kullak. Kullak was a well-known concert pianist at the time, and it is he who must be considered responsible for turning Stavenhagen’s inherent talents at the piano into refined skills that allowed the young man to create a performance career from his playing. Stavenhagen moved to Weimar, Germany in 1885, at age 24, in order to study under Franz Liszt. Liszt was to die on July 31 of the following year, so there was not much opportunity for him to mold Stavenhagen’s skills, which must have been of a very high quality for Liszt to accept him in the first place. It should also be noted that Liszt did group lessons with his ten or so selected students, not private lessons, so whatever Stavenhagen learned from Liszt, it was not oriented around the fundamentals of concert piano playing, which Stavenhagen had learned quite thoroughly from Kullak.
This is not to say Stavenhagen’s stay at Weimar was only nominally beneficial. Quite the contrary. In the last year of his life, Liszt was very active, traveling to give charity concerts in Paris, Rome, London and elsewhere. George Bernard Shaw, who was Britain’s leading musical critic at the time, wrote about Liszt’s performance in London, saying that “the old lion” still had musical talents that set him apart from all other concert virtuosos. For Stavenhagen to hear Liszt in a concert setting, and to socialize with him on this tour, was an opportunity of a lifetime to learn from observation and listening.
Stavenhagen left us a few recordings of Liszt’s music, which gives us insight into his talents as a pianist, and into Liszt’s performance style itself, since Stavenhagen acknowledged he was much influenced by what he learned from Liszt as a concert artist. When I say “recordings,” I mean in this case piano rolls, not actual phonograph records.
Music historians regularly regret that there are no recordings of Franz Liszt at the piano, so we are unable to hear what the greatest piano virtuoso who ever lived sounded like. Liszt died two years too early. In 1888, Thomas Edison sent his representative in London a copy of his new audio recording device, which he called the phonograph. This device used a needle which etched in a cylinder of wax the grooves representing the aural characteristics of a voice or musical instrument. This technology was known decades before Edison began working on his phonograph. What Edison invented was a way to play back the sound etched into the wax.
Edison had his phonograph introduced to London society in 1888, and we have some Edison cylinders still from this very early period in phonograph history. The device was also sent to Germany, and there is a wax cylinder of someone playing one of the Brahms Hungarian Rhapsodies from 1888, the player being introduced as “Dr. Johannes Brahms.” Most experts think it really is Brahms at the piano, though the sound quality is very muddied. These early wax cylinders used a soft wax that could be replayed only about ten times before the audio quality deteriorated significantly.
It stands to reason that if Liszt were alive in Weimar in 1888 when Edison’s machine was touring Germany, Edison would have made every effort to bring the instrument to Weimar. Liszt himself would have found the experience fascinating. As it is, we do not have a recording of Liszt so we have to look to his students who were close to him and assume they were representative of Liszt’s playing. Several of them left piano rolls for us to gauge the Liszt performance style, and among these pianists are Moriz Rosenthal and Arthur Friedheim, who was Liszt’s private secretary as well as his student.
None of their performances has the extraordinary virtuosity which Stavenhagen displays on his piano rolls, and there is one other benefit to categorizing Stavenhagen as a legendary Liszt performer. He has provided us with a performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 that is unlike the official printed version of this composition that Liszt authorized. Stavenhagen makes it clear that his performance is based on what he observed from Liszt, which could either mean how he heard Liszt perform this rhapsody himself, or what ideas Liszt gave to Stavenhagen about the way the young man performed it. This latter point is probably more important than the first, because Liszt never objected to a pianist who improvised on Liszt’s own compositions, at least when it came to his showy pieces like his Hungarian Rhapsodies, his transcriptions of operas and songs, and his etudes. Stavenhagen, who came to Liszt as a fully-formed concert artist, may have tried out his own improvisations on Liszt and the composer was sufficiently in approval that Stavenhagen proceeded to play his version of this music, and record it.
Despite the fact that the phonograph did not begin to be widely used until around 1915, when Edison came up with a hard wax cylinder that preserved the sound almost completely as long as the cylinder was not broken or damaged, we do have some fascinating and important piano rolls from great artists performing in the 1880 to 1920 era. The piano roll was, in some respects, as interesting an invention as the phonograph, it just had more limited applications. Several companies specialized in creating piano roll instruments and recording devices which used punched holes on a rolling sheet of paper to capture the sound being created on the piano. It took a great deal of ingenuity to capture the many nuances of tone that a performer produced on a piano, and to add to that the effects produced by the pedals. Some companies, such as Duo-Art in the U.S., became so skilled at creating piano rolls, that noted concert pianists of the day were eager to record their performances on such instruments.
The piano roll business completely collapsed in the 1920’s as the phonograph came into its own, especially when the cylinder gave way to Edison’s flat wax disk (which is still the format for today’s vinyl LPs). It has only been through the hard work of dedicated amateurs and sound engineers that the pianos involved have been restored, and the old piano rolls now have been played and recorded digitally, so that the sound can be modified as necessary. This part is a rather tricky business, and always raises the question as to whether what we are hearing from these restored piano rolls is authentic. One initial problem is tempo. Concert pianists of the early 1900’s tended to play just a bit faster than modern pianists do for the same composition, and some of this was required by Edison’s new machine. The wax cylinders could only record a few minutes of music, so musicians were forced to rush their performances to get everything on to the cylinder. They also were not as fussy about wrong notes. In the 19th century, and the early 20th century, it was the conception of the piece and whether it was convincing that counted more. An obsession with note perfect performances really didn’t come into existence until the phonograph became the standard of recording in the 1920’s.
With the Stavenhagen roll of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, we do not know exactly if what we are hearing is representative of his playing or Liszt’s playing. On the other hand, we can say the same thing of any modern LP or CD digital recording. Much can be done to correct wrong notes, change the tone, speed things up or slow them down, and alter the ambient sound, which suggests that few modern recordings are truly representative of the actual performance. This is becoming especially true with pop singers, since a device called the auto-tune can now take an off-key performance and turn it into a perfectly on-key rendition of a song.
Let us say, then, that what we will hear in this Bernhard Stavenhagen performance is about 90% representative of both his actual performance, and the style of Liszt’s playing that affected Stavenhagen’s performance standards.
What to Listen For
Let us first note that Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies were an attempt on his part to promote nationalism in music, the way Frederic Chopin promoted his native Polish rhythms and songs in his Polonaises and Mazurkas. Liszt was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which constituted a huge part of Eastern Europe in the 19th century. As Liszt traveled around the countryside capturing folk tunes, he wasn’t really capturing true Hungarian music, which would have been consistently Magyar folk tunes and dance. What Liszt was capturing was Gypsy music, of the Rom people.
The Gypsy music Liszt was interested in was dance music, and these were fast-paced dances with syncopated rhythms, tempos which progressively got faster as the dancing continued, and infectious melodies that were easy to enjoy and remember. There were also languorous, slow dances that had a touch of sensuality about them. Liszt organized this material into nineteen rhapsodies, the title reflecting the improvisational nature of the compositions and the healthy amount of Lisztian virtuosity inserted into each rhapsody. There is no doubt Liszt intended these pieces as crowd-pleasers and show-stoppers, to be used at the end of a concert or as encores. As a consequence, Liszt’s nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies are among his most popular compositions, and regularly appear on concert programs.
To perform this music you must have a first-rate piano technique, and be aware of the fluctuating tempos of the dances. The need to speed up and slow down the tempos is forced on the artist by the nature of the music. Sometimes these tempo changes mark one section of the rhapsody from another. In the most famous of these rhapsodies, No. 2, Liszt opens with a slow section that includes piano effects meant to mimic the cimbalom, a zither-like instrument popular throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The cimbalom operates like an autoharp, but its tone is more akin to the Jewish klezmer. Once the gentle and rather ethereal opening section comes to an end, the fireworks begin with a series of folk dance tunes which have found their way into popular culture, especially through American cartoons.
Perhaps we can say it is fortunate that only the Rhapsody No. 2 received the Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny treatment. Many of the other rhapsodies have equally exhilarating dance tunes but are not as well known. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 is about as challenging to play as any of the others, and is somewhat feared among professionals for its wickedly-difficult trills and tremolos in the right hand. Interestingly, Stavenhagen in his performance eliminates these, but inserts other tortuous finger work of his own, or possibly of Liszt’s invention. I suppose there is an academic study done somewhere that analyzes Liszt’s cadenzas and similar florid passagework, but from what I can tell Liszt wrote dozens of these showy interruptions in his piano works and no two of them are alike.
Whether Liszt-created or Liszt-inspired, the dazzling scales, arpeggios, glissandi, and other such ornamentations Stavenhagen added to this rhapsody are certainly designed to both enhance the musical experience and place a spotlight on the pianist’s skills. And that they do. Moreover, for anyone familiar with how everybody else performs this rhapsody, Stavenhagen’s version is unique, highly virtuosic, and entirely within the spirit of these compositions. There are several other Stavenhagen piano rolls available of Liszt’s music, but this Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 stands out because of the improvisational creativity that was at the heart of Liszt’s performance style. For that reason it provides a peek into what all the 19th century excitement was about Franz Liszt as a pianist.