Taste, Bad Taste, and Franz Liszt

I My title may appear provocative, but I doubt whether anyone is likely to disagree that of all the great composers Liszt is the one most frequently accused of bad taste, and also that the accusation has never threatened his status among the great. Indeed, as Charles Rosen once suggested, the accusation in some sense actually identifies Liszt’s particular position in the pantheon. Rosen put it in the form of a trumped-up paradox, saying of Liszt that his “early works are vulgar and great; the late works are admirable and minor.” Very cagey, this: Liszt’s most-admired works, say the Faust-Symphonie or the B-minor Sonata, came in between. Take away the invidious comparison, and take away the sophistry, and Rosen’s point still resonates. But take away the vulgarity, and Liszt is no longer Liszt. Reviewing the first volume of Alan Walker’s biography of Liszt in the New York Review of Books, Rosen went even further in his baiting, asserting that “to comprehend Liszt’s greatness one needs a suspension of distaste, a momentary renunciation of musical scruples.” And then, for good measure: “Only a view of Liszt that places the Second Hungarian Rhapsody in the center of his work will do him justice.”  That was not an endorsement of the Rhapsody, which Rosen, along with Hanslick and Bartók, thought “trivial and second-rate.” What made the provocation doubly surefire was the racial innuendo that tainted not only Liszt and the Rhapsody, but all who came in contact with them. Did not Pierre Boulez say of Bartók that his “most admired works are often the least good, the ones which come closest to the dubious-taste, Liszt-gypsy tradition”? And does that not go a long way toward accounting for Bartók’s overt hostility toward a tradition, that of the so-called verbunkos, on which he remained covertly

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