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,

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