A Life of Liszt: Interview with Leslie Howard

Vantage Music & Julie Kuok | January 2020 | Hong Kong

We are fortunate to have met Leslie Howard in Hong Kong late January, where he consented to an interview and dinner amidst his hectic masterclass schedule. A few glasses of wine later, Leslie happily shared his life story as a pianist and Liszt scholar.

Childhood Prodigy

Leslie was destined to become a pianist from a very young age. “There was a piano in the house, and when I was only two years old, I had already worked out how to play it.” Soon, Leslie learnt to replicate on the piano any radio tunes he heard. “I had perfect pitch, so I picked up a lot of details by ear. That’s why I could go straight to the piano and play out every note they were singing.”

At the age of five, Leslie already made a name for himself. “I distinguished myself in kindergarten in the worst possible way.” During school, the kids were invited to sing along to popular tunes, accompanied on piano by a well-meaning lady of around thirty years old. “We were supposed to be singing this song, but I couldn’t follow along because she kept on playing bass notes that were completely wrong.” So, in an episode of childish insensitivity, Leslie marched up to the piano and corrected her harmonization. “Here, try it this way!”

Fortunately, the lady was not upset at Leslie’s behavior. Instead, amazed by Leslie’s musical abilities, she arranged for Fox Movietone News to come around and interview this young prodigy. “It was a time before they had television in Australia, so I was featured in newsreels, and people saw me on-screen when they went to cinemas.”

Most parents of our time would capitalize on the publicity and encourage their sons to pursue a performing career, but Leslie’s parents had different views. “Well, that’s it,” Leslie recalled his parents saying, “You had your fun, but no more.” Leslie’s parents maintained that kids should have a reasonable life, playing games with friends and studying a wide range of subjects, so they did not force Leslie into a professional musical life right away.

Deep down, however, Leslie knew that music had a place to stay. “By then, I had already decided that whatever else I will do in life, music was going to be part of it.” True to his words, after Leslie graduated from Monash University with an English major, he completed his post-graduate study in Italy, studying music with Guido Agosti.

An Introduction to Liszt

Leslie’s first endeavor into Liszt was at the age of thirteen. “I had already performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 by then, so I started to look for other challenging pieces, like Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, or Gnomenreigen.” Leslie became familiar with many of Liszt’s piano pieces, but it was the Faust Symphony that started his lifelong admiration for the composer.

“The Faust Symphony was scored for a male voice choir, a pipe organ and a solo tenor, and I think it is one of the half dozen greatest works for the orchestra since Beethoven. Even though Liszt arranged two versions, one with and one without a choir, the chorus is so beautiful that you can’t bear not to have it.”

The Symphony prompted Leslie to look beyond the piano, and he gradually became acquainted with the composer’s surprisingly large oeuvre of vocal, chamber and orchestral works. “Did you know that Liszt wrote more than fifty Latin motets? Most people wouldn’t know any of these at all, yet there are some churches where his sacred choral works, such as the Missa Choralis or Via Crucis, are actively performed.” Leslie stressed the importance of getting acquainted with Liszt’s non-piano works. “If you don’t understand the rest of his works, you can’t play the piano pieces well. It is like playing a Mozart concerto without having heard The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni: you wouldn’t realize how closely the exchanges between the piano and orchestra resemble the lines and conversations of an opera.”

The Liszt Project

In 1986, in commemoration of the centenary of Liszt’s death, Leslie chose to perform, in a series of ten recitals, Liszt’s entire original solo piano works. It was a massive undertaking, and this attracted the attention of Ted Perry, Hyperion Records’ founder and managing director, who invited Leslie to record a comprehensive series of Liszt’s solo piano oeuvre.

Unlike the recitals, there was no constraint on the performance time, so Leslie decided to dig deep. “For the recital, I only performed the final versions of Liszt’s original works, and I excluded all of Liszt’s arrangements and transcriptions. For the recording, however, I decided that I should include all versions of Liszt’s works, no matter published or unpublished, and from alternative versions to thirty-second album leaves.”

Leslie elaborated on the scope of the project. “We had announced our intentions for the album, so we received a lot of correspondences throughout the years. Every time someone asks us about a manuscript in their possession, we examine and take a copy of it. If there is even one bar difference from the published version, we will include both of it in the recording.”

Due to practicality concerns, Leslie ignored passages that were crossed out in the manuscript. “I didn’t include it in the performance because you can’t tell at which point he changed everything, and evidently you can’t call them an early version of the piece, because they weren’t.”

Despite this artistic decision, it still took Leslie and Hyperion Records fourteen years to complete the recordings, with the final album amounting to a mammoth size of 1377 tracks in ninety-five full-length CDs (equivalent to nearly five days’ continuous playing time). When Hyperion Records declared the album finished in 1999, it earned Leslie Howard, amongst other awards, an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest recording project ever undertaken by a solo recording artist (pop or classical), six Grands Prix du Disque, the Medal of St. Stephen, the Pro Cultura Hungarica award, and even a mounted bronze cast of Liszt’s hand presented by the Hungarian President.

Looking back twenty years later, Leslie was still quite satisfied with the endeavor. “Whatever you do in life, you always have the sensation that you could have done it better, but that doesn’t mean that I’m ashamed of these recordings. I tried my best when I was making them, and I did it to the best of my understanding and scholarship at the time I did it. That’s the best I can say for it.”

Of course, to Leslie, the Liszt project was more than the recordings. Since 1987, Leslie has been the president of the Liszt Society, and when he was not recording Liszt’s works, he would be busy editing various pieces for publication. “The Society had a journal where they put up things that could not be included in the collected edition, and I had been editing  one volume of music for them every year since 1988.” The Liszt Society Journal & Music Section, an annual publication exclusive to Society members, would include segments and works otherwise unsuited for publication as a collected edition, mostly involving sketches, songs, or piano duets. Some of the rare works has been compiled into volumes under the name of Liszt Society Publications, including undiscovered gems such as the three works for trombone and piano/organ, or the various works for piano and violin.

Leslie is equally, if not prouder of his editing work. “There are lots of pieces where I did the first recordings and produced the first editions of sheet music, some of which are now played by quite a number of pianists. I’m always delighted to know that I have had a palpable effect upon the piano player’s repertoire.”

Dante and Faust

The Liszt Project left Leslie with a profound expertise in Liszt, and he is happy to share his insights with us.

One thing Leslie noted in his research is that most of Liszt’s works are published with a title, and Leslie believes this has to do with Liszt’s romantic outlook. “Liszt knew that most performers ascribe extra-musical meanings to pieces, so why not put characteristic titles on your compositions to guide performers to connect the dots in your way? That’s why almost all of his pieces have descriptive or evocative titles.”

Leslie quoted Liszt’s Dante Symphony and Dante Sonata as an example. “In the Symphony, Liszt was very generous with his textual markings, labelling the movements Inferno and Purgatorio, and ending with a Magnificat. He also inscribed lines over the themes, with ‘abandon all hope you who enter here’ appearing beneath the first theme, and ‘there is no greater sorrow than to recall happy times in the midst of misery’ beneath the second.”

“When you look at the Dante Sonata, however, there is just the title Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata (After a Reading of Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata), and there is no specific reference to any Dante line, word, or sentence in the score at all. In fact, he even changed the title a few times, from Paralipomènes à la Divina Commedia (a commentary or a parallel observation) and Prolégomènes à la Divina Commedia (introductory argument), before finally settling on the current title. Despite the sparse reference, however, it is still perfectly clear when the music descends into the murky circles of hell, and you can well hear the calls of the doomed spirits without any help from the inscriptions. All of Liszt’s characteristic music are like that – the title itself gives you something to think about, and at least makes sure you don’t play the Dante Sonata as if it were a leisurely stroll across the countryside.”

As with every generalization, there are exceptions to the rule, and the B minor sonata is a good counterpoint of that. Leslie maintained that those are deliberate omissions on Liszt’s part. “There are very few pieces that did not have titles, and they are very deliberate because he didn’t want anyone to find out what he was thinking when he wrote those pieces, and instead encouraged the performer to concentrate on the musical content.”

“Liszt never called the piece Sonata in B minor; He had called it Grand Sonate when it was first written in 1849, because he wanted people to know he had been taking this piece seriously, but when it came to the publication, it was just called Sonate, along with a dedication to Robert Schumann.”

Leslie finds the lack of key signature in the title intriguing. “It is the same case with César Franck, who never called his symphony the Symphony in D minor. I am quite sure Franck knew it was going to be the only symphony he would write, just as I am sure Liszt was not going to write another sonata after this – as far as the piano is concerned. I think that the Sonata represented the summit of what he was trying to say musically.”

This begs the question: what was the piece trying to say? Some claimed that the Sonata was a musical portrait of the Faust legend, but Leslie does not agree. “Liszt was asked about the Faust connection, but he denied it. Others suggested that it was a character study of his relationship with the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, but I refuse to believe this also.”

Leslie noted the origins of a theme in the sonata. “There was a tiny fragment at the beginning of the F-Sharp major section which was slightly altered from the beginning of the fourth Consolation, allegedly written by duchess Maria Pavlovna. I’m sure he adapted it to his purposes, but that doesn’t give you any clues about the meaning of the sonata. What is clear, however, is that it is a very broad picture of the human condition, of emotional experience, and that it begins in absolute trepidation and with a lack of understanding.” Leslie conceded that we may never know what Liszt was specifically thinking about when he was writing the sonata, but consoled that “whatever it is, it is a big life story.”

Liszt the Abbé

Throughout his life, Liszt had quite an intertwined relationship with religions. “The young Liszt was quite a young radical, and he thought the church was terribly old and stuffy. Along with his friend, Abbé Felicité de Lamennais, Liszt was part of a religious sect called the Saint-Simonists. During that period, Liszt wrote a couple of motets, and dedicated to Abbé Lamenanis an extraordinary Psalm for piano and orchestra called De profundis. However, he drifted away from writing music for the church quite soon.”

Liszt’s interest in religion returned with a fervor in Weimer. “All of a sudden, Liszt started churning out sacred works in great quantity.” All of Liszt’s major religious works, including the two oratorios, the consecration of the Basilica at Gran, the setting of Psalm 13, and the multitudes of Ave Maria settings all stem from this period. “It is very clear that his relationship with the church is going to be a lot closer.”

Unfortunately, Weimer did not bode well for Liszt. “Liszt kept on introducing new music to the crowd when they only wanted stuff that was accessible and easy to listen to, so the crowd decided to plot against him.” Liszt fled to Rome, and he eventually became a good friend of Pope Pious IX. “Liszt then decided to take minor orders of the Catholic church, and he became a Franciscan monk.”

Despite this, Liszt was still very much a secular man. “At that time, Liszt was trying to write a third oratorio, but his heart wasn’t in the story because he wanted to make a present for Princess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, but the oratorio was about St Stanislaus’ love of Poland. He was very unhappy with the libretto that he had, and he rejected it twice.”

The oratorio was never completed, but Liszt did produce another fantastic work. “The Via Crucis (fourteen musical portraits plus an introduction of the Stations of the Cross) is a completely extraordinary work. There’s nothing like it by any other composer before. It was considered so avant-garde that when he sent it to his publisher in Budapest, they politely sent it back, saying that they didn’t think they would be able to sell this kind of music.” The publisher urged Liszt to reconsider and to write something in a more accessible style, and the piece wasn’t published until 1929. “Everybody immediately said what a remarkable work it was, and that was how far he saw into the twentieth century!”

Leslie was amazed by the abundance of dissonances in Via Crucis. “Compared to what had happened in music since, I suppose the dissonances in this piece seemed no more than is necessary to describe the events of the crucifixion. But for a romantic composer who represented the heights of Romanticism, it is extraordinary that Liszt turned his back on the richest forms of tonal harmony, and instead wrote music with such spiky dissonances and chords you wouldn’t hear again until Messiaen.”

Liszt’s continued experimentation of music’s boundaries is especially precious when compared to his contemporaries. “There were people like Sibelius, who was a very prolific composer and then one day after he had written Tapiola and the Seventh Symphony, he didn’t write anymore. The same can be said of Rossini, who would not write any operas after William Tell. It is remarkable that Liszt, even in his old age, still continued to revolutionize his music and produce something as avant-garde as the Via Crucis.”

Wrapping Up

We asked Leslie if he would be interested to write a biography of Liszt. Leslie shuddered at the thought. “Liszt’s life is too well-documented, there are so many things I would need to research about.”

Liszt was a very prolific composer, and unlike earlier composers such as Haydn or Mozart, there were multitudes of contemporary accounts on Liszt’s life. “Liszt’s life was very busy, and we had so many letters and documents that we can put together a calendar with a page on each day of his life.” In fact, a friend of his was already working on a similar idea. “I’ve got a friend who’s been working on a biography while I’ve been working on the recordings, and to date, his biography is over 3 million words, spanning well over 4 volumes. I would never have time to write all that!”

If it were possible, however, Leslie would like to travel back in time and play to Liszt the first piece from the last book of Années de pèlerinage, Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este. “I’d be seeking his approval more than anything else because I think I’ve got it, but I would really like him to put his rubber stamp on it.”

Interview written by Chester Leung