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Detective Story

Posted by acdtest on January 20, 2004

Detective Story

A couple days ago I was messing about on the computer with music going on the radio in the background to which I was only a quarter listening, when my attention was suddenly arrested by music from Walküre, Act II, Scene 5 (Sieglinde’s awakening near the beginning of the scene), but strangely out of context.

I gave the music all my attention then.

Well, it wasn’t Walküre, certainly, but there was the music — a haunting, twelve-note, two-phrase melodic segment — almost verbatim*, in the midst of some very second-rate music I’d never heard before.

And what was it?, you may ask, and well you may. What it was was the principal motif of the first movement of Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, a work totally unfamiliar to me. What was Wagner’s music doing in a Liszt symphony?

That sent me to the books posthaste. Who had taken it from whom?

A quick perusal of the reference material I had to hand yielded the necessary information in terms of dates of composition of both works, and in terms of who of the two composers had knowledge of the other’s work and when.

From letters between the two composers, bosom friends at that time, the case seemed clear-cut. Liszt had a full score of Walküre, Act II in his hands by 12 October 1855, and Wagner, as late as 12 July 1856, was still expressing his desire to hear Liszt’s Faust. Liszt, then, took it from Wagner; a reversal in the ordinary direction of the pilfering in that deep-bonded personal and professional relationship.

But for some reason the matter continued to occupy my thinking far longer than its importance warranted. Perhaps it was because the solution to the mystery was acquired so easily, and was so clear-cut. Perverse, I know, but there it is. In any case, I determined to delve a bit more in detail into the business.

A Google search turned up nothing pertinent on the Faust beyond dates of composition, and so I went back to the reference materials I had to hand (all on Wagner, none on Liszt).

In Ernest Newman’s superb book, The Wagner Operas, I found this snarky little remark in his description of the action in Walküre, Act II, Scene 5:

Sieglinde begins to move restlessly in her dreams. The violas give out a short melody [here, Newman quotes the twelve-note, two-phrase segment in question] which the sufferers from Wagnerphobia assure us Wagner borrowed from Liszt.

Well, that would seem to have indirectly confirmed my original finding, and I ought to have gotten off the case right then and there. But I found Newman’s snarky remark bothersome because, uncharacteristically for this great Wagner scholar, he made no attempt at all to explain, by even so much as a quick gloss or blurb, what’s in error with people thinking Wagner lifted that melodic segment from Liszt.

Further research was required, I decided. (I know, I know. I ought to get a life.)

My next step was to look up Faust Symphony in the index of Volume II (1848-1860) of Newman’s massive, four-volume definitive Wagner biography, The Life of Richard Wagner (quite unbelievably, now out of print). That revealed the following morsel of intelligence:

They were eight glorious days [Liszt’s visit to Wagner in Zürich in July, 1853] both for Liszt…and for Wagner…. Liszt played for him, he says [in his autobiography, Mein Leben], from the manuscripts, his Faust Symphony, various piano works, and some of the symphonic poems….

Newman footnotes this mention by Wagner of Liszt’s Faust Symphony with the following:

Wagner, however, seems to be in error here. Liszt did not begin work on the Faust Symphony until August, 1854, finishing it in October of that year. Wagner is perhaps confusing Liszt’s visit of July, 1853, with that of October, 1856.

As Newman says, perhaps. But I wasn’t at all convinced. For me, the plot, as they say, was beginning to thicken.

The dates of composition of all three movements (minus the choral coda) of the Faust Symphony are given as August to October, 1854 by almost all the Web sources I found, and that agrees with Newman. But Liszt didn’t have the score for Act II, Walküre in hand until 12 October 1855. Does it seem reasonable, I asked myself, that Liszt would have gone back a year later, and rewritten not merely a segment of what he’d already written, but the principal motif itself, which means he would have had to rewrite the entire first movement?

No indeed. It seems totally unreasonable. But that 12-note, two-phrase motif is undeniably almost identical, even to the “color” of the instrumentation, to that Act II, Scene 5 moment in Walküre. How to explain that? The only other explanation would be that both Liszt and Wagner lifted it wholesale from a third composer, identity unknown. But the very idea is prima facie absurd.

The bloody plot has now gotten so thick I can barely see my way through.

I go back to the two-volume Wagner-Liszt correspondence to see what else I might pick up there, and find this in Volume II in a letter from Liszt to Wagner:

Together with this [letter] I send you the score of my Künstler chorus, and between this and the autumn I intend to publish half-a-dozen orchestral pieces, also in full score. By October the Faust symphony will be finished, which also will be published soon after.

The letter is dated, “Weymar, February 21st, 1854.”

But how can that be? Newman says Liszt didn’t begin work on Faust until August, 1854, and that date agrees with all the other articles I read. Yet by his above letter Liszt appears to have already begun work on the symphony by February. The answer can only be that Liszt at that time had at least a rough draft of, at the very least, the first movement of the symphony by February, 1854, and by the presumed prior knowledge wording, almost certainly before that date. And we can say with some measure of assurance just how much before. Wagner was not in error when he said that on his visit to Zürich in July, 1853 Liszt played for him the Faust Symphony — or at very least the draft of the first movement of that work.

And that’s when Wagner first heard that 12-note, two-phrase melodic segment that found its way eventually into Act II, Scene 5 of Walküre. It could have happened no other way as Wagner did not begin writing the music for Act II until 4 September 1854, and didn’t complete that act until 18 November of the same year, and so there was no way possible that Liszt could have heard a note of it before November, 1854, by which time not only the first movement, but all three movements (again, minus the choral coda) of the Faust had already been completed. And so it must be that what Wagner had expressed his desire to hear in his letter of July, 1856 noted above was the full score of the finished work.

Astoundingly, it would appear that in this case Newman’s normally stellar scholarship was deficient, and his snarky remark above noted, misplaced. The direction of the pilfering between the two great friends was, then, as per usual, with Wagner the pilferer, and Liszt the pilferee.

Not an airtight case, I grant you, but close enough to make no nevermind.

Gads!, I do love a detective story with a proper denouement, don’t you?

*I’ve no score for the Faust Symphony, and heard the first movement but that one time. I’m told by a source that’s to be trusted, and who is in possession of scores for both the Faust and the Walküre, that the 12-note, two-phrase melodic segment at issue is not quite the verbatim same in the two works (they differ some in their melodic intervals; at points, minor vs. augmented), but the full shape of it, and the “color” of the instrumentation, is undeniably the verbatim same in both works.

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