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Winter 1997

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Winter 97 > Article

In Tune with Liszt
by Judy Bolyard Purdy

The dusty diaries lay dormant for more than five decades after his death. But today, August Göllerich's chronicles are helping re-create a pivotal period in piano teaching and performance - one that shaped the way generations of pupils learned the instrument and the music.

Written more than a century ago and now, for the first time, translated into English by UGA music professor Richard Zimdars, the Göllerich diaries describe in detail the Amaster classes' of renowned Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt.

"I can safely say that this is the best source on Liszt's piano teachings," said Zimdars, who can trace the lineage of his own piano education to Liszt. "The other [Liszt students'] diaries talk about Liszt in general terms. They talk about the gossip among his students, and they provide a wonderful social setting of the master classes, but they rarely get to specific musical issues.

"Göllerich is the only one who took down Liszt's quotes about the actual music with any consistency, even to the point of referring measure by measure," Zimdars said. "This is the closest thing we can get to a video of a Liszt master class."

The "Liszt tradition" of piano teaching - one of the two great lineages of 19th century piano teaching - remains one of the strongest influences in contemporary piano instruction. According to Zimdars, Liszt's master classes, where several students performed one by one before an audience mostly of fellow pupils, "may have been the greatest assemblage of pianistic talent ever gathered."

In his day, Göllerich was one of Austria's leading music educators and conductors. A Liszt student, Göllerich served as Liszt's secretary during the last two years of the great composer's life and was with him when he died at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany, in 1886.

Göllerich died in 1923, but his diaries were unexplored until the early 1970s when his grandson discovered a collection of Göllerich's papers that had never been made public.

Based on those diaries, Zimdars' book, The Piano Master Classes of Franz Liszt, 1884-1886, gives music lovers an opportunity to re-evaluate Liszt as a musician. The text, which was released in December by Indiana University Press, contains numerous examples of Liszt's opinions on the world and work of Liszt and his contemporaries, the musical masters whose compositions still dominate the repertoire.

"This is as close as we can get to Liszt's own comments on his piano music, as well as those of Chopin, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann, with whom he was well-acquainted," Zimdars said. "Liszt and Chopin were close friends, and Liszt's comments on Chopin's interpretation are about as authoritative as you can get."

Zimdars painstakingly translated, edited and expanded the German edition, which contained only four musical examples. To make the translation more useful, Zimdars - who also has translated diaries that describe the piano master classes of Liszt's son-in-law, 19th century pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow - added more than 150 musical examples from pieces played in Liszt's classes. Since music scores of Liszt's time did not contain numbered measures, Zimdars not only had to track down exact editions of the music but also had to figure out the location of the exact measures based on clues in the diaries.

The diaries underscore that Liszt also could strike a humorous note in class. For example, when one pupil asked about using her third finger instead of her fourth to play the black keys in a certain passage, Liszt quipped, "Oh, yes, I often use it myself, but I have really never learned to play the piano."

When another student played Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz No. 3," Liszt said that music critics would say "a very talented young woman, a lot of technique! Only too bad that she occupied herself with such terrible pieces. The composer truly seems never to have studied the rudiments of harmony and strict form."

Thanks to Göllerich's diaries and Zimdars' research, musicians and music lovers can now eavesdrop on one of the piano's greatest masters.

For more information about the UGA music department, access http://www.uga.edu/~music/.


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