liszt on the conflict between Artist and Audience (and the danger of “selling out”)

“In Leipzig even, where I played the ‘Carneval’ at my second concert in the Gewandhaus, I did not succeed in obtaining my usual applause. The musicians, together with those who were supposed to understand music, had (with few exceptions) their ears still too tightly stopped up to be able to comprehend this charming, tasteful ‘Carneval,’ the various numbers of which are harmoniously combined in such artistic fancy. I do not doubt that, later on, this work will maintain its natural place in universal recognition by the side of the ‘Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz of Diabelli’ by Beethoven (to which, in my opinion, it is superior even in melodic invention and importance). The frequent ill-success of my performances of Schumann’s compositions, both in private circles and in public, discouraged me from including and keeping them in the programmes of my concerts which followed so rapidly on one another….That was a mistake, as I discovered later and deeply regretted, when I had learned to understand that for the artist who wishes to be worthy of the name of artist the danger of not pleasing the public is a far less one than that of allowing oneself to be decided by its humors

—and to this danger every executive artist is especially exposed, if he does not take courage resolutely and on principle to stand earnestly and consistently by his conviction, and to produce those works which he knows to be the best, whether people like them or not….

The stream of custom and the slavery of the artist, who is directed to the encouragement and applause of the multitude for the maintenance and improvement of his existence and his renown, is such a pull-back, that, even to the better- minded and more courageous ones, among whom I am proud to reckon myself, it is intensely difficult to preserve their better ego in the face of all the covetous, distracted, and—despite their large number—backward-in-paying We.

There is in Art a pernicious offence, of which most of us are guilty through carelessness and fickleness; I might call it the Pilate offence.1 Classical doing, and classical playing, which have become the fashion of late years, and which may be regarded as an improvement, on the whole, in our musical state of things, hide in many a one this fault, without eradicating it:—I might say more on this point, but it would lead me too far.”

— Liszt, in a letter to J. W. von Wasielewski, January 1857 (source)

1. In reference to the Biblical Roman official who reluctantly sentenced Jesus to death in order to please the public.

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One thought on “liszt on the conflict between Artist and Audience (and the danger of “selling out”)

  1. I have been reflecting on the ” artist” and his/her audience in several fields in the Arts. In poetry, the difference between a confessional piece versus universal theme not experienced by the writer. In the visual arts, I see the role of the artist as a concrete representational Authority versus the ambiguity of an audience that will make up it’s own mind concerning the subject of the piece. No matter the medium, a person’s convictions will be tested, even if the creator lies unknown and in a void or is world famous.. Thank you for this post

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