The Eleventh Finger of Franz LisztPosted: March 6, 2012
In my post about the lesser water boatman I drew a comparison to nineteenth century piano virtuoso Franz Liszt and my reasons for this must have seemed obscure at the time. With this post I would like to explain myself a little further. I also worry sometimes this blog may get too dry and technical with all the hard science, so I’m sure the reader will welcome a brief digression into cultural history and the arts, namely the life and work of Franz Liszt.
But you may object: Richard, like all scientists you must be a cold, dispassionate, narrow-minded “square” who eats plain bran cereal for breakfast, how could you possibly teach us anything about the fiery artistic life of Franz Liszt, who probably ate exciting things for breakfast, like cocaine pancakes with opium syrup. Well, it may surprise the reader to learn that in addition to the research I do here at PRIC, I am also a renowned Liszt scholar, and an all around “Lisztomaniac”. In fact there is a sizable overlap between the penile science and Liszt fandom communities. Why this is, I hope to now explain.
It all has to do with one very unusual recital Liszt gave in Berlin in 1842 at the height of “Lisztomania,” the period when he achieved rock star status across Europe. Liszt, perhaps feeling bold on account of this wild reception, decided to embellish his usual finale, “Grand Galop Chromatique,” with some rather audacious stage theatrics. The following is an excerpt from an account given by Vienna critic Max Wangermann in the Wiener Telegraph, 24 January, 1842 :
Prior to the finale a most curious event transpired. Liszt stood and announced that he would conclude the recital with the début of a new original work, the “Grand Galop Chromadique.” A sharp whistle from his lips brought forth from the gallery none other than the great Teutonic beauty Charlotte von Hagn, the finest actress in all of the German Confederation! Climbing to the stage, she stood before Liszt and in one swift motion tore away her petticoat! She unfurled the undergarment and held it aloft between the pianoforte and the audience in the manner of a Spanish matador, obscuring Liszt from the waist down. The audience tittered with excitement as for many moments he stood silent with his glance fixed upon the fair legs of Fräulein Hagn. Suddenly he lifted his thin arms far above the pianoforte and launched himself into the galop at a tempo so rapid one could hardly follow it with the ear.
His playing crashed in around us in thunderous peals, causing the finest nerves of the breast and loins to tremble. The front rows of the hall erupted in a St.Vitus-dance: the men shaking and heaving uncontrollably, the women shuttering and weeping in hysteria. Liszt too appeared to be possessed of a daemon; his nostrils, his eyes and lips responded to the siren call of the music–at times grunting audibly–and his hands one could sense were engaged in a most feverish movement behind Fräulein Hagn’s curtain.
With the galop Liszt had subjugated all registers of his instrument: he coupled probing stabs and thrusts of bass notes with ejaculations of scales and arpeggios in the high range, and beneath this flurry of notes one could yet discern a throbbing melodic counterpoint in the middle range, as if the daemon possessing Liszt too were present at the pianoforte. How these passages were accomplished with ten fingers we confess ourselves unable to guess.
The lavishly expended strength of his playing grew continually until finally a series of escalating cadenzas seemed to indicate the climax of the piece. Liszt shuttered his head back as if clutched in the grip of ecstasy and hot tears rolled down his cheeks. He tossed about his wild mane of fair hair and bellowed like a beast as he leaned over the pianoforte almost prone on its surface. Then, curiously, his playing and expression went limp, as if suddenly exorcised of his daemon. The audience too freed of their possession quieted as Liszt groped at the pianoforte for a few moments more while staring dazedly at the keyboard. Fräulein Hagn glanced anxiously at the stolid Liszt until he abruptly took her by the arm and hurried off the stage, disappearing from sight! Despite this traumatic end, his departure brought forth a general salvo of applause which threatened not to end before Liszt returned for an encore. Alas, the Master did not reappear.
This appears to be the first and last performance of the “Grand Galop Chromadique,” as there is no other mention in the historical record of it ever being played again.
In the weeks following the performance there was rampant speculation in the press about how exactly Liszt had performed the piece. Some claimed Von Hagn used a free hand to assist Liszt at the keyboard, using one false arm to hold the curtain. Others thought that Liszt had used one or both of his feet to aid him. The true Liszt die-hards claimed that the “Chromadique” was not beyond his abilities, and that the curtain was only in place to hide a new advanced fingering from rival pianists.
However, as the press investigated further none of these theories held water. Personal acquaintances revealed that Von Hagn had no experience at the piano, so she could not have significantly added to the performance, and a careful examination of all eyewitness accounts made it clear that she had two able arms and Liszt kept his feet firmly planted on the ground for the entire performance. Moreover, the theater managers revealed Liszt had handpicked the seating for the front rows of the hall that evening, so he must have known none of his rivals were in attendance.
As the possibilities diminished no one in the press was willing to publicly state what was being whispered about in drawing rooms all across Europe: that Liszt had used his “eleventh finger” to perform the piece. The music academy at the time, too conservative to entertain such a possibility, decided to downplay the “Chromadique,” calling it a “disappointing experiment in alternate fingerings,” and this became the received view for many generations of Liszt scholars.
And this would still be the case if it were not for a scrappy young biologist who, while travelling through Argentina on a field expedition, befriended a wealthy German-Argentine land owner that also happened to be a great-great-grandson of Liszt. This relative of Liszt had inherited a rare collection of his personal transcriptions, including the only known copy of the “Grand Galop Chromadique.” The biologist, an eminent Liszt scholar himself, knew of the piece’s controversial history, and decided to use the transcription to solve of the mystery of the “Chromadique”.
Using his expert knowledge of physiology and classical mechanics, the biologist proved mathematically that the piece was impossible to play with ten fingers alone, even allowing for Liszt’s extraordinary gifts. However, he also showed it was possible to play with a semi-dexterous waist-high appendage, though its dimensions would have to be ample to generate the force required by the score. His groundbreaking work helped legitimize the controversial “eleventh finger” theory among Liszt scholars, and his quantitative analysis set a new standard of rigour for both penis researchers and Liszt scholars.
Who was that biologist? No, dear reader, you flatter me, but it was not I. This was the work of Dr. Thaddeus “Tad” Everhard, director of PRIC and my personal and professional mentor for many years. His infectious enthusiasm for penis science and Liszt studies has had a profound impact on my life and career; even one of my cats is named “Tabbeus” in honor of him.
Tad, if you’re reading this from PRIC HQ, I just hope you know how much we miss you here at PRIC labs, but we understand you must be busy with important administrative tasks, what with the dozens of secretaries and technical assistants at your behest. Also, your wife Florence really wishes she could know where you are–no woman is more faithful than Flo Everhard! But, as I’ve explained to her time and time again, neither I nor anyone at PRIC labs knows the location of HQ, not since the restructuring in ’01.
When 9/11 happened I understood, at least in part, how it could have been interpreted as a threat against PRIC, and why PRIC HQ needed the additional security afforded by a secret locale. Lately, however, I have begun to wonder whether this wall of silence is still necessary for our continued safety. For far too long have we had our head buried in the sand. It is time that PRIC emerged tall and proud, and thrust itself firmly back into the public eye. Let us be bold once again, Tad, like we were during the Clinton years, or better yet as we were in Nicaragua back in the 80’s. Remember the creed of our brotherhood: semper valorosus, semper fortis, semper rigidus–always brave, always strong, always hard!