When death and the devil changed the history of music

Wesley Rose is using the Lumen Prize, Elon University’s top award for undergraduate research and creative achievement, to explain how a famous 19th century composer used mortality and superstition to shape the evolution of classical piano performances.

Listen carefully to much of the music written by famed composer Franz Liszt and what you hear are the melodies of the devil.

What you won’t find, however, is a precise index or summary of how often the Hungarian pianist found inspiration in death, the diabolical and the afterlife as he composed some of the most influential works of 19th century classical musical.

There’s no dispute that family tragedies and ensuing religious exploration shaped Liszt’s work. But a detailed of analysis of frequency and motivation? That’s a hole in knowledge that Elon University senior Wesley Rose is looking to fill, and his two years of research on Liszt is the latest to be featured this fall in a series of profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2014.

“So much of his music that did push the envelope was about literary figures related to the devil,” Rose said. “His superstition and religion, though it seems silly, it inspired him to write music to reflect things beyond our normal world. That was good. It pushed him to write music that was totally different from what the people around him were writing.”

Born in 1811, Liszt learned piano from his father, and his innate musical abilities soon led him to concert halls across the continent. Liszt was considered a young virtuoso, and his father – with whom the young Franz was exceptionally close – toured him around Europe. But when the older Liszt died in Paris, his then-teenage son descended into “religious hysteria.”

The musical prodigy briefly withdrew from performing. Upon his return, Liszt found inspiration from religion and the afterlife. The results were groundbreaking if not underappreciated today. Gradually, Liszt became known as a “liberal figure” who “rubbed up against a lot of ‘the rules,’” Rose explains.

Substantial scholarship exists on Liszt but it rarely focuses on the inspiration to his music. Rose is identifying and analyzing technical musical details and biographical information from Liszt’s letters and previous biographies to produce a comprehensive musicological portrait of the composer.

In addition to a Nov. 20 senior recital at 7:30 p.m. in Whitley Auditorium, Rose is planning a lecture-recital for this spring to focus on Liszt’s personal battle with the devil through musical symbolism and his work.

The music education and music performance double major from Rocky Mount, N.C., was originally self-taught on the piano before high school. Growing up in a small rural community, it was music on CDs and cassette tapes and radio that Rose used for entertainment. And if there was one thing Rose understood, it was the importance of learning an instrument that applied to everything.

By his sophomore year at Northern Nash High School, Rose had saved enough money to split with his parents the cost of a grand piano. His interest in Liszt later developed from a high school graduation project where he studied preeminent composers whose ideas influence classical music today.

That desire to teach others about music theory and composition is part of why he enrolled in the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program at Elon University. Teaching techniques is one thing. Teaching the “big picture” is another.

“People used to be more aware of how much goes into the process of getting music ready to perform,” Rose said. “As a musician, you’re never just playing notes. You’re trying to evoke something from the music, to mold it the way the composer intended.”

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summer, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.

Rose traveled to the Liszt Research Centre in Hungary to conduct his research and used Lumen Prize funding to attend the annual American Liszt Society Festival in Oregon. He also took part in the University of Heidelberg Summer Program for his research.

Professor Victoria Fischer Faw, Rose’s Lumen Prize mentor and piano teacher in the Department of Music, praised her protégé’s work ethic and innate academic ability. She described Rose as a “versatile” Elon University student who is equally articulate and well-read about politics and literature.

“Wesley is unlike any other student I’ve ever met. He’s such a genuine scholar and intellectual,” Fischer Faw said. “It’s always been the core of his being, this true intellectual curiosity and the high bars he sets for himself. And he loves to play the piano!”

The Lumen Prize isn’t the only activity that keeps Rose occupied. A member of the Elon Music Ambassadors, he often performs for Numen Lumen, formerly called College Chapel, and is engaged in music education practicums in schools around the community.

Rose also has been involved with the Mu Phi Epsilon music fraternity and counts himself among the active student members of the North Carolina Music Educators Association. And with Commencement just over six months away, he’s already eyeing a graduate education with plans to apply for a Fulbright award to study musicology in Great Britain.

“It’s the most unique art form,” he explained of his passion for music. “It’s the only one where you can sit here, close your eyes and listen. Music can move people in ways that other art forms can’t.”