The New Liszt

The Letters of Franz Liszt to Olga von Meyendorff (1871-1886) Harvard University Press

translated by William R. Tyler, introduction and notes by Edward N. Waters
Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University (distributed by, 532 pp., $30.00)

Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt; drawing by David Levine

Liszt’s newly published letters to Baroness Olga von Meyendorff are a complete and welcome surprise. Far superior to the composer’s other writings, these deserve a place on the much-less-than-five-foot shelf of absorbing correspondence by the great composers. The book alters the received notions of Liszt’s character and personality, and wholly reverses the portrait of his later years as drawn in Ernest Newman’s anti-hagiography. Mr. Waters surmises that the letters “must have slipped out of the hands” of the last of the Baroness’s four sons in 1933, since they landed on the podium at Sotheby’s in April 1934. Newman noted this but presumably did not read the letters, since otherwise he would have been obliged to make substantial revisions in his book, published later the same year.

The only Olga in his biography is Janina, the young “Cossack” Countess, whom Liszt had seduced and who, in 1871, pursued the sixty-year-old composer from New York to Rome, and from there, pistol-packing, to Budapest. Rebuffed, and smarting from the humiliation, she avenged herself in two scarcely readable books, among the many by women who had known Franz Liszt. The story of the Baroness von Meyendorff could not offer greater contrast, for though the relationship of this attractive young widow to Liszt can only be assumed by his behavior patterns, she never broke her silence about him.

Although Newman gives too much space to the Olga Janina episode, it must be admitted that, apart from Byron, Liszt is the only major nineteenth-century artistic figure whose love-life alone has provided sufficient material for a full-length “scholarly” study. (See Liszt und die Frauen, 1911, reprinted 1919.) In one of the letters to Baroness von Meyendorff, he both acknowledges this aspect of his reputation and indicates his disgust with it: “Other interpretations of my very short stays in Venice and Vienna are of the saucy variety, which I don’t much care for.”

Until the appearance of the present book, Liszt was thought to be vain, duplicitous, and, above all, a showman, given to the tawdry and bombastic in life as in art. His motives in his religious career—he entered the Franciscan Order in 1857 and became an abbé in Rome in 1865—were held suspect. Moreover, he was accused of consorting exclusively with the titled and rich, and charged with exploiting his magnetism for women. The Meyendorff letters, at least in regard to the later years, belie all but the last two of these faults, along with various others unmentioned.

Here Liszt is never shallow and he emerges as genuinely modest (“opinions…are free and I make no claim whatever to imposing mine on anyone”; “[the bust of me] is larger than life and I hope more successful than the original”), as well as sincere in his religious convictions (“I intend to…endure for some time yet on this earth, [but] if I am wrong, no matter. I am quite ready…

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