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Liszt: The Artist as Romantic Hero

by Eleanor Perényi
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 466 pp., $15.00


by Claude Rostand, translated by John Victor
Grossman, 189 pp., $3.95 (paper)

The Man Liszt: A Study of the Tragi-Comedy of a Soul Divided Against Itself

by Ernest Newman
Vienna House, 306 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Liszt: The Artist as Romantic Hero can be enjoyed as a historical novel, if the reader is able to overlook the book’s commentaries on the music. The characters are as large, and some of them are as loathsome, as any in Balzac, and the biography has none of the faults of the semifictional genre, the concocted scenes and embellishments of actual ones.

A knowledgeable study of Liszt’s music, however, has yet to appear. This is not to say that the accounts of his life are notably higher in quality, but only that the music, elusive in essence and still far from a discriminating appreciation, is the more neglected and difficult subject. Mrs. Perényi’s title excuses her from the obligation to discuss it. Furthermore, her monograph stops short at the point when he took Holy Orders and ceased to be a “romantic hero” though continuing to compose. But the meaning of Liszt’s life is in the music, if not in Mrs. Perényi’s sense that it

was confessional…the autobiography he didn’t write…landscapes observed, airs overheard, erotic and religious experience, poetry and history…. It wouldn’t be difficult to draw a picture of his life from the music alone.

In fact it would be quite impossible to draw any picture containing more objectivity than a Rorschach test. The author’s assertion exposes a musical naïveté1—which is the book’s principal weakness.

Another weakness is the curious mixture of grandiloquence and slang which makes up Mrs. Perényi’s style. On the one hand, for example, she describes the B minor Sonata as a “cosmic self-portrait,” and, on the other, reports that people were “bowled over” (“[George] Sand was indeed bowled over”), or driven “up the wall,” or asked to “cough up” five thousand thalers. More important than this, since it creates an impediment to communication, is Mrs. Perényi’s addiction to the floating pronoun. She writes of another publication on Liszt that

Paganini gets eight pages. More unaccountably, since he is an infinitely more careful and discriminating composer and critic than Walker, the best probably that we have, [Humphrey] Searle,2 too, passes over detailed discussions….

And the following excerpt starts the reader on a labyrinthine expedition, since the antecedent pronoun refers to a still-living biographer of Wagner and the nearest proper noun before that to “Liszt”:

…Lilli Lehmann, singing Mignon’s Lied one day at Wahnfried, provoked the remark that he hadn’t realized Liszt composed “such pretty songs”…. [Italics added.]

It is regrettable that Mrs. Perényi did not amend her title, reduce the space allotted to such background figures as Victor Hugo, and provide a biography that included Liszt’s later years. In many ways these are the most absorbing, as well as the most in need of thorough exploration. Existing accounts are paralyzingly banal, and either disingenuous or grossly distorted—that of Ernest Newman, for instance, establishing a kind of world’s record in antihagiography. Since Mrs. Perényi’s view of Liszt’s life as a layman is balanced and by no means uncritical, it would seem reasonable to expect the same qualities in a continuation of the biography after the composer became a cleric. Her forte is his love life—though her most memorable line in this regard seems to have been inspired by Swann and Odette rather than by the bachelor Liszt:

Every love affair reaches a point that in retrospect ought to have been the finish, and it is at this point that many lovers decide to marry.

Mrs. Perényi is adroit in reducing the euphuistic epistolary manners of the period to plain sexual facts. She remarks of a tender message from Liszt to Marie d’Agoult, “He isn’t just describing post-coital detumescence,” and of a letter from Sand denying her liaison with Charles Didier, “Didier, by the way, was her lover.” Thus it is to be hoped that Mrs. Perényi may one day be persuaded to give her answers to, or informed guesses about, similar questions in Liszt’s later years. Among the more tantalizing would be the rumors that the date of Liszt’s ordination was accelerated to ensure him against having to marry Princess Carolyne; the mystery as to which of the Abbé’s passions, besides the Baroness Meyendorff and the young Countesses Janina and Schmalhausen,3 were actually consummated; the full story of Agnes Klindworth, the most attractive, if only because the most discreet, of his long-term mistresses; the evidence for Newman’s assumption that Franz Servais was Liszt’s son, and the facts, if any, in Claude Rostand’s statement that women made “outrageous propositions” to Liszt, despite his seventy-four years and purple sash of a Canon of Albano. Finally, what was his secret?—apart from Marie d’Agoult’s incomplete revelation that “even when he is most passionate, most altered by desire, one feels nothing gross in these desires.” All of which sounds like afternoon television. But the Liszt scandals did attract an audience of comparable size, far larger than did the astonishing music that he was producing at the same time of life.

Mrs. Perényi believes that “male resentment of Liszt”—which in Sainte-Beuve’s case she ascribes to envy of his “beauty and virility”—focuses on “two aspects of his amorous career: the number of his conquests and their quality.” Social quality, presumably. But surely the two outstanding “aspects” of his later career in this sense were the youth of the conquered and the durability of the performer. Skepticism on either score ought to be allayed by the story of young Olga Janina, who invaded the septuagenarian composer’s monastic hide-out disguised as a boy, and apparently found her experience there so gratifying that when Liszt fled Rome shortly before a later rendezvous she followed him with pistols halfway across Europe.

Heine was one of the first to notice the sexual side of Lisztomania,” Mrs. Perényi says. But the composer’s father seems to have predicted it: “You belong to art,” he told young Franz, “but women make me frightened for you.” Mrs. Perényi helps to date the beginning of the rock-audience reaction: “Women did not show the symptoms of orgasm at Paganini’s concerts and at Liszt’s they did.” But Paganini looked like Dracula in an etiolated phase; and it was a question of physical attractiveness, Liszt’s facial expression—“simply grand,” George Eliot wrote—apparently hypnotizing the female contingent. The distraction of the audience away from the content of the music and toward the countenance of the performer, as well as the misunderstanding that this was a guide to the meaning of the music, seems to have started with Liszt.

Testimony concerning the in-person behavior of Liszt the seducer is naturally meager, but if he appears to have been more fatuous in the flesh than in writing, no doubt that depends on the addressee, in this instance George Sand:

Can I allow myself to hope that…you would…be willing to count me among the five or six people whom you receive more or less willingly on rainy days?

Compare this with his egotism when basking in the adulation and cultivating the puppy love of a pupil:

Little by little…Liszt recounted his success and pleasures in Society…pursuing a fascinating woman who…had been married…to an elderly man…. He had gazed on her eyes from midnight until three o’clock…. (From the Diary of Valerie Boissier, 1832)

After this display of vanity, it is tempting to say that Liszt deserved his scribbling mistresses—and a punishment of having to read all twenty-four volumes of Princess Carolyne’s Internal Causes of the External Weakness of the Church, as well as the stultifying novels of Countess Marie (alias Daniel Stern). But the story of these pretentious women is less germane than the explanations for Liszt having tied himself to them. Apart from escaping Lisztomania and the ravages he suffered as a performer, he recognized and feared the absence of inner direction: “I feel no vocation…. I do not have a calm and sustained conviction….” Well aware of the flaws in his life and work, he realized that in his struggle to achieve his goals as a creative artist he could not do without the goading, as well as the security and solicitude, of his aristocratic protectresses. His later escape into the Church was obviously motivated by the same needs—protection and an order externally imposed.

Yet however despicable these parasitical personal relationships, any judgment of Liszt’s ethics must take into consideration his immense strength of will in renouncing his career as a touring virtuoso in order to dedicate himself to composition. And whatever his deficiencies, his redeeming qualities were of a rare kind. He was prodigally generous with his colleagues, tirelessly transcribing and performing their music, putting his own work as a composer second to the promotion of that of Berlioz and Wagner. And he has had neither precursor nor successor to rival his openness toward music of differing tendencies, championing, as he did, Verdi as well as Wagner, Tchaikovsky as well as the Russian “Five,” giving unstintingly of himself to all. Nor did he “react” against younger composers, as most others after a certain age have done.

Liszt believed that Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov were “ploughing more fertile ground than the backward imitators of Mendelssohn and Schumann.” Referring to Anton Rubinstein, who represented the opposite point of view, the composer of Liebestraum amplified his own:

[Rubinstein] may…fish deeper in the Mendelssohn waters, and even swim away if he likes. But sooner or later I am certain he will give up the apparent and the formalistic for the organically real.

The philosophy is unchallengeable, at least verbally, and Liszt’s side is clearly the right one to be on—particularly with Rubinstein on the other. If in practice the “organically real” sometimes seemed amorphous and even improvisatory, the Tristan Prelude would refute criticism. The nemesis was Brahms, who took the Mendelssohn-Schumann route and nevertheless managed to compose “organically real” music, most of which, moreover, is still alive, unlike all but a fraction of Liszt’s.

Liszt was always in the van of progress, ready—too ready, Heine wrote—to take up with anything new, including such experimental notions as that of showing colored slides during performances of his Dante Symphony. On another level he was a major innovator in musical philosophy, as well as in form, harmony, “thematic transformation,” keyboard technique; and his influence has been diffused through composers as different as Debussy and Saint-Saëns, Scriabin and Ravel, Mahler and Stravinsky. The association of the last two names with Liszt may be surprising, but Mahler’s exploitation of voices in symphonies—in one instance with the same Goethe text—his subject matter, and his alternate use of Latin and German owe much to Liszt’s example. In Stravinsky’s case certain echoings, such as that of the first cadenza in Totentanz in the second tableau of Petrushka, are unmistakable. More important, the idea of Pulcinella came from Liszt4—probably from the Réminiscences de Don Juan, an original composition in something of the same sense as Stravinsky’s and one that must be included among Liszt’s most successful opera (though neither Mrs. Perényi nor Searle apparently considers it worthy of mention).

  1. 1

    Not many of Mrs. Perényi’s observations about music, whether Liszt’s or in general, bear repetition. “Liszt reached the twelve-tone scale half a century before Schoenberg,” she writes, apparently unaware that Schoenberg’s scale was the same as Mozart’s and that European music had “reached” it centuries earlier. But how can anyone who has heard Don Giovanni say that “the brasses, the wood-winds, the timpani are nineteenth-century products”? And how can a Liszt scholar speculate that “a passage like the second subject of the Dante Symphony is possibly the first to be written in 7/4 time”? The meter occurs in Berlioz’s Cellini, which greatly influenced Liszt and which he conducted before composing the Symphony.

  2. 2

    If Searle is indeed “the best composer that we have,” some of his verbal explanations concerning his art (in The Music of Liszt, London, 1954) would do little to confirm this stature. He writes, and Mrs. Perényi enthusiastically quotes him: “The serial technique of Schoenberg…uses precisely the methods of Liszt’s thematic transformation within the framework of an entirely different language.” Even metaphorically this is both untrue and impossible, though in the first place Liszt did not have transposable “methods.”

  3. 3

    To please this young lady Liszt added cadenzas to his Second Hungarian Rhapsody. These are marked by the symbol SCH in Volume III of the New Liszt Edition (Budapest, 1972), which also identifies some of the features that Liszt imitated from indigenous models in both music and dance, such as, in Rhapsody No. 3, cimbalom articulation and heel-clicking cadences.

  4. 4

    I…am guilty of having borrowed from Pergolesi for my Pulcinella. What is more, Liszt supplied the example” (Comoedia, January 21, 1924).

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