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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)

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 to obey elsewhere the Father of Mercy”). He is commonsensical (“The fact that certain polite customs are merely a convention does not prevent me from approving of them”), wise (“Truth is a great flirt”), honest with himself and others (“I go on existing with deepest repentance and contrition for having formerly ostentatiously violated the Ninth Commandment”), and he understands human nature (“In order to punish [Janina], I am not going to get angry”).

Most unexpected in a so-called snob is a humanitarian Liszt, much moved by Kropotkin’s account of the treatment of political prisoners in Siberia, and strongly opposed to Baroness von Meyendorff’s support of the death penalty, which he terms “an abominable social crime…. It is obvious that we are all more or less guilty, deranged or crazy, but it does not follow that we ought to be guillotined…”—so writes the ardent royalist who respected the Count of Chambord’s claims to the French throne.

Neither the translator nor the author of the introduction and notes offers any information about the whereabouts of the letters between Sotheby’s in 1934 and Dumbarton Oaks in 1970, where Liszt’s great-granddaughter saw them, and, according to Mr. Waters, “pleaded” that they be published. He finds it noteworthy that this lady, from Liszt’s French line of descent, spoke “remarkable English” (in what way remarkable?) though Mr. Tyler conversed with her “in characteristically rapid and fluent French.” (Is this bilingualism unusual?) But Mr. Waters is easily amazed, observing that “gossip was as rife [in Liszt’s day] as it is now” and actually explaining Liszt’s bad pun about a prelate who is more ultra-mondaine than ultra-montaine. Mr. Waters further quotes the composer’s descendant: “never…have I ever heard anyone speak more perfect French [than Mr. Tyler]. You must see that he translates those letters.” This provokes Mr. Waters to an exclamation—“the die was cast”—but does not induce him to provide any account explaining why the letters were not published first, or ever, in the original French, the favored language (as the present reviewer observed on many occasions) of the chatelaine of Dumbarton Oaks, Mildred Bliss herself.

In any event, the quality of the translator’s French is less important in this task than that of his English, which, in Mr. Tyler’s case, is marred by internal rhymes (“hardly conducive to effusiveness,” “pending finding people…”) and horrible anachronisms (imagine Liszt mentioning a “lifestyle” and referring to “phony” princesses).

The reader is also curious about the Baroness Meyendorff’s mother tongue. Was it Russian or Polish—she was born (1838) Princess Gorchakova* of Warsaw—and was her second language French or German? Liszt’s daughter Cosima Wagner says that the lady “obstinately” spoke the former, but Wagner’s wife disliked both French and the Baroness von Meyendorff. Since her husband was ambassador to the Court of Weimar, she must have used German regularly, but her second language may well have been Italian: in one letter Liszt advises her to read the eight-volume Italian edition of The Modern Jesuit.

Messrs. Waters and Tyler do not refer to the fate of the Baroness Olga’s side of the correspondence. True, Liszt wrote to her, December 15, 1881: “The best way not to expose letters to the indiscretion of others is to burn them immediately after reading them, as I shall do with yours henceforth.” Yet four-fifths of the contents of this collection antedate the resolution. Was a search instituted for her pre-1882 letters? It must be admitted that a knowledge of her that is limited to inferences from the composer’s letters leaves many unanswered questions.

Felix von Meyendorff, the Baroness’s husband and a nephew of the Russian ambassador to Berlin, died suddenly in 1871 (at age thirty-six). Liszt had known Olga when she was in her early twenties, but they seem not to have corresponded before her widowhood. Except for Mr. Waters’s description of her portrait (“an enchanting face” combining “intelligence and pulchritude”), most references to her are uncomplimentary. Amy Fay, Liszt’s American pupil, states that “the haughty countess” is “not pretty” and her “arrogance piques all Weimar.” Cosima, her elder, found her “very unpleasant…cold and repelling,” and in the later diaries simply records “Frau von M.’s” arrival, presence, and departure, making no mention of the letter received from her after the death of Cosima’s mother. Yet at Liszt’s funeral, Cosima and Baroness Olga rode in the same carriage.

To some extent, Liszt’s letters bear out the judgments of his daughter and Miss Fay. Olga’s insistent inquiries concerning his health plainly irritate him, and he writes that, since fireworks are customary on John the Baptist’s feast day, he intends to burn the whole file of her “objurgations and minatory ukases.” Why, then, did he continue to write? Obviously because “Frau von M.” was a woman of exceptional intellect, well read, and interested in the new ideas of the age: the correspondents discuss such matters as “the positivism of M. Comte” and the theories of Fourier, whose lectures Liszt had attended in 1832 in Paris, but whose “oratorical talent, like his style, left much to be desired. He spoke easily and glibly….” Furthermore, the Baroness was a knowledgeable musician—Liszt played the complete Ring of the Nibelungen for her—and an excellent pianist: shortly before his death, he wrote to her that “among the best of my memories is that of playing four-hands with you.” She died in obscurity in Rome, in 1926, an untapped source for historians of the great age of Bayreuth; it is regrettable that, unlike Willa Cather and Flaubert’s niece, no writer listened to her fascinating story.

The correspondence, beginning as it did in the year of the Olga Janina scandal, must have afforded Liszt with an agreeable contrast to that harrowing experience. Yet after becoming an abbé he does not appear to have been more reclusive or less worldly, remaining fond of whist, which he plays with Wagner, relishing oysters washed down with Yquem, and indulging a passion for Forti Napolitani—not Cavour—cigars. He enjoys his domestic life in Rome, where he keeps two cats, and at Frascati, where he dines on the terrace in fine weather. But he also likes society and being a guest of Duke Caetani at Sermoneta, as well as of other aristocrats in their palazzi. Eventually Rome becomes too hectic—“Crossing the Piazza di Spagna is no fun for me”—and he spends more time in Bayreuth. Even in the late years he is almost constantly traveling—Venice, Vienna, Budapest, Munich, Weimar, Bayreuth.

In music, the abbé tries to restrain an impulse to write secular and even frivolous pieces, and, in a letter of February 1873, says that though practicing “abstention from desires,” he has turned out variations on some Schubert waltzes “of which the French title is Le Désir.” But composition demands a great effort of him. Commenting on an author who is plagued by questions of punctuation and grammar “to the point of banning identical consonants at the beginning of sentences,” the composer remarks that “in music I suffer from analogous torments.” What interests him most in Zola’s study of Flaubert is the latter’s

lengthy method of work…. I know similar [tortures] in music. This or that chord, or even pause, have cost me hours and numerous erasures. Those who know the meaning of style are prey to [this]….

Near the end of his life he writes that “for Christmas I wanted to give myself a big negative present, that of writing no more music.”

Liszt is at his most caustic in passages about musicians. Referring to one of them, he warns Baroness Olga to “over-look a certain prolixity on the subject of his friendship for me.” He ridicules not only the “young matadors of the piano,” but also those of the violin, as when he says of Sarasate:

How can one thus climb on the very first page to the higher octave like squirrels or acrobats, and then go down rapidly to the lower strings, then climb and fall again, then finally swoon on a most trivial cadenza?

The abbé criticizes the “faltering rhetoric” of the man who said: “I don’t want to disappear like a lamp going out, but like a setting star,” since “the public is sometimes interested in rising stars, but not in setting [ones].” And Liszt delights in repeating Berlioz’s rejoinder to the person who asked if one of Beethoven’s last quartets had given him pleasure: “Do you think that I listen to music for pleasure?”

The Meyendorff letters further document the unprecedented catholicity of Liszt’s musical tastes. It pleases him that an audience has given a warm reception to two movements of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, “as I more or less imposed this work on the program.” The Verdi quartet, in the abbé’s estimation, is “a more attractive piece than many renowned classical compositions, and just as carefully composed.” Of other contemporaries, he is chilly to Brahms, though not mean, as Wagner was; fair to Gounod and Massenet; respectful to Bizet, though the music of Carmen is “of a kind which is most successful in Paris”; and the championship of Sgambati is evident throughout the letters and remains inexplicable. The last two Mozart symphonies, Liszt writes, are superior to any of those by Haydn, which “I admire…as long as I don’t have to hear them often.”

One of Liszt’s criticisms might have been intended for Webern, or for a style attributed to him and much abused today: “To reduce music to single sounds, to isolate the features of a beloved person…away with this method….” But if Liszt had actually heard this music of a century later, would he still have thought that “silence suffices for a well-brought-up audience to express its disapproval”? Curiously, while he is inspired by the grandiose—in the Cathedral of Ratisbon he “dreamed…of a Music which I know not how to write”—he professes not to like the trumpet and trombone, and turns this bias, conspicuous by its absence in much of his own music, into a rule of social behavior:

I like mutes when it is a matter of giving advice: they do not impair accuracy of pitch, and, save for exceptional cases, it is better to be restrained than noisy.

The music of Richard Wagner is one of the main subjects of the letters, and though Liszt hints that his “conviction and zeal” are tempered with reservations, and if he sins “out of excessive admiration for Wagner, it is not for lack of awareness of what his adversaries think,” his “passionate admiration for [Wagner’s] genius continues to increase…. King Louis of Bavaria and my daughter have the right perspective—adoration.” For many readers, the references to Wagner will be the high points of the book, especially the glimpses of him in Venice two months before his death, and the following early reference to Parsifal:

I reread this most highly sublime work [Parsifal], first in my room without a piano, and yesterday we went through the last part of the third act with Wagner; he singing and I accompanying…. I know nothing comparable in music.

Liszt’s appreciation of literature is remarkable indeed in a musician. He himself is an artist with words and his epistolary style is felicitous but never florid. He reads Renan—unusual in itself for a man of the cloth—not only for content but also because the author of La Vie de Jésus “introduces nuances in good French.” The style of Nietzsche, on the other hand, dazzles more than his books enlighten: “How can I become converted to the man created by Schopenhauer, or to the man of Goethe and of Rousseau?” The abbé’s scope is stunning: Pascal and Zola, Joseph de Maistre and Maupassant, Leopardi and Hugo, Sainte-Beuve and Taine, Turgenev and Tolstoy (whom Liszt knew in Weimar), George Sand—in whose letters to Flaubert the composer finds a “touch of genius”—and Flaubert himself, whose Temptation of St. Anthony holds Liszt in thrall.

Benjamin Constant, Gregorovius, Ségur (The History of Russia), and the Book of Job are discussed side by side. A piece by Alexandre Dumas and a passage in Heine’s Memoiren are condemned for their facetiousness, while Liszt scores La Rochefoucauld for reducing all feelings to amour-propre. The abbé is even familiar with Voltaire, borrowing his word folliculaires in reference to the “scribblers of the press,” and apparently adapting his aphorism, “Le superflu, chose très nécessaire,” in “Let us continue to talk about minor matters: Altogether they make up roughly two-thirds of life; to neglect them is a fault which does harm.” One wonders when the composer found time to read his breviary.

Liszt’s life as an abbé is surely atypical. He attends the Russian Orthodox Christmas service for the sake of Olga von Meyendorff, and at the Eastern church Easter, he greets her with “Khristos Voskrés.” Reporting on a private audience with the pope, Liszt mentions that “while telling me about the present trials of the church,” and “developing admirably a text of St. Paul, Pius IX was not above commenting on Roman aristocrats and society figures.” The concept of the “Holy Roman Democracy” mystifies the abbé, who says that the one bright point in this “Vaticanist Philippic is the phrase ‘For the world to live, it needs the Eucharist.’ ” Nevertheless, Liszt observes the religious life—“I returned on December 23 and shall stay until mid-January in meditation and prayer”—and no matter what he says or does, his faith is unassailable. “I am extremely tired of living,” he writes. “But I believe that God’s Fifth Commandment also applies to suicide.” Meanwhile, “To serve well is the main thing in this world—while awaiting a better one.”

The abbé Liszt’s quarters in Rome, in the priory of Santa Francesca, where he was cared for by Olivetan Fathers, over-looked the church of Saint Francis, as well as, most appropriately, its foundations, the ruins of the Temple of Venus.

  1. *

    This is the spelling adopted by the editors of Cosima Wagner’s diaries. Mr. Waters writes the name of “Gortschakoff.”

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