Godfather

Franz Liszt: Volume III, The Final Years, 1861-1886

by Alan Walker
Knopf, 594 pp., $50.00

Liszt’s seventy-five-year lifespan—1811-1886—so tidily envelops Romanticism in music that he seems to reign over it, like Monteverdi (1567-1643) in the nascent Baroque and Stravinsky (1882-1971) in the high twentieth century. By virtue of relentless artistry and his knack for a deft, recognizably personal response to the latest aesthetic shift, each came to be regarded as a kind of godfather of his era. Liszt was a celebrity from his teens until his death, gifted with a prodigious virtuosity of digital technique and musicianship—the ability, for example, to sight-read the most difficult scores at the keyboard as well as a legendary memory for musical texts.

The reams of manuscript and published music he left behind reflect both his personal metamorphoses and the changing times: the flamboyantly public showpieces of his years as a star recitalist in the 1830s yield to the soberer results of his studied effort, in Weimar, to become a serious composer, then to the positively introspective miniature compositions of the years of his so-called reclusion. (Scarcely three weeks after he retreated to a cell outside Rome, the pope and two monsignors came calling, and the pope ended up singing “Casta diva.” Liszt later spent the summer at Castel Gandolfo and spent most winters with Cardinal Hohenlohe at the refurbished Villa d’Este; twice a week he gave master classes in Rome, and he welcomed every visitor and seldom declined an invitation to a soirée.)

Much of Liszt’s huge musical output deserves attention, and of course the epoch’s very concept of heroic virtuosity derives in large measure from his work. He was a conscientious godparent to his art, and committed sponsor of noble causes. Les Troyens, Berlioz’s masterpiece, owes its existence to the joint badgering of Liszt and his mistress, the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, who lived with him in Weimar and with whom he later had an intellectual and epistolary companionship that survived until the end of his life. His public appearances after 1860 or so were charity concerts, benefitting Peter’s Pence one month and flood victims the next. He oversaw the canonization of Beethoven and the founding of a new music academy in Budapest; he helped consecrate Bayreuth simply by showing up there. He fostered a large artistic progeny who flocked in his direction from both the Old and the New Worlds.

Between 1835 and 1844 Liszt lived with the volatile Countess Marie d’Agoult, who left her husband to join him in Geneva, collaborated on some of his literary efforts, and bore their three children. Daniel, the youngest, died in 1859, and Blandine, who married the French civil servant Emile Ollivier, died unexpectedly in 1862 of complications from a surgical intervention following the birth of their son, Daniel-Emile. (From this tragedy was born a friendship between Liszt and Ollivier, who went on caring for “Grandma”—Liszt’s mother, Anna—and at length arranged for and spoke at her funeral.) For the most part Liszt bore the notoriety of his formidable …

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