Liszt: The Artist as Romantic Hero
The Man Liszt: A Study of the Tragi-Comedy of a Soul Divided Against Itself
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.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.