Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt; drawing by David Levine

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).

The progressives of today have taken up Liszt more as a cause than as a composer in his own right, what matters to them being less the music itself than whether Liszt was “ahead of his period” in it, or used unrelated chords and avoided perfect cadences for the first time. The new attitude, too, is that the “unknown” Liszt, together with the music of the final two decades—the Années de Pèlerinage III and other contemporaneous piano pieces—is the superior one. But the “unknown” Liszt consists mainly of religious music and songs, and in score,5 at least, discloses nothing that will substantially enhance his reputation. True, the sacred pieces employ unusual instrumental combinations—bass trombone and organ in one instance, two horns in another, harmonium, harp, and piano in a third—but these do not modify this opinion.

The religious works, in any case, must be approached by way of their stylistic features. Liszt knew his Church’s music, the best as well as the worst of it, and perhaps for this reason he is more traditionalist than innovator in his own contributions. It is worth remembering, too, that taking the tonsure had little effect on either the caliber or the quantity of it. Unlike Fra Angelico, the Abate diàvolo did not consecrate his art to his religion but dashed off a variation on Chopsticks and composed a second Mephisto Waltz in the same year that he produced music for the Pope. It should be enough to say on the subject that the Magnificat in the Dante Symphony is as fine an example in the “sacred” category as any in the “unknown” Liszt.

Songwriting might have become a more significant mode of expression for Liszt if he had been possessed of a nationality. Strangely, he was without a native language, knowing no Hungarian at all, nor even anything about the land of his birth, his study of Magyar music and history dating from comparatively late in life; he was shamming when he sent for a Hungarian redingote to wear in London. But neither was he French or German, though these are the languages of his songs—except for a few in Italian and one in English (Tennyson). Yet despite this anomalous cultural and linguistic situation, a few of the Lieder are among the better pieces of their kind.

As for the cultists of the late works, this group ignores that which is most widely recognized as Lisztian, esteeming the music chiefly for its similarities to that of more modern composers, above all Debussy. But in saying “like Debussy”—of the Eglogue, for instance, or the Angelus—is the listener not also declaring a preference for Debussy? Some late Liszt, including Nuages gris, Les Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este, and From the Cradle to the Grave (despite this Attlee era title), is extraordinary music, a manifestation of one of those breathtaking developments in an artist’s old age that seem to betoken a change of personality but prove to give testimony to continuing discovery and refinement. Even so, the later works are not without shortcomings, one of them being the measured but interminable silences during which a piece like the Sunt lacrymae rerum loses volition.

It is convenient to divide the music into the orchestral and the piano. The former is comparatively small in quantity and with one important and some minor exceptions belongs to the period 1848-1861; the latter is vast and represents the entire life. The exception, From the Cradle to the Grave, is the most unlikely creation ever to come from Liszt’s pen, at least from the established perspective of his characteristics. The first and last sections are naturally the most appealing and their orchestral sound is of an extreme delicacy. Anyone hearing the score for the first time would mistake it for a newly unearthed one by Debussy, or, in the middle section, for one by Bartók. Its critics maintain that it falls off at the end, but are they not forgetting that Liszt was always a programmatic composer, and that here the withering away is perfectly appropriate?

The formal aspects of the earlier Symphonic Poems are of more moment than their instrumental ones. Indeed, at the outset Liszt knew so little about the orchestra that he sought help from others and revised the first few Poems as many as two and three times. Yet these single-movement “symphonies” so successfully challenged the traditional species that Liszt’s example was followed by most younger composers (always excepting Brahms)—until Mahler synthesized the two forms. Yet the Poems were not new, both in the sense that five of them were overtures, and that the vogue of program music had been launched twenty years earlier by Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Liszt’s, however, were destined to be the most popular models.

Their unpopularity today is justified, the worst of them being presentable only as prankish examples of bad taste. But even their best moments—the Apotheosis in Die Ideale, the episode in Les Préludes that seems to have attracted the composer of Siegfried’s “Forest Murmurs”—do not exactly transport the listener. In fact Les Préludes merits its status as the only active survivor, for it alone contains memorable melody and pleasant barbershop harmony. In spite of these features, the unimaginative rhythms of the opus have consigned it to the park band.

Searle acclaims another of the Poems, Hamlet, as

one of Liszt’s masterpieces…. It consists of a slow introduction, a dramatic and violent Allegro, and an ending [in] the manner of a funeral march…. A remarkable psychological portrait emerges.

The listener might conceivably wonder how this is achieved, or even how the music relates to the play at all. If, by error, the title were changed to Macbeth—or Everyman, or the Transmigration of Souls—would anyone complain that the music was less apt? It is true that the timpani part is marked “vacillando,” but, without consulting the score, who could tell whether the player is actually vacillating or simply playing the written rhythm? Musically speaking, Hamlet is marked by an absence of tension and invention, and by a too conspicuous presence of Liszt’s vice of exact repetition. If a “psychological portrait” had been his aim, which is by no means evident from his verbal interpretation of the play, then the discrepancy between intent and realization is close to 100 percent.

Hamlet is far from the worst of the Poems, however, the rivals for that distinction being Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne (the answer to this is: “Very little”) and Tasso, although Festklänge should not be denied the right to compete. Ce qu’on entend is one of the much revised early pieces, but it should have been worked over until totally deleted. It is so barren of ideas that the score reader sometimes wonders if he might have forgotten to turn the page. When the hero has finally climbed his Alp, his feelings of piety are expressed in a hymn, at the beginning of which Liszt writes “Andante religioso,” as if the character of the music could not be determined without verbal help.

For all that has been written about the way Liszt looks forward to Tristan (actually one of his most Tristan-esque pieces is the second of the Villa d’Este group, composed fifteen years after the opera), it must be remarked that he looks backward far more often, and in despair, to Chopin. But that composer who owes most to the Poems, Tchaikovsky, in Francesca da Rimini, is seldom mentioned in connection with them. Both Liszt and Tchaikovsky repeat mindlessly and rely on dynamics as a substitute for inner musical tension. Where the Russian is maudlin (and orchestrally skillful), however, the Hungarian is empty of any feeling (and orchestrally clumsy), and the bombastic ending of Tasso is even beneath bad Tchaikovsky.

Surprisingly, for they belong to the same period, the Faust and Dante symphonies are greatly superior to the Symphonic Poems. One of the reasons for this is that the symphonies are elevated and transformed by their choral endings. Another is that by this time (the mid-1850s), Liszt’s instrumental imagination had begun to show itself in such small combinations as the quartet of solo violins and the oboe and viola duet in Faust. But the orchestrations of the entire Gretchen movement in Faust and some of the Purgatorio movement in Dante contain novel and delectable blends of color. Finally, it should be mentioned that if any piece by Liszt is the source of a work by another composer, then Parsifal is indebted to the ending of the Dante Symphony. The triadic theme, the instrumentation, the meter and rhythm could almost be mistaken for an early draft of the final Grail scene.

Nevertheless, the listener automatically imagines a piano playing such orchestral accompaniment figures as the string arpeggios in Les Préludes, and Liszt’s orchestra does in fact seem incomplete without the piano. It is odd that the composer so rarely brought the two media together, and that neither of his concertos fulfills the high promise that might have been expected of a virtuoso-composer. But is Mrs. Perényi not misguided in choosing the second concerto over the first, which she ranks with “the Rhapsodies and the operatic paraphrases” as being “from the second or third drawer down”? The beginning of the first concerto is as stunningly original as any in the repertory, and the remainder of the work is at least tolerable, while the second contains superior materials disappointingly developed.

One reason for the superiority of the third “concerto,” Totentanz, is that the variation form, by providing a path and by stimulating Liszt’s powers of invention, was more suited to his talents than that of the free-roving quasi-sonata. Two other sets of variations, the Paganini and the Weinen, Klagen, are among his incontestable successes. But the Totentanz variations are exceptional in range of mood, wit (the glissandi in the piano part), rhythmic vitality, and control—for no effect is exaggerated. In the opening measures, and perhaps for the first time in modern music, the piano is treated as a percussion instrument, and in fact is doubled by one, the timpani, producing an effect similar to that of Bartók’s tone-clusters.6

As a composer for the piano, Liszt’s contributions to its technique are enormous, but in the expression of emotion his piano music is peculiarly limited. Thus he strives for exaltation but attains it only rarely (as in the ending of the Sursum Corda, Pèlerinage III). His strongest sentiments are nostalgias (Valse Oubliée is his title par excellence) and musings about death (La Lugubre Gondola). But instead of passion he offers mere excitement—in the grandiose, in keyboard acrobatics, in speed and volume. Thus, in Après une lecture de Dante, he provides not one moment for meditation before unleashing a barrage of chromatic octaves (the very word “Liszt” provokes the conditioned response “octaves”), pounding crescendos, reiterated rhythms. These and other vulgarities were unknown to music before Liszt—on anything like the same scale at any rate—yet his vulgarity weighs less heavily against him than his emotional hollowness.

My mission will be to have introduced poetry into piano music with some brilliance,” Liszt wrote. He was mistaken. His mission was to introduce new forms, harmonies, colors, and pianistic fireworks. In these he is an original—as well as a lesser composer than his devotees protest, a larger one than his detractors concede.

This Issue

February 6, 1975