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 daughter Cosima with a patience that speaks well of his Christian virtues.
Cosima’s mother was more troublesome still. When Liszt went to Paris in 1866 to attend to Anna Liszt’s estate and to conduct a conspicuously unsuccessful performance of his “Gran” Mass, they met again three last times. Since the Parisians were enjoying their first glimpses of Liszt in clerical costume, Marie d’Agoult took the opportunity to republish Nélida, the disparaging roman à clef she had written twenty years before about their affair under the pseudonym Daniel Stern, and began to talk of writing her Confessions. “Poses and Lies,” he said, would be a more apt title for such reminiscences, and he lectured her about the distinctions between truth and falsehood.
Marie’s psychological disequilibrium worsened steadily, with episodes when she was confined to a strait-jacket, until her death in 1876. “I will not bring myself to weep any more after her passing than during her lifetime,” he wrote Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, but to Emile he confessed a “secret sadness: I confide it to God, and beseech Him to grant peace and light to the soul of the mother of my three dear children.”
A life so long and so filled with adventure at the very center of a culture’s musical life poses difficulties for a biographer. In his 1937 essay “Le Problème Liszt,” Emile Haraszti wrote quite simply that “Liszt is the most complex problem in the history of modern music.” For one thing there is the immense oeuvre, which runs to twenty-two pages in The New Grove. The Australian and more recently British pianist Leslie Howard’s project of recording the complete works for solo piano, said to be the largest recording project ever undertaken by a pianist, is expected to run to eighty CD’s (Hyperion). Then there is the wanderer’s legacy of a polyglot documentation stashed all over Europe: in French (Liszt’s language of choice), German, Hungarian, Latin, and Italian, and (with regard to the Princess’s marital problems) Russian. Probating his will required Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein in Rome, a Viennese lawyer, the Olliviers in southern France, the Rothschild bank in Paris, Cosima in Bayreuth, and government officials in Weimar and Budapest. Much of the music of his final period, recording some of his most important conceptual advances, remained unpublished at his death. Of his earlier works not a few fell out of print or began to circulate in deteriorated editions.
Liszt died in Bayreuth and is buried in a corner of the Catholic cemetery there. So poetic a final resting place, with all that it says of the vagabond’s life and lineage, itself became a source of controversy. For the gentle Franciscan to rest in Wagner’s pagan shadow was deemed by not a few to be an outcome in need of correcting, though it was very much to Cosima’s liking and overall purpose. The Grand Duke wanted him returned to Weimar, to be buried with Schiller and Goethe (but not, like them, in the royal vault, the venue on which Cosima insisted were the body to be moved); some but not all the Hungarians wanted him in Budapest, and Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein and the clerics obviously favored enshrinement in Rome. Liszt wrote to Carolyne in 1869 that he was happy enough to rest where he fell.
Finally there are the myths, the innuendo, and the inevitable errors in transmission that attend a celebrity of Lisztian magnitude. Did Beethoven bestow a kiss of welcome to the order of musical genius on the young man’s forehead? (It seems doubtful.) How much of Liszt’s prose was written by Marie? (Not much.) Nearly twenty-five years ago Alan Walker, a musicologist trained in Britain and resident in Canada, began to construct his biography of Liszt, of which the final volume has now appeared.1 The first volumes show Liszt making his debut in Hungary when he was nine, studying with Czerny in Vienna, and emerging in Paris as the greatest piano virtuoso of his time, the inventor of a new dramatic style of public performance. As music master to the court of Saxe-Weimar, he not only embarked—with Les Préludes and the other symphonic poems, the B-Minor Sonata, and the Hungarian Rhapsodies—on a generally successful attempt to renew his work as a composer; he also gathered around him and encouraged the principal contributors to what became increasingly known as The Artwork of the Future: Berlioz, Peter Cornelius, Hans von Bülow, Wagner, and a dozen others. It’s a wonderful story, and, like the overall project, this final installment shows a courageous persistence on the author’s part that first fascinates and eventually captivates.
My bookshelf groans under the weight of multi-volume composer studies, a predominantly British genre that descends from Ernest Newman’s The Life of Richard Wagner (four volumes, Knopf, 1933-1946) and goes on to include, for example, H.C. Robbins Landon’s five-volume Haydn: Chronicle and Life (Indiana University Press, 1976-1980), Julian Budden’s The Operas of Verdi (three volumes, Oxford University Press, 1978-1981), and the first book of David Cairns’s magisterial Berlioz (Deutsch, 1989). From America Richard Taruskin’s recently published two-volume Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, the manuscript of which is said to have been delivered to the University of California Press in a wheelbarrow, was probably the most urgently awaited title in music scholarship since Maynard Solomon’s Mozart.
The big life-and-works is an attractive genre for both the author and the reader. The reader can gain convenient, reassuring access to more-or-less the latest thought on the composer at hand; and when the “works” are handled with sensitivity to a general reader’s needs, it can afford a view of the artist’s style that greatly exceeds in substance what is to be found in popular biographies, encyclopedias, and program notes.
Walker’s affable narrative has all these advantages and takes a contagious pleasure in recounting his adventures in working on it. (He was able to breach, under his own vow of silence, the defenses of the Madonna del Rosario, the convent in which Liszt lived in Rome, now occupied by Dominican nuns.) His prose is characterized by a good sense of the overall tale and a superb chronological rhythm. I particularly admire his choice of the salient issues—for instance, the Liszt-Cosima-von Bülow-Wagner quadrangle—and his willingness to pause and treat all of them generously.
What Walker chooses to cover he covers well: Liszt’s daily life and his relations to the people closest to him. Some others are curiously absent. His friend (or former friend) Berlioz is scarcely mentioned at all, and where he is, the conclusion is wrong: it was not that Berlioz refused to write on Liszt’s Paris appearance in 1866, but that he had retired altogether from the Journal des Débats, for which he wrote his last review (of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles) in October 1863. Saint-Saëns and Grieg, prominent disciples who labored well to promote Lisztian principles, visit and disappear. Tchaikovsky and Debussy make only brief appearances.
Since few readers will know more than a handful of the later works and almost none of them will know both the piano music and the chorus-and-orchestra works, Walker’s tactic of what amounts to walking the reader through one piece after another with a few one- and two-line musical examples usually has to suffice. Sometimes the musical commentary turns purple (“The [Weinen, Klagen] variations grow towards a cataclysm and the keyboard starts to weep and wail beneath the player’s hands”), and we tire somewhat of reading, of Christus in particular, how Liszt prefigured the advances of Richard Strauss, Verdi, and Elgar, even of Parsifal. These are fuzzy claims (stylistically, geographically, culturally), but we get the point: for Walker, Liszt seems consistently on the verge of promulgating the end of Romanticism, of tonality, even of form as it had until then been conceived.
One musicologist has applied the words “tiresome and superficial” to Walker’s work. Far from it: you can’t help but keep turning the pages, wondering how it will all turn out; and Walker’s accumulated readings of Liszt’s music have to be taken seriously indeed. Now that Franz Liszt is done, musicology will of course chip away at its inaccuracies and exaggerations, but we will also start to think of “Liszt after Walker,” much as of late we talk of Verdi after Budden.
Volume III: The Final Years begins with the anticlimax of Liszt’s long attachment to Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, when after a decade of scheming to have her first marriage annulled by the Vatican, and weeks of intrigue designed to deliver Liszt to the nuptial altar on his fiftieth birthday (a theatrical ambition also worthy of Cosima), the wedding was suddenly, mysteriously, and permanently called off. Members of Carolyne’s family, backed by Cardinal Gustav von Hohenlohe, we now understand from Walker’s research, convinced Pius IX to “forestall a great scandal” by withdrawing his personal sanction of the arrangements. The members of her family seem to have been genuinely concerned for Carolyne’s soul, but they also had a keen eye on her estates, particularly since her daughter Marie had married a Hohenlohe and had just presented Carolyne with a grandchild.
She was thus preoccupied with the need to protect the legitimacy of her daughter and grandchildren; faced with such a turn of events, she simply gave up, retiring to an eccentric but intellectual spinsterhood in the Via del Babuino, where she went on to write her twenty-four-volume indictment of the Catholic faith (parts of which are still on the Index). Liszt took apartments in the neighborhood, then moved to the monastery of the Madonna del Rosario outside Rome (1863-1868), into a cell equipped with a bed, bookshelf, table, and spinet piano lacking a D key. In 1865 he received the tonsure and took minor clerical orders to become the Abbé Liszt.
Walker then shifts the scene to Munich, where the lives of Cosima, her husband, Hans von Bülow, and Richard Wagner were becoming ever more tightly entangled. Von Bülow was court conductor in Munich, thus charged with the first performance of Tristan und Isolde in June 1865; in April Cosima had given birth to Isolde, the first of her three illegitimate children by Wagner. After Wagner was banished from Bavaria as an unseemly drain on the royal treasury and dubious influence on King Ludwig, the von Bülows followed him to the Villa Triebschen on Lake Lucerne, and it was in that bizarre ménage à trois that the second child, Eva, was conceived. In September 1867 Liszt travelled to Munich to exert his influence to save the von Bülows’ marriage, then to Lucerne, where he and Wagner apparently had a long conversation on the matter but spent much of their time poring over Die Meistersinger. (“His genius has not weakened at all. The Meistersinger astonished me by its incomparable vigour, boldness, abundance, verve, and maestria.” Shortly thereafter Liszt transcribed and arranged the “Liebestod” from Tristan for solo piano, one of his triumphs in the genre.)
Despite his own adulterous past, or perhaps because of it, he could not approve of the domestic arrangement, even though Cosima had definitively left von Bülow: she meant not only to secure a divorce, but also to raise the children as Protestants. From Rome in November 1868 he wrote Cosima that “what you are planning to do is bad in God’s eyes and man’s…. Not only do I rightly condemn what you are proposing, but I am telling you this while begging you to take hold of yourself and not allow yourself to be removed from my blessing.” They were estranged for the better part of five years.
Reconciliation came partly with the passage of time and partly owing to Cosima’s need to have Bayreuth blessed by her father. A delicately orchestrated rapprochement began in 1872, when the Wagners visited Liszt in Weimar and he returned the compliment by staying in Bayreuth for a week in October. He found the children “perfectly well brought-up and remarkably charming…. Let others judge and condemn [Cosima]—for me she remains a dignified soul of the gran perdone of St. Francis and admirably my daughter!” In 1876 he attended all three cycles of the first Ring, answering Wagner’s affectionate banquet toast with a public assurance that he remained “humbly devoted” to the master of Bayreuth. Subsequently he played benefit concerts to help overcome the festival deficit. He was with the Wagners in Venice during the winter of 1882-1883, where in obvious premonition of Wagner’s death he composed the funereal La Lugubre Gondola I and II. (Wagner said their dissonance suggested “budding insanity.”) Liszt left in mid-January 1883; Wagner died on February 13.
Obsessed with perpetuating her husband’s memory, Cosima began to see her father primarily as an instrument of assuring Bayreuth’s survival. In his last ten days, he sat feverish in her box, coughing through Parsifal and the Bayreuth premiere of Tristan largely in order to lean forward at the intervals and lead the applause. It was his students who entertained and cared for him, and who replaced the rich food sent to his lodgings from Wahnfried with clear broth; yet when Cosima finally sensed how seriously ill he was, she banned them from the bedside. Lina Schmalhausen, one of Liszt’s students, watched his last hours through the window from a hiding place in the garden, and later the students stood vigil over the body. Cosima was giving a dinner party at Wahnfried when he died, and just after the funeral hurried back to the theater for Tristan.
Liszt divided his old age between Rome, Weimar, and Budapest, traveling by second-class rail carriage and arriving like clockwork each year at the next point of the triangle, surrounded, just as predictably, by his phalanx of admiring students. The master class was his invention, and through it passed more than a generation of young pianists, some of them promising—in the second generation Moriz Rosenthal, Alexander Siloti, Arthur Friedheim, and a few non-pianist hangers-on like Felix Weingartner—but many, perhaps most, of them not. (“A pitiful crowd,” said Walter Damrosch of his visit in 1882, “of sycophants and incompetents.”) Eventually some four hundred musicians could rightly claim to have been a “pupil of Liszt,” three dozen of them Americans, a third of them women. Amy Fay’s memoirs of her time with Liszt in the early 1870s (“Anything so perfectly beautiful as he looks when he sits at the piano I never saw”) were published in 1881 and prompted many another American to think of going to Weimar.
His entourage of serious young pianists had come to replace the adoring women and fawning nobility of Liszt’s years as a star concert artist. Their youthful antics energized his declining years, and their companionship became essential to his well-being. In return he would take them along to his public appearances, for example the annual “sausage concert” in Jena that culminated in a riotous lunch at the local hotel. With the Americans he celebrated Independence Day. There was always cognac near the pianos in his Weimar house (a grand for the students, a smaller upright for himself) and a candle from which the young pianists could light their cigars. The master would enter the music room at the appointed hour, select a work from the pile of scores the students had set on the piano, and bark “Who plays this?” The trick, of course, was to get Liszt himself to play, either from fury at a student’s unsatisfactory work, or simply because (as one put it the day Liszt played Chopin for them) “the mood had seized him.” From all this, we get the impression not of a cult of personality but of Liszt trying to convey all he had learned of the repertoire, its drama, phrase, nuance, and shade.
From time to time, Walker tells us, he would turn unpredictably on a student: “Do you know to whom you have been playing? You have no business here. Go to the Conservatoire; that is the place for such as you.” Hans von Bülow, who took over the classes when Liszt was indisposed, tried to dismiss the incompetents “as he did for his own dog in ridding him of his fleas.” But they would merely retreat to the hotel to await the return of the festive atmosphere. (“Do not chop beefsteak for us,” he said of one performance of the “Waldstein”; to another pupil, “Do not make omelettes.”) He never took money from a student, but instead made loans and gifts often enough that the freeloaders began to take advantage of him.
In the 1860s and early 1870s Liszt retained his impressive looks; at first his admirers imagined the clerical garb to be just another costume (“Mephistopheles disguised as an abbé,” it was said), replacing the sword and medals he had favored in the virtuoso years. Some found erotic appeal in that getup, to be seen in George Healey’s 1869 grand portrait of Liszt answering the door of the monastery of Santa Francesca Romana, candlestick in hand. As an abbé he was technically chaste, but this does not seem to have prevented some overtly sexual episodes. Consider the case of the Polish pianist Olga Zielinska, self-styled “Countess Janina,” who entered his life in Rome in 1869. Given to cigars, drugs, and mannish dress, with a dagger in her belt and fingernails gnawed to the quick, she endeavored to seduce him in his cell in Rome.
Unsuccessful at this venture and having lost a good deal at the gaming tables of Baden-Baden, she set out to seek her fortune in the United States and to deliver to Julius Schuberth a manuscript of technical studies that Liszt had sold him for $1,000. She took and spent the money (yet somehow failed to deliver a volume of the manuscript), then in October telegraphed from New York that she was returning home to murder him. In the third week of November she reached Liszt’s apartment in Budapest, armed with a revolver for the murder and poison for herself. “What you are about to do is wicked, Madame,” calmly observed the abbé, “and I beg you to desist, but I shall not try to prevent you.” She swallowed a chemical substance that sent her into convulsions but was later found to be otherwise harmless. Faced with deportation, she retreated to Paris.
There she wrote not one but four autobiographical novels, notably Souvenirs d’une cosaque (1874, under the pseudonym of a living composer, Robert Franz) and another consisting of Liszt’s purported response, Souvenirs d’un pianiste. “We did not dine that evening,” she writes torridly of Rome, “and when the sun rose it found me leaning over X…. I kissed his dear lips, and in his sleep he returned my kiss. So he belonged to me!” (His only surviving letter to her, of May 1871, ends, “Let me say No and No again, and embrace you and kiss your hand.”) Attempted murder by a deranged pupil was a new twist, even for Liszt, but after Marie d’Agoult the scandalous novels were nothing new, and he brushed them off. “The mistake I made,” he told a friend, “was to have trusted her.”
He shrank and became bloated as dropsy set in, sped along perhaps by alcoholism; the tumors on his face grew disfiguring, and he lost his teeth. Occasionally he talked of suicide. But both the written evidence and the photographs suggest a grand and affectionate old man, on the whole more winning in his dotage that in his days of sureness. By now he was careless of criticism, beyond inducements of money and fame, comfortable with both his reputation and the certainty of his salvation. And surrounded by men and women in the prime of life who had come from all over the world, as Walker puts it, “to bask in his presence.”
The music of “the final years” begins with the transcriptions of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, an early product of the retreat to the Madonna del Rosario, as mesmerizing as ever in their two-handed renditions of big orchestral textures. (The same can be said of the “Liebestod” transcription: the trick is to recast the filigree, and flying-handed decoration was always Liszt’s specialty.) As his piety set in he composed the splendid variations on the famous ground bass from Bach’s cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, and mused on his Franciscan name and heritage in St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and St. Francis of Paola walking on the waters; later there was the choral prayer To St. Francis of Paola.
For orchestra and chorus there is his summa, the fourteen-movement oratorio Christus (begun in 1853, completed in 1866, revised thereafter until first publication in 1872 and first performance in Weimar in May 1873), as well as the short but politically significant Hungarian Coronation Mass (1867) and The Bells of Strasbourg Cathedral (1874, after Longfellow’s “The Bells”). Additionally the oratorio St. Elisabeth had its first performance in August 1865. The Années de pèlerinage III, seven movements from 1876-1877, include the two “Cypress” threnodies and the last piano masterpiece, Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este—“the model,” said Busoni, “for all musical fountains which have flowed since then.”
But it is in the dozens of short piano works from his last years that we find the most convincing evidence of how utterly Liszt grasped the exhaustion of Romanticism and how imaginatively he meant to show the way out. Lugubrious and ghostly of title (Nuages gris [Grey Clouds], Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort [Sleepless! Question and Answer], more Mephisto Waltzes, and a piece called Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro), these works memorialize the dead and dying or reflect sternly on the artist’s own certain demise. Spare, abstract, given not so much to cadence as to abrupt stops or forlorn dissolves (all this suggesting another parallel with Stravinsky), they continue to intrigue and not infrequently disturb, owing at least in part to the strong suggestion that a major post-Romantic voice was emerging. Liszt had imagined that the era’s expanded tonality would be an “omnitonic” system, and he was said (by his piano student Arthur Friedheim) to be at work as late as 1885 on a treatise called “Sketches for a Harmony of the Future.”
The last works seem to strive for that harmony, arriving almost uncannily at many of the tactics now recognized as those used by the next generation: clusters of all sorts, chains of augmented sonorities, chords built not of thirds but of fourths, and of course the gypsy and other unconventional scale forms he had long enjoyed playing and incorporating in his own compositions. The sparseness of texture and dramatic silences anticipate later developments as well; only in rhythm and meter does Liszt not seem to be moving into the new era. The Csárdás macabre of 1881-1882 is thus ordinary in the design of its temporal elements, but it begins audaciously with open fifths doubled in the two hands and then settles into an almost Bartókian folk dance (or a parody of the Dies Irae) where left and right hands seem at harmonic cross-purposes. On the manuscript Liszt has written, “May one write or listen to such a thing?”
The “blank incredulity” that Walker imagines greeted such music is less significant, historically, than the pitifully small handful (the students, again) who knew anything at all about it. Artists cannot be influenced by music they have neither seen nor heard. The showpieces that had made Liszt famous to begin with were by the 1870s relics of a bygone time; the composers most affected by Liszt, notably including Saint-Saëns, Richard Strauss, and Mahler, concentrated on the kinds of thematic transformation to be found in his works of the 1850s. In the 1880s the rage—for and against—was Wagnerism. Liszt’s compositional intelligence seethed right on to the end, but almost nobody was listening.
Now that the biographical problems surrounding Liszt seem well on their way to satisfactory resolution, we are left with the nagging question of his ultimate importance as a composer. His presence in today’s concert repertory remains, on the whole, marginal: Les Préludes and the Faust symphony, perhaps the Dante symphony, seem entrenched alongside the piano concertos and the canon of works for solo piano, but live performance of much beyond that is uncommon. (And the symphonic works have their longueurs: I often think, afterward, that the Berlioz Fantastique, Mahler’s Fifth, and even Till Eulenspiegel make their thematic transformations more effectively.) Charles Rosen reminded us, in these pages, that what gave Liszt his stature and what remains central to the pianistic repertoire are the compositions of the 1830s and 1840s—the “vulgar and great” ones. (“The late works are admirable and minor.”) And the point of the early works is to revel in the luxury of their bombast. “To comprehend Liszt’s greatness,” writes Rosen (naughtily), “one needs a suspension of distaste, a momentary renunciation of musical scruples.”2
Whether or not Liszt gains admission into the society of very great composers—the Top Twenty, let’s say—seems to me still an open question. Now that his many works are more accessible and we understand more about their historical setting, will they have a more vivid place in musical discourse, and a perhaps larger audience share? I tend to doubt it, though time has a way of not just winnowing but also rescuing the unjustly neglected: consider Monteverdi, Berlioz, Mahler. What is established beyond question, and in Walker’s book confirmed time and again, is the overall distinction of Liszt’s mind and spirit: the abundance of his musical gifts, his ongoing discipline and craft, and the real pleasure he took in sharing them. Beneath the hairdo and haberdashery of the moment there was an ongoing generosity and love of art that had a benign but magical cumulative effect on the civilization, particularly when he was at the center of its stage. His greatness lies in the multiplicity of his talents. Of course there is composition of great genius, but on the whole the apt comparisons are not so much with Monteverdi and Stravinsky as with Saint- Saëns and Leonard Bernstein: artists of prodigious presence, whose force of personality moved music further forward than their compositional legacy.
November 28, 1996