Liszt: The Reluctant Superstar


In 1881, Franz Liszt visited Raiding, the small Hungarian town where he had been born nearly seventy years before. He was arguably the most famous musician in the world. Trailed by local dignitaries, he arrived at the modest house where he had grown up. Inside he was amazed to find the remains of an old stove. He recalled that, as a small boy, he had destroyed the stove and nearly killed himself when he threw a pouch of gunpowder onto it, curious to see the result. “Already it was apparent that I had a feeling for mass effects,” he said.

Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt; drawing by David Levine

There was a rueful edge to this joke. Liszt’s barnstorming performances as a pianist had brought him adulation but also opprobrium. Even though he had left the concert stage thirty years before to devote himself to composing, the legend of his performing career still eclipsed all the music he wrote. Worse, his works were disparaged in much the same terms as his playing. In the opinion of Eduard Hanslick, the foremost critic of the day, “a profound knowledge of pianistic effect” was all they had going for them. Liszt was resigned to such judgments and comforted himself with the idea that future generations might understand him.

Controversial in his own time, Liszt manages to remain so, and the charges against him—that he had a poor grasp of compositional technique and that his pieces are shallow vehicles for display—have not changed. Yet he has always had fervent admirers; Richard Strauss called him “tragically misunderstood.” The misunderstanding stems in part from the sheer variety of Liszt’s career and output. Born in Hungary, he became, first, a Parisian composer who spoke French better than his native German, and then a pioneer of the New German School in Weimar, and the living embodiment of Hungarian music. His works, written over seven decades, encompass numberless genres and styles—from salon pieces to liturgical works, and from the most extravagant virtuosity to radical spareness. “Is that all by me?” Liszt asked once, seeing a colossal pile of scores on the desk of his biographer. It is still more than the musical world can fully absorb.

Biographers of Liszt have alternated between adulation and skepticism. The first major attempt was by Lina Ramann, who began her work while Liszt was still alive and with information partly supplied by him. It is unabashedly hagiographical and often inaccurate. In 1934, Ernest Newman, the biographer of Wagner, took aim at the “Liszt legend.” He overcorrected, portraying Liszt as essentially a phony and misusing source material to support the thesis. The standard biography is now Alan Walker’s, which appeared in three volumes from 1983 to 1996. Its archival resourcefulness and engaging style put it among the greatest biographies ever written. Yet it is distinctly partial to its subject and Liszt scholars have since chipped away at its more generous claims. A new book by…

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