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The Making of Liszt

“ [François] Mauriac has said: ‘The Romantics were the corrupt children of Christianity.’ I should not put it so harshly; but it is very much more true than talking of the Victorians as smug, contented Christians. The Victorian Age was really a violent collision and struggle; a meeting-place of two furious onslaughts, but so interlocked and straining that, at this distance from it, it seems to be standing still.” — G.K. Chesterton

The trouble with clichés (as it is itself a cliché to observe) lies in the regularity with which they prove true. Everything about Franz Liszt which millions have half-remembered from movies and from whatever classical music history lessons they endured in childhood, they have half-remembered aright.

At his peak, Liszt really did play the piano better than anyone else of his time. (Testimony from those rivals who hated him – Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann above all – supplies evidence of that. “Liszt,” Frau Schumann seethed, “plays at sight what we toil over and, in the end, get nowhere with.”) His giving up of the itinerant virtuoso life in 1847, his 36th year; his insistence on combining his Lothario antics with minor religious orders; his reluctant acquiescence to the inevitably ungrateful role of Wagner’s father-in-law; his invention of the piano recital itself; the gnomic pre-Schoenbergian atonality present in his late writing; above all, the mob frenzies that his youthful performing aroused: no mere Hollywood director invented these things, because no mere Hollywood director ever could have invented them.

As to the forms that the frenzies took, let one anecdote serve. The anecdote concerns a woman whose baffling malodorousness, inexplicable by anything in her diet or outward behavior, at last yielded to logical investigative explanation. In 1843, she had somehow obtained the stump of a cigar that Liszt had smoked, and this stump she secreted in her underclothes. It remained there until its rediscovery in 1868.

No virtuosi before Liszt, however acclaimed – probably no-one in any art, except Byron – generated such proto-rock-god hysteria. Paganini had come closest, with his cadaverous appearance and his preparedness to let his audiences assume that he owed his violinistic genius to a pact with Satan. But Paganini, not born in the 18th century for nothing, exhibited to the general public solely those aspects of his character which he wanted to exhibit. The rest (including his love of non-lucrative chamber music, and his esteem for the equally non-lucrative Berlioz) he painstakingly concealed.

It required Liszt to adopt Paganini’s template and overhaul it according to the demands of an era which enjoyed what Paganini, dying as he did in 1840, never witnessed: mass acceptance of photography, of the telegraph, of railway travel, of the popular newspaper, of the concert hall (as opposed to the salon, the palace, or the church), and – perhaps more potent, in the long term, than any of these things – the belief in art as autonomous religion-substitute. Mahler, near the century’s end, parried questioning about his complicated theological allegiance with the words “I am a musician.” Wagner and Verdi could have said the same thing. So, ultimately (and doubtless sheepishly), could Liszt. No composer emerging before 1800 could have even imagined that retort, let alone voiced it.


Still, if Liszt is the profile-writer’s dream, he must be the full-length biographer’s nightmare. One might as well attempt to pick up mercury with a fork, as capture his essence between hard covers. British musicologist Alan Walker solved the problem, after a fashion, by sheer periphrasis. Walker’s life of Liszt runs to three fat volumes, and is more hagiography than biography. Another British musicologist, Derek Watson, confined his account of Liszt to one volume (in Oxford University Press’s “Master Musicians” series) that has been the best single guide in English to the composer’s significance. Watson’s primacy rests unchanged by this new account, from a German author responsible eight years ago for a thoroughly worthwhile book on Liszt’s daughter Cosima (which The American Conservative discussed in December 2008).

Oliver Hilmes has unearthed important documentation about Liszt’s Weimar years, documentation which previous biographers either suppressed or simply could not be bothered with exploring. Also, Hilmes gives due emphasis – as, again, most of his predecessors did not – to Liszt’s father Adam, a musically able figure in his own right, who disclosed something of Leopold Mozart’s vicarious ambition when he realized that he had fathered a prodigy, though he seems to have combined this with a most un-Leopold-like predisposition for self-doubt. In view of Franz’s tortured relationship with Church morals, it is notable (like father, like son ...) that Adam’s novitiate at a monastery ended “by reason of his inconstant and changeable nature.” Equally commendable is Hilmes’s willingness to emphasize the significant pedagogic help which young Franz received from none other than Antonio Salieri. (It will redound to the eternal discredit of the late, usually great Sir Neville Marriner that he supplied the soundtrack to the noxious and historically illiterate anti-Salieri farrago Amadeus.) Yet another virtue is Hilmes’s rapidly flowing narrative, scrupulously conveyed by translator Stewart Spencer.

Unfortunately, for too much of its length Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstarcould almost have been written for an audience of tone-deafers, so rarely does Hilmes concern himself with Liszt’s actual music. Sir Sacheverell Sitwell’s error-infested 1934 Liszt survey ignored most of this music, and misinterpreted most of what it did not ignore; but that was understandable, given Sitwell’s own lack of score-reading competence and – to be fair – the impossibility of hearing more than a minuscule proportion of Liszt’s output in Britain before the Liszt Society began in 1951. Hilmes, an acknowledged scholar operating in an age of Complete Editions and near-universal Internet access, cannot plead Sitwell’s excuses.

In addition, we really do have the right to expect that an academic imprint will insist on illustrative staff-notation musical excerpts from a composer’s output. Of such excerpts, Yale University Press gives us none. Now and then, moreover, Hilmes’s assessments are decidedly eccentric. For example, he calls Herbert von Karajan “testosterone-fueled”, although that maestro’s undoubted authoritarian charisma struck most people as being of a fundamentally asexual, almost monastic sort. Nor does Hilmes make much use of Liszt’s fantastically copious published correspondence, which amounts to more than 7,000 letters. Well might we marvel at how Liszt ever found time to write music, eat, sleep, and fornicate.


The bed-hopping of Liszt, however much it scandalized his contemporaries, seems pretty bland in an age which has been forced to contemplate the abominable Marcial Maciel. (Unlike that monster and his fellow priestly perverts, Liszt never pretended to a chastity which he did not possess.) It typifies Anglosphere provincialism – “Quite cut off from the world!”, as Belloc put it – that for every 10,000 words published about Liszt’s promiscuity, there would scarcely have been a dozen words published about Liszt’s Freemasonry. From 1841 Liszt belonged to a Frankfurt lodge, later being honored by other lodges in Berlin, Zürich, and Budapest. Whatever motives actuated the Masonic membership of Haydn and Mozart before 1800 – or of Mozart’s former student Johann Nepomuk Hummel shortly after that date – Continental Freemasonry by Liszt’s time meant (outside Scandinavia anyhow) serious anticlerical business at the very least.

Even in the wake of Hilmes, we cannot say for sure if Liszt realized what he was getting himself into. The likelihood is that he did not, and that here, as in his youthful association with the socialist Saint-Simonian movement (which Hilmes discusses at some length), he had a profound capacity for self-deception. Accordingly those prelates who let him join the craft are more blameworthy than he was. Of course, the spectacle of bishops and indeed pontiffs refusing to enforce Catholicism’s de fide teachings through degraded motives of human respect – latterly through a more specific dread of being thought “triumphalist”, or “fascist”, or “reactionary”, or “undemocratic”, or simply not as hip as Bob Dylan – is one with which Church history since the annus horribilis1968 has made us all wearily familiar.


Greatest of Liszt’s amatory passions was Marie d’Agoult, ex-wife of an aristocrat much older than herself, whom she left in 1835 to live with the composer. She bore all three of Liszt’s acknowledged children: the aforementioned Cosima; Blandine, who married French prime minister Emile Ollivier; and Daniel, a consumptive who died very young. Striking are the parallels with Byron’s Lady Caroline Lamb: just as “Caro” excoriated her former lover by means of a roman à clef, so did Mme. d’Agoult, hers being entitled Nélida.

Liszt’s other chief mistress, the indomitable Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg-Ludwigsburg – “so boring,” to quote a British journalist’s deathless words about Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, “that you fall asleep halfway through her name” – has for more than 100 years suffered from a bad press. The debit side of Carolyne’s moral ledger cannot be gainsaid: her chain-smoking; her complete absence of tact; her downright contempt for her stepdaughters (on whom she inflicted a governess sadistic even by the accepted standards of her epoch) as well as for her estranged husband Prince Nicholas; and that streak of vulgar Jew-baiting which is so often found among autodidacts. Besides, Carolyne’s verbosity can only be called pathological. Her magnum opus in 24 volumes, The Interior Causes of the Exterior Feebleness of the Church – short version: Catholicism sucked, because of its perverse failure to elect Carolyne pope – had to be privately printed, whereupon the Holy Office consigned it to the Index.

Against all these faults, and in at least one reviewer’s opinion far outweighing them, is the persistence with which she nagged Liszt into doing much of his finest creative work. A disproportionately large number of his indisputable masterpieces derived from his years with Carolyne, when the groupies’ numbers could be temporarily reduced and the other distractions – from Wagner to Lola Montez – at least minimized. After Carolyne left his life, the distractions resumed. Hilmes suggests that Carolyne and Liszt had at least one child in secret. On his own admission he cannot prove this, but if they did, it would explain much (and Hilmes is not the first writer to postulate the theory). Here are Hilmes’s own words:

The social status of the Kapellmeister [Liszt] and the princess was in any case precarious in Weimar, and the birth of an illegitimate child would have been politically explosive, making it impossible for Liszt to have continued his association with the town and its court. Indeed, there is no doubt that he would have had to leave at once. Moreover, any illegitimate progeny would have meant that Carolyne’s attempts to annul her marriage to Prince Nicholas stood no further chance of success. For Liszt and the princess, too much was at stake.

It is curious, and instructive, that Liszt’s earlier biographers usually went out of their way to condemn Carolyne as visually displeasing. No such belief can survive a look at the portrait of her which Hilmes reproduces (in black and white, as are all his book’s other illustrations). That portrait reveals the sort of woman who, despite her lack of conventional beauty – in Carolyne’s case a long, pronounced nose between eyes so bulbous as to imply goitre – can generate a ferocious erotic charge. We may assume that Liszt knew more about what an erotic charge felt like than does many a modern academic.

Eventually (1864) Carolyne’s spouse considerately died, so that there remained no ecclesial impediment to Carolyne and Liszt tying the knot. At this, the supreme emotional moment of his life, Liszt dropped the ball. To an aristocratic friend, and unable to resist incorporating a Pascal allusion, he burbled: "The duration and development of exceptional feelings do not depend on external circumstances. ‘The heart has its reasons that reason does not know’."

What he did not dare tell the friend, and what he never explained to either his well-wishers’ or his ill-wishers’ satisfaction, was his decision to take minor orders. Even he did not quite dare to outrage the world by actually becoming a priest, but this rare discretion on his part could not prevent Cosima’s first husband Hans von Bülow from uttering one of the cruellest among his many cruel epigrams. Hilmes cites it with understandable relish: “My father-in-law strikes me as being outwardly too much of an abbé and inwardly too little of one.”


From 1869 onwards, with Carolyne gone, Liszt spoke of his vie trifurquée, his “trifurcated life.” Lesser mortals might need to settle for a merely bifurcated life, but Liszt always had to be overdoing it. He meant, by this phrase (which Hilmes uses as a chapter title), his restless commuting between Rome, Weimar, and Budapest, with occasional Bayreuth side-trips. Most of his renown as a teacher dates from this last period.

Some of Liszt’s latter-day students were hopelessly inept, but fewer than one would gather from Hilmes. “Pianists,” Hilmes observes acerbically, “who had already failed to make an impression at traditional conservatoires took advantage of Liszt’s well-known antipathy towards such institutions and used flattery to pass themselves off as misprized geniuses.” Yet Hilmes consistently undervalues the impact that Liszt’s really gifted piano pupils had on the pianistic world. Two of these pupils (José Vianna da Motta, born in Africa to Portuguese parents, and Moriz Rosenthal of Poland) Hilmes does not mention at all. Others (including the German Emil Sauer, the Scottish-German Eugen d’Albert, the Polish Carl Tausig, and von Bülow) he does mention, but with less respect and interest than their skills warrant.

When Liszt’s end came – at Bayreuth in the summer of 1886 – it resembled a Shakespearean tragedy, with the waning patriarch doubling the roles of Lear and Gloucester, and with the vengeful Cosima imitating Goneril and Regan. She had her father at his mercy and they both knew it. Hilmes talks of a “danse macabre.” For years Liszt had over-indulged in booze. Each day he would demolish a bottle of cognac and at least two bottles of wine, these being often washed down with absinthe. Quite apart from his alcohol intake, his health had been in steady decline ever since a fall in 1881 had confined him to bed for weeks. Pneumonia set in, “Liszt’s screams and groans being audible throughout the neighborhood.”

After he did die, Cosima ostentatiously refused to let the Bayreuth opera house’s flag fly at half-mast. Bruckner paid tribute to the deceased by improvising an organ solo during the Requiem Mass, but he failed to allude to any of Liszt’s own works in this effort. Asked by former Liszt students why he had ignored those works, Bruckner replied with characteristic gaucherie that “he did not know any – they should have given him one.”


Forever puzzling is a fact that Hilmes nowhere stresses (although he does fleetingly cite a French musicologist on the topic): Liszt’s lack of mature interest in operatic composition. Liszt finished one short opera, Don Sancho, in boyhood and desultorily sketched during his 30s a second opera, Sardanapalus. Nevertheless, it is hard to hear most of Liszt’s symphonic poems (but especially Les Préludes and The Battle of the Huns), his Faust and Dante symphonies, or many of his sacred works without appreciating their fundamentally theatrical spirit, which renders meaningless all old-fashioned textbook methods of analyzing their structures according to Beethovenian or Schubertian “sonata-form” criteria. (By such criteria, of course, they unavoidably fall short. Apples, meet oranges.) Everyone who knew Liszt attested to his histrionic bent: the bent not merely of an actor, but of a ham-actor, who of all thespians is the likeliest to believe his own lines.

Such an image, though, does scant justice to the elements of grandeur that Liszt never forfeited. This grandeur manifested itself in his refusal – when he could have charged fortunes – to take money for his teaching. It also manifested itself through the unstinting practical aid which he gave not to Wagner alone but to other major composers, including Brahms (until the two men fell out, the fault being largely on Brahms’s side), Schumann, Smetana, Grieg, Borodin, Saint-Saëns, and Franck.

We can appreciate Liszt’s distinction afresh through comparing him to a truly pernicious 20th-century figure whom he superficially resembles: Thomas Merton, who at first concocted a blend of monasticism and adolescent pietas heady enough and powerful enough for Evelyn Waugh to have eagerly quaffed it; subsequently behaved toward his fellow monks with all the discipline of an ADHD-afflicted 14-year-old; made absolutely plain how irrelevant he considered Catholicism’s dictates beside his own allegiance to what Dwight Macdonald expressively called “the genius act”; haggled over publishers’ royalties in a manner which Donald Trump would have chided for insufficient decorum; and arrived at an inability to differentiate Christ from Buddha, until a Bangkok electric fan abruptly ended this cosmic confusion. The difference between Liszt even at his worst and Merton even at his best is the difference between a flawed adult versus a Holden Caulfield with theological pretensions.


No aesthetic judgment could be more foolish than the dismissal of Liszt as a mere exhibitionist, on the strength of such barnstormers as his Second Hungarian Rhapsody, much debased by the Marx Brothers and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (there are 19 such rhapsodies altogether). Sometimes his music is austere to the point of desiccation. The sheer difficulty in predicting what it will be like – we can sometimes be tempted to wonder whether Liszt ever actually achieved an identifiable idiom, so varied is his inspiration, both in style and, it must be admitted, in quality – has contributed to its neglect.

Few composers have given us any religious compositions more somber and pared-down than is Liszt’s Via Crucis, finished in 1879. Not precisely an oratorio, not precisely a cantata, and certainly not a Mass setting or a motet, Via Crucis – never heard during Liszt’s lifetime, incidentally – manages to combine elements of all four genres, as well as quoting plainchant and Bach. If performed amid a Good Friday rite (as it could easily be, since the Tridentine liturgy’s restrictions on vernacular and instrumental usage for Holy Week are no longer ubiquitous) it would overwhelm almost any congregation. Similarly overwhelming is some of Liszt’s late piano music, such as the 1881-1882 Csárdás Macabre, where the savagely chopping rhythms and spartan textures anticipate Bartók (a great admirer of it and of Liszt in general). Hilmes, so inclined to short-change Liszt’s earlier output, does full justice to these late musings.

Frequently the simplest Liszt is the noblest Liszt. For confirmation, we have among other things his organ arrangement of the well-known Ave Maria setting – in the repertoire of many an ecclesiastical choir even now – usually, and probably wrongly, attributed to the Renaissance musician Jacob Arcadelt. Most of the arrangement remains straightforwardness itself, the sort of thing any self-respecting music sophomore could manage. The true Liszt touch comes with the adding to the original of a bell-like motif in the right hand. Liszt, like many another intelligent European of his generation, had binge-read the writings of François René de Chateaubriand and, in particular, Chateaubriand’s purple passage eulogizing church bells:

The sound of bells has a thousand secret relations with man. How oft amid the profound tranquility of night has the heavy tolling of the death-bell, like the slow pulsations of an expiring heart, startled the adulteress in her guilty pleasures! How often has it caught even the ear of the atheist who, in his impious vigils, had perhaps the presumption to write that there is no God! ...

With his eloquent superimposition, Liszt turns what might otherwise seem like a student exercise into a haunting, unforgettable, tiny masterpiece. While there is indubitably dross in Liszt, there is also pure gold; and the gold can be found in the unlikeliest parts of his oeuvre. Yet Derek Watson’s book remains a better guide for prospectors than Hilmes’s.

Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar

by Oliver Hilmes (trans. Stewart Spencer)

Yale University Press

Reviewed at

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