A Single Crash of the Cymbals

Roger Parker

  • Franz Liszt. Vol. II: The Weimar Years 1848-1861 by Alan Walker
    Faber, 626 pp, £35.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 571 15322 4
  • Franz Liszt: A Chronicle of his Life in Pictures and Documents by Ernst Burger, translated by Stewart Spencer
    Princeton, 358 pp, £45.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 691 09133 1

The second part of Alan Walker’s projected three-volume life of Liszt opens with events any biographer would relish. At the height of an immensely successful, indeed unprecedented career as an international virtuoso of the piano, Liszt, aged 35 and (as he felt) nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, decided on a complete change. In September 1847 he finished his final grand concert tour. A few months later he settled down as a badly-paid, often-slighted ‘Kapellmeister in Extraordinary’ to the court at Weimar, a small town which – in the twilight of the Goethezeit – was far better known for its literary than its musical activities. And there he stayed for 13 years, conducting a second-rate orchestra and constantly battling with conservative local authorities. The reasons for this dramatic renunciation were clearly complex, but one factor seemed to outweigh all others: more than recognition as a performer, Liszt needed esteem as a composer. His life on the road had been too hectic to allow sustained composition, and he retreated to Weimar in order to write those large orchestral pieces that would enable him ‘to reach that level of superior and solid renown that is my serious aim’.

The Weimar years thus present Walker with different challenges from those of his earlier volume (a revised version of which appeared last year). Liszt’s so-called Glanzzeit provided an embarrassment of narrative riches, the incessant travels furnishing far more local colour than could possibly be dealt with even in a biography of this scale. Here, one has if anything a dearth of external action. There is space, that is, to offer an interior portrait, to consider in greater detail Liszt’s personal and professional relationships, and to explore more deeply his creative personality.

On the personal side, the Weimar period is marked by the appearance of an extraordinary new female companion, one to whom Walker rightly devotes much space. Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein seemed, as many were quick to point out, a most unlikely choice for the flamboyant socialite that Liszt had been in his performing years. George Eliot, who stayed in Weimar for three months in 1854, betrayed what was perhaps a common response:

The appearance of the Princess rather startled me at first. I had expected a tall distinguished looking woman, if not a beautiful one. But she is short and unbecomingly endowed with embonpoint; at first glance the face is not pleasing, and the profile especially is harsh and barbarian, but the dark, bright hair and eyes give the idea of vivacity and strength. Her teeth, unhappily, are blackish too.

The dental problems sprang from her addiction to cigars, a habit encouraged at an early age by her father. (Liszt, too, apparently enjoyed more than the odd smoke: Walker tells us that his cigar bill on occasions exceeded his – admittedly modest – Weimar salary.) The princess, though clearly eccentric, was a most important part of Liszt’s stability in Weimar, and probably the main reason why he stuck it out for so long. They had an odd but nonetheless rather moving love affair, which lasted through the entire Weimar period. She sacrificed social acceptance and the greater part of her huge Russian fortune in order to stay with him; he consistently championed her when friends doubted the good effect of her influence; and although they never married, and lived separate lives after the Weimar years, he remained close to her for the rest of his life.

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[*] At least two other books of interest have appeared this year: Derek Watson’s fine monograph on the life and works in Dent’s Master Musicians series (424 pp., £19.95, February, 0 460 03174 0); and Charles Suttoni’s translation of Liszt’s early travel writings, An Artist’s Journey (University of Chicago Press, 344 pp., £19.95, July, 0 226 48510 2).