To be fair to Alan Walker, I should confess that I’m an amateur pianist who loves playing – or trying to play – some of the virtuoso music Liszt both composed and, of course, performed: relatively easy pieces like Waldesrauschen and Un Sospiro, which are concert études, and also the three ‘Petrarch’ Sonnets. More difficult ones – like Gnomenreigen or the first ‘Mephisto’ Waltz – are simply beyond me. I’m also a sex fiend who loves the erotic myths that concern Liszt, the homoerotic ones in particular. There’s the famous one Liszt himself promulgated, known as the Weihekuss, about Beethoven embracing the 11-year-old prodigy at his Vienna debut. (It never happened; or if it did, it happened in the privacy of Beethoven’s home.) There’s the one about Liszt the lady-killer. In reality, Liszt was more of a Cary Grant than a Clark Gable, more Don Ottavio than Don Giovanni – although he did play the latter on stage. According to Charles Rosen: ‘With his international reputation for erotic conquest already set’, Liszt must have known that the public would take Réminiscences de Don Juan (1841) ‘as a self-portrait in sound, just as everyone had assumed that Byron’s Don Juan was an autobiography’. Then there’s the private myth about Byron: ‘I still feel the same liking, the same passion for L.B.,’ Liszt wrote to Countess Marie d’Agoult, his first mistress. ‘Hugo called Virgil the moon of Homer; when I flatter myself, I tell myself that I shall perhaps one day be B’s.’ I like to think, mostly on the basis of conservatory gossip but also because of the ‘physical aversion’ to women Liszt keeps mentioning in his correspondence, that this Byron fixation has something to do with bisexuality – which may mean that ‘Lisztomania’, Heine’s term for crazed female devotion to the virtuoso, had a lot in common with the ‘fag-hag’ devotion previously inspired by castrati. By, say, a singer like Farinelli. Both performers did seemingly impossible things, produced seemingly impossible sounds, and both were surrounded by an arousing nimbus of either passivity (hence the Cary Grant analogy) or lack of interest (hence Don Ottavio).
I should also confess that I’m interested in Liszt’s dark side, if only because I’m interested in anyone’s. And by ‘dark,’ I don’t mean satanic – the Paganini-like myth encouraged by works such as the ‘Mephisto’ Waltz or Totentanz (‘Talent like that must have cost the man his soul’) – I mean the weaknesses and contradictions that make us fully human.
Alan Walker has other interests. His massive, exhaustive and definitive work is, in part, a critical biography. By ‘exhaustive’, I do mean exhaustive. Readers will find themselves, among other locations, at Camden Place in Chislehurst, where Napoleon III, in exile, had an unsuccessful kidney stone operation. ‘After the first, exploratory operation, during which Napoleon was chloroformed, Sir Henry discovered a stone the size of a full-sized date blocking the royal bladder. It was decided to remove it by lithotrity, a procedure which involved crushing the stone and removing it in sections. Two operations were carried out, and more than half the stone was removed. But Napoleon expired before the final operation commenced – possibly from an overdose of anaesthetic.’ Walker doesn’t purport to offer in-depth musical analysis, but he does go out of his way to explain many compositions for which Liszt was often derided during his lifetime and which are not particularly prized today, except by cognoscenti: the Gran Mass (1856); the Dante Symphony and Faust Symphony (1857); the Christus oratorio (1866); and very late, nearly atonal piano music, including Nuages gris (1881) and La Lugubre gondola (1882). And he is particularly expansive on – and appreciative of – thematic transformation, the compositional technique that typifies Liszt’s longer works. Rosen, on the other hand, is a bit dismissive: ‘It does not, in fact, take much imagination to use a theme this way – essentially it is a less rigorous version of the traditional variation technique in which the main theme reappears with the same contour and even the same pitches, but with a different rhythm and a much altered expressive character. The skill does not lie in the transformation but in the dramatic effectiveness of the change of character.’ Walker himself fails to demonstrate that any of this music, beautiful though it may be, is up to the level of analogous work by Berlioz, Wagner and Schoenberg – work I find far less boring. He also fails to bring his critical acumen to bear on much of Liszt’s virtuoso piano music, presumably because popular audiences already love it and cognoscenti have nothing to learn from it. (Rosen understands that cognoscenti do have something to learn. They need to realise, in particular, that these compositions demonstrate ‘how aspects of music like texture and intensity of sound, violence and delicacy of gesture could replace pitch and rhythm as organising principles in the development of new forms’.) Walker does discuss the extremely virtuosic B minor Sonata and Hungarian Rhapsodies at considerable length, but mainly in terms of the Sonata’s structure (in other words, its ‘classical’ credentials) and the Rhapsodies’ ethnographic basis and impromptu aesthetic. Like the Gypsy instrumentalists whose melodies the composer thought he had transcribed (in reality, older Gypsies had taken the tunes from middle-class Magyars), Liszt saw ideal music-making as both untutored and improvisatory. Manuel de Falla had the same inspiration, as did Lorca. Having discovered among Andalusian Gypsies the authentic cante jondo – ‘deep song’ – they both thought modern flamenco had corrupted, Lorca went on to write Gypsy Ballads, a collection similar in conception to Liszt’s. At any rate, Liszt’s Hungarian credentials are central to Walker’s conception of the man.
Beyond this, however, Walker’s primary goal is demystification. So many lies have been told about Liszt that the main objective must be to set the record straight. Walker doesn’t even scrutinise Liszt’s belief in the Weihekuss and he finds the whole business about Don Juan ‘pathological’. According to Walker, Liszt only ever had sex with three women, all of them married to other men: Countess Marie d’Agoult, Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, and a spy named Agnès Street-Klindworth. The Selected Letters alone indicate more than that. One letter, to Marie, reads: ‘I want to tell you, too, of a kind of passion to which I abandoned myself for 48 hours. Don’t be jealous. It concerns the very beautiful’ – blank in MS – ‘woman at Sopron, the only one for three months for whom I have felt a decided taste.’ And as for bisexual – let alone homosexual – passion, it simply doesn’t exist in Walker’s universe. For example, neither King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Wagner’s patron) nor Camille Saint-Saëns (Liszt’s protégé), both of whom were notorious queens, comes across that way.
In a weird way, Walker’s three volumes can be reduced to a laundry list of Lisztian corrections. He was not descended from aristocrats; he never met Schubert; he did not learn the Rákóczy March from Berlioz. He did not have a late start as a composer. He did have to practise. Chopin was not his friend. Count d’Agoult was not a villain, nor was Princess Carolyne. (Ken Russell fans may wish to reconsider the film Lisztomania at this point.) Liszt did not seduce Marie d’Agoult, nor did she chase him to Switzerland. (So what did happen?) He did not see Sigismond Thalberg as a rival. (Once again, the letters belie the demystification.) Princess Cristina Belgiojoso, who staged Liszt’s famous showdown with Thalberg in her salon, was not a necrophiliac. He never made love to Lola Montez. The Weimar appointment was not a crowning glory to his career. He did not despise Goethe. Fellow composers did not object to his transcriptions of their music. He did not have other people do his orchestrations for him. He did not have other people (Marie, Carolyne) do his writing for him – except when he did. He was not an anti-semite, although almost everyone else was (Carolyne, daughter Cosima, Wagner, Hans von Bülow). He did not take holy orders at the age of 53 in order to avoid marrying Carolyne. In fact, the Catholic Church ‘was his vocation almost from the start’. In fact, he never took a vow of chastity. (Aha!) He was not a French spy during the Franco-Prussian War. He was not a compulsive traveller. The warts on his face weren’t really warts (my favourite): they ‘were really sycomas of an adipose tumorous growth’. His death wasn’t painless. And his final word wasn’t ‘Tristan’.
Walker claims, too, to be interested in the dark side of Liszt’s personality, during the last years of his life in particular. But by ‘dark’, he doesn’t mean weak or contradictory. He means depressive. Walker’s Liszt doesn’t come across as fully human, both because the biographer is incapable of saying anything very negative about him, and because his sense of character isn’t very subtle. None of the many colleagues who came to despise Liszt – Chopin, Brahms, Clara Schumann – is seen as justified. Either they envied his success (envy of course is a sin), or they resented his help, or they resented his helping anyone else (that would be jealousy – not as bad as envy, but pretty bad nonetheless), or they simply hated his music. (Rosen, as usual, makes things clear: ‘Right-thinking music-lovers looked with horror on what they considered his charlatanry. He was indeed a charlatan, and he knew it, and sometimes laughed at it.’) Liszt himself is not allowed to despise anyone; not Goethe, which I can understand; not Thalberg, the one piano virtuoso who really did get his goat; not even Heine, who said some pretty nasty things about him. The only remotely negative things Walker says about Liszt are: (I) that he became both depressive and suicidal; (2) that he drank a lot; and (3) that he could be catty. But even here, Walker refuses to take any plunge the record calls for. Yes, Liszt was suicidal, but almost everyone else (Marie, Carolyne, Hans) was even more so. Yes, he drank a lot (eventually, one or two bottles of cognac a day, plus two or three bottles of wine, plus absinthe), but we can’t know for certain that he was an alcoholic. Yes, he did say that Thalberg was ‘the only man I know who plays the violin on the piano’, but you have to admit that’s pretty funny. It’s especially funny when you stop to consider – as Walker does not – that one of the reasons, if not the main reason, Liszt developed a ‘transcendental’ technique in the first place had been to imitate Paganini’s violin-playing, or that, shortly after the showdown at Belgiojoso’s, he’d manage to imitate Gypsy violin music in the Rhapsodies. And then there’s the blatantly bad behaviour, for which Walker neither takes Liszt to task nor provides convincing explanations. He doesn’t visit his mother for five years, even though she’s raising his three children by Marie. (The letters indicate a more difficult relationship with Anna Liszt than Walker is willing to acknowledge.) He doesn’t see the children for nine years. And although most of the students he taught – all for free – adored him, he could be extremely abusive, as is indicated by the Göllerich diaries.(Walker considers Göllerich an important but unreliable source.) ‘That is not played, but stabbed,’ the old man told one young woman. ‘If you have no ears to hear, then why are you playing the piano?’ Maybe Liszt couldn’t take the devotion. Or maybe it was the booze.
What matters most for Walker is really very simple. Liszt was a musical hero. (‘No great composer has ever started from humbler beginnings.’) He was a Hungarian patriot. (‘Liszt was Hungarian in thought and word and deed.’) He was a devout, lifelong Catholic. (Really? Not one crisis of faith? But if he was so religious, why did he only get involved with married women?) He was a saint (‘careless of criticism, tolerant of rivals, forgiving of enemies, and generous to the needy’). He was a martyr – hence, in part, his painful death. (‘Disdained by his peers and misunderstood by the great public, he gradually became an isolated figure. That he recognised his fate, and accepted it, is the true meaning of his Weimar years’ – which were nothing less than ‘a period of slow martyrdom’.) And, needless to say, he was a ‘genius’. Given that all this is pretty much how Liszt saw himself (more private myths, along with the Byron fixation), the – well, let’s just say it – hagiography Walker has spent much of his own life writing is actually a kind of authorised biography, which of course is bound to make one suspicious. I may not be willing to concede that Liszt reduces to a mixture of hero, patriot, saint and martyr, but I am willing to concede that the man’s a musical genius. It’s just that I’d also like to know how he’s one, and with some specificity, because the word ‘genius’ in and of itself – all too often ‘a gesture of admiring incomprehension’, to quote Michael Wood – is rather meaningless. Unfortunately, Walker can’t tell how, or at least he can’t tell me. (Rosen can and does.) He simply supplies Schopenhauer’s definition (the talented hit targets others can’t reach: the genius ‘hits a target the others cannot even see’), adds one of his own (the ‘notion of the genius-composer as a time-traveller, stealing from composers yet unborn’), and then changes the subject. As definitions go, they’re preferable to the notion of the musical genius as a demented infant (peddled by films like Amadeus and Shine), but they’re not very helpful. And even if Liszt could reduce to hero, patriot, saint, martyr and genius, that wouldn’t account for his virtuosity. Susan Bernstein suggests in Virtuosity of the 19th Century, that as a virtuoso he doesn’t reduce to anything, not even to yet another myth Walker touches on: the myth that Liszt embodied Romanticism. (Walker calls him ‘the central figure in the Romantic century’.) For Bernstein, the anecdotal quality of Liszt’s virtuoso identity simply ‘forbids his absorption into a unifying schema’.
I want to know why Liszt became a virtuoso in the first place, and then pushed himself – both in terms of technique and in terms of itinerary – to go where no pianist had ever gone before. Not how he did it, why he did it. (I’ve had enough piano lessons and known enough professionals to have a pretty good idea how. Oddly enough, Liszt himself never taught technique. Largely self-taught – he first studied piano with his father, and then briefly with Czerny – and aware, moreover, of how idiosyncratic technique is, Liszt told messy pupils to ‘wash your dirty linen at home.’) Walker has very little interest in this question. He merely trundles out the story about Paganini and then suggests that Liszt had a quasi-religious calling to concertise for years on end – up until the point of exhaustion. (Liszt’s mythic motto: génie oblige.) Plus, he needed to support his children. Plus, he needed to raise money for the Beethoven monument in Bonn. Plus, he needed to raise money for all those needy Hungarians. Bernstein offers a fairly unconvincing, not to mention reductive, psychological profile of the virtuoso: ‘need, greed, egotism and calculation’. Rosen offers a fairly convincing physical one: ‘Pianists do not devote their lives to their instrument simply because they like music,’ he writes in ‘On Playing the Piano’.
There has to be a genuine love simply of the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for the contact with the keyboard, a love and a need which may be connected with a love of music but are not by any means totally coincident with it. This inexplicable and almost fetishistic need for physical contact with the combination of metal, wood and ivory (now often plastic) that make up the dinosaur that the concert piano has become is, indeed, conveyed to the audience and becomes necessarily part of the music, just as the audience imagines that the graceful and passionate gyrations of the conductor are an essential component of musical significance.
Still, I’d like to know what someone both fully familiar with everything Liszt ever said or wrote and capable of reading the man symptomatically – in other words, someone other than Walker – thinks about the matter. Many of the Selected Letters touch on it in curious ways. For instance, Liszt told Princess Belgiojoso in 1839 that by ‘hurling myself recklessly ... into public life, I am yielding to a kind of superstitious impulse.’
Liszt, of course, did not devote his entire life to the piano, much to the dismay of his audience. He retired relatively young from the concert stage, never again to play in public – indeed, never again to practise (except for some double octaves here and there) – and devoted himself to Carolyne, to giving master classes, to promoting other composers, to founding conservatories, to learning orchestration, to editing the Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, to conducting, to writing books on Chopin and Gypsy music, to composing choral and orchestral as well as piano music, and to prayer. Why? That’s another thing I want to know, because although I do understand that he was exhausted and wanted to settle down, I don’t understand how any of these other musical activities – which, when all is said and done, he wasn’t especially good at – could have given him as much pleasure as continuing to play the piano better than anyone else in the world. How could he renounce that?
To be fair to Walker, who doesn’t answer this question either, I should confess that I don’t consider the renunciation of virtuosity a specifically musical issue. I also want to know how writers like Racine, Heine, Lorca and even J.D. Salinger could have renounced linguistic virtuosity. After writing Phèdre, the last of the secular plays, Racine renounced the alexandrine in order to become Louis XIV’s historiographer. Heine gave up writing lyric poetry in order to write journalism. Lorca gave up poetry in order to direct a theatre company. Salinger stopped publishing altogether. I also want to know how Nijinsky could have renounced Romantic ballet in favour of ‘primitive’ choreography. Did the skill no longer pose a challenge? Was it too demanding – too difficult – a mistress, either physically or mentally? Did the performers fear, or sense, a kind of impotence? (Forgive the phallic metaphors. I’m well aware, as you may not be, that there were more female piano virtuosos than male ones in the 19th century.) Did they suddenly succumb to shyness? (Leopold Godowsky, arguably the greatest pianist after Liszt, had incapacitating stage fright.) Did they succumb to negative criticism – or even to the very notion of criticism? Did they succumb to religious scruples? Or did they simply succumb to the concept of simplicity? (Miles Davis comes to mind.) And is virtuosity ever completely renounced? Racine’s last two plays – the religious dramas Esther and Athalie, first performed in a convent – are as virtuosic as Phèdre. Heine’s journalism has a certain panache. Lorca’s directorship was also the major period of his play-writing. Nijinsky’s choreography is as difficult as ballet, in some ways more so. As for Liszt: not only did he continue to work out technical problems at the keyboard (‘He was like an advanced chess player who has spent so much time playing the game that the complex moves leading up to “check” and “checkmate” invade every aspect of his mental life,’ Walker writes), and not only did he continue to compose virtuoso music for other pianists (Waldesrauschen and Gnomenreigen, for example, are ‘nostalgic annotations to the spectacular keyboard pieces of the Weimar period, and even of the Glanzzeit’, according to Walker), he also treated the orchestra as a virtuoso instrument – much like Berlioz. To quote the young American virtuoso, Andrew Infanti, pianists like Liszt – and Godowsky – invariably pose the question: ‘Just because you can, should you?’ To which they also invariably demand the response, ‘yes.’
They haven’t always got that response, however. Unlike ballet technique and linguistic virtuosity, musical virtuosity has a negative reputation. It’s considered, by cognoscenti, to represent both bad taste and vapidity of content – or to be cheap, flashy and banal. Walker excuses Liszt’s notoriously bad taste by calling ‘genius’ all-inclusive. Liszt himself, according to Göllerich, came to endorse – and possibly to parody – the cognoscenti viewpoint, calling some of his early music ‘trite’. Liszt’s contemporaries saw musical virtuosity as merely prosaic – artificial technique as opposed to artistic expression. And so, for Heine, it was the journalism – the prose – that represented (debased) virtuosity, not the poetry. This would account for a jarring identification with Liszt (and not, say, with Chopin, whom Heine considered poetic), which one finds in some of his nasty criticism: ‘It seems to me that the whole spellbinding witchery can be explained by the fact that no one in this world knows how to organise his successes so well, or much more, their mise-en-scène, than our Franz Liszt.’ In other words, to quote Bernstein, ‘the original Lisztian presence is essentially a superlative newspaper review written by Liszt himself.’ In other words, the man’s a charlatan – and so am I. But to complete that Rosen clarification: ‘He was also a composer and pianist of the utmost refinement and originality. It is, unfortunately, useless to try to separate the great musician from the charlatan: each one needed the other in order to exist.’