Who was the most important 19th-century composer? Naturally, it depends on what’s meant by important: Beethoven overshadows them all, but Wagner generated more discussion, and more distaste. Few people would nominate Franz Liszt, because it’s usual to confuse importance with quality. Liszt was probably not the greatest composer of his time, yet his presence was everywhere in musical life from the moment that he arrived in Paris as a 12-year-old prodigy in December 1823 until his death in Bayreuth 63 years later. There are vital aspects of Liszt’s music and personality that are barely touched on by Oliver Hilmes’s new biography, but as a well-told, readable, fluently translated story of a strangely conflicted career that affected the lives of people as disparate as Lola Montez and Pope Pius IX it would be hard to beat. Hilmes does himself no favours with his subtitle, which is crisper but no more bearable in the German original: Liszt: Biographie eines Superstars. ‘The word “superstar”,’ he writes in his prologue, ‘is likely to put modern readers in mind of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other pop stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna.’ Yes, precisely. From the outset Liszt is characterised as a celeb whose life was bounded by the 19th-century equivalents of the private jet, the billion dollar yacht and the bevy of air-brained blondes. It’s true that there was a time when he might have succumbed to such a fate. But in fact, the story of his life as it emerges in Hilmes’s book is that of a complex artist’s struggle to escape from the trappings of childhood fame, while continuing to enjoy its more adult pleasures.
Liszt wasn’t the only child prodigy being dragged around Europe by an ambitious father. Prodigies were ten a penny in Biedermeier Vienna, where Adam Liszt arrived with his ten-year-old son from their Hungarian village in 1822. Hilmes quotes the Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick: ‘Among the astonishing number of local pianists whom we saw in Vienna’s concert halls in the years between 1815 and 1830, the vast majority were women and children.’ Most soon faded, either burned out, alienated by the pressure, or simply overtaken by slower, surer developers. But Liszt did not fade. For a time he pursued the career of the child superstar, astonishing the crowds in Vienna, then Paris, with his brilliance at the piano. He was, like every prodigy, the New Mozart. His father raked in the cash, but inconveniently died when Franz was 15, leaving him more or less stranded in a foreign country, no longer quite a child in the New Mozart sense and with only his mother as protector.
After his father’s death Franz seems to have become disgusted by the artistic emptiness of the life he had been leading. He compared himself to the performing dog Munito, who ‘could understand French and Italian and bark out the alphabet’. He retired from performing in public, took up teaching, fell in love with a pupil, and when the affair was terminated by her class-conscious father, took up religion and philosophy and became a churchgoer. He was jolted out of his self-absorption, according to his mother, by the July Days of 1830: ‘C’est le canon qui l’a guéri,’ she would say. He sketched, but never completed, a ‘Revolutionary Symphony’. He became a participant in the salons at which he’d once been exhibited: a social ornament, a young man of genius, an artist with all the necessary attributes – long hair, aquiline features, sultry expression and eyes that seemed to peer into one’s soul. Almost until the day he died, women found him irresistible; the number of his affairs is uncountable. In Berlin, a woman poured the dregs of his teacup into her scent bottle; another, as Hilmes puts it, ‘stood naked on the balcony of Liszt’s room in order to show the world what had apparently just taken place’.
So far, so superstar. But Liszt had been cultivating other areas of his soul too. In 1832 he heard the violinist Paganini play and was astounded by his virtuosity – not just his technical brilliance, but the way he used it for expressive purposes, ‘even appearing,’ Hilmes suggests, ‘to reinvent the whole art of playing the violin’. For Liszt it was a revelation. If the violin, why not the piano? He started practising, amazingly enough, in order to release himself from what he had come to see as the prison of his technique, and emerged as the ultimate artist, something more than the Paganini of the keyboard, adored not only by socialite groupies and their star-struck mothers but by serious musicians of the front rank – by Chopin, Berlioz and Mendelssohn, whom he met in Paris, by Clara Schumann (one of few pianists who could hold a candle to him), and by writers like Hugo, Sainte-Beuve and Heine, who suspected him – wrongly, Hilmes suggests – of organising his own ovations.
The Liszt of the later 1830s and 1840s is the Liszt of the popular imagination: the touring virtuoso of apparently supernatural powers and monster earnings, the lover of desirable but not readily available women, and the composer of unplayable études that explored hitherto unsuspected regions of the still comparatively youthful pianoforte. Like all popular images, this one is at best half true. It leaves out the exhausting foreign tours, with their appalling conditions of travel, bug-ridden hotels and half-sold halls. In a single year, from May 1840, he made no fewer than four visits to the British Isles, and for the second and third of them was offered the enormous fee of 37,000 francs to play more than eighty concerts, over a distance (Hilmes reckons) of some 3500 miles, taking in the north of England, Glasgow and Dublin. Most of the British press regarded Liszt as a charlatan; the notices were largely negative, and audiences sometimes pitiful. Worst of all, the impresario went bankrupt and Liszt received no fee and recovered no costs.
The popular image also leaves out Liszt’s aspiration towards a kind of colourful, bourgeois regularity. He never married, and never gave up love affairs, but his life from 1833 until the mid-1860s revolved around two aristocratic women with whom he set up house. The first of them, the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, gave him three children, one of whom would achieve fame and influence as the wife of a musician even greater than her father, while the second, the Princesse Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, more or less ran his life after 1848 when he completely abandoned giving concerts and set up as Kapellmeister to the court of Weimar.
Hilmes’s account of these two central relationships is one of his book’s strong points. He gives space to the background stories of both women and is sympathetic both towards Liszt’s peculiar tolerance of their difficult personalities and towards the personalities themselves. For Marie d’Agoult, who was orphaned at 14, brought up by an unloving grandmother and thrown at 21 into a loveless marriage to a count 15 years older, Liszt’s ‘strange exterior’ and the ‘force and freedom’ of his mind were a revelation. But life with him was no picnic. Initially they were forced to pursue their affair in a rented apartment that Liszt dubbed ‘the rat-hole’, but were soon driven out of Paris by the scandal of their relationship. The pregnant Marie followed him to Switzerland, where they began their ‘Années de pèlerinage’ – the years of wandering that Liszt embodied in a crucial series of piano works. The relationship became stormy and effectively ended on the Rhine island of Nonnenwerth in July 1843. ‘Nonnenwerth,’ Liszt had remarked clairvoyantly, ‘will be either the temple of our love or its grave.’
On the music of the ‘Années de pèlerinage’ Hilmes is less expansive. In fact, Liszt’s music gets short shrift throughout the book. After the meeting with Carolyne and the decision to settle in Weimar, many pages are dedicated to her background, her character (strong) and appearance (homely), and the progress of her ultimately unsuccessful quest for an annulment of her marriage to a Russian prince, based on a swathe of documents that Hilmes claims have been overlooked by most previous biographers of Liszt. But the important piano works of the 1830s and 1840s, including seminal masterpieces like the Album d’un voyageur and the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, are barely mentioned, and though the author devotes a page to the Weimar symphonic poems it feels like a hesitant step inside a strange house with one hand firmly on the doorknob.
Hilmes is also better on the episode, at first glance bizarre, of Liszt’s spiritual journey to Rome, where he took minor orders, and his stay at the monastery of the Madonna del Rosario, than he is on the large-scale religious works that were written at the same time. It’s amusing to read about Pius IX visiting the newly created abbé in his monastery and, when Liszt struck up Bellini’s ‘Casta diva’ on the piano, joining in and singing the aria from memory. A fuller investigation of the musical innovations of the oratorios Christus and The Legend of St Elisabeth might have shed more light on a psychological change that had its roots in the Romantic fascination with the past but was rich in implications for the future – a kind of musical Pre-Raphaelitism. Liszt had retreated into religious contemplation once before, and there was nothing particularly out of character in his doing so again. After all Wagner, a non-believer, ended his career with Parsifal. Liszt went on to compose the strange, otherworldly late piano pieces, Nuages gris, La Lugubre Gondola and the rest.
Hilmes is by training a historian. He may or may not be a musician, but he doesn’t write or think like one. He treats Liszt as a person who happened to write music in his spare time, like a politician who plays bridge or an explorer who cooks. The idea that the music he writes might represent nine-tenths of a composer’s existential being seems never to have crossed Hilmes’s mind. It’s as if one were to write a life of Tolstoy that mentioned War and Peace and Anna Karenina in passing, but said nothing about their content or their impact on other writers. It’s a bizarre experience coming to this book by way of Simon Callow’s puff on the dust-jacket, which informs us that here ‘at last, we see [Liszt] whole.’
In February 1857, Wagner – as yet unacquainted with Liszt’s 19-year-old daughter, Cosima – wrote a long open letter to Princess Carolyne’s daughter, Marie, in praise of her stepfather’s recent symphonic poems, especially the Faust and Dante Symphonies. He was impressed, specifically, by the way Liszt had derived the forms of these almost entirely instrumental works not from classical models, but from the subject matter of the works themselves. Wagner made some important distinctions. He remarked that when listening to Berlioz’s programme music he tended to get lost because Berlioz would stick too closely to the various incidents of his plot, so that the musical thread, while often fascinating, lacked integrity. Liszt, he suggested, never made this mistake, but had found a way of letting the narrative speak in purely musical terms, in such a way that it could be followed by a listener, without it depending on textbook forms.
This argument was developed in the early 1850s by the critic Franz Brendel in his History of Music in Italy, Germany and France, and later in a book on Liszt’s symphonic poems. Brendel was also the instigator, in 1859, of the so-called New German School (of mainly honorary Germans: Berlioz and Liszt, plus Wagner himself, whose ideas Brendel knew only through his prose writings). His point was that the way ahead for music lay not in the so-called pure music advocated by Hanslick in his book Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (On the Beautiful in Music, 1854), but in instrumental works that derived forms and idioms from programmes, which is why Brendel put Liszt ahead of Wagner, who composed operas. Brendel was well aware of Wagner’s admiration for Liszt, but didn’t live long enough (he died in 1868) to hear how much Wagner’s mature music owed to Liszt in terms of both harmony and thematic design. Hilmes mentions this debt in his prologue, quoting Simon Rattle, but after that the whole topic, so crucial to understanding Liszt’s development, vanishes from the book without trace.
After Liszt heard Paganini in 1832, he tried not only to incorporate that same creative brilliance in his own playing, but also to explore the piano itself in his music – its unique blend of the percussive and the refined in touch and colour, as embodied in the new Erards, with their patented double-escapement action, which allowed extremely rapid note repetition. Hilmes mentions Liszt’s friendship with the Erard brothers and the importance to him of their pianos, one of which he even had shipped from Paris in 1847 for a recital at the Russian Embassy in Constantinople. ‘Only Liszt,’ Hilmes remarks, ‘could have got away with such a logistically complex demand.’ But not once does he ask what Liszt actually did with this brilliantly versatile instrument.
The answer lies, naturally enough, in his piano music of the 1830s, pieces like ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt’, an exquisite study in deliquescent sound colour in which a simple melody floats like a boat rocking on placid waters; or ‘Au bord d’une source’, which has a texture that glitters like a gushing spring in sunlight; or ‘Orage’, which exploits the power of the new instrument to create an almost orchestral sound. He didn’t invent the keyboard character sketch, which goes back at least to Couperin, but he was the first to transfer it body and soul to the piano. In doing so he evolved a whole vocabulary of figuration, touch, pedalling and harmony that was eventually picked up and elaborated by Debussy, Ravel, Busoni and Russian composers from Balakirev onwards. As the star turn among pianists, Liszt had no fear of throwing every sort of innovation and experiment at his adoring audience, and the new piano was just the machine for trying things out. It took more courage, perhaps, to do the same with the orchestra, and later still with the oratorio, but as it turned out Liszt had the flair, and the ear, for that too.
Hilmes’s book doesn’t say much about such matters, but it is perceptive when it comes to Liszt’s relations with Wagner following the break-up of Cosima’s marriage to Hans von Bülow, her liaison and eventual marriage with Wagner, and the whole gruesome business of Cosima’s demeaning treatment of her father during his final years. The account of Liszt’s death in Bayreuth in 1886 is well told and moving, but adds little to Alan Walker’s account in his great three-volume biography, which made full use of the then unpublished diary of Liszt’s pupil and unofficial carer Lina Schmalhausen. Liszt had returned to Bayreuth at Cosima’s request for that year’s festival, but arrived with a wracking cough that soon turned to pneumonia. Angry with her father for being a nuisance while she was preoccupied with the first ever Bayreuth Tristan und Isolde, Cosima banished Lina and Liszt’s other helpers from his lodgings, but found herself unable to put in more than a few token appearances at the house, often without so much as looking in on her father. All this Lina claimed to have observed through the window. When Liszt died, late on 31 July, the entire Wagner family was at supper at Wahnfried half a mile away, but Cosima soon arrived, knelt down by the bed, then ‘lay diagonally across Liszt’s lower limbs’, before seating herself at the foot of the bed and folding her hands. ‘She was completely calm; not the slightest trace of emotion was visible on her marble face.’ These details, in Walker and again in Hilmes, convince me of the authenticity of the Schmalhausen diary, whatever else might be said about this mediocre, light-fingered musician, shoplifter and petty thief who nevertheless loved Liszt enough to be disgusted by the way he was treated on his deathbed by his family.
There are other gaps in Hilmes’s narrative that suggest a preference for the non-musical over the musical. Liszt’s Weimar house, the Altenburg, became a Mecca for musicians, as well as various, mainly German, celebrities from other disciplines, such as Bettina von Arnim, Hebbel and Alexander von Humboldt. The reported details of Brahms’s visit have been questioned, but Borodin, for instance, recorded his own meetings with Liszt in a series of brilliant letters and memoirs; and we know about Liszt’s high opinion of Mussorgsky’s Nursery song cycle from a letter of his young friend Adelheid von Schorn to the St Petersburg publisher Vasily Bessel. The point is not so much the occasion – of which there were many – but the general picture of the great Liszt receiving like royalty and bestowing generous encouragement on musicians young and old, gifted and less so. Many in Germany spoke ill of Liszt, and especially of his music, but he himself seems to have been incapable of professional meanness. Hilmes creates the impression of a curiously passive grandeur, a lordly figure who took his opinions, and sometimes his punishment, from the strong women who provided him with emotional sustenance. It’s an image that consorts oddly with that of the superstar; perhaps it needed a more musicianly biography to reconcile the two.