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.

So far as Walker can tell us, Liszt’s only other romantic attachment during these years was to the remarkable Agnes Street-Klindworth, with whom he had a secret affair in the mid-1850s. Confirmation of this liaison, hinted at by earlier biographers, has only recently come to light, and although Liszt’s behaviour puts Walker somewhat on the defensive, most of us would be sorry to have missed la Street-Klindworth. She took advantage of her father’s participation in Metternich’s spy network to arrange clandestine meetings with Liszt in various European capitals, occasionally evading recognition by a cunning use of male disguise. No doubt it was her professional connections which encouraged a proliferation of private codes in their meetings and correspondence (‘No more light at your windows,’ writes Liszt in anticipation of one meeting, ‘but I will bring our candlestick to Cologne’). On at least one occasion the tangled web got too much. Liszt found himself in difficulties: ‘Imagine how stupid I am not to guess the three fs. In music it means fortissimo, of course, but I suppose you have some other idea in mind. Please explain it to me, for I am anxious to know.’ Whatever ‘f’ turned out to mean, our eager composer soon caught on: a few months later he sent his beloved a manuscript song and assured her of an ‘abondance de “ff” ’.

It would be unfair to linger over these escapades, however, as Liszt’s attitude during these years is characterised above all by a sense of artistic purpose. The Weimar years saw the institution of a loose-knit ‘Liszt school’, and a subsequent polarisation of German musical culture into ‘progressives’, headed by Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner, who – in very broad terms – were in favour of new musical forms, often ones that boasted the influence of literature or the visual arts, and ‘conservatives’: the later Schumann, Brahms and the critic Eduard Hanslick, who tended towards the ‘classical’ forms canonised by Beethoven in the early 19th century. Liszt tried so far as possible to remain above the polemic (this in stark contrast to his two associates, who dived in whenever they could), but his past fame inevitably made him a figurehead of the ‘progressive’ group, and old friendships became strained. The Schumanns gave him up in 1848, when he arrived (with Wagner in tow) two hours late for a dinner prepared in his honour and then made disparaging remarks about the recently-dead Mendelssohn. Clara Schumann never forgave him and, a decade later, ranged herself with the young Brahms and the violinist Joseph Joachim, who had declared Liszt’s New German School ‘contrary to the innermost spirit of music’ and ‘strongly to be deplored and condemned’. The ensuing war dragged on into the 1880s, but by then – with Brahms and Wagner thoroughly established – it had all become slightly ridiculous: the young Hugo Wolf, for example, publicly claimed to find ‘more intelligence and sensitivity in a single cymbal-crash of Liszt’s than in all three of Brahms’s symphonies’. Such exaggeration notwithstanding, it remains puzzling that some of the greatest figures of mid- and late-19th-century German music seemed so deaf to each other’s achievements.

What one musician learns from another can often seem mysterious, however, even when their relationship is ostensibly close. The intriguing conjunction of Liszt and Wagner is a case in point. As many have realised before, Wagner is the critical figure in Liszt’s musical development during these years, and the relationship between the two is much discussed by Walker. On the personal level, it was pretty much one-way traffic: Liszt helped Wagner escape from Germany after the 1848 revolutions, bank-rolled him in Swiss exile, constantly petitioned for his exile to be lifted, and – most important – staged a series of Wagner’s operas in Weimar at a time when no one else would perform them in Germany. Wagner rewarded all this with his usual generosity of spirit. He publicly ignored Liszt’s music, and bombarded his friend – whom he quite wrongly assumed to be fabulously wealthy – with shameless demands for more funds. ‘Franz, I have an inspired idea!’ one letter begins. ‘You must get an Erard grand piano for me.’

When it came to creative concerns, the exchange between Liszt and Wagner is far less easy to define. The matter has usually been approached in a rather simplistic way, on the level of ‘who influenced whom’. This was admittedly a question encouraged by Wagner himself. In the late 1850s, for example, he reacted angrily to a disciple who had publicly traced the harmonic idiom of Tristan to Liszt’s influence: ‘There are many matters on which we are quite frank among ourselves – for instance, that since my acquaintance with Liszt’s compositions my treatment of harmony has become very different from what it was formerly. But when friend Pohl blurts out this secret before the whole world ... this is, to say the least, indiscreet.’ Wagner – as ever – should not be taken too literally. ‘Treatment of harmony’ could mean matters more narrowly technical than has commonly been assumed. To delve deeper, though, is to engage with a volatile mixture of aesthetic and musical issues. Although Walker does not mention it, one could argue that the business of genre was a critical feature of the Liszt-Wagner relationship: that Liszt’s inability or unwillingness to follow Wagner into operatic composition was decisive. Liszt’s essays on Wagner’s early operas, written in connection with the Weimar performances, stressed the technical advances achieved by Wagner’s use of recurring motives in a dramatic context, and may thus even have assisted Wagner in the formulation of his mature musical style. Liszt himself, though he toyed with many operatic projects during the early 1850s, never managed to find the literary stimulus to react creatively to the challenge of musical drama, and (arguably) continued to be hampered by his restriction to purely instrumental works.

Whatever the reason, it was undoubtedly large-scale instrumental works which captured Liszt’s main creative energy during the Weimar years, and there can be little doubt that the pieces he created or completed in Weimar are those on which his reputation as a ‘serious’ composer primarily stands: the B minor Piano Sonata, the Faust and Dante symphonies, most of the symphonic poems. Walker attempts to describe the nature and quality of a handful of these works, but, unfortunately, matters of critical judgment remain on the margins of his book. What is more, in the few works he considers in detail he offers mostly the clichés of Lisztian analysis. In discussing the B minor Sonata, for example, which he early on dubs ‘a perfect work’, he builds his analysis from the assumption that ‘in the foreground all is diversity; in the background all is unity,’ and even advises performers that unless the work ‘unrolls from a single musical impulse, it cannot succeed’. This warmed-over organicism does a composer of Liszt’s type a disservice, encouraging emphasis on the most obvious and least imaginative aspects of the work. One of the points of a piece such as the B minor Sonata is that the relationships between various main themes (extensively illustrated with musical examples by Walker) are extremely audible – a fact that allows for a much greater degree of ‘diversity’ at all levels of the musical discourse. To suggest that these relationships are at the gaudy heart of some large organic mass, and are thus central to the work’s achievement, may make the music seem more monumental, but it diverts attention from the exciting sense of unpredictability, the unresolved juxtapositions of tonality and texture which make Liszt’s best music so challenging.

Walker is more flexible when he writes about the symphonic poems, a genre Liszt devoted much energy to in the Weimar years. These works are often taken as prime examples of the 19th-century progressives’ desire to ‘fuse’ the literary and musical arts, but Walker makes the interesting point that Liszt’s literary ‘programmes’ for these orchestral works were in some ways a reaction against the idea of making easy analogies between words and music. In an era in which a common critical approach to Beethoven’s or Chopin’s music was to invent a likely programme (from ‘fate knocking on the door’ at the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, to George Sand’s dog wagging its tail at the start of Chopin’s ‘Minute’ Waltz), Liszt’s literary introductions to works such as Les Préludes were constructed in part ‘to guard the listener against a false interpretation’. Recent research has in fact cast doubt on the status of these programmes, some of which were either written by people other than the composer and then ‘approved’ by him, or thought up some time after the music was finished, in response to literary stimuli not experienced at the time of composition. As these researches continue, a new picture emerges: of words and music a long way from attaining that mystic fusion which is still occasionally offered as a critical ideal.

Liszt has in the past suffered much at the hands of axe-grinders, first a generation of hagiographers, then a reaction to this in biographies such as Ernest Newman’s, which (at least until recent times) is as near to a character assassination as musical biography has come. Walker knows all this well, but on occasion lapses into the old pattern, the attacks of the previous generation causing him to defend Liszt whatever the circumstances. Although the evidence can for the most part sustain a shining image (Liszt was, it seems, a man of uncommon charity and personal honour), the shadier episodes in his life (his attempts to keep his three children from their mother, for instance, and his bitter letters when they finally sought her out) read rather tortuously in Walker’s account, simply because the biographer feels unable to criticise his hero.

Ernest Burger’s ‘documentary biography’ of Liszt, translated from the 1986 German edition, is in some ways a valuable supplement to Walker’s biography. Though it offers a fairly detailed chronology of the life and works, the principal focus is on visual material: a series of handsomely-produced portraits, letters, documents and other memorabilia, many of them previously unpublished. The accompanying commentary is at times rather bland, but the documents reproduced (the lengthy ones with translations by Stewart Spencer) are well chosen to illustrate the man and his aesthetic attitudes. The goal of the book, Alfred Brendel says in his Foreword, is to allow readers ‘to paint their own portrait of Liszt’. It is, of course, an illusory goal, since no amount of raw historical information can sidestep the necessity for critical historical judgment. But no matter: Burger’s Liszt will above all be enjoyed for the superb quality of its visual material.

Classic biographies of composers – ones that stand comparison with the best in literary biography – are rare. One thinks of Frank Walker on Verdi, of Maynard Solomon on Beethoven; a few others will come to mind. The problems are obvious: creative musicians are centrally engaged with a world in which words count for little, and in which the verbal statements that surround them may compromise or even betray their true instincts. If Walker has failed to find a perfect critical balance between the man and his work, he has certainly added much to our understanding of the composer and his times. Liszt scholarship is today moving along at a steady clip,[*] and performers such as Alfred Brendel continue to invite re-hearings of the music. At the same time, the history of 19th-century music seems to be undergoing a fundamental revaluation, with the assumption of a centrality within the Austro-German symphonic tradition coming under increasing pressure. Whatever one’s view of Liszt’s most grandiose attempts to become ‘a composer of ‘superior and solid renown’, his historical position, already considerable, seems bound to become more important as this revaluation continues. Walker’s energy and commitment will help this process along.

[*] 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).