All the Necessary Attributes

Stephen Walsh

  • Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar by Oliver Hilmes, translated by Stewart Spencer
    Yale, 353 pp, £25.00, June 2016, ISBN 978 0 300 18293 4

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’.

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