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.

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