Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Review: Franz Liszt by Alan Walker, 1987-97, 3 vols.


Alan Walker

Franz Liszt, Vol. 1:
The Virtuoso Years, 1811–1847

Cornell University Press, Paperback [2004]
8vo. xxv+484 pp. Revised Edition. Preface to the Revised Edition, Rome, June 1987 [xiii–xiv]. Acknowledgements, Weimar, May 1982 [xv–xvii]. Sources [449–62]. Index [463–84].

First published, 1983.
Revised Edition first published, 1987.
Sixth printing with revisions including new musical examples,
photograph, and new index, 2004.

Contents

Illustrations
Preface to the Revised Edition
Acknowledgements
The Liszt Family Trees
Concordance Table of Cities, Tables, and Villages

Prologue
Liszt and the Literature
Liszt's Family Background

Book One: The Young Prodigy, 1811–1829
Childhood in Hungary
Vienna, 1821–1823
Paris and the First World Tours
The Death of Liszt's Father
Obscurity in Paris

Book Two: The Growing Virtuoso, 1830–1834
After the July Revolution
A Riot of Pianists
Paganini
Friends and Contemporaries: Berlioz and Chopin
Enter Marie d'Agoult

Book Three: The Years of Pilgrimage, 1835–1839
Elopement to Geneva
The Lion Shakes His Mane: Liszt's Duel with Thalberg
Switzerland and Italy
After the Flood in Hungary, 1838–1839

Book Four: The Years of Transcendental Execution, 1839–1847
Liszt and the Keyboard
A Prodigal Returns to Hungary, 1839–1840
The World Tours I: Prague, Leipzig, and London, 1840–1841
The World Tours II: Berlin and St. Petersburg, 1841–1842
Marie d'Agoult Becomes ''Daniel Stern'': Nelida versus Guermann
The Beethoven Monument Unveiled in Bonn, 1845
The World Tours III: Transylvania, Russia, and Turkey, 1846–1847

Appendix: Catalogue of works which Liszt played in public, 1838–1848,
compiled by himself

Sources Consulted in the Preparation of Volume I
Index

============================================

Alan Walker

Franz Liszt, Vol. 2:
The Weimar Years, 1848–1861

Cornell University Press, Paperback [1993].
8vo. xix+626 pp. Acknowledgements, Budapest, Spring 1988 [xv–xvii].
Sources [583–94]. Index [595–626].

First published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
First published in Cornell paperbacks, 1993.

Contents

Illustrations
Acknowledgements
The Wittgenstein–Iwanowsky Family Tree

Prologue
A Giant in Lilliput

Book One: New Beginnings, 1847–1848
Enter Carolyne von Sayn–Wittgenstein
The Journeys of the Princess, 1847–1848
Funerailles, 1848–1849
The Altenburg

Book Two: Court and Kapellmeister, 1848–1853
Music at the Court of Weimar
The Years of Struggle I, 1849–1852
The Years of Struggle II, 1849–1853
A Gathering of Eagles
The Raff Case
Liebestraum

Book Three: The Years of Maturity, 1853–1857
Growing Achievements, 1853–1855
Liszt the Conductor
Liszt and the Orchestra
The War of the Romantics
The Scribe of Weimar
Vienna, Gran, and Aachen, 1856–57

Book Four: Gathering Storms, 1857–1861
Liszt and His Children
The Death of Daniel Liszt
Of Triumph and Tragedy, 1857–1859
Of Marriage and Divorce
Liszt Makes a Testament and Leaves Weimar, 1860–1861

Appendix I: The Wills of Liszt and Carolyne von Sayn–Wittgenstein
Appendix II: The Vatican's Marriage–File on Liszt and Carolyne Iwanowska
Appendix III: Daniel Liszt's Birth Certificate

Sources Consulted in the Preparation of Volume II
Index

============================================

Alan Walker

Franz Liszt, Vol. 3:
The Final Years, 1861–1886

Cornell University Press, Paperback [1997].
8vo. xx+594 pp. Acknowledgements, Rome–London 1995 [xvii–xx]. 
Sources [555–64]. Index [565–94].

First published, 1997.

Contents

Illustrations
Acknowledgements

Prologue
Franz Liszt: King Lear of Music

Book One: From Weimar to Rome, 1861–1865
A Thwarted Marriage, 1861
The Eternal City
The Death of Blandine, 1862
The Madonna del Rosario, 1863–1865

Book Two: The Abbé Liszt, 1865–1869
Liszt Enters the Lower Orders, 1865
Paris and the ''Gran'' Mass, 1866
The Cosima–Bülow–Wagner Crisis I: The Triangle Forms, 1865–1867
The Cosima–Bülow–Wagner Crisis II: The Triangle Breaks, 1868–1870
Of Kings and Castles, 1867
Of Cossacks and Countesses

Book Three: A Threefold Life Begins:
Weimar, Budapest, and Rome, 1869–1876
The Hofgärtnerei: The Return of a Legend
The Franco–Prussian War of 1870
The Lion of Weimar: Liszt and His Pupils
Excelsior!, 1873–1875
The Last Years of Marie d'Agoult
''External Weaknesses – Interior Causes''

Book Four: De Profundis, 1876–1886
Liszt and Bayreuth
Wanderer Eternal, 1876–1881
Unstern!
Nuages Gris
The Music of Liszt's Old Age
Harmonies du Soir, 1881–1885
Liszt's Last Visit to England, April 1886
Approaching the End
The Death of Liszt
Aftermath

Appendix I: Princess Carolyne's Death Notice, from the
Register of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome
Appendix II: Liszt Enters the Minor Orders of the Priesthood:
Entries from the Liber Ordinationum for 1863–1872, Vicariato di Roma
Appendix III: Liszt's Titles and Honours
Appendix IV: Catalogue of Princess Carolyne's Writings

Sources Consulted in the Preparation of Volume III
Index

============================================

[Review originally written in 2009]

How can one write anything at all about so magisterial a study dedicated to one of the most extraordinary men who ever lived and which took its author about 1600 pages and more than two decades of his life to write?

Impossible. But that doesn't mean one cannot at least try.

In short, Alan Walker's three–volume study Franz Liszt is an incredible literary and scholarly achievement. It really is hard to believe that such combination of brilliant writing style can be coupled with so high an informational content and such an impeccable scholarship. But it happens to be true. Small wonder that Mr Walker's three volumes are currently the most comprehensive and the most authoritative study of Franz Liszt's life available in any language. Indeed, this is likely to remain so for a good many years ahead.

To say that Alan Walker's style is absorbing, gluing to the pages and reads like a novel is so trite and so hackneyed a cliché that it hardly bears repetition. But it happens to be true – and is the best proof known to me that a biography can be scholarly and enjoyable at the same time; claims that the former is incompatible with the latter are often made – chiefly by excellent scholars who are indifferent writers or vice versa. As for Alan Walker's writing style, considering the complexity of his subject and the scope of his work, it simply cannot be bettered; even his Acknowledgments are readable. It is a style not just clear, lucid and perfectly organized, but also engaging, amusing, and penetrating, one that boldly approaches perfection, namely being like a conversation with an old friend beside the fireside with a glass of something sufficiently alcoholic in hand.

If I must find some drawbacks, I would point out several long digressions – for example, the Franco–Prussian War or the Vatican diplomatic intrigues – which are discussed into a somewhat excessive detail, or the music examples which sometimes tend to overwhelm the pages and frustrate the lay reader who can't read music at all. Both defects, however, are very minor ones. In general, in a remarkably high percentage of these 1600 pages, Alan Walker's style is as close to perfection as any non–fiction writing can hope to reach. He gives just enough details about Liszt's works and the historical background of his life; those who look for in–depth musical analyses or history of Europe really should look into other books. The focus here from beginning to end remains on Franz Liszt.

Indeed, for me at least, this is by far the most important aspect of Alan Walker's work: it is concerned first and foremost with Liszt himself, not just with the spectacular facts of his life but above all with his fascinating personality. After reading these three volumes, I felt like I had known Liszt for decades. I have always loved his music, but only after reading this monumental biography have I learned that the human being behind this stupendous output deserves to be loved, too.

There is, however, one inherent danger here and I am sure Mr Walker must have been aware of it while writing: the danger of idealizing Liszt; and from there it is just one step to goofy adulation and hero worship of the worst possible kind. But yet again, Alan Walker has passed the test superbly. It is obvious that he has a genuine affection for the great composer, but he somehow manages always to remain cool, objective and dispassionate guide into Liszt's inner world; and, it must be said, anybody who wants to challenge Mr Walker's opinions must have a staggering knowledge of the Liszt literature. I daresay few would dare.

Indeed, Liszt's portrait drawn by Mr Walker does seem idealized now and then, but it does look extremely convincing, too. The great composer, pianist, and conductor who was proud to be Hungarian, preferred to speak French and spent most of his life in Germany and Italy must have been a man of incredible charm, rare frankness of opinion and simply unbelievable generosity of spirit. I can't help reflecting that Mr Walker uses the famous description ''saintly Liszt'' only half–jokingly, or not at all. The biographer is by no means uncritical to his subject; when Liszt makes unkind remarks or behaves like a bad father, this is duly acknowledged, but it is never unduly emphasised.

On the whole, Mr Walker's portrait of Liszt is a far cry from the popular notion of meretricious poser hungry for the idolatry of everybody around him that has prevailed in the Liszt scholarship for well over half a century. So is Mr Walker's view of Liszt's music, for that matter. In both cases his striving for objectivity and his uncanny persuasiveness are remarkable, to say the least.

Then there are the facts of Liszt's life, inextricably intertwined with his personality of course, and here the scholarly excellence of Alan Walker shines through. Archetypal Romantic who led one of most mesmerising lives of all great composers, Franz Liszt must be a real hell for the biographer. It's much easier to ask not what he was, but what he was not. He was the greatest piano virtuoso of his time, and most likely of all times, who invented the piano recital as such and made one of the most spectacular careers in the history of music, with swooning audiences from Spain to St. Petersburg and from London to Constantinople; not to mention that he completely revolutionised both keyboard performance practice and composition. He invented the so called symphonic poem (symphonische Dichtung) and thus radically changed the composition for orchestra as well; not to mention that he was one of the first modern conductors, that is one of the first to be more than just ''walking metronomes''. Even his church music, in a way, was unorthodox and revolutionary at the time. The exact number of his compositions is still not clear, but they are about 1300 and range from three–minute piano pieces to three–hour oratorios for huge orchestra, choir and soloists. One wonders how on earth did Liszt find the time just to write all that music down on paper, much less compose it?

In addition to all this, Liszt was an indefatigable champion of modern (for his time) composers, most notably Wagner and Berlioz. He was one of the greatest piano pedagogues of the nineteenth century, championing the master class as such and producing keyboard giants like Hans von Bülow, Carl Tausig, and numerous others. He also was voluminous writer of letters, essays and books, even if it's still controversial how much of his writings were written in co–authorship with the two most important women in his life. Of course he was notorious for his liaisons with married women. One of them was a countess who bore him three illegitimate children, the other one was a princess with whom he lived for more than a decade as man and wife without marriage (what a scandalous thing to do!); not to mention the numerous swooning females who pestered him all his life, one of them once even threatened to kill first him and then herself, ''failing in both endeavours'' as Mr Walker charmingly observes.

Last but not least, Liszt's entering the lower orders of the Catholic Church later in his life was just another gossip–friendly surprise. As Alan Walker put it succinctly in his no less compelling Reflections on Liszt (Cornell, 2005): ''Merely to report the facts is to run the risk of being accused of writing fiction.''

But report the facts Alan Walker does: year by year the whole amazing life of Franz Liszt is mapped out. What is more, Mr Walker also reports his sources. Always! There is hardly a single page in all three volumes without footnotes in which numerous biographies, memoirs, studies, diaries, collections of letters, even archives are listed with their initials and the exact pages where the information in question comes from. The bibliographies in the end of each volume are the most staggering I have ever seen. There one can find all details about these mysterious initials in the footnotes – and probably everything ever written about Liszt's life, including a good many unpublished documents. The indefatigable striving of Alan Walker to document meticulously every possible source and to base every single fact on a testimony he has seen himself is something to marvel at. All those years he spent writing his magnum opus were chiefly spent in libraries and archives all around the world: Weimar, Budapest, Paris, Rome, London, Washington, among others. Alan Walker himself was the man who discovered the manuscript of the diary of Lina Schmalhausen, one of Liszt's students, which did throw new light on the death of Liszt in Bayreth in 1886 (and later was published in book form, edited by Mr Walker of course). It is Alan Walker, too, who in the present study often quotes in their entirety letters of Liszt which were previously published only in severely edited versions – or weren't published at all.

It is essential to understand that recreating the lives of the great from the past is a dynamic process: new and relevant sources are constantly discovered and re–discovered, sometimes they change a certain area out of recognition. Despite this fluidity of scholarship, if I may put it in so pompous a way, Alan Walker's painstaking research, meticulously documentation and determination to look at any issue from all possible points of view, not taking anything for granted, have certainly established him as the most authoritative and reliable source about the life and character of Franz Liszt. This is likely to remain so for a good many years ahead. That's for sure.

One of the greatest advantages of Mr Walker's impeccable scholarship is his demolishing of numerous myths that are always associated with Liszt; indeed some of them have circulated through the literature for well over a century. As a matter of fact, not only no other great composer has ever had a more fascinating life, but none has been a subject to more contradictory opinions or more fanciful mythology, either. The only possible exception is Richard Wagner. Is it a coincidence that his life was so firmly linked with Liszt's, not to mention the similar artistic revolutions they simultaneously made in the opera house and in the concert hall? Hardly. It is indeed a pity that Wagner's life, despite the tons of books that have been written, still lacks a definitive biography comparable to Alan Walker's Franz Liszt. For it is not at all presumptuous to claim that Lisztian scholarship has been changed completely by the latter. Indeed, the studies of Liszt's life and personality should be divided historically to ''B. W.'' and ''A. W.'' – ''Before Walker'' and ''After Walker''.

Virtually the complete Lisztian mythology – and staggering amount of nonsense that is – has been brought to trial by Alan Walker, and he is thoroughly convincing about many aspects of Liszt's life that will never again be the same. Some of the most famous Lisztian legends and Mr Walker's brilliant dealing with them are well worth mentioning for at least two reasons: 1) they are examined in a most sensible and perceptive way coupled with a degree of scholarship that takes account of every possible document under the sun (or collecting dust in archives all over the world); and 2) they tell us as much about Liszt's unique personality as anything.

To start in chronological order, the legendary Weihekuss of Beethoven is one of the best-known stories about Liszt. In a nutshell: on 13th of April, 1823, after a concert in Vienna given by the then 11-year-old Liszt, Beethoven was supposed to have come on the stage and given him a ''consecration kiss'' on the forehead which the composer regarded as his true artistic consecration all his life. The amazing thing about this story is that it appeared in print just 12 years later, in the first attempt for a biography of Liszt (when he was 23!) by Joseph d'Ortique which was published in Gazette Musicale de Paris in 1835. Almost four decades later (1873) a lithograph celebrating the occasion was made and used for years afterwards as a ''proof'' for the kiss despite being made exactly half a century after the Vienna concert in question. All of Liszt's numerous biographers later were only too eager to include the romantic episode in their writings.

Here Alan Walker comes with a startling revelation: essentially and privately for Liszt, the story appears to have been true. Indeed, Liszt himself told it to one of his female students late in his life; the possibility of this oral version being a fabrication of the lady's fertile imagination might well be ruled out by the fact that there is a corroboration that comes directly from the Master. There is only one other place where the kiss is known to be mentioned by Liszt, and in written form at that: one of his letters to Carl Alexander, the Grand Duke of Weimar and a close friend of Liszt. The letter is remarkable since the kiss is mentioned just by the way and in the highly emotional context of Liszt's creative process. This makes it clear that Liszt did regard Beethoven's gesture as his artistic consecration – and Beethoven himself as something very much like God; it is worth noting that this God found in Liszt one of his most fervent prophets: it was not for nothing that the Hungarian maestro was acclaimed as one of the most profound interpreters of the Ninth symphony the nineteenth century ever saw. The only significant difference – and quite a difference it is – between Liszt's version and the official myth is that the Weihekuss happened, not on the stage, but in Beethoven's apartment where Liszt was led by his teacher Carl Czerny (Beethoven's pupil). As for Beethoven himself, he was quite deaf at the time and his notebooks confirm that he didn't attend the concert on the 13th of April and that the young virtuoso was his guest. This is the only meeting between Liszt and Beethoven which is known to have occurred.

Mr Walker does not forget to note that, in the version told to his student, Liszt did make a mistake about Beethoven's address in Vienna at the time, but that's hardly surprising when one tells half a century old story and such a mundane detail by no means affects the credibility of Liszt's account. This version of the Weihekuss myth easily explains why Liszt never denied the story and why he so rarely talked/wrote about it: for it was essentially true for him and because it was a very personal and intimate moment, respectively. If the whole thing was just a complete sham, it must have been created by Liszt himself in a most blatant way. There is no present evidence that such behaviour was typical for Liszt in any period of his life.

Perhaps the greatest myth about Franz Liszt is his Don Juan status. The popular version of this story is that during his unprecedented career as a piano virtuoso between 1839 and 1847 Liszt had numerous lovers everywhere and his affairs were the talk of Europe; well, the latter may well have been true – but this is no proof of the former. Yet again, Alan Walker is devastating: surely Liszt was no saint and he must have had a fling or two here and there, especially since his relationship with Marie d'Agoult (the mother of his three children) was rapidly deteriorating in the early 1840s. But the concept of Liszt as the eternal lover is now subjected to a complete revision.

Alan Walker shows conclusively that documentary evidence about Liszt's amours during his stupendous career is surprisingly missing; and where there is no such thing as evidence, history should better remain silent about it. Mr Walker's integrity in the matter can hardly be questioned since he was the man who ''discovered'' one of Liszt's most unknown affairs with the gentle sex: his passionate love for Agnes Street–Klindworth during the 1850s (when he lived with the Princess) had never been told in the detail it deserves before the publishing of the second volume of Mr Walker's magisterial study. As for Liszt as Don Juan during his Glanzzeit, his two most popular ''affairs'', with Marie Duplessis and Lola Montez, are excellent examples of what the wrong PR (or the absence of any) can do for you.

The warm feelings that must surely have existed between Liszt and Marie Duplessis paint the sad picture of an entirely platonic relationship, rather than the passionate love affair usually described by pseudo-biographers. Much less has Liszt ever had any desire to live with the famous courtesan, or at least nothing has survived to confirm this. Indeed, there is evidence for the opposite: apparently Marie wanted Liszt to take her with him on his tours, despite her grave health condition. By the time they met for the first time – November 1845 – Marie was only 21 years old but already suffered from the consumption that was to lead her into the grave less than year and a half later. To put the matter bluntly, she could hardly have been suitable to be anybody's mistress at that time.

The case of the famous Spanish dancer Lola Montez is infinitely more absurd. To use Alan Walker's unforgettable description: ''Her name was not Lola, she was not Spanish, and, if her critics are to be believed, she was not a dancer either.'' As a matter of fact, she was Irish, her name was Eliza Gilbert, and her virtuoso art was not to dance but to seduce – and she did pretty well there since one of her numerous lovers was the very Ludwig II of Bavaria. As for her immensely popular in the Liszt literature affair with the Hungarian pianist, Alan Walker states that whatever its nature was, it lasted no more than a few weeks and, yet again, there is no firm proof that it ever actually happened. Which is strange indeed, since Lola was never shy enough not to boast with her lovers, yet in her nine (!) volumes of memoirs she mentions Liszt only in passing. The claims of some would-be biographers that she followed the great pianist on his tours all around Europe and even reached Constantinople with him are proven a pure fantasy by Alan Walker's simple comparison of dates: while Liszt was on tour in Spain, Lola fancied herself a dancer in Warsaw and St. Petersburg.

Special attention should be paid to one of the most popular myths about Liszt and Lola, namely that he once locked her in a hotel room and then run away, having pre-paid the owner about the material damage which the lady would doubtlessly cause when she found out that she had been duped. This story appeared for the first time in Julius Kapp's biography (1909) and was promptly copied in all later attempts for description of Liszt's life. In general, Kapp's biography is quite reliable because it relies chiefly on testimony from Liszt's students, but the hotel room incident (or accident) was more than half a century older and where exactly did Kapp get this information from still remains a mystery. From all evidence that has survived, it seems that this part of the Lisztian mythology is indeed a perfect myth; Lord of the Rings is pure history compared to that.

(As for Olga Janina – the Cossack countess who was neither a Cossack nor a countess – she scarcely deserves to be mentioned. Her threats to assassinate both Liszt and herself are well-known, and they just confirm the diagnosis that the lady must have been mentally unstable, which is also corroborated by her habit to keep numerous types of pills and powders in her clothes. Olga was a talented pianist, but she was by far not the most talented among Liszt's pupils. When the Maestro's patience came to an end, the ''Cossack countess'' fancied herself a writer of scurrilous books which can have no real value for the Liszt scholarship.)

Another part of Liszt's long and fascinating life that will never be same after Alan Walker is the thwarted marriage between the Maestro and the Princess. This is surely not the place to discuss what is the difference between divorce and annulment of a marriage, nor to examine the numerous battles Carolyne fought for more than ten years to get divorced from her husband or their marriage to be annulled by the Pope himself. Suffice it to say that, in January 1861, she finally succeeded and was allowed to marry Liszt by all canons of Catholicism – something both had dreamed about for more than a decade. Much less widely known, however, is the fact that they procrastinated this so desired marriage for more than ten months – and for many reasons, none of them convincing. As is well known, their enemies did not waste the time, they did infiltrate the Vatican with all of its monstrous intrigues, and the marriage between Liszt and Carolyne was thwarted the day before it was about to occur – 22nd of October, 1861, Liszt's 50th birthday. The Princess refused to continue the fight and the couple never married, though for more than a decade – to the dismay of the Weimar court – they had lived together as man and wife.

Alan Walker is uncompromisingly frank: the marriage did not happen because the Princess gave up. Moreover, Liszt was well rid of her. These are serious claims and they do turn upside down the popular version that Liszt and Carolyne did not marry because the church's etiquette was appallingly obsolete or because their enemies' intrigues were too dangerously cunning. Far from it. The ten months delay tells the whole story itself: Liszt and Carolyne simply did not want that marriage. Indeed, what could it have meant to them to be linked as man and wife in the sacred registers after having lived as man and wife in God's eyes for more than a decade? Exactly nothing. Though both were devout Catholics, Liszt and Carolyne probably realised only too well how absurd the Catholic conception of marriage really is. Even though the princess had managed to annul her previous one, this was never final: anybody anytime could come, claim to have enough evidence, open the case and send everything in hell again.

Despite the fact that Liszt and Carolyne remained friends until the Maestro's death almost twenty-five years after the black October 1861, Alan Walker is quite positive that their relationship was not as cloudless as it had been before. The Princess may not have been a mentally deranged suicidal maniac like Marie d'Agoult, but her behaviour in these late years was quite eccentric, to put it mildly. She was a maniacal hypochondriac; she talked with the spirits of dead people and she was quite occupied with the writing of a 24-volume (!) critique of the Catholic Church in the most inappropriate historical moment. Small wonder that in his late years Liszt returned to Rome, where she lived, with greater and greater reluctance – and for shorter and shorter periods of time.

Last but certainly not least – perhaps most important of all indeed – is Alan Walker's treatment of the so called ''War of the Romantics'' which is unlikely to be surpassed in terms of clarity and insight by any future publications – especially as far as Liszt's role is concerned. Most certainly this is not the place to go into detail about this quite complicated subject; Alan Walker has done this brilliantly. Brahms' sleeping while Liszt played his B minor Sonata, but not his own (Brahms') music; Clara Schumann's repellent bigotry, bitchiness and hypocrisy; the negative attitude of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann towards Liszt; the shameful manifesto of Brahms and company against the ''music of the future'' championed by Liszt and Wagner; the caustic sarcasm of the latter in his writings aimed at the conservative Leipzig school; and so on and so forth, everything is here, methodically, lucidly and scholarly presented by Mr Walker.

If one must summarise all that confused medley of complicated relationships between so many people of true genius, one is surprised by the fact how little part did Liszt take into the so called ''War of the Romantics'' and, furthermore, how many people of his own circle turned later against him or repaid his tireless promotion of their music with nothing but words. It's a sad list to read. Joachim and Bülow, two of the greatest among the violinists and the pianists of the nineteenth century respectively, were also some of Liszt's staunchest supporters – in their early years; later both turned into some of the most ardent admirers of Brahms and altogether forgot Liszt. The whole gratitude that Clara could express to Liszt for promoting her husband's music was to refuse to go on one stage with him. Wagner, of all people, should have been grateful to Liszt that he and his music were not forgotten during his years of exile; for Liszt tirelessly conducted, staged and transcribed Wagner's music during that period. How did Wagner thank him for all that? Typically in his style – he didn't. (Well, actually he did – with two speeches.) Later Wagner made a very successful career as a conductor. How many times do you think he included a work of Liszt in his programs? Not even once. Nor did Berlioz who also was quite successful on the rostrum; and a decade earlier Liszt had made ''Berlioz weeks'' in Weimar during which he conducted the works of the great French composer then (and still) considered extravagant.

In his absorbing prologue to the second volume, ''A Giant in Lilliput'', Alan Walker has one of his many flashes of brilliance and he offers a very perceptive explanation about this sad phenomenon. Ironically, Liszt's apparently detached, disinterested and, above all, universal eagerness to help his fellow composers entirely for the sake of their genius may well have been the reason for their turning against him. In a charming footnote, Mr Walker reminds us that this devotion of Liszt to other composers was quite unique among the great Romantics. No other composer of comparable stature ever did anything like that. Mr Walker continues to call the notion of Wagner or Berlioz sending money to Chopin or Schumann, let alone arranging concerts of their works, hilarious and crowned only by their mutual help in this respect – somewhat unkind but very just remark. Mr Walker does acknowledge Schumann's help to many a young composer on the pages of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, but he makes no bones that ''recognition of that sort, offered from the armchair of a study and taking no more time than the half-hour or so required to dash off a five-hundred-word review, involves neither lifelong commitment nor the evangelical fervour that Liszt brought to the task.'' I couldn't for the life of me say it better than Mr Walker did, so I would allow myself to quote his words yet again, for they seem to me the perfect conclusion of this little and badly written review–essay. Franz Liszt's ''universal beneficence'' was his most divine characteristic – and also his heaviest cross to bear:

As long as Liszt was throwing the full weight of his resources behind Wagner, Wagner was hardly in a position to complain. But what comfort could this bring to Berlioz? By the same token, when Liszt helped Berlioz, the cause of Wagner was temporarily held in abeyance. Largesse for others always appears to be less just than largesse for oneself. The conclusion may seem bizarre, but it will withstand scrutiny. So many of Liszt's contemporaries turned against his universal beneficence precisely because it was universal, and not reserved for their own exclusive use. Genius can tolerate much, but the one thing that it is usually quite incapable of tolerating is the recognition of genius in others. Certainly it is not in the nature of genius to subordinate itself before its own kind. That is why the appearance of Franz Liszt is such a rare phenomenon in Art.

Afterthoughts [November/December 2016 & January/February 2017]

I have tightened the grammar and clarified some of the more ponderous expressions, but I have left my youthful verbosity largely intact. Believe it or not, I have just re-read the whole thing from cover to cover. And I was mightily impressed, again, by Mr Walker’s unique combination of scholarship and readability, constantly spiced up with solid doses of insight. I offer here a bunch of random reflections as a supplement to my old review.

The first thing that struck me this time was the revealing treatment of Liszt’s background and childhood. To be sure, Liszt was the only world-famous member of his multitudinous family. But some of his ancestors are very curious and fascinating fellows.

Georg Liszt (1755–1843), the composer’s grandfather, must have been quite a character. He married three times and fathered 25 children. He changed countless jobs in the great aristocratic houses (including Esterházy) and was often suspect of fraudulent activities, such as for instance borrowing his master’s horses to take his wife to the Prater or pilfering some wood to relieve an especially hard winter. An adventurous and romantic soul, he lived long enough to bask in the spectacular success of his grandson. Indeed, the Emperor finally grant him a life pension not for any other reason, but because he was the grandfather of the most famous Hungarian alive.

Adam Liszt (1776–1827), the composer’s father, was a less colourful figure, but still a very remarkable man. Liszt’s biographers, apart from Mr Walker, have never properly appreciated Adam’s colossal effort to escape from his provincial background and ensure the best conditions for his brilliant son to study in Vienna and, later, go on a European tour. In this he obviously resembles Leopold Mozart, the great difference being that Adam Liszt was much less domineering and died when Franz was only 15. Adam was a fine amateur musician, too. In Eisenstadt he played cello in the orchestra under the batons of Haydn, Hummel and even Beethoven. Later, in Raiding, he regularly arranged musical evenings with friends at his home, so Liszt grew up surrounded with music.

Mr Walker firmly traces to Liszt’s childhood two of the most important facets of his complex personality, namely his strong religious feeling and his passion for the highly improvisatory music of the gypsies. It is one of the most tiresome clichés of Lisztian biography to describe the composer as “half Gypsy, half Franciscan”, as if one excludes the other. Such notions can be entertained only by people who have a very simplified idea of human nature. The funny thing is that the description (“Zu einer Hälffte Zigeuner zur andern Franziskaner”) stems from Liszt himself, but he was describing (no doubt not without humour) his itinerary rather than analysing his personality. In August 1856 he was rehearsing his Gran Mass in the cathedral of Esztergom while using his free time to go and hear the “Tziganes”. Mr Walker’s sarcastic conclusion is worth quoting:

If Liszt had not bothered to write that letter, the “Zigeuner-Franziskaner” phrase would never have been uttered. One wonders what some of his twentieth-century biographers would then have fallen back on in its absence.

Possibly no other aspect of Liszt’s personality has been more derided than his religion. Even Harold Schonberg, a critical but by no means unsympathetic Lisztian, has succumbed to the general theory that it was all sham. Well, if it was a sham, it was a sham that was consistent and lasted a lifetime. When Liszt entered the Franciscan order in 1857 and took the four minor orders of the Catholic Church in 1865, he did hardly more than following a family tradition. It is a little-known fact that Adam entered the Franciscan order when he was 18. Though he spent less than two years there and was dismissed for his “inconstant and changeable nature”, he never forgot his friends and often visited them in later years – usually with his little boy on whom the monks and the monastery must have made quite an impression. Liszt never forgot the Franciscans either. At the height of his fame in 1840, while giving concerts in Pest and being feted as a national idol, he took some time to visit a Franciscan monastery where one of his father’s old friends had become a father superior and where he (Liszt) had played in 1823, not yet 12 years old. A strong religious bent was part of Liszt’s make-up from early childhood, and continued to run as an obsessive leitmotif in his letters until old age.

Yet in spite of this overwhelming evidence, many Liszt biographers continue to accept Liszt’s religion as some sort of publicity stunt. Schonberg, for instance, had no excuse but his own prejudice to repeat the old hokum because the Third Edition (1997) of his magnum opus, The Lives of the Great Composers, was published much later than the first volume of Mr Walker’s biography.

Here is the place to dispose of another vexed question: Liszt’s national identity. Various authors have made him French, German, Austrian and what not. The issue is rather simpler. It doesn’t matter a damn what language a person speaks or in which country he was born and brought up. The only thing that matters is what the person in question feels and thinks. Liszt always regarded himself as a Hungarian. Indeed, he insisted on his Hungarian origins and sometimes all but flaunted them. He spoke French as his first language and spent his most productive years in Germany, but he never once referred to himself as French or German. That he couldn’t speak Hungarian, like so many of his compatriots, was the result of historical circumstances, not for lack of national identity. Much too much has been made of this issue, marshalling massive historical research that is quite irrelevant to Liszt. What was ethnically or politically considered Hungarian at the time is completely beside the point.

Mr Walker’s treatment of Liszt’s all-important formative years in Paris of the early 1830s is startlingly original. There is no question that Paganini, Berlioz and Chopin had a great influence over Liszt. But Mr Walker doesn’t go for the worn-out clichés, transcendental virtuosity, orchestral colour and piano poetry respectively. He draws attention to the little-known fact that Liszt wrote a rather critical obituary of Paganini in 1840. In this essay, Liszt pointed out that Paganini was a negative example of technique as an end in itself, and he hoped the violin magician had been the last of this worthless tribe. (Little did he know!) No doubt Liszt learned a lot about the orchestra from Berlioz, but Mr Walker reminds us that the two men were also great friends (Liszt was a witness to Berlioz’s wedding with Harriet Smithson!) and shared deep passion for literature, notably Goethe, Byron and Shakespeare. This literary influence had an incalculable effect on Liszt’s personality and music. As for Chopin, Mr Walker warns us to be careful when exploring influences here, for the great Pole and the great Hungarian were totally different as personalities, pianists and composers. Chopin’s influence, in short, is limited to superficial details in a limited number of works.

Even more stimulating and even less known, or at least seldom given their due, are Liszt’s immersion in Saint-Simonism at the time and his friendship with Abbé Lamennais. Saint-Simon’s “theory of life” included such audacious things like dissemination of scientific knowledge, the emancipation of women, organising the hierarchy of society by one’s work and not by one’s birth, and the “humanizing” of religion. All this in the 1820s! Liszt’s fling with Saint-Simonism didn’t last long, but the influence of these humanitarian ideals on his character cannot be dismissed without consideration. Lamennais, who must have been a magnetic personality, Liszt knew personally for many years. It was at La Chenâie, Lamennais’s estate in Brittany where he spent several months in the spring of 1834, that Liszt began the composition of his first significant original works, the three “Apparitions”, “Lyon” and “Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses”. If this is a coincidence, it is a very curious one.  

Perhaps the notorious affair with Marie d’Agoult deserves a few words, too. Mr Walker is perfectly aware that his treatment is nothing short of revolutionary, but his pro-Liszt and anti-Marie case is brilliantly argued and will be hard to refute. No more fairy-tales like Liszt seducing Marie, forcing her to elope with him, and then callously abandoning her. In all this, Marie was more than a willing accomplice; indeed, sometimes she positively was the driving force. Besides, ever since her youth, she was mentally unstable and troublesome, prone to bouts of depression and psychosomatic illnesses. Who can blame Liszt for running on endless European tours after living for a few years in seclusion with this psycho? Ever since the publication of Marie’s memoirs (1927), on whose veracity Mr Walker casts a solid shadow, and her correspondence with Liszt (1933–34), which certainly influenced Newman’s character assassination, Marie has been regarded as a wronged woman, a delicate and sensitive creature abused by the monster Liszt. No more!

It’s fascinating to speculate, though Mr Walker never goes that far, that Marie’s hysterical outburst that Liszt abandoned her for cheap salon success might have influenced the unflattering modern image of the man and the musician. In fact, Liszt had left Marie in Venice while he went to Vienna for a series of charity concerts for the victims of the flood that had devastated Pest. He was absent for two months and she went berserk. That was in the spring of 1838 and there was nothing to suggest final separation but Marie’s fervent imagination. Liszt gave eight concerts in Vienna and raised 24,000 gulden, the largest donation from a private source, to help his desperate compatriots. Liszt detractors would say that it was all self-aggrandisement, but they can be believed only by other Liszt detractors. As a matter of fact, the enormous amount of time, effort and – last but first – money which Liszt gave to various charities have never been properly catalogued, not even by Mr Walker. But at least he mentions them with commendable regularity, occasionally to a fine cumulative effect:

As for the number of charitable causes to which Liszt had lent his name and his fame during his Glanzzeit, that would make a separate study. His contributions to the victims of the Danube floods (1838) and to the erection of the Beethoven monument (1839–45) are well known, and they are rightly mentioned in all the standard biographies of Liszt. There were dozens of other humanitarian gestures, however, many of which remain unchronicled. He had, for example, given concerts in behalf of the Prague General Hospital (1840), the Leipzig Musicians Pension Fund (1840), the Cologne Cathedral Building Fund (1842), the victims of the Great Fire of Hamburg (1842), the Dortmund Gymnasium Fund (1842), the Moscow Orphans Fund (1843), The Lisbon Orphans Fund (1845), and the Nagyenyed (Aiud) Kindergarten Fund (1846). His donations to private persons in distress are too numerous to mention. There is something deeply affecting about Liszt’s desire to share the material benefits of his genius with the underprivileged. No other artist in history has ever given so generously of time and money. Art, for Liszt, was a moral force which functions best when it serves a moral end. He himself put it well when he coined the phrase Génie oblige!

To finish with Marie, it is worth noting her sad postscript to their relationship. In 1866, while Liszt was in Paris for what turned out to be a disastrous performance of his Gran Mass, Marie chose to reprint her novel Nélida, first published 20 years earlier and notoriously presenting Liszt as the character of the artistically impotent painter Guermann. In what is supposed to be the climax of this vastly forgotten today roman à clef, Guermann faces a big white wall which he is expected to paint and realises that without the inspirational support of Nélida, his secret muse, he can never achieve that, or indeed anything worthwhile in art. Marie may have wanted to believe this about Liszt, but her lame attempt to wound him again backfired badly in 1866. The twenty years between the two editions of her novel include the whole of Liszt’s Weimar’s period (1848–61), a period of staggering productivity during which Liszt composed the Sonata in B minor, the Second Ballade and the First Mephisto Waltz, the Faust and Dante Symphonies, the first 12 symphonic poems, the Gran Mass and the Psalm XIII, not to mention the thorough revisions of early works that resulted in the final versions of the Transcendental Studies, the Paganini Etudes and the first two books of Années de pèlerinage. Whatever the intrinsic value of all this music may be, one thing is certain: Liszt filled his “white wall” completely.  

A biography is by definition a description of the life, not of the work, but Mr Walker knows only too well how intimately the two of them are connected. Some of his points are very suggestive. Surely, it can’t be a coincidence that Liszt made his magnificent transcription (with a touch of paraphrase) of Isolde’s “Liebestod” in 1867 when the crisis between his daughter and his present and future sons-in-law was at its most acrimonious stage. The Cosima-Bülow-Wagner triangle is a mind-boggling story: it makes soap operas and dime novels look profound. But there is no doubt it did cause Liszt much pain. Under the circumstances, it seems natural that he chose to transcribe what is possibly the most shattering moment in the Wagner canon. Mr Walker is correct: “It may be Wagner’s music, but it is of Liszt that we think when we hear the paraphrase itself. At its centre it contains a bitterness of heart – for those with ears to hear.”

Mr Walker is actually rather strong on musical matters. Most of Liszt’s major works – the B minor Sonata, the Faust Symphony, Christus – enjoy fairly extensive discussions with plenty of musical examples. Rather surprisingly (but what a pleasant surprise!), so do still neglected works like the songs, the transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, Via Crucis and The Bells of Strasbourg (the last of these, a short cantata, is virtually never heard or recorded). The astonishing late piano pieces enjoy a whole chapter on their own, and though Mr Walker conventionally concentrates on music theory, he does remind us that “we make a mistake when we detach his late music from the disturbed emotions from which it emerged.” He memorably describes many of these pieces as “fragments broken off from a greater whole, each one offering a glimpse of the pathology of despair.” This is the type of biographical writing that makes you, or at any rate me, pay special new attention to familiar works.

Other points are even more subtle and revealing. The Second Legend (St Francis of Paola Walking of the Waves) is a case in point. How many Liszt enthusiasts, not to mention pianists who play the piece, know that its coda contains a self-quotation from An den heiligen Franziskus von Paula, a short work for male chorus and organ composed a few years earlier? The words associated with the music are “O let us preserve Love whole” – which expands the scope of the work well beyond the picturesque story of St Francis emulating the example of Jesus Christ. “Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este” is one of the most famous among Liszt’s solo piano works. But how many piano lovers know it’s a religious piece? There is no doubt about that. Liszt prefaced the score with a quotation from John (4:14) and set the piece in his “beatific key”, F sharp major (just like, for example, “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude”). This is the kind of detail, again, that makes me listen to a familiar piece with new ears.

On the subject of program music, still misunderstood by superficial folk, Mr Walker is rather brief, but he still makes some excellent points. These amount to no more than pure common sense, but, as we all know, “common sense” is a misnomer for something rather uncommon. Picturesque titles, prefaces and programs should not be followed too slavishly, Mr Walker advises, for they are no more than, at best, a bit of autobiography which we may or may not accept as relevant to the music. Mr Walker is definitely correct that music is an autonomous art; it develops quite independently from external factors. No bad piece of music has ever been saved by a good program anymore than a good piece has been harmed by a bad program. The distinction between “absolute” and “program” music is an illusion. Music is music, either it moves you or it doesn’t, but certainly it is not painting or sculpture or architecture. The composers themselves agree with that. Schumann put it beautifully in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (NZfM) in 1843 when he said “First of all let me hear that you have made beautiful music; after that I will like your programme too.” Liszt was less witty but more eloquent, and he said pretty much the same thing in his essay on Berlioz and Harold in Italy (1855):

In the final analysis, Liszt’s “programme music” must stand or fall as music. Indeed, he himself said as much, in one of those thought-provoking aphorisms that jump from the page as if propelled by the interior springs of their own logic. After reminding us that a Slavic poet had once proclaimed, “The word lies to the thought;/The deed lies to the word.” Liszt added: “But music does not lie to the feelings.”

(Incidentally, Hanslick, who fancied himself not only a critic but also a philosopher, declared in his influential book Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (2nd edn., 1858) that music cannot express even feelings. Mr Walker doesn’t have the space to deal with this nonsense – Deryck Cooke does that brilliantly in The Language of Music (1959) – but he mentions some of the replies that came from the Liszt circle in Weimar. The most interesting was by Richard Pohl who subjected Hanslick’s idea to a reductio ad absurdum anticipating computers and artificial intelligence by well over a century. If music is merely an abstract game of forms and colours, Herr Pohl argued, the time will come when it can be done by a “composing machine” and then the process will become as meaningless as a child play. Evidently Hanslick was an envious and emotionally crippled man bent on finding theoretical reasons for his practical dislike. His influence in Vienna of the late nineteenth century is baffling. It resembles a ghastly oil spill in a beautiful ocean.)

Yet judicious speculation on programs can be enlightening. Mr Walker’s discussion of the so-called “Dante Sonata” should serve as an example in this respect. He makes it clear that Liszt left no clues except his “tersely worded title”, Après une Lecture de Dante, which was taken from a poem by Victor Hugo and “can mean all things to all men”. This is in striking contrast with nearly all other pieces from the “Italian Year” of Années de pèlerinage which unmistakably lead to Raphael, Michelangelo and Petrarch. Mr Walker identifies the two obvious main subjects, but he connects them with heaven and hell through their keys. The first one, right after the ominous introduction which makes abundant use of diabolus in musica, “depicts the souls of hell wailing in anguish” in D minor, the same key as much of Liszt’s Totentanz and the first movement of the Dante Symphony, not to mention other music associated with the underworld like the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The second subject, a beautiful chorale-like theme, is in F sharp major. We already know what that means.

Mr Walker shows that both subjects, though vastly different, were actually derived from one another. And though Liszt was silent on the matter, his long-term British pupil Walter Bache made a number of pencil notes in his personal copy of the music which link the main subjects to exact passages of Inferno. This may – or may not! – have come originally from Liszt, but it is certainly suggestive that the first appearance of the chorale-like theme, marked “presto agitato assai” (right before the return of the introduction) should be deemed to represent the One whom Dante describes as “the creature eminent in beauty once”. Excluding one musical example, Mr Walker concludes his analysis thus:

As if to confirm this interpretation, the theme of “Hell’s Monarch” is used by Liszt in a final transformation of great beauty to suggest the scene where Dante gazes up to heaven and hears in the distance the music of Paradise. Hell and heaven, it tells us, are but different sides of the same coin: Lucifer himself once sat at the right hand of God, and his power and ostentation are here revealed to have their origins in a divine source.

It seems to me, then, that the “Dante” Sonata is something like a precursor of the Dante Symphony. The latter is extended with the story of Paolo and Francesca, but it does follow essentially the same path from hell to purgatory and, finally, to heaven. But, of course, you are perfectly free to supply your own programs. They may have nothing to do with Dante and be just as valid. In any case, Mr Walker is right to call the “Dante” Sonata one of Liszt’s “unique creations”. It is a tremendous piece, if not quite on par with the B minor Sonata, certainly not inferior to the Second Ballade, Grosses Konzertsolo or Vallée d'Obermann. Composed as early as 1839, at least in its first of many versions (see Vol. 51 of Leslie Howard’s great series), the “Dante” Sonata is one of Liszt’s earliest experiments with thematic transformation on a grand scale. All three themes (including the descending motif from the beginning) are subjected to an amazing metamorphosis. Too bad this work is still underrated by pianists and public alike.

The chapters on Liszt’s revolution of the keyboard and the orchestra are masterful. Typically in his style, Mr Walker doesn’t waste your time with “liner notes” you can find in Wikipedia and countless CD booklets. Instead, he spends some time on Liszt’s endless search for orchestral colour, for instance in his imaginative use of harp and large percussion sections, and he gives a vivid idea just how shockingly original Liszt was in terms of form and harmony. We of the early 21st century tend to be rather blasé about these things, but in the mid-1850s things like the opening of the Faust Symphony and the conclusion of Orpheus were startling, to say the least. As for the piano, it’s probably safe to say that nobody has ever known this instrument better than Liszt. After all, this is the man who made a piano transcription of the Fantastique at the age of 22! Liszt was absorbed for his entire creative life with solving technical problems at the piano, suggesting imaginative fingerings, drawing richer sonorities and improving the notation. He was, in the telling phrase coined by a contemporary, a “piano centaur”, half man and half piano.  

“Liszt the Conductor” is another revolutionary topic. Harold Schonberg, who devoted a chapter on Liszt in his book The Great Conductors (1967), was the pioneer, but even thirty years later (The Lives of the Great Composers, 3rd edn., 1997, p. 202) he could still write, no doubt correctly, that the role of Liszt as a conductor was not generally recognised. Mr Walker makes a fine case that Liszt was, in fact, the first modern conductor, that is one more concerned with interpretation and expression than with being a walking metronome. So he had to endure, as in the case of his music, a good deal of negative criticism. But Liszt was nothing if not tenacious. He continued to champion his own conducting style and deplore his colleagues who were content merely to beat time. When Liszt said “We are helmsmen, not oarsmen” (“Wir sind Steuermänner und keine Ruderknechte”) or “Technique should create itself out of the spirit, not out of mechanics” (“Aus dem Geist schafte sich die Technik, nicht aus der Mechanik”), he was not just being witty. He was stating profound truths about conducting as an art. (So was Hans von Bülow with his famous dictum that one should conduct with the score in one’s head, not with one’s head in the score.)

Mr Walker provides an invaluable table with conducting appearances by Liszt – 216 of them in the course of 44 years (1840–84) – which he modestly describes as “little more than a preliminary attempt to document his work in this area”. They were confined in the tiny area between Berlin, Aachen, Pest and Rome, and they dramatically declined after 1861 for obvious reasons, but the sheer amount alone is enough to take Liszt seriously as a conductor. Mr Walker provides the programs, too. Liszt gave no fewer than 33 world premieres, 23 of his own works and 10 divided between Wagner, Schumann, Schubert, Rubinstein, Sobolewski and Cornelius. In addition to other works by these composers, his repertoire included a good deal of Beethoven, especially the Ninth Symphony which he championed tirelessly, and selected works by Berlioz, Mozart, Weber, Verdi, Flotow, Bellini, Donizetti, Mendelssohn, Gluck, Handel, Meyerbeer, Cherubini, Raff, Spohr and a host of composers nobody remembers today. Rather an extensive repertoire! And mostly concerned, to the consternation of Hanslick and co., with composers who, rather than trying to repeat what Beethoven had done so well, tried to do something essentially new.

What was Liszt like as a conductor? One of the illustrations in Volume 2 shows a rare caricature (c. 1851) of Liszt conducting “forte” (hands outstretched above his hand) and “piano” (crouching over the podium). But though Liszt employed a large arsenal of gestures, he detested choreography for its own sake and dismissed its practitioners contemptuously as “windmills”. He detested bars and paid no attention to them when they conflicted with his ideas of musical expression. Surprisingly or not, there were plenty of positive responses to his conducting. He was thought highly enough of, despite some stiff opposition, to be invited in Vienna for the Mozart Centenary in 1856. It was at this festival that Clara Schumann, who was supposed to be the soloist, refused to go on the same stage with Liszt. Dear Clara!

Last but not least, Liszt’s conducting career provides us with unexpected insights into the revolutionary character of his own works. He did have several very unpleasant experiences, such as the Gran Mass in Paris mentioned above (1866) or the world premiere of the Dante Symphony in Dresden (1857), yet these were the result of poor conditions which Liszt was foolish to accept, but which tell us nothing about him as conductor or composer. A striking anecdote can illustrate both. In 1859 in Berlin, Bülow and Liszt conducted the symphonic poem Die Ideale with the same orchestra and in the same hall within several weeks. The response to Bülow, one of the greatest conductors of the nineteenth century and at this time still a fervent supporter of Liszt, was rather cool. The composer was far more successful conducting his own music, and though something of the success may have been due to his personal charisma, the incident does suggest that, first, Liszt was a remarkable conductor and, second, that even zealous Lisztians sometimes found his works beyond their powers of interpretation. Die Ideale is admittedly a long and episodic work, difficult to carry off even today, but it has been done several times on record.

Understandably, Mr Walker didn’t have the space to provide the same coverage for Liszt’s career as a travelling virtuoso, but he does have some revealing statistics, including a table and a map with all cities that had the privilege to hear Liszt between 1838 and 1847. The itinerary is impressive. It extends from Glasgow and St Petersburg in the north to Gibraltar in the south, Lisbon in the west, and Constantinople and Moscow in the east. The exact number of concerts has yet to be estimated, but they are certainly over 1,000. All this in less than ten years! When one remembers that in those days travelling was by stagecoach, one wonders how Liszt survived the ordeal at all. He continued to play in public until old age, but only occasionally and always for free; in private, as a token of gratitude to his hosts or for the benefit of his students, he was active at the keyboard until a few weeks before his death. Countless testimonies of his playing survive, including some by the finest musical minds of the nineteenth century. Wagner and Berlioz, no less, were bowled over when Liszt performed Beethoven for them in private. Perhaps the most telling reaction is the one of the man who wrote the nastiest stuff about Liszt’s music. Eduard Hanslick, who was certainly not among the finest musical minds of the century (as we’ve seen above), simply adored Liszt’s playing. If it was powerful enough to conquer even the mighty prejudices of the Viennese prig, then it must have been something truly extraordinary indeed.

One of the many neglected sides of Liszt’s complex make-up which Mr Walker brings forward is the sense of humour. Prodigious throughout all volumes and all periods of his life, it ranges from playful wit to caustic sarcasm. Perhaps a few examples of Lisztian repartee would be appropriate here. When he was asked why he never wrote an autobiography, Liszt replied that it was enough to have lived a life like his own. When he was asked whether so-and-so really was his illegitimate son, Liszt’s answer was the following: “I knew his mother only through correspondence, and one can’t arrange that sort of thing by correspondence.” Liszt was no less – indeed, he was more – devastating on musical matters. He was in the habit of describing unimaginative compositions as “Leipzigerisch”, clearly alluding to the conservative circles in Leipzig where Schumann and Mendelssohn, among many lesser figures, had formed a bastion of tradition. Even more charmingly, he once perused one of Anton Rubinstein’s new works and accused him of “fishing in Mendelssohnian waters”. He could be withering about prodigies (“artists to be”) and “critics by profession”. Expressive emphasis indeed!

It would be untrue to say that Liszt never took anything seriously. Rather, he had the happy gift of taking everything not too seriously. Certainly, it must have helped that he could turn his sense of humour towards himself. On his invention of the piano recital, he wrote to Princess Belgiojoso in June 1839 that he attempted to emulate Louis XIV and said to the public “Le concert, c’est moi!” In later years, confronted with the growing coolness even of his friends and disciples, not to mention his enemies, Liszt’s humour became sadder and more pessimistic. “Unfortunately musical history is full to overflowing with unresolved dissonances”, he once poignantly wrote with more than a touch of autobiography. He referred to himself as “that notorious non-composer Franz Liszt”. This hardly sounds unreasonable when one remembers the double negative faith that his works suffered during his lifetime. They were seldom performed in the great musical capitals, and then only to be lambasted by all and sundry. No wonder Liszt discouraged his pupils from playing his music lest their careers be jeopardized. When Alfred Jaëll wrote with permission to perform the First Piano Concerto (31 March 1857), Liszt replied with what must be one of the most bitter pieces of self-sarcasm in his entire correspondence:

What is the matter? Cannot you hear the ever-increasing rumblings of the Goliaths of learned criticism, the yappings and croaks, the protests and invectives from newspapers of all sizes... which declare in unison a truth which is truer than true: that LISZT has never been and never will be capable of writing four bars... that he is sentenced without remission to drag around the ball and chain of transcription in perpetuity.

Last and least, I may allow myself a few mild complaints. Outstanding as Mr Walker’s scholarship is, occasionally his sources are missing or his interpretation of the facts suspicious. Perhaps the most ignominious example is the completely unsourced claim that Goebbels regarded Wagner’s anti-Jewish pamphlet “as a key document in the Final Solution”. Then, amazingly enough, Mr Walker goes on to state that “Wagner himself provides the damning evidence in his last sentence” where he, presumably, invites the Jews to annihilate themselves. Whatever Wagner said or wrote, the fact remains that he died 50 years before the Nazis came to power. It is high-handed to claim for him any responsibility for the Nazi ideology, still less for the Final Solution, and it is preposterous to ask him to provide evidence on posthumous matters. And at least one well-documented source about Goebbels, or any other high-ranking Nazi official extolling Wagner’s writings, would have been really nice.

Somewhat ironically, Mr Walker once or twice falls in the traps of program music for which he has warned his readers. For instance, when he discusses Pohl’s fascinating 1862 essay on the Faust Symphony, he says that the labels of various motifs such as “Passion”, “Pride”, “Longing”, “Triumph” and “Love”, which have been copied into virtually every extensive discussion of the work ever since, “are useful, for their disclosure could only have come from Liszt himself.” No other evidence for this bold claim is given, and I really don’t see why the labels could not have come from Pohl himself. Now, Richard Pohl was doubtless close to Liszt during the Weimar years. They shared a lot of common ideals about the so-called Zukunftmusik. Pohl’s wife, Jeanne, was a virtuoso harpist to whom Liszt offered a position in the Weimar orchestra (hence the inspiration behind his writing for harp). The Pohls, in fact, lived for a decade in Weimar where they must have been in daily contact with Liszt. But all this doesn’t necessarily mean that Liszt endorsed every opinion that Pohl, a prolific writer on music, expressed on the pages of NZfM.

It must be noted that at least one missing source may be a deliberate snub of Harold Schonberg. One of his characteristic biographical blunders is quoted, but the author is credited only as “one modern journalist”. On famous duel with Thalberg, Mr Schonberg wrote the absurd rhetorical exaggeration that “Liszt, his nostrils dilated, rushed to Paris to defend his throne”. As Mr Walker shows conclusively, Liszt did nothing of the kind. The contest with Thalberg was of much lesser importance to him than it has been to gossipy journalists ever since.  

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