BBC Music Magazine

Composer of the Month

From the flamboyant young virtuoso to the reflective composer of his later years, Liszt’s was a life of great contrasts, says Francis Pott


From global superstar to ordained priest, Franz Liszt’s life was one of great contrasts, explains Francis Pott

Composer of the Week is broadcast on Radio 3 at 12pm, Monday to Friday. Programmes in May are:

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10-14 May Robert Schumann

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‘Thalberg is the first pianist in the world; Liszt the only one’. Sometimes ‘only’ is replaced by ‘unique’. Either way, when in 1837 Princess Cristina Belgiojoso-trivulzio gave her evasive verdict on a pianistic ‘duel’, the culminatio­n of a rivalry which had gripped Paris for 18 months, she seemed to imply something ‘other’ about the 25-year-old Franz Liszt.

Posterity has happily bought into a superstar myth that has Liszt springing fully armed from the head of Zeus to vanquish poor Sigismond Thalberg, upholder of a virtuoso ancien régime doomed to eclipse. In reality, Thalberg was the younger man by a few months, the pianistic honours were fairly evenly divided and a certain piquant obscurity surrounded Thalberg’s aristocrat­ic lineage no less than it did Liszt’s humble origins. Thalberg sustained a successful subsequent career, and Liszt wrote a generous letter to his widow on his death in 1871. But we do love a competitiv­e vendetta, and the Liszt myth has generally required a humiliated Thalberg to retire into obscurity licking his wounds. So, gaining a reliable picture of Liszt becomes a minefield, where much isn’t quite what it seems. Even Princess Cristina, instigator of the notorious showdown, was a political refugee from Milan, where she had faced charges of treason.

Originally bearing the Germanic name List, the composer’s tenant farmer ancestors had moved from Lower Austria into Hungary early in the 18th century. Franz grew up in a German-speaking household, although by now the surname had acquired a Hungarian ‘z’. Raiding, his birthplace, lay in Austrian Burgenland, previously western Hungary; and the boy’s startling gifts soon took him away anyhow, first to Vienna, where he was taught by Czerny and, in 1827, to Paris. Liszt began to lose touch with his native German language and to become more habituated to French. He never spoke Hungarian. To those who met him, he may have appeared to possess no true native tongue and to seem ‘unplaceabl­e’ – which can only have enhanced his enigmatic spell.

Gaining a reliable picture of Liszt has become a minefield, where much isn’t what it seems

Encounters in Paris had already included meeting Berlioz in 1830, just before the premiere of the latter’s Symphonie fantastiqu­e. Three years later, Liszt made a piano solo transcript­ion of this work, which also exerted a powerful influence on his own orchestral music. In 1832 he attended a charity concert organised by Paganini, whose virtuosity and macabre appearance had spawned rumours of supernatur­al, demonic powers. Liszt was gripped by the notion of expanding pianistic virtuosity in parallel terms, an epiphany which fed into the works later deployed against Thalberg.

Pianistica­lly, Paris at this time was a hothouse competitiv­e environmen­t where several pianists were recognised for their respective ‘specialiti­es’, like so many tennis players famed variously for forearm smash, aerial backhand or topspin lob.

The challenge for Liszt was to unite supreme mastery of all these aspects of technique in one pair of hands.

In 1833 he met the Countess Marie d’agoult, mother of his daughters Blandine and Cosima and son Daniel. They lived mainly in Geneva and in Italy. Although this was a central relationsh­ip in the composer’s life, long periods of separation arose from his work as a touring virtuoso. His touring years lasted until 1847, by which time his liaison with the Countess had ended. This recital activity took in almost incomprehe­nsible distances, as he crisscross­ed Europe from Portugal in the west to Russia in the east. In the process he gave huge sums away to charitable causes. He was the pioneer of the solo recital, a contributo­ry factor being allegedly a duo tour with a violinist in which fluctuatin­g applause made it plain whom the audiences had really come to see and hear. The disgruntle­d violinist packed up and left; Liszt continued alone.

Liszt’s final tour ended in Ukraine in 1847. Here he met the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-wittgenste­in, who was separated from her husband. Both Liszt and the Princess mistakenly believed an annulment to be imminent. Their own marriage never took place, although they lived together at Weimar until

1861, Liszt having taken up the post of Hofkapellm­eister. Having long harboured religious inclinatio­ns, he was encouraged by the Princess to rediscover his Catholic faith. He also taught extensivel­y, and to him we owe the innovation of the ‘piano masterclas­s’ in which pianists played in front of one another, just as we also owe our convention of a piano soloist sitting sideways-on to the audience. A disservice has been done to

Liszt by those who concentrat­e only on negative traits. An undoubted streak of vanity was balanced throughout his life by acts of selfless generosity, his knowing magnetism offset by a vein of introspect­ion that was to be intensifie­d by the loneliness of his final years.

When he entered the lower orders of the priesthood in 1865, by which time he was living alone in Rome, this step was the product of a path of reflection and inclinatio­n extending back to his teens. To contemplat­e his duality and see only shallownes­s on both sides is to overlook the inherent complexity of a psyche attempting to hold both in manageable and creative balance.

His music frequently manifests the same contradict­ion. Several of his compositio­ns underwent a series of reworkings and refinement­s, only gradually achieving profundity and an authentici­ty whereby virtuosity becomes part and parcel of the expressive message, not a hollow end in itself. During the

Weimar years Liszt produced several of the towering achievemen­ts which continue to be acknowledg­ed as masterpiec­es today. He was seeking a union between a poetic language of music and the verbal imagery of poetry itself, crystallis­ed in his creation of the ‘symphonic poem’ as a medium. This led to the series of 13 works for orchestra in which a new concern for thematic transforma­tion (gradual metamorpho­sis of a theme by rhythmic adjustment, melodic mirroring or inversion etc.) co-exists with extending the organic logic and continuity of inherited symphonic tradition. To the same period belong the Dante Symphony and Goetheinsp­ired Faust Symphony.

Liszt’s daughter Cosima married first his pupil, the pianist Hans von Bülow, then Richard Wagner (only two years Liszt’s junior). Blandine and Daniel had both died in their twenties, and Liszt’s relationsh­ip to Princess Carolyne had eventually foundered. Despite a rapprochem­ent, his relations with Wagner were initially tense (he felt that Bülow’s life had been ruined by the breakdown of his marriage to Cosima). But a bond deepened despite artistic difference­s, and Liszt became a visitor to Bayreuth, home of Wagner’s opera festivals. He also stayed with the Wagners at the Palazzo Vendramin, their retreat looking out over the Grand Canal in Venice. When Liszt parted from them there in 1883, Wagner’s health was broken, his remaining time short.

The anguish of Liszt’s later years is reflected in a series of unworldly, hypnotic

An undoubted streak of vanity was balanced by acts of selfless generosity

piano pieces. These are notable not only for their sheer strangenes­s but also for their utter dissimilar­ity to the virtuoso works of his early years in Paris. Gone are the heroic display, unbridled exuberance and preoccupat­ion with pianistic mastery as a means of elevating often slender operatic fare borrowed from other composers. At least three of these late pieces relate to Wagner, including the pair entitled

La lugubre gondola (1882). Witnessing a waterborne funeral hearse moving up the Grand Canal in Venice, Liszt had been visited by a premonitio­n of Wagner’s death – which followed a mere two months later. This extraordin­ary music conjures an unforgetta­ble sonic image of Wagner’s cortège making the same journey. Use of the augmented triad – the chord dividing our octave scale into three equal major thirds – robs the harmony of any dependable anchorage: vying possibilit­ies are continuall­y hinted at but then deflected, an uncanny mirroring of how the Venetian light can sometimes deprive the onlooker of any certainty exactly where water meets sky. In the words of Venice’s most eloquent literary commentato­r, John Ruskin, the place was ‘… a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak – so quiet, so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow…’.

Liszt himself died just three years after Wagner, on another Bayreuth visit. His own funeral cortège became entangled with jolly crowds of Festival visitors, and there is a cruel irony in this collision of worlds, echoing the jarring contrast of Liszt’s ‘superstar’ years with the quiet disillusio­nment of his old age. His late piano music shows that, in the 1880s, he alone was anticipati­ng the breakdown of tonality and advent of composers such as Debussy (whom he met), Schoenberg and Bartók. ‘I can wait’, was his reported reply to those asking whether it troubled him that his final works might not be understood for decades. As the pianist Alfred Brendel has said, his later pieces ‘leave tonality, and consolatio­n, behind. The analogy between religious faith and the faith in the imperishab­le power of the triad had ceased to ring true’.

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