Franz Liszt’s Life
Franz Liszt was born in Raiding, Hungary, October 22, 1811.
He died in Bayreuth, Bavaria, July 31, 1886.
To the American business-trained mind it may appear strange that some of the great masters have looked at the commercial side of art with a kind of contempt, and that their idealism sometimes went so far as to neglect totally the financial possibilities of their profession, and even spoil the advantageous chances offered to them in order to attain their lofty, artistic aims.
But, as in the case of Franz Liszt, to whom the present essay is devoted, it often happened that just this seemingly absurd way of thinking and acting procured them general sympathy and admiration, and brought them nearer to immortality. In spite of its paradoxical aspect, through the law of compensation, even glory and wealth are often awarded to those who do not seek them, to those who do not kneel in abject adoration before false gods.
“When and where my compositions will be performed,” wrote Liszt to a friend, “I do not care. To write my works is an artistic necessity for me. It is enough to have written them.”
And, speaking of his Symphonic Poem Hamlet, which did not seem to appeal to the public, he said; “Probably this work is going to be severely criticized, but, like some parents who show a preference for their crippled children, I have a predilection for it.”
He preferred to use his gifts and his influence in favor of his fellow artists. Especially he showed this noble unselfishness in the case of Wagner. He worked in his behalf, even on the occasion of the Bulow catastrophe, which was the cause of so many troubles to him. He went on working in favor of the Bayreuth Festispiele so that Wagner had to exclaim: “I praise God for having created such a man!” And on another occasion: “Do you know of a musician who is more musical than Liszt, who prides himself on a greater and deeper possession of every branch of music, who has more refined and delicate feelings, who knows and can do more, who is more gifted by nature and more educated through study? Can you tell me an anybody like him? No. Then trust yourself wholly to his leadership.”
This activity in favor of Wagner alienated the sympathy not only of a great part of the press, but also of Liszt’s best friends, such friends as Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Schumann.
His was a compelling personality, as if by the exercise of an irresistible force of nature which attracts everything.
High and low, princes and persons of the common people, were among his followers. He was full of affection for his pupils, in whom he sought to arouse and develop the best qualities. Wherever he showed himself, he was surrounded by a crowd of admirers, in the midst of whom he appeared like a saint. Once, when he heard that nobody would give work to a former convict, he took him into his service and kept him for years. All who were employed by him were passionately devoted to him, for he was kind and indulgent toward the serving class. Somebody said that Liszt had only weaknesses, but no faults.
Liszt’s Unusual Traits
As soon as circumstances allowed him, that is from the year 1847, he gave his teaching gratuitously. He, who through his playing had won millions for others, had no wants for himself. The man of the world lived like a hermit without any desire for worldly possessions. He even deprived himself of necessities to help those who were in need. He rarely wore any ornament, although uncounted gifts and distinctions were presented to him. His door and his purse were open to everybody and, for all that, he knew how to give with grace, so that the recipient would not be offended.
No wonder that this marvelous, radiant figure of a man and artist won admiration and love from all who had the privilege of coming near him – admiration for the unique combination of genius and knowledge, and love for his noble altruistic character, for his readiness to recognize the talent of others, to give freely of his belongings, to impart instruction to all thirsty for it, and for his fascinating personality. No wonder that audiences were electrified by his wonderful playing, and that brilliant women fell in love with him and, in return for his affection, gave him sublime, divine inspiration.
Of course, such an artist cannot be measured with the common and accepted standards of society. Philistines may protest against his irregular liaisons, but when we consider that even two popes, Pius IX and Leo XIII, who by their high office were surely the most competent judges of morality, closed their eyes to Liszt’s peccadillos and accepted him at the Vatican with the utmost cordiality, we shall certainly not show ourselves “plus royalistes que le roi” and condemn him too severely. Once cannot overlook the fact that, in spite of the external break with social conventionalists, Liszt remains a lofty, ideal figure.
Liszt dedicated his nine “Symphonic Poems” to Caroline, as he writes in his dedication, “the one who exalted her faith through love, who built her happiness through self-sacrifice,” and in his testament for Caroline, which he wrote in 1859, he declared: “I would that I possessed an unlimited genius to be able to sing with sublime tunes this sublime soul! If, however, anything of my works should remain after my departure, it would be only those leaves in which Caroline, through her heart inspriation, had the largest part.” He used to call himself the “twin spirit” of his beloved.
On the occasion of a concert he gave in Odessa for the victims of the great conflagration, he met for the first time Caroline Princesse Wittgenstein, who played such an important part in his life. She was the daughter of the Russian nobleman Ivanowski and ofhis wife, born Princesse Potocka.
Another contrast in Liszt’s life is his enthusiasm for the gypsies, those half savages, whose morale does surely not harmonize with the strict dictates of the church. But perhaps it was chiefly their music which enchanted him. He became, indeed, the artistic exponent of their music, using freely of augmented intervals and of the characteristic rhythmic peculiarities of their tunes, as a fundament for his famous “Rhapsodies.” In his love for the native country he also gave the first impulse to the foundation of the “Hungarian Music Academy,” in Budapest (1873), of which he became the honorary president.
We will only mention glissando his short infatuation for George Sand and the brilliant Duchesse de Fleury, but must dwell longer on his relation with the Countesse Marie d’ Agoult. History, of course, explains that she was unhappily married, that being the common excuse for capricious wives. Liszt was among the in-times of her fashionable solon. The charm of the countess, then 29 years old, did not fail to enchain the sensitive and fantastic youth of 24. Liszt tried first to fly away from the enchantress, but, as he was in Berne, she appeared before him unexpectedly and declared: “Now you have me forever!” They went together to Geneva and then to Italy. In 1835 their first daughter, Blandina, was born. and in 1837 the second, Cosmia, who played afterwards such a momentous role in the lives of three famous musicians, her father, Liszt: her first husband, Hans von Bulow, and her second, Richard Wagner.
In Rome finally the countess bestowed upon him their third child, Daniel. Liszt legalized the three children and assigned to every one of them a small fortune. After ten years of more or less discordant life, both lovers became aware that their affection was not of the kind “that never dies” and they separated in the year 1844. His daughter, Blandina, was married to the French statesman Olivier, and Daniel, after having been educated as a lawyer, died of tuberculosis.
I shall quote here a letter Liszt wrote to Daniel as he received a prize in Paris for a historical essay, as it can be held as an example to every one who strives after success and happiness.
Liszt’s Letter to His Son
“Impress upon yourself that only continuous work, uninterrupted striving, give freedom, morality, fame and true greatness. Since my 12th year I was compelled to work for my own and my parents’ existence and to attend only to musical studies, but afterwards I found that I lacked the necessary culture to enable me to be equal to all the prominent men with whom I came into social connection. So I learned to think over different matters and educated myself through lectures, scientific studies and I began to distinguish myself from the most of my profession, who only busy themselves with sixteenth notes and waste their life with trivialities and vulgarities.”
The peculiar direction Liszt’s genius took was due to the influence of Berlioz and Wagner. Liszt stands as the foremost composer of the programme music. He makes the musical form depend solely upon the development of the poetic idea. He thus gave to the world the Symphonic Poem, in which programme music has said the last word up to the present time. In the beginning he found, of course, bitter opposition. On the occasion of the Music Festival in Aix-le-Chapelle (1857), which was under his leadership, he said that the ‘Liszt-chase” originated “after a hiss given with his door key by my old friend, Ferdinand Hiller.” It developed into a regular boycott on the part of the “Firm Brahms,” as he called it. The members of that clique gave out a declaration as follows: “The undersigned declare that they repudiate and condemn the products of the so-called ‘New German School’, which practice the principles of the Brendel musical paper (the Zeitschrift fur Musik) and strive to introduce the use of monstrous theories as contrary to the essence of music. Signed: Johannes Brahms, Josef Joachim, Jul. O. Grimm, Bernhard Scholz.”
Liszt regarded Brahms as only a rhythmicist, but he could not find sympathy with his formalism. He said the he could not speak with Brahms more than a quarter of an hour, as he had something repulsive about him. “He is published and played, but I never heard anything of his that gave artistic enjoyment or had a real success. He things much, but he has few musical thoughts.”
Raff, on the other hand, accepted the congratulations of people who thought he was helping Liszt in the orchestration of his works, as long as he seemed to be successful, but, as unfavorable criticism began to appear, Baff declared that Liszt had become stubborn and did not accept his advice any more.
Liszt and a Corrupt Critic
An influential critic took advantage of the precarious position of Liszt and offered to write a favorable report of his works if he would pay his expenses. Liszt answered: “I never paid money for music criticism, neither do I seek thee nor thy kindred,” whereupon in the first music paper of Leipsic one could read: “Liszt is not worthy of German appreciation, as his preference for the French language is compromising Wagner and Bayreuth.”
Concerning his marvelous piano playing, Heine used to say that “it was the purest expression of love – the piano disappeared and the music alone was revealed.” His unparalleled charm resulted from the complete mastery over all branches of musical art, from the most intimate style to the greatest and most complex forms. Even as he interpreted the works of other masters he was not simply and interpreter but a creator and, although the greatest piano virtuoso of all times, he rang the death-knell to virtuosity.
He was opposed to straining after effect in piano playing as well as in composition or in life. He used to say to his pupils, “Do not shake thus, my child; that is only external expression; the sentiment does not seat in the shoulders.” “No economy, no sparing in the trills. I like rich, long trills.” In his lessons there was an audience of concert pianists, that made nervous the most of his pupils. One had to be very quick-witted, as he used to give new things to play at sight, and even from intricate scores. He said he liked to hear men and not academical pedants. “I am not a professor,” he said.
He said that pianists were like sheep. “If some famous artist brings out a seldom-performed composition all the others are jumped after the model, otherwise only a small part of the important works gets a public hearing.” As the greatest part of his American, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, Danish and Dutch pupils desired to play his E flat concerto, he declared one day: “If anybody dares to bring again that concerto he will have the choice between the door and the window!”
Liszt’s Creative Work
Liszt’s creative work comprises all forms of music, instrumental as well as vocal. Among the most important are his “Symphonic Poems,” two piano concertos, fifteen “Hungarian Rhapsodies,” Phantasie on the name Bach, the piano transcription of Six Bach Preludes and Fugues for Organ, “Transcendental Etudes,” Graner Mass, the oratorio “Christus” and the “Legend of Saint Elizabeth,” also produced on the stage as sacred opera.
His literary works, many in support of Wagner, were published by L. Bamann in 6 volumes (Liszt Writings). The correspondence between Wagner and Liszt was publsihed in 1887.
Of Paganini’s playing he said that it ws fascinating but superficial. “Thalberg,” he said “was for a time more in vogue than myself, only he appeared to be so smooth, so spick and span, while I was so wild, so effervescent.”
In a Vienna salon Liszt was asked if he was jealous of Thalberg. “Yes,” he answered; “I am jealous of his complexion, because he has so fresh colors while I am so pale.”
As Wagner showed Liszt for the first time his “Parsifal” he said; “You will see how I have stolen you.” for a time the opinion prevailed that Wagner was the originator of the leitmotiv, while, as Liszt remarked, the legitimate inventor of the leitmotiv is Berlioz with the “idee fixe”of his “Symphonie Phantastique.” Liszt afterwards took up the idea and used it before Wagner in a time when Wagner had only arrived at his Rienzi. Wagner himself recognized that and wrote to Liszt: “thou hast truly helped me.” On another occasion he said: “Since my acquaintance with Liszt compositions I have become quite a different man as a harmonist.” Liszt was indeed never tired of seeking unusual harmonic combinations. He used to say that no new composition was worthy of consideration which did not contain some novel chord.
As Berlioz could not find any publisher for his “Symphonie Phantastique” Liszt made a piano transcription of the same, fifteen years beforethe publication ofthe original score, and playe dit in his concert tours. As Miss Smithson, the “idee fixe” of the said Symphonie, would not accept with favor the adoration of Berlioz for her, the unfortunate lover had decided to end with life and poison himself. Liszt succeeded in dissuading him from his suicidal purpose. Afterwards he engaged in Berlioz propaganda and arranged a Berlioz week in Weimar (1851) at a time when France hesitated in recognizing her great son. Berlioz showed his gratitude through the dedication of his “Faust Symphonie” and “Damnation de Faust.” Later, however, his gratitude did not prevent Berlioz from leaving abruptly the Salle Erard in Paris as one of Liszt’s “Symphonie Poems” was performed, with the remark that “Liszt’s music was the negation of music.”
Of Rubinstein, Liszt said that he played his paraphrase of Erlkoenig” better than himself. “He has an astonishing capacity for work and gives birth to twins and triplets without finding time for correction.”
On the occasion of the Christmas festivities in Rome, the sculptor, Ezekiel, presenting to Liszt a bust he had made of him, remarked that to Liszt we owe the blessing that in every home there is not only one, but several pianos.
Liszt had almost no income from his compositions. He wrote very few commercial things. Publishers asked from him only transcriptions. His most important works found no market at all and Liszt had to pay for their publication.
He was very particular concerning manners. He was often shocked when people could not eat decently. He said once to a friend: “If you did that in England they would throw you out. You must know that I am a professor of the art of eating.”
He was in favor of cremation. He said that he would prescribe it in his testament for himself, but he feared to have troubles with the clergy, although as a matter of fact, the church had condoned him many more momentous deviations from the path of righteousness, as, for instance, his being a master freemason!
When he went to Leipsic with his usual Weimar retinue to hear the rehearsal of his Christus, he was searching at the end his silk hat. All looked after it in the church pews, but could not find it. Finally, as he got up from his seat, he discovered that he had sat on it an flattened it beyond recognition.
Once day, as he was at his breakfast in Weimar, light pebbles began to fly through the open window. They were thrown by two American girls who wished to call attention upon themselves, as nobody was admitted to Liszt’s presence at such an early hour. They declared that they wished to see and hear Liszt. “Quite an original idea,” remarked Liszt, “let them in.”
“I suppose you wish to hear me, just because I happen to be the fashion.”
“Exactly,” answered the one.
“What do you wish to hear?”
“Anything you know by heart,” answered the other with unheard of impudence.
Liszt, smiling, played Chopin’s Third Etude. Somebody reminding him of his extraordinary generosity, he said; “America has treated me kindly in the time when Europe ridiculed my works.”
Such an extraordinary artist, of course, cannot be imitated. He can only give inspiration to those who strive to elevate and exalt themselves above everyday routine and petty professional envies and rivalries. However, some prominent traits in his life ought to be taken as guiding stars; first of all the broadmindedness, with which he judged his contemporaries, helping them with his generous support, recommending them in his writings, playing publicly their compositions, even contributing pecuniarily to secure their performance. In this time, when everybody works feverishly only for his cherished self, it sounds quite fabulous that an artist of Liszt’s caliber often disregarded himself and concentrated all his activity for other people’s propaganda. Dear colleagues, do not forget the lesson and, as hard as it may appear to you, try to overcome egotism and to be friendly and sympathetic toward your brothers. Make others happy and happiness will reverberate to yourself.
Another delicate point is the great influence women had on Liszt’s life. His father, Adam Liszt, on his deathbed, expressed the fear that women would prove troublesome in his son’s life. So it was; but what wonderful inspiration he owed to them!