Liszt and Wagner


FRANZ LISZT: MUSICIAN, CELEBRITY, SUPERSTAR, by Oliver Hilmes, translated by Stewart Spencer, Yale University Press, 2017. Reviewed by Stoddard Martin

Where is the historian/biographer who can achieve something approaching pure objectivity? Who will try to comprehend how his subject felt in the morning, waking after a troubled dream and walking out in the dew to greet the dawn over an unfamiliar hill? Who will eschew the journalist’s longing for gossip, the ‘inside story’ of some Daily Mail-worthy scandal, and attend to the spirit as much as to the flesh? Who may endeavour to locate what Proust called ‘the intervals of the heart’ and is ready to go ‘under the skin of the other’, as Schopenhauer counselled and Wagner regarded as pivotal to revelation for his ultimate dramatic persona, Parsifal?

One longs for commentary that does not have one eye cocked toward titillation of a contemporary commercial audience. Biography as sister-genre of reality TV might appeal to commissioning editors hopeful of packaging books in more lucrative media; but for those who sit in libraries surrounded by great works of the ages, as Liszt’s daughter Cosima did for more than five decades at Wahnfried, or travel to and fro across Europe whiling away hours with equivalents to the breviaries, libretti and scores that the composer occupied himself with for even longer, a reductio ad mass taste in the provinciality of our present must seem a mortifying comedown.

Oliver Hilmes in his latest biography has done his journeyman task with the exactitude his era requires. He has read all the sources, extant correspondence and previous books on his subject. He has covered the ground and his tracks to the extent that a critic with the temerity to judge his work ill may risk provoking a legion of others to leap to his defence. But no amount of documentary record can finally alter the lebenskurve an author presents; and that lebenskurve will be true to its subject only insofar as an author’s point of view and integrity allow. Thus it is always relevant to ask who is the author and where is he ‘coming from’?

A forty-ish, clean-shaven, short-cropped, square-visaged man in a natty cheese-cutter looks out from the photo on the back flap of this comfortable, expensively produced Yale University Press book. He wears a genial, knowing, perhaps smug thin-lipped smile. His collar is flipped up as against the cold yet his coat is unbuttoned as he stands before a grainy marble or stone wall. He is described as the ‘author of several best-selling biographies’ who ‘holds a Ph.D in 20th century history and lives in Berlin’. His volume was first published in Munich in 2011 under the title Liszt Biographie eines Superstars. Its back cover displays a contemporary cartoon of Liszt at the piano wowing a bevy of excitable young women beneath a breathless encomium from British actor Simon Callow.

The reader may ponder what these promotional choices portend. Not, one may posit, the kind of austere, hard-paced devotion to a ‘case’ of genius or greatness such as once flowed from the pens of Emil Ludwig, Leon Feuchtwanger or Stefan Zweig. They belonged to a ‘dangerous’ era and, though Jewish all, may be dismissed now as having contributed to a Zeitgeist that led to the ultimate in romantic overreaching. Hilmes has grown up in a generation of Germans devoted to making up for all that: to outdoing French Bartheans of the 1970s in concentration on forensic detail, and American post-modernists of the ‘80s in awareness of the politically correct, sexual revolutionaries of a feminist and gay epoch. Over all runs an era’s resistance to the ‘delusions’ of old religious yearnings and their descendent, a ‘religion’ of art that enshrines aesthetics as coequal or superior to ethics.

The story that Hilmes tells is of a young man from rural Hungary whose father was a minor civil servant and frustrated musician who contrived to give his boy the chance he had not had. Risking much, he moved the family to Vienna and, by dint of applying to great powers – Count Esterházy, even the Emperor – managed to get precocious Franz under the supervision of Czerny and Salieri, thus on his way to becoming a performing prodigy of a kind not seen since Wolfgang ‘beloved of God’. Conquest of Vienna was followed by that of Paris and elsewhere. Hard days on the road brought the father to his end when the boy was a teen; but young Franz carried on, making Paris his base and French his language of choice. Aristocrats took note of his arresting attractions; piano-makers offered instruments for him to pound, even smash. He played for the Orléanist duke who became ‘bourgeois’ monarch. The age of Louis-Philippe was his heyday. Rivals like Thalberg and Chopin rose and fell. A countess left her husband for him. Georges Sand sheltered the couple at Nohant.

Came illegitimate children: Blandine, Cosima, Daniel. Liszt and his Comtesse d’Agoult rowed and parted, he for the road – a sole familiar home – she back to the salons her transgressive adventure had scandalized. Writing a novel under a nom de plume, she contributed to the demonic appeal of a ‘rockstar’ whose performances were in part versions on piano of what that ‘devil’ Paganini had achieved on violin. The children were brought up by Liszt’s down-to-earth Hungarian mother and the Comtesse’s former governess, a septuagenarian whose values were unrefreshed from the ancien régime. Papa paid bills but was absent. Maman, who had not allowed her name on the birth certificates, lived out of reach across town. Amazingly, Blandine grew up to be the wife of a future premier of France and Cosima of a Berlin aristocrat, Lizst’s most celebrated pupil, who became the greatest conductor of the later 19th century. Daniel alas died young and Blandine too, after childbirth; but that is another tale, having perhaps more to do with the illusions of health care then (as now?) than charges of irresponsibility and neglect such as conventionalist commentators have seen fit to level at a ‘superstar’ dad.

Hilmes concentrates on Liszt as Casanova more than Liszt as composer. He infers that the music always took second fiddle to the sex appeal. This debatable notion leads to a focus on Liszt’s women, and the two that dominated his career seem homologous: both moneyed by blood and ennobled by marriage, tall, dark, exigéante, neurotic, intellectual in aspiration, ambitious for the lover they stooped to conquer and later disillusioned, reclusive, burying themselves in literary life, the first among cliques in Paris, the second amid a forest of theological texts in a gloomy apartment in Rome. Separation from Marie d’Agoult and attachment to Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein marked a watershed in Liszt’s career. Under shelter of her immense wealth, he relinquished performing except for aristocrats or on special occasions and set up in Weimar as impresario for his own and others’ ‘music of the future’. In a phase lasting twelve years, he championed Berlioz and Wagner, collected a broad church of students to his side and mediated the avant garde of an era. Byzantine politics involving his non-marriage to Carolyne, reaching as far as pope and tsars, are detailed by Hilmes; so too their upshot – a third phase of Liszt’s career, as abbé and latterly Hungarian national icon, identities that led back to the road, now triangulating between Weimar, Budapest and Rome with many a detour in between. This phase was complicated not only by the troubles of and with the Princess, but also by Liszt’s surviving child’s adultery with his greatest musical confrère, an imbroglio resulting in further illegitimate offspring, the humiliation of her first husband and the setting up of the Wagner enterprise at Bayreuth.

Liszt’s involvement or not in this last development becomes a major feature of the last part of Hilmes’ tale, taking him back to the realm of this biography’s predecessor – that of ‘the lady of Bayreuth’. Cosima in his view, as in that of the now-distant Princess von Sayn-Wittgenstein, was a nemesis to what had for so long been her absent dad, though she posed often and particularly near his end as dutiful to a fault. She and her eventual second husband Wagner endured years of cold-shouldering by Liszt, who took a conventional position on the adultery scandal – odd, you might think considering his own history with women unhappily married to aristos. Eventually, at Wagner’s fulsome plea, Liszt stopped off at Wahnfried, where he would integrate at least sporadically with what by now was his only true family. Doted on by granddaughters and welcomed in a household such as he himself had never provided, he appears to have grown as happily at home as a peripatetic nature would allow. But Carolyne in Rome was outraged – the ‘pagan’, ‘Buddhist’ Wagners were using him to build their own empire, she averred; others, not less envious females, agreed, and spies were planted to record Wagnerian perfidy. Hilmes follows their accounts, less suspicious commentaries being either unavailable (who writes about contentment, let alone bliss?) or not so delectable to report.

One becomes sceptical of the Cosima-as-nemesis line. Aging Liszt was doubtless a burden: alcoholic, toothless, ill, refusing doctors, bloated beneath a smelly, dandruff-snowed cassock. Yet despite her huge responsibilities with five children and running a house, a festival and fragile finances following her husband’s death, the widow Wagner came to sit by her parent’s sickbed for an hour each morning and, as his condition worsened, to sleep in an anteroom next to him after duties each midnight. This she did, to repeat, for a man who had never been present for her or her siblings as they grew up and had cut her dead for years for doing no more than he had twice – subverting a marriage. Cosima established an enterprise and family whose fortunes continue to this day, notoriety notwithstanding. Her prodigal father did nothing of the kind. Yet what he did do was establish new directions in the musical art on which that enterprise and family fortune rest: romantic, expressionist, modern, futuristic yet also freed to return to more recondite modes, ancient, medieval, religious, of other European traditions.

Not enough is said of Liszt’s later phase devoted to church music or of his phases as revolutionary in performance and culture overall. This is not because Hilmes does not try. On occasion he directs our attention to the amazing trills and arpeggios, leaps of octaves and use of diminuendi or crescendi, kaleidoscopic variations in aural shapes and colours that Liszt’s ‘liberated’ fingers were able to produce. But these flashes come as asides, as do intimations such as that Wagner ‘stole’ from Liszt. Possibly he did, as also from Berlioz and Bellini and others, yet exactly where? in the music? maybe even in the plots of works conceived after the premiere of Lohengrin in Weimar in 1850, by which Liszt saved his revolutionising friend from probable oblivion? We are not told; but educated guesses may be made. Do not Pogner and Hans Sachs, Gurnemanz and Amfortas and possibly even Parsifal himself contain soupçons of Wagner’s future father-in-law’s flickering and fascinating repertoire of masks and personae?

Generations of change in readership result in authorship different from what giants of the 19th century may merit. A pilgrim to the Vatican nowadays may be met by a sound of suppressed sniggers from we-know-better lecturers at state-financed polytechnics. Post-Christian anti-pietistic pietists are as typical of our era as purveyors of post-truth; and Oliver Hilmes is at his best when he is too immersed in the tale of his subject to flow with the tide of his times or cut his jib to the marketing needs of editor or publicist. Dedicated scholarship may be dry, yet serve a subject’s relevant history exactly. The interior man may be illumined most fully by genuine enthusiasts, amateur in the best sense. Jobbing journalists moonlighting as high-brow historians incline to the meretricious, while middlebrow-ism no longer seems to quite fit a new oligarch era – Viconian ricorso to an Age of Gods following the Liszt/Wagner Age of Heroes and its successor’s sometimes disastrous Age of Men. Liszt himself knew how to negotiate the artist’s path through an order dominated by aristos, bankers’ daughters, dilettante plutocrats and religious potentates. The socialist state which now crumbles around us was not then quite invented, let alone a television era setting lowest common denominator taste as an aspirational norm. In the detritus of a Zeitgeist, we have perhaps more in common with Liszt’s times than with our own day-before-yesterday. A genius who was obliged to play in palaces for prelates and princesses at the price of becoming a ‘performing dog’ may, if still mockable by recently enfranchised arbiters, be an exemplar for what is to return.

Liszt with Wagner

Liszt with Wagner et al

Stoddard Martin is an author and publisher

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