Liszt in Paris

Enduring Encounters

by Stefania de Kenessey

Franz Liszt, 24 Grandes Études, Vienna: Tob. Haslinger, 1839, First Austrian edition, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York CityThe reputation of Franz Liszt (1811–86) has always been volatile and remains hotly contested to this day: although an undisputed piano virtuoso as well as a prolific composer, he has been regarded (both in his own time and in ours) variously as a charlatan, a flamboyant self-promoter, a trailblazing genius and an unquestionable innovator in the annals of music history. The Morgan Library & Museum has mounted a fascinating exhibit that focuses on Liszt’s enduring association with Paris through a collection of manuscripts, first editions, playbills, letters and related materials, including excerpts of contemporary recordings.
The first image to greet the visitor is a reproduction of Ary Scheffer’s now-famous portrait of the artist, dating from 1837–39. Darkly brooding and even more darkly handsome, Liszt gazes at the world with a sorrowful, intensely deep, haunted look, which eventually becomes the hallmark of the Romantic artist in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the best description of its aspect can be found elsewhere in the exhibit, in the words of his mistress Marie, Comtesse d’Agoult, who wrote in her Mémoires(1833–37):

Madame L.V. was still talking when the door opened and a wonderful apparition appeared before my eyes. I use the word apparition because I can find no other to describe the sensation aroused in me by the most extraordinary person I had ever seen. He was tall and extremely thin. His face was pale and his large sea-green eyes shone like a wave when the sunlight catches it. His expression bore the marks of suffering. He moved indecisively, and seemed to glide across the room in a distraught way, like a phantom for whom the hour when it must return to the darkness is about to sound.                                          (translation by Alan Walker)

To our (perhaps all-too-jaded) twenty-first-century eyes, there is some heavy lifting here or, as current political parlance would have it, a lot of spin. After all, Liszt had little to complain of: adulated throughout Europe from his youth, he was professionally and financially successful all his life; blessed with good health and good looks, he remained a hit with the ladies well into old age. To its credit, the exhibit does not take sides in the debate between his authenticity and his showmanship, providing an admirably balanced view of the man and the artist. Quietly and intelligently, curator Frances Barulich lets the materials speak for themselves.
The exhibit focuses on Liszt but also explores his role within the broader artistic circles of Paris, arguably the cultural capital of Europe by the 1830s. The list of names who claimed his acquaintance reads like a veritable who’s who of painters, novelists, poets and composers: Eugène Delacroix, George Sand, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Heinrich Heine, Felix Mendelssohn, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Gioacchino Rossini, among many others. The exhibit, occupying a single room, must of necessity limit its scope to a few key figures in this pantheon, and it explores Liszt in relationship to just four individuals: fellow pianist-composer Frédéric Chopin, symphonist and critic Hector Berlioz, violin virtuoso Nicolò Paganini and, eventually, music dramatist (and son-in-law) Richard Wagner.
By the time Liszt arrived in Paris at the age of twelve, he had established himself as a prodigy in his native Hungary, in Germany and, most importantly, in Vienna, where Beethoven had planted a kiss on the boy’s forehead. Robert Bory’s La Vie de Franz Liszt par l’image (1936) reproduces numerous drawings of Liszt in his youth, indicating his early fame. Already as a youth, he was admired not only for his considerable talents as a performer but also for his ability to compose music spontaneously. An 1824 lithograph commemorates Liszt’s enormously impressive improvisation at the Société Académique des Enfants d’Apollon, to which he was granted immediate membership. The drawings also reveal an uncommonly handsome young man, albeit without the long flowing locks that became his hallmark hairstyle later in life.
His arrival in Paris in 1823, however, did not go as smoothly as anticipated, for reasons that were political rather than artistic. The rising tides of nationalist fervor were making inroads everywhere, and the Conservatoire, where Liszt had been hoping to study piano, had recently closed its doors to foreigners. About a year earlier, the minister in charge of education had issued a decree that “on n’admettra aucun élève étranger non français” or “one will not admit any foreign student who is not French” (note the pronounced, ungrammatical emphasis). While allowances were permitted in rare cases, no such exception was accorded to the young boy, in spite of the letter of recommendation he carried from Metternich. The city nonetheless served as Liszt’s home base for many years and remained hospitable to artists from all parts of Europe. Like his friend and colleague, the Polish-born Chopin, Liszt became a key figure in Parisian artistic and aristocratic circles, as well as a mainstay of the concert scene.
The issue of nationalism looms large in Liszt’s biography and presents an intriguing side-story. One of the first artifacts on exhibit at the Morgan is his one-page contribution to 50 Veränderungen über ein Walzer für das Piano-Forte (Fifty Variations on a Waltz for the Piano-Forte). The collection was commissioned by the publisher Diabelli in 1824 from various prominent composers of the day, including Beethoven. His wildly gargantuan response of thirty-three linked variations was deemed inappropriate to the project and eventually published separately, under its own title, as Op. 120. The acknowledgement of Liszt’s authorship at the top of the page has two small editorial additions: “Knabe von 11 Jahren” (“boy of 11 years”), affirming his position as the youngest contributor to the volume, and “geboren im Ungarn” (“born in Hungary”), singling him out as a foreigner.
Liszt was regarded—and remains to this day—a national hero of his native land. The Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music (Liszt Ferenc Zenemüvészeti Egyetem) in Budapest is one of the premier conservatories on the continent, boasting alumni such as the composers Zoltán Kodály, György Kurtág, György Ligeti and, more recently, Péter Eotvos; the conductors Antal Doráti, Fritz Reiner and György Solti (or Sir Georg, as he later became known); the pianists András Schiff and Zoltán Kocsis, among many others. Founded by its namesake in 1875, the academy occupies a magnificent Art Nouveau edifice, one of the best-known architectural landmarks in Budapest, on the appropriately named Ferenc Liszt Square. The young Béla Bartók, faced with a choice between the conservatories of Vienna and Budapest, decided to study in Hungary.
But in spite of his identification with the Hungarian national spirit, Liszt was a thoroughly international figure all his life. Of all the letters and publications on display at the Morgan Library, there is not a single one written in “Magyar” or Hungarian. His native tongue was, in fact, German, the first language of the educated classes in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. After he established himself in Paris, French became his primary means of communication. When he returned to his native Pest for a concert in 1840 after a lengthy absence, he addressed some remarks to his audience by declaring: “Je suis hongrois” (“I am Hungarian”), in French. It should be added that the town of Raiding, his birthplace, was located in the then-Austrian province of Burgenland and his father, Adam List, was of purely German ancestry, altering the spelling of the family name to make it easier to pronounce in Hungarian.
Liszt was a restless traveler all his life. Having established himself in Paris in 1823, he concertized widely throughout that country, as well as in England and Switzerland. Helping to raise funds for a Beethoven monument in Bonn, he undertook tours in 1839–47 that spread his fame ever more widely, from Ireland to Turkey, from Portugal to Russia. In 1848, he accepted a full-time position as the conductor at the Weimar court, where he premiered Wagner’s Lohengrin (on display is the first edition of the libretto, printed in Weimar in 1850) and championed the music of fellow composers such as Schumann and Berlioz. From 1861 to 1869, he resided principally in Rome, while from 1870 until the end of his life, he divided his time more or less equally between Weimar, Rome and Budapest.
This ambiguity between his earnest nationalism and a fervently practiced internationalism is perhaps best summed up by Liszt himself, in a letter to a friend in 1873: “Man darf mir wohl gestatten, dass ungeachtet meiner beklagenwerthen Unkentniss der ungarischen Sprache, ich von Geburt bis zum Grabe, im Herzen und Sinne, Magyar verbleibe.” (“It must surely be conceded that, regardless of my lamentable ignorance of the Hungarian language, I remain from birth to grave, in heart and mind, Magyar.”)
Contradictions also mark Liszt’s contributions to the historical development of music. In his day, he was a central figure of the German avant-garde and, together with Wagner, served as a leader of the “New German School.” The list of his compositional innovations is impressive. He experimented boldly with large-scale structures, coining the term “sinfonische Dichtung” or “symphonic poem,” for orchestral works that eschewed traditional four-movement formats and based their structure on literary or visual programs. His Faust Symphonie, albeit still divided into three movements, offers character studies of Faust, Gretchen and Mephisopheles. Goethe was a key literary influence on his work, as well as on the music of Berlioz. Other compositions, such as Les Préludes, were conceived as single-movement pieces with kaleidoscopic, almost dizzying shifts of colors and moods. He also pushed the concept of thematic transformation to new heights, experimenting with dramatic changes of rhythm and meter, tempo, harmonic language and, eventually, testing the boundaries of triadic harmony and traditional tonality. Deeply immersed in the problem of unifying large-scale musical works, he was also one of the first composers to use motivic transformation as a means of generating musical continuity, a concept that Wagner would later codify in his music dramas through his system of leitmotifs. Liszt’s propensity to innovate in daring, occasionally mischievous ways is evident from an early age: already in the Diabelli variations, his piece is the only entry which impudently, albeit fascinatingly, alters the waltz from the customary three-quarter time signature to duple meter.
The exhibit at the Morgan, however, also shows Liszt in a different light, as a composer invariably committed to forging links with other creative voices, both past and present. His indebtedness to Beethoven is particularly noteworthy: his Piano Concerto No. 1 is undoubtedly modeled on the older composer’s Emperor Concerto. Like its precursor, the work opens in the key of Eb major with a stunning solo cadenza, typically reserved for the concluding passages of a concerto. The manuscript, in a copyist’s hand, shows extensive revisions by the composer. Perhaps even more telling is another statistic: of the ten Liszt pieces included in the exhibit, only three, or less than a third, are fully original compositions. The 24 Grandes Études (Vienna, Tob. Haslinger, 1839), written under the pronounced influence of Paganini, were reworked in 1851 and re-published under the title of Études d’exécution transcendante, the now famous Transcendental Etudes. There is also the little-known Am Grabe Richard Wagner (At the Grave of Richard Wagner). This brief, perhaps two-minute remembrance is seen in an autograph manuscript, and the original version for piano (positioned next to Liszt’s subsequent arrangement for string quartet and harp ad libitum) includes the following tribute: “Wagner once mentioned to me the similarity between his Parsifal motives to (my) earlier written ‘Excelsior (Prelude to the Bells of Strassburg).’ May this remembrance remain here along with this (score). He has brought to perfection greatness and the sublime in the arts of the present day.”
The remainder of the exhibit is a virtual catalogue of Liszt’s compositional reliance on other composers. One of his first pieces to be published was Seven Brilliant Variations, for the Piano Forte, to a Theme of Rossini, Op. 2 (London, T. Boosey, c. 1825). The Italian influence can be seen again in the first edition of Hexaméron: Morceau de concert; grandes variations de bravoure pour piano sur la Marche des Puritains de Bellini (Vienna, Tob. Haslinger, 1839), written for a concert to benefit the poor. The playbill for Liszt’s debut at Covent Garden on June 2, 1827, features the young virtuoso improvising a fantasia on the popular tune Rule Britannia. His admiration of Paganini explicitly manifests itself in his Grande fantaisie de bravoure sur La Clochette de Paganini (Vienna, Chez P. Mechetti, 1839), later followed by the Grandes Études de Paganini (written in 1840, also published in Leipzig, Breitkopf & Härtel, 1851), based on the virtuoso violinist-composer’s Twenty-Four Caprices. And in Lieder von Fr. Schubert für das Piano-Forte übertragen von Fr. Liszt (Vienna, A. Diabelli, 1838), we see Liszt’s transcription of “Erlkönig” displayed next to the older composer’s 1815 setting of the immortal Goethe poem, in Schubert’s own handwriting.
Liszt was not the only one to borrow from his fellow composers. He had started his professional career as a piano virtuoso, and it was common practice for performer-composers of his time to create variations on preexisting themes, both in spontaneous improvisations and in finished, published works, all aimed toward displaying their impressive techniques and brilliant performance skills. But the ratio of borrowings to original works by Chopin, a close friend and colleague, seems to be just about the reverse, in this exhibit at least. Of the four Chopin pieces in the exhibit, only one—the Variations sur le Theme de Mozart (autograph, 1827)—is based on the well-known tune of “Là ci darem la mano.” The other two—Concerto pour le piano avec accompagnement d’orchestre, Op.11 (Paris, Maurice Schlesinger, 1833) and the famous Études (represented both in a manuscript of 1832 and in the first French edition of 1833)—are both newly crafted. Yet, it would be unfair to deny Liszt’s status as an innovator, particularly in terms of piano technique. When he first heard Paganini perform in Paris in 1832, he was so overwhelmed by the violinist’s extraordinary technical prowess that he decided to try to reproduce those effects on the keyboard—an endeavor in which he was entirely successful. A page of the Grande fantaisie de bravoure sur La Clochette de Paganini reveals a virtual revolution in piano technique: the repeated note passages, fiercely hammered octaves, widely spaced chords and uncommonly rapid scalar passages all require utmost agility and enormous strength from the performer.
He also created, more or less single-handedly, the concept of the solo public recital. The playbill for his Covent Garden debut in London shows him appearing approximately midway through a long program of various and sundry works, including the overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz, a chorus from Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives and arias from Handel’s Messiah. Nor was this unusual. Next to it we see the playbill for Chopin’s Paris debut, attended by both Liszt and Mendelssohn, which similarly included vocal and instrumental selections, presented by at least five other artists. It was Liszt who finally insisted that he appear alone, without interference, as a solo performer and composer, giving birth to the concept of the modern piano recital.
Nonetheless, the exhibit at the Morgan Library serves as a powerful reminder that Romantic composers, even when they sought to travel along new paths, to discover what Wagner would vehemently proclaim to be “Zukunftmusik” (music of the future), were still deeply enmeshed in music of the past. Innovators and eventually the harbingers of modernism, they also treasured their inheritance and toiled tirelessly to maintain their links to that older tradition. The Romantic image of the pioneering, solitary artist who forges ahead without regard to contemporary mores or opinions is belied by the materials on display. The coterie of artists who lived and worked in Paris formed a close bond, providing both moral and physical support for one another. The annotated 1837 map of Paris which concludes the exhibit shows the close quarters in which Liszt, Chopin and Berlioz moved. Liszt, in particular, was an indefatigable champion of his contemporaries all his life: through piano transcriptions, performances and his work as a conductor, he gave voice to the music of Berlioz, Schumann and Wagner, among many others.
Interestingly, the preoccupation with the human “voice” runs subtly, if sotto voce, through the exhibit. Although Liszt (as well as Chopin and, to a lesser extent, Berlioz) was known primarily as an instrumental composer, a significant number of his works on display relate to vocal music, whether Italian (from Rossini to Bellini) or German (from Schubert to Wagner). It points to a strain between two different notions of music, as an expression of larger humanistic concerns, often through poems and words, and as an essentially abstract medium, through pure instrumental sound. As we know, the debate between these two views grew increasingly heated during the course of the nineteenth century, with the latter ultimately claiming victory through modernism.
Yet Liszt, who was clearly a central participant in the revolutionizing of musical form, language and technique, emerges as an ambivalent figure in this historical progression, as an instinctive innovator who nonetheless pays constant tribute to his forerunners and to his contemporaries. He was a man of contradictory tendencies who illuminates brilliantly the tensions of his age: a fervent Hungarian nationalist, he spent a lifetime in foreign lands and spoke foreign tongues; a worldly figure and an inveterate womanizer, he took minor orders in 1865 and became the “Abbé Liszt”; a devilishly ostentatious performer and a flamboyant entertainer, he yet aspired to the loftiest realms of musical creation through his compositions.
“Liszt in Paris: Enduring Encounters” was on view through November 16, 2008, at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016. Telephone (212) 685-0610. On the web at

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2008, Volume 25, Number 4