Franz Liszt was a lightning rod for controversy throughout his long life, and even after: the moment he died (while attending the Bayreuth Festival in 1886), his corpse became the subject of a heated dispute. Liszt had spent his career orbiting a wide swath of Europe, so there were conflicting proposals as to where he should be interred. In spite of the claims of Hungary — the land of his birth — and the city of Weimar in central Germany — where he pursued some of his most significant musical achievements as a composer and a reformer — his daughter Cosima ended up winning the battle. She had him buried in Bayreuth near her recently deceased husband, Richard Wagner.
By keeping her father close by, literally overshadowed by Wagner’s grave, Cosima was trying to take control of Liszt’s legacy. Many have followed her lead and tend to think of Liszt as a Wagnerian pretender — a kind of entertaining sideshow to the real story of musical “progress” in the nineteenth century. Ironically, it was Liszt’s own unrelenting efforts on behalf of “the music of the future” — not only Wagner’s but other avant-garde voices of the era, including Berlioz’s — that helped establish the familiar paradigm whereby daring musical innovators are eventually vindicated by posterity.
But Liszt remains a case apart. Although recognized as a major figure of the turbulent
Romantic era, his reputation remains shaky. Aficionados of his music are often forced
into defensive mode, while detractors stir up a strange brew of legitimate critique and
annoyingly persistent cliché. And much of the latter reverts to ad hominem attack, confusing the art with the artist. It’s not unusual to find people who have learned to dissociate Wagner’s obnoxiousness from his music but who point disapprovingly
to the Svengali-like effect Liszt was said to exert over swooning groupies (the “Lisztomania” triggered by his virtuoso persona at the keyboard) or to the contradictions of his lifestyle: “Mephistopheles disguised as an Abbé,” in the phrase coined by a sardonic diarist. These images reinforce the caricature of Liszt as a superficial showman — or even charlatan — and make it easier to dismiss his music altogether.
Similarly, the commonplace equation of Liszt’s superstar status as a performer to the personality cult of rock musicians skews the picture to exaggerate just one phase of his career. In fact, Liszt aroused a good deal of hostility not so much for his popularity on the concert circuit as for his promotion of convention-challenging new music. The fact that Liszt still evokes such polarizing responses brings an unusual edge to this year’s bicentennial celebration of his birth (the actual date being October 22). Typically, a milestone anniversary serves as an excuse to either reconfirm values already agreed upon (with maybe a new discovery or two to pique interest) or revive a neglected composer. Liszt already has a secure place in the repertory, thanks to a few perennial classics, but he’s also ripe for a thoroughgoing reappraisal that digs deeper and takes account of the full range of his creative activity. There’s an exciting possibility, for once, that this year’s round of celebrations — from festival performances and new recordings to scholarly reflections — may open up new perspectives on a composer many music lovers assume they already know.
Of course there is a familiar, almost mythic ring to Liszt’s cycles of triumph and despair. The career of this most restless of a famously restless generation epitomizes the striving we associate with romantic artists. Many of Liszt’s colleagues shared an attraction to the figure of Faust, but none of them embodied the paradoxes that entangle Goethe’s character more dramatically than Liszt did. His affairs provided some of the dishiest scandal of the era — one mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult, tagged him a “Don Juan parvenu.” But Liszt was no cynical libertine.
A devout Catholic, he sincerely espoused the Franciscans’ sense of compassion and love of nature. When Church politics prevented him from marrying the love of his life, the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein (she was unable to obtain an annulment of her previous marriage), Liszt retreated inward and took minor clerical orders. His spiritual beliefs, however, involved an idiosyncratic blend of Christian socialism, mysticism and freemasonry. An intensely cosmopolitan habitué of aristocrats and royalty, Liszt voiced his support for Hungarian patriotism but remained rootless, drifting throughout his final years
between Rome, Budapest and Weimar.
Liszt’s artistic career is easily divided into three periods. Alan Walker, whose magisterial and richly characterful biography offers a corrective to the lingering biases against Liszt, found it necessary to devote a separate volume to each. But these periods suggest nothing like the “early-middle-late” pattern of gradual evolution that biographers have superimposed on Beethoven’s music. In Liszt’s case, it’s almost as if three different artists are involved.