A Lover of Music and Women

Liszt spent a considerable amount of his life on the roads of Europe touring from Paris to St Petersburg, from Vienna and Pest to as far as Istanbul mainly in a luxury coach designed especially for him, and carrying a Hungarian passport. However, the great Hungarian patriot of whom we are so proud of could not get Hungarian citizenship these days according to the present Hungarian immigration law. He was bilingual, spoke and wrote in German and French but never learnt Hungarian properly. At the age of 62 in 1873 he wrote in a letter to a friend: ”Despite my lamentable ignorance of the language, I must be permitted to remain from birth to death, in heart and soul a Hungarian, and hence I am anxious to promote the cause of Hungarian music.”

His attachment to Hungary was unquestionable though he spent only a limited period of his life in his homeland. His first demonstrative gesture to prove his dedication to the country was in 1838 to help the victims of the Danube floods by organizing a charity concert tour beginning in Vienna, then moving on to Pest. More than thirty years later the Hungarian Parliament passed the Bill to set up the Hungarian Academy of Music whose first president was Liszt Ferenc. Liszt researchers tend to keep up the issue of ethnic affiliation but as my friend Paul Merrick, a dedicated scholar on Liszt – who chose Hungary as his second home – would put it: “He is Liszt Ferenc for the Hungarians and Franz Liszt for the rest of the world. Full stop.”

He was born in 1811 in Doborján (Raiding, now in Austria) near Sopron to an Austrian mother and to Adam Liszt, an estate clerk in the services of the Eszterházy family. Liszt’s early career and fame was due mainly to his father’s PR skills. His son was only six when he discovered his exceptional musical talent and devoted the rest of his short life to promote his son to become one of the most celebrated artists in 19th century Europe. Liszt’s ‘wunderkind’ period lasted from his debut in Sopron when he was nine, followed by studies and further concerts in Vienna and Paris until his father’s sudden death in 1827.

After a period of adolescent self-doubt and contemplation he soon reached maturity culminating in his stormy and lasting love affair with the Countess Marie d’Agoult in 1833, who sacrificed her marriage and eloped with Liszt to start an eleven-year relationship the product of which was Liszt’s most creative period and three children, Blandine, Cosima (better known as Wagner’s wife) and Daniel.

He was a genius and perfectionist in every sense of the word. As a virtuoso pianist, he mesmerized his audience by his technical and performing skills. As a composer he was most innovative and prolific. He was a supporter of programme music and thus influential on 20th century musical trends. His composing period started in Weimar where he settled for more than a decade after the Grand Duchess appointed him Kapellmeister in 1847.

As a conductor he also brought innovative elements into the art. In Weimar he staged 29 operas and conducted 47. It was also in this period when he developed a close relationship with Wagner and assisted with his career.

As a teacher he was most influential, his pupils included, Hans von Bülow (his daughter Cosima’s first husband). Liszt was also reputed as a philanthropist. He helped many causes and donated his performing fees lavishly to the Beethoven monument in Bonn, the Hungarian National School of Music and the building fund of Cologne Cathedral, just to name a few.

Though Queen Victoria presented Liszt with her own bust after he gave a private concert for the Queen in 1886, he was far from Victorian in his sexual mores. The dames of Europe lay at his feet. As young as 17 he fell in love with a (lady of his own age) but her father strictly forbade the blossoming of this promising relationship due to mésalliance. His affairs were legendary though he was committed seriously to only two women, the Countess Marie d’Agoult and Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein whom he never married, a most unorthodox attitude by the moral norms of the time. The latter entered his life for good in 1847 when Liszt played in Kiev and she followed him to Weimar and later Rome where he took minor orders in the Church after the death of his two children in the 1860s. He had previously become a ‘confrater’ of the Franciscan order at Pest in 1858.

His late years were spent by living a threefold life travelling between Rome, Weimar and Pest. He died of pneumonia in Bayreuth in 1886, at the age of 74. His colossal monument is a pilgrimage site for music lovers of all nationalities.