Sunday, 28 November 2021

Review: Franz Liszt - Selected Letters - ed. Adrian Williams, Clarendon Press, 1998

Franz Liszt


Selected Letters


Translated and edited by Adrian Williams


Clarendon Press, Hardback, 1998.

8vo. xl+1063 pp. Preface [ix-xii] and Note to the Reader [xl] by Adrian Williams. Sources [1006-13]. Biographical Sketches [949-1003]. Index of Liszt’s Works [1017-25]. General Index [1028-63]. 23 b/w illustrations.


First published, 1998.




List Illustrations

List of Letters and their Recipients

Note to the Reader


Selected Letters 1811–1886


Biographical Sketches


Selective List of Other Works Consulted

Index of Liszt’s Works

General Index



This massive, relatively hard to find and rather expensive volume seems to be the only comprehensive selection of Liszt letters available in English. It contains 946 letters that span a period of 54 years, from 2 May 1832, when Liszt was not yet 21, to 6 July 1886, just a few weeks before his death at the age of 74. The letters are numbered for easier reference and arranged in chronological order. If they hardly form a continuous narrative, they certainly qualify as “a life in letters”.

The editorial work of Adrian Williams is impressive. He has done a great deal to make the material more accessible and easier to read. The letters are freely abridged to remove everyday trivia, but they never feel like excerpts. Missing dates and locations are added where possible, as are discreet footnotes about some of the more cryptic references, yet a deliberate attempt is made not to squash the reader under the weight of scholarship. Some references remain obscure without the other correspondent, and some inside jokes are probably lost forever, but neither is worth making any fuss about and the editor rightly left those matters without annotation.

The editor’s contributions as an author include a Preface in which he explains his criteria of inclusion and exclusion (e.g. no letters to Olga Meyendorff and Marie Wittgenstein because they had appeared in English before), a brief “Note to the Reader” about the editorial policy, a few pages about Liszt’s early years and last days as well as selected events and works in the beginning of each chapter (i.e. “year”) to put the letters into some sort of context. But the best is saved for the last. There Mr Williams has supplied a collection of trenchant pen portraits of people in one way or another related to Liszt – a most usual addition to a book of this kind, but done with unusual distinction.

These “Biographical Sketches” contain a wealth of Lisztiana probably unmatched in the same space anywhere else in the vast Lisztian literature. Enormous amounts of reading and research must have gone into the preparation of those fifty pages or so. There are many charming surprises, many people I didn’t know had met Liszt and wrote about him, for example the German “physiologist, psychologist and landscape painter” (that was still possible in the 19th century!) Carl Gustav Carus (1789–1869), whose name is today borne by the University Hospital in Dresden. Others I did know about, but had no idea of their marvellous lives before or after Liszt. Consider Hermann Cohen, a pupil from Liszt’s early years who later became a Discalced Carmelite and was at the time of writing (1990s) considered for canonization. Mr Williams concludes in a way worth quoting: 

Thus far, the movement to enrol him in the canon of saints has not succeeded; should it eventually do so, Liszt – whose childhood reading was the Lives of the Saints, some of whose finest music was inspired by saintly legends, and whose letters in later life abound with references to saints and saints’ days – will also have been the friend and mentor of a saint.

The editor is staunchly pro-Lisztian, and doesn’t like mincing words. “Pride, an ingrained intolerance, and an inability to give and take spoiled several of her closer relationships.” So much for Marie! “Although her diaries reveal that she was pleased to see her father from time to time after the renewal of relations in September 1872, they also record many foolish remarks about him and his music, not all of them utterances of Wagner. After the disappearance from the scene of this second husband, however, she reached heights of absurdity that can only be called monumental.” So much for Cosima! As for Clara Schumann, she has it in her slim neck with a well-deserved vengeance: 

The pianist Clara Schumann (Leipzig 1819 – Frankfurt am Main 1896), née Wieck, Robert’s wife from 1840, came, by the early 1850s, to dislike Liszt intensely, possibly because of a certain flamboyance in his behaviour which was alien to her, probably of his superiority on their instrument, and certainly because of her total inability and failure to understand and appreciate his works, the sheer inanity and obtuseness of her comments on which are hard to believe (the epoch-making Sonata in B minor, dedicated to Robert, was ‘merely a blind noise’, the great Harmonies poétiques et religieuses ‘dreadful stuff’). [...] The hostility she felt did not, however, prevent her from writing to Liszt (‘most revered friend’) twice in October 1854 to entreat him to secure her a concert  engagement in Weimar. Responding to her appeal by mounting a concert of her husband’s works in which she appeared as a soloist in the Piano Concerto, and by arranging for her to play at the Dowager Grand Duchess’s, the chivalrous Liszt went even further in championing Clara at this difficult period of her life (earlier in the year Robert had been admitted to an asylum) by writing a very sympathetic and supportive article about her for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the magazine founded by her husband.

This remarkably mean-spirited woman’s way of showing her gratitude, not long afterwards, was to refuse to appear at the Mozart centenary concerts in Vienna (Jan. 1856) because of Liszt’s participation. [...] Conceding his genius and supremacy as a pianist, Frau Schumann – whom Liszt wittily, and most aptly, called ‘die Musikpäpstin’ (the Popess of music) – remained unwaveringly hostile to his creations, after his death remarking that they would soon disappear ‘now that he has gone’. Doubtless she would have desired the same fate for the equally despised works of Berlioz and Wagner. (The former’s Romeo et Juliette was ‘infernal, devilish music’; the latter’s Tristan und Isolde ‘the most repulsive thing I ever saw or heard’.) More than a century later, however, it is her own music – derivative of her husband’s and lacking precisely that greatness and originality which is the lifeblood of his and theirs – that has disappeared, consigned by time and posterity to the brink of oblivion.

So much for Clara! Mr Williams is much too kind to Olga Janina and Lola Montez. But if he doesn’t demolish with gusto these most insignificant of all Lisztian women, he doesn’t make too much of them either. Lola had an “encounter – how close, is a matter of conjecture – with Liszt at Dresden in February 1844”. Olga was perfectly summed up by Gregorovius: “little witty, foolish person, mad about Liszt.” The only criticism Mr Williams allows himself, so far as I can recall, is of Liszt as a father. This is justified and shared by Alan Walker[1], but not really of the slightest importance. Bad fathers are legion. Liszt is only one. End of the story!

One last piece of trivia I can’t resist mentioning. For his birthday in 1854, Liszt received a telegram from Reményi who had been visiting the island of Jersey. He must have been delighted, indeed, to read a postscript from Victor Hugo: “The exile of Jersey shakes hands with the Orpheus of Weimar”. Liszt was a great admirer of the French Romantic. Two of his tone poems, Mazeppa and Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne, were inspired by Hugo; the former quotes the eponymous poem complete by way of preface to the score. In a letter to Marie from June 1841, however, Liszt left a rather ambiguous character sketch of Hugo (Letter 129):

I have read part of Hugo’s Discours. It seemed fine, but that lack of consistency in thought which doesn’t exclude a wealth of ideas I found perceptible in this piece as elsewhere. I am glad that you see him. He is one of those rare men who attract one strongly to begin with, then stop one and make one retreat with bitter regret.

There are so to speak bronze boundary stones on his mental horizon. But he is often very great and very splendid. His conversation is powerful, rich, luxuriant, and yet a certain artificiality and theatricality is always mingled therein. Tell me what impression he has made on you.

Mr Williams is rather cavalier with his sources in these biographical sketches, but I for one am inclined to trust his research; in many, though not all, cases the source is at least broadly indicated and can even be found in the relatively modest but evidently selected with great care bibliography in the end. Occasionally, even a full-length citation is given.

I wouldn’t say these Biographical Sketches are worth the price of admission (Liszt’s letters are), but they do add a whole new dimension that makes the book more valuable than it would otherwise have been. In his Preface, Mr Williams sounds almost apologetic about the length of some entries, but I am glad he took the trouble to make them as long as they are. Wary as I am of giving reading advice, here is a little piece for you. If you ever come to read this book, start with “Biographical Sketches” and read them complete. They will give you great pleasure and excellent starting point to plunge into the sea of letters. Besides, if you happen to be a writer of fiction, you will get plenty of ideas about plots and characters.

In passing, it may be noted that the footnotes are rich in fascinating information that must have taken a good deal of digging through musty volumes in the good, old, pre-Internet times. Consider Mendelssohn who, incidentally, doesn’t have a biographical sketch. But he does have several charming footnotes. In one of them (Letter 100), we are told that Franz and Felix first met in 1825 and then in 1832 when Mendelssohn witnessed his G minor Concerto played by Liszt from an illegible manuscript and declared he had seen “a miracle, a real miracle”. Some years later, in 1840, Liszt described Felix as “a man of remarkable talent and a highly cultivated mind [who] draws marvellously, plays the violin and viola, reads Homer fluently in Greek, and speaks four or five languages with ease.” But when Liszt writes in 1843 that “our relations are still on a very good footing” (143), Mr Williams is blunt but accurate in the footnote: “They did not remain so.”

Another favourite footnote is No. 29 to Letter 629 from December 1869. When Liszt calls Bach “St Thomas Aquinas of music”, Mr Williams calls this “a felicitous analogy and parallelism of the kind Liszt was fond of and good at”. He proceeds to give several superb examples: “Bach’s B minor Mass was ‘the Mont Blanc of church music’[2], the middle movement of the Moonlight Sonata ‘a flower between two abysses’, the Ninth Symphony ‘the Great Pyramid’, Beethoven himself ‘a Janus, one of whose two faces is turned towards the past and the other towards the future’, and Liszt’s pupil Eugen d’Albert (a great pianist, or such a sobriquet would have been meaningless), ‘Albertus Magnus’.” The editor then concludes: 

Anyone might think of calling the organ ‘the King of instruments’ – but, seeing that it is associated less with castles and courts than with churches and chancels, Liszt’s description is far more fitting and imaginative: ‘the Pope of instruments’.

Inevitably, in a dynamic field like Liszt studies, a book almost quarter of a century old is a little dated. So is this one. Mr Williams doesn’t list the third volume of Alan Walker’s monumental biography among his sources, so he was presumably unaware of the diary of Lina Schmalhausen which throws a new, and rather bleak, light on Liszt’s death at Bayreuth. Other famous episodes may also sound a little dated. For instance, the legendary “consecration kiss” Beethoven is supposed to have given the 11-year-old Liszt in public. Mr Williams argues that Beethoven’s conversation books don’t necessarily prove he wasn’t at the concert, so we might do worse than trust Liszt. As Alan Walker has shown with his typical thoroughness[3], the kiss probably did happen in private, when the boy visited Beethoven at his home, so it was essentially true for Liszt and that’s why he never bothered to deny it.

That’s the worst that can be said about Mr Williams, scholarship-wise: he is no Alan Walker. Well, nobody is (except Mr Walker himself, of course). The editor made no attempt to consult manuscript sources and correct La Mara (Marie Lipsius) whose pioneering editions of Liszt’s correspondence[4] are the most often cited sources. As Alan Walker has noted in the Prologue to his first volume, La Mara’s lifelong dedication to Liszt commands respect, but she omitted some letters and abridged others whose content she thought too sensitive. This is not such a grave defect, however, except in the case of Agnes Street-Klindworth with whom Liszt was having an affair under the Princess’s nose in the 1850s. While Mr Williams is aware of this, he has included a number of these letters, and rightly so for they contain a lot of valuable material; for those who so much want to know the uncensored versions, Mr Williams recommends the authoritative edition of Pauline Pocknell which was in preparation at the time.[5] Otherwise he used what still are the best available sources, for instance Daniel Ollivier’s edition of the letters to Marie d’Agoult.[6]

Attitude-wise, Mr Williams is rather smitten with Liszt (“a remarkable and outstanding example of homo superior [...] one of the most charismatic spirits of the nineteenth century”), but I would rather take this amusing form of hero worship than a generally negative attitude. It is refreshing, for once, to read somebody who doesn’t question Liszt’s piety or sincerity, and who regards him as a great creative force quite apart from his pianistic or philanthropic achievements.

The letters of Liszt, together with those of Mozart and Tchaikovsky, are easily among the most fascinating by any great composer. Superficially speaking, this is because Liszt lived a life that makes most adventure novels pale in comparison. Neither Mozart nor Tchaikovsky, not even Wagner and much less Beethoven or Bach, had anything like Liszt’s share of earthly excitement. He travelled everywhere, he tried everything, he knew (or at least met) everyone who was anyone in the artistic world and not a few big wigs in politics. “Merely to report the facts”, Alan Walker once remarked, only half-joking I guess, “is to run the risk of being accused of writing fiction.”[7] When asked towards the end of his life why he never wrote an autobiography, Liszt famously said “It’s enough to have lived such a life as mine.”[8] This is well put!      

The real reason that makes Liszt such a compelling biographical subject is, of course, his personality. This is where his epistolary legacy comes handy. “Writing letters has always seemed to me to be rather a good way of expressing oneself”, he wrote as early as 1833 (8). He continued to write scores of letters to all and sundry all his life. Even if Liszt sometimes wrote with an eye on posterity, as has been cynically suggested even by Alan Walker himself[9], this is hardly a sufficient reason to doubt his sincerity. In any case, it is one of the most complex, compelling and unpredictable personalities among the great composers, with the exception of his music nowhere more vividly documented than in these letters.

Passion for reading and learning, insatiable curiosity wherever he goes, is one of the themes with most transformations. The very first letter in this volume, from 2 May 1832, contains the young Liszt’s most passionate declaration of self-education (1): 

For the past fortnight my mind and fingers have been working away like two lost spirits. Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Byron, Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber, are all around me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them with fury; and in addition I spend 4 to 5 hours practising exercises (thirds, sixths, octaves, tremolos, repeated notes, cadenzas, etc. etc.). Ah! provided I don’t go mad you will find an artist in me! Yes, an artist such as you desire, such as is required nowadays!

This was no youthful pose. The need remained with Liszt for life. On 18 August 1868, two months before his 57th birthday, he wrote to the Princess (602) that “some imagination and a certain integrity of character enabled me to get by when I was young – but I should now like to do better and learn more. This need is so imperative that my only thought is to satisfy it; and I am accordingly resolved to withdraw from the world and to live in the country, so that I may read, educate myself, and work peacefully and consistently until my dying day.” This is a telling example that letters may reveal the character with unparalleled force, but they don’t necessarily tell us the truth about future plans. Not only did Liszt never retire to the country, he was actually about to embark on his hectic teaching career that took so much of his late years.

All the same, Liszt never stopped reading and learning. As late as 1872, aged 61, he read twice The Birth of Tragedy which Nietzsche had sent him and replied to the author with kindness and appreciation (671), though I imagine the philosopher (who was just 27 at the time) might have been somewhat disappointed to read that “my eyes do not wander around Parnassus and Helicon; rather does my soul turn unceasingly to Tabor and Golgotha.” Ten years later, in November 1882, we find Liszt eagerly discussing an edition of Sand’s correspondence with a lady in Brussels (868). Claims that he had “very little time left to instruct myself” and bought books without reading them (601) may have been true enough at the time of writing. But they are no more to be taken at face value in general than his frequently expressed distaste for travel. As is well-known, Liszt was one of the most widely travelled people of the 19th century. Much less well-known, Liszt was also one of the most widely read among musicians.[10]

The letters are richly seasoned with references to books and authors, many of them long since forgotten; religious discourses, historical studies, jaunty travelogues and popular novels which time has consigned to oblivion. There is disappointingly little about Goethe and Dante, whose works inspired the two program symphonies that mark the zenith of Liszt’s orchestral output, but there are some stimulating observations about Byron’s “morbid sublimity” (144) or, as mentioned above, Hugo’s personality (129), among many others. Sometimes Liszt’s allusions require annotation. In one teasing letter (262), he compares Carolyne to both Harpagon and Chrysostom. Since my education has been badly neglected, I needed Mr Williams to tell me this is a reference to “the Princess’s tight-fistedness” and “the persuasive fluency of her speech”. Liszt certainly did a good job with his self-education! How many composers would refer to, and how many readers of their letters would grasp, an allusion to Homer in Ars poetica by Horace (261)?

Shakespeare makes a few unexpected entrances. In one letter to Carolyne (384), as if by the way, Liszt quotes from Cymbeline: “Hang there like a fruit, my soul, / Till the tree die!” Perhaps the most interesting Shakespearean reference is about Bogumil Dawison, a German actor (famous in his day, forgotten in ours) whose interpretation of Hamlet deeply impressed Liszt. As he wrote in January 1856 (342, note the remark about the creative value of virtuosity):

On my return to Weimar I found Dawison here. He is a great artist, and there is an affinity between his virtuosity and mine: in reproducing, he creates. His conception of the role of Hamlet is entirely new. He does not take him as a dreamer, sinking under the burden of his mission, as people have agreed to regard him since Goethe’s theory (in Wilhelm Meister), but as an intelligent and enterprising prince with lofty political aims, who waits for the favourable moment to take his revenge and at the same time achieve the goal of his ambition by having himself crowned in place of his uncle. This latter result could obviously not be reached in the 24 hours – and the expectation Shakespeare contrives to bring to the role of Hamlet, his dealings and negotiations with England, clearly reported at the end of the play, in my opinion fully justify Dawison’s conception, with all due deference to Herr von Goethe and the general run of aesthetes. At the same time, Dawison also very positively solves the question of knowing whether Hamlet loves Ophelia or not. Yes, Ophelia is loved; but Hamlet, like any exceptional character, imperiously demands the wine of love from her, not contending himself with the milk. He wishes to be understood by her, without submitting to the obligation of explaining himself. It is thus Ophelia who corresponds to the generally received notion of the character of Hamlet; it is she who is overwhelmed by her inability to love Hamlet as he needs to be loved, and her madness is only the decrescendo of a feeling whose fragility does not allow her to sustain herself in Hamlet’s sphere.

Many have seen in these lines the origin of Liszt’s symphonic poem Hamlet, probably composed in the next couple of years. I cannot join the majority. The work is one of Liszt’s masterpieces, a penetrating psychological study that no analysis in words can match, but to me it doesn’t sound like an “intelligent and enterprising prince”. On the contrary, the constant shifting between gloomy introspection and suppressed aggression are much more in line with the traditional view of Hamlet as an indecisive dreamer. That I happen to agree more with this interpretation than with the one by Dawison and Liszt is beside the point. The point about Ophelia, however, is worth some reflection in the context of both the play and the symphonic poem.

Liszt is an avid sightseer, too. Whether it is Rome (81), Munich (166) or Mainz (306), he is always keen on giving you a sightseeing tour. “Rome suits me”, Liszt says in 1839, more than 20 years before he came to live there. But he was impressed only with the “Rome which is no more, for I have no liking for the new one.” The Forum, the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla, “these are my favourite walks”. On the other hand, St Peter’s is “desecrated and defiled” by the works of Bernini, and Canova’s tomb of Clement VII, except for the two lions, is “detestably mediocre”. He admires Michelangelo’s Moses, however. “Sculptors reproach him with many things”, Liszt observes about Michelangelo, “but the impression he creates is simply prodigious.” Indeed!

There are countless such asides, including all sorts of historical trivia. Who knew Johann Strauss conducted the brand-new Mazeppa, or at least its march finale, in Vienna (359) in September 1856, something Liszt himself marked with “(!)” in his letter? It is beyond the scope of this modest review even to list all such details. But I cannot resist mentioning the musical history of Prague (354) and quoting Liszt on the blind men in Spain (183). The passage is a wonderful example of his mordant humour:

So far as music is concerned, Spanish folk-songs and the guitar are giving me enormous enjoyment, especially when the songs are sung by some blind man – a very frequent occurrence in Spain where, in general, blind people are made use of more than elsewhere. At the Escorial it is a blind man who acts as your guide – and what a guide! There is no cattle-shed, no painting, no historic spot which he does not point out to you with the most scrupulous accuracy! In Madrid, in the theatre and at balls, you find parties of blind men who perform for you fandangos, boleros, and jotas, whose modulations make your hair stand on end! In Seville it is a blind man who tunes the instruments, and the same at Jerez. I have no doubt that somewhere or other there is a blind professor of painting or teacher of ballet.

The virtuoso career Liszt made between 1839 and 1847 is arguably the most stupendous in music history – and certainly the most misunderstood. It was done for money, sure, and Liszt certainly didn’t disdain being lionized, especially in his home country (that’s Hungary, in case somebody wonders) where he was genuinely touched by the devotion of everybody. But in Berlin, Vienna or Paris, he regarded the adulation of the crowds with cool detachment. It was artistic position that Liszt was really after on his virtuoso career. Ironically enough, though he did gain legendary fame from which he reaped benefits until the end of his life, the virtuoso career was the single most potent factor that hampered Liszt’s success as a composer. The world could never forgive him for being the greatest pianist and obstinately refused – and, by and large, still does refuse – to take him seriously as a composer.

And yet, it is curious how these letters demolish the myth that Liszt craved this career more than anything else. Not even close! It was a burden to him. Fatigue and even disgust with the virtuoso life are frequent leitmotifs in his correspondence as early as 1841–3 (138, 143, 147, 157, 159):

My life is full of obstacles, of worries, of wretched little pettinesses. [...] Although my career as a virtuoso has expanded since we took our leave of one another, and although at the present moment – forgive me once again this arrogant self-conceit – I am on the point of being the only one of my breed, I should nevertheless not like to grow old in this trade. In three years, and no more than that, I shall be closing my piano.

My friends say I have become embittered, and I have a fever almost every day. I am longing to finish with this trade.

I feel a great weariness in living and a ridiculous need of rest and... repose.  [...] I really don’t know how I shall manage to rid myself of this virtuoso career.

I am entirely of the opinion that I shall soon have to bring my virtuoso career to an end. Hungary is the natural and necessary conclusion.

It is rather remarkable that I am standing up to this life of travel, of fatigues, of vexations, of incessant dinners and suppers, in the way that I am. You must think that I could easily change it if I wanted to. If it were possible for you to be my companion for a fortnight, you would see that that’s more difficult than you believe.

There were deep reasons for that. Liszt is wary of going into them, but once in a while he does. One of the letters (154) contains a beautifully poetic, and rather revealing, impression of his wandering life. Note the allusion that Marie is an extra reason for it: 

I haven’t been able to attach myself to anything; I shall leave off all these so artificial and pointless tasks, just as one leaves off a threadbare coat, on the day I believe you will again be happy to live with me. But, whether this is a temperamental failing, hardness of heart, or blindness of mind and heart at one and the same time, I haven’t believed that I was sufficient in your life, and, as an alternative, I have preferred this wandering life to a sickly stagnation which would have killed me without giving you life.

I do not conceal from myself the fact that for three years my life has been only a series of feverish and often wilful excitements, ending in disgust and remorse. I have to spend, and go on spending, life, strength, money, and time without enjoyment in the present or hope in the future. I have compared myself to a gambler. Minus the ceaseless excitement, the unfailing thirst, I could also compare myself to a man wandering through the fields, uprooting and throwing to the winds flowers, fruit, trees and seeds, without sowing, ploughing, or grafting.

The fact that Liszt gave up his virtuoso career at the age of 37 sufficiently confirms its minor importance in his life. He lived for nearly forty years more, but in all that time he gave very few public performances, mostly as a conductor and never for money. In his middle and old age, he almost came to detest the Glanzzeit of his youth, especially when people insisted on remembering it. When the St Petersburg Philharmonic Society invited him to conduct his own works in 1863, but unfortunately reminded him of his pianistic triumphs in former times, Liszt almost exploded in print (528): “the good people cannot desist from twaddle about my ‘former triumphal processions, unparalleled mastery of the piano’ etc., which has come to be thoroughly nauseating to me – like stale, lukewarm champagne. Committee gentlemen and others should really be rather ashamed of uttering such trite superficialities to me, unbecomingly denigrating me by alluding to a standpoint I occupied years ago and which is now quite outdated.” So much for Liszt’s virtuoso career!

Composition was the thing Liszt wanted to be remembered for. In 1857, already past the middle of the insanely productive Weimar period, he wrote to his mother (372): 

Whatever people may say, I feel conclusively that the foundations of my true fame and of the real purpose of my life as an artist have been laid only by my works of the last four to five years. Through them alone will my name go honourably down to posterity, which will base its judgement on what I achieve and not on the hostility shown to me and the attacks perpetrated upon me, to which, thanks to the envy and jealousy clinging to me, I shall probably be subjected lifelong. Instead of regretting that I turned my back on an activity now over and done with, I am more inclined to reproach myself for not having finished with it ten years earlier. And indeed I should have done so, had I not, because of obligations undertaken, had to be preoccupied with earning money.

Insights into Liszt’s musical mind are constant presence in his letters. They often come and go like flashes of lightning; it’s hard to miss them, but it’s not easy to find them later if you haven’t made a note. One blazing example is a casual mention (448) of the orchestrations of six of the Hungarian Rhapsodies completed in 1860. Franz Doppler, whose name appeared on the score together with Liszt’s, is not even hinted at, but there is a charming aside what mighty trouble the revision of orchestral scores is, “especially when, like me, one is tormented by the two contrary poles of the simple and the luxurious.”

As you should see from these quotes, Liszt wasn’t just a showman, a stuntman or, according to the kindest of his detractors, a workaholic who valued quantity over quality. He wasn’t just a highly cultured man justly proud of what he has achieved all by himself, either. He was also a highly intelligent and thoughtful man. He certainly knew his own mind very well, especially on musical matters. A striking passage in a letter to Carolyne says as much as anything about his musical sensibility (294): 

I found it absolutely impossible to write anything during the fortnight’s travelling – and I really need to write music to keep my equilibrium. When I spend several days without music paper, I feel as though I were dried up. My brain becomes congested and I feel incapable of taking pleasure in external things. This is something I have often noticed; it is a kind of sickness which has increased with the years. Music is the breathing of my soul; it becomes at once my work and my prayer.

Another arresting passage, this time in an earlier letter to Marie (169), offers valuable general insight into the creative mind. It is argued that too strong feelings hinder the intellectual development of the ideas: a point worthy of some reflection. Liszt is talking of literature here, but his remark fully applies to music or any other art: 

You ask me how it is that with so profound a feeling for nature, and so intelligent a sense of form, Bettina has created nothing. Perhaps I can reply with more authority than others could, that too great a depth of feeling is not favourable to creativity, that impressions which are too intense, too multifarious, destroy the tranquillity of mind needed to bring characters into being, and do not admit the pursuit of a logically consistent and simply observed dramatic development.

Not much would you find in Liszt’s letters about his works. This is disappointing and yet should be expected. Music is the most self-sufficient of all arts. It speaks for itself more eloquently than any play with those ambiguous, double-edged weapons, the words. Liszt’s staggering oeuvre is the best proof of his industry, to say nothing of his versatility and sheer audacity in exploring new forms, harmonies, sonorities and, above all, thematic transformations. It boggles the mind when he had the time merely to write all those notes down, to say nothing of his playing, teaching, travelling, conducting and, not least, letter writing (“my purgatory here on earth!” as he once called it, 771). It is hardly surprising that he had no time to write about his works. And what could he have written, even if he’d had the time? Goethe and Dante stirred depths beyond words. What verbal communication could be compared to the Faust and Dante Symphonies?

But there are some flashes of insight, for instance about his artistic development. Liszt was perfectly aware (125) that Norma and Don Juan were unlike any operatic fantasies he had composed before. Even the obtuse posterity has finally come to recognise that. Some stunning revelations about works contemplated but never completed, perhaps never even started, crop up here and there. An opera after Byron’s The Corsair (138) and choruses from his Manfred (507)?! Liszt did contemplate an opera on Byron’s blank-verse drama Sardanapalus, of which only 111 pages of sketches remain[11], but I had never heard about an intention to compose, much less plans to stage, an opera on The Corsair. The Manfred choruses are likewise a wonderful idea, but so far as I know not even any sketches about them survive.

The mystical genesis of À la Chapelle Sixtine is one of the better-known pieces of Lisztian lore. But there is more to it than generally supposed. The work itself is magnificent and unaccountably neglected in several different versions, for solo piano (S461), organ (S658, as Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine) and orchestra (S360), but even some confirmed non-Lisztians know this was Liszt’s way to pay homage to one of the most famous pieces of Mozartean lore. The rest is best left in Liszt’s own words from a letter to the Grand Duke Carl Alexander from 1 November 1862; they are seldom given at some length and within their proper context. Note the emotional tone, the brief reference to Beethoven’s kiss and yet another version of the title (513): 

The Legend of St Elisabeth is finished. May this work contribute to the glorification of the ‘dear Saint’, and may it disseminate the celestial perfume of her piety, of her grace, of her sufferings, of her resignation to life, and of her gentle submission towards death!

I have in addition written some other works connected with the same order of emotion. One of them is called Vision at the Sistine Chapel. Its great figures are Allegri and Mozart. I have not only brought them together, but as it were bound them to one another. Man’s anguish and wretchedness cry out in distress in the Miserere, to which God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness respond and sing in Ave verum corpus. This comes close to the sublimest of mysteries; to Him who shows us Love triumphant over Evil and Death.

If this outline were to seem too mystical, then, to explain the musical idea I have indicated, I could fall back on an incident in Mozart’s biography. It is known that when he visited Rome he wrote down Allegri’s Miserere during its performance in the Sistine Chapel, both to retain it better in his memory and, perhaps, to breach the prohibitive system which, in the good old days, extended even to music manuscripts. How not to remember this fact, in that same enclosed space where it occurred? So I have often sought the place where Mozart must have been. I even imagined that I saw him, and that he looked on me with gentle condescension. Allegri was close by, and seemed almost to be committing an act of penitence for the celebrity that pilgrims, generally little given to musical impressions, have taken care to bestow exclusively upon his Miserere.

Then, slowly, there appeared in the background, beside Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, another shade, of unutterable greatness. I recognized him instantly and with joy, for while still an exile here upon earth He had consecrated my brow with a kiss. Once, He too sang his Miserere, and until that time no sobs and lamentations of so profound and sublime an intensity had ever been heard. Strange encounter! It was on Allegri’s mode, and on the same interval – a stubborn dominant – that Beethoven’s genius thrice alighted, to leave thereon, and everlastingly, its immortal imprint. Listen to the Funeral March on the Death of a Hero, the Adagio of the Sonata quasi Fantasia, and the mysterious Convito [banquet] of phantoms and angels in the Andante of the Seventh Symphony. Is there not a striking analogy between these three motifs and Allegri’s Miserere?

The so-called Gran Mass, which Liszt composed in 1856 for the consecration of the basilica in the Hungarian city Esztergom (Gran in German), enjoys remarkable analysis while the composer was rehearsing the first performance. Liszt well knew he had composed something special, an opinion since shared by virtually all Lisztian scholars but not, alas, by performers and the public (327): 

As for my Mass, it calls for a certain piety and a certain faith, things quite unknown to our usual musical practice. I fear that without my own participation it may go a little awry – and consequently may not produce the impression I have wished for and felt. In everything I do I believe I have something quite new to say; and so it is essential that my thoughts and my feelings are assimilated, so that they are not betrayed by a ruinous performance. [...] Albeit to a lesser degree than Wagner, I need men and artists – and cannot be satisfied with manoeuvres and a mechanically regular performance. The Spirit must breathe on these sonorous waves as on the great waters of the Creation.

By and large to the present day, Liszt’s own thoughts and feelings have not been assimilated by the performers even of his piano works, much less of his orchestral or choral scores. There have been far too many “ruinous” (apt word!) performances. The public may ultimately reject the music of Liszt, and he may be relegated to the fringe of the standard repertoire like Berlioz. But the point is, the public has seldom been given the opportunity of hearing Liszt played with real artistry as great music without reservation. More often than not, his works have been taken for mere stunts, second- and third-rate stuff just effective enough to stun the crowd. Artists are few. Butchers are many. So sad!

It was so, unsurprisingly, during Liszt’s lifetime as well. The incident, not to say accident, with Die Ideale in Berlin is telling. In the beginning of 1859, within a few weeks of each other, Liszt and Bülow conducted this lovely and most unjustly neglected symphonic poem with the same orchestra in the same hall and largely for the same audience. Bülow was hissed, Liszt was applauded. The composer was probably not surprised. He anticipated that sort of thing. Liszt praised the well-drilled orchestra and the conducting of his pupil, done with “a perfect understanding of the work”, but quickly contradicted himself in the next sentence that “it will be easy for me to add to it in several places the ‘indefinable something’ – una certa idea, as Raphael says, which I imagine will make an impression upon the audience” (413). Alan Walker has described the episode in detail, concluding with a piece of wisdom apparently too subtle for many people: 

There can be no better illustration of a point touched on several times in the course of this narrative: namely, that the “experimental” nature of Liszt’s music was such that even those interpreters who claimed to be close to it (and Bülow certainly falls in that category) did not always find its secret pulse, and so gave the impression that the work itself was still-born. Liszt remained his own best interpreter.[12]

Liszt knew his own worth as an artist. Like many of his colleagues, certainly including Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Wagner, Liszt was perfectly aware of what, why and how he was doing. He knew he was pushing the boundaries of music – more than any other composer before him; in fact, more than any of his contemporaries! – and continued to do so until the end despite fierce opposition. This in itself is evidence of strong character, a character, indeed, cast in the heroic mould.

So is his whole life. Whatever vicissitudes he encountered, from virtuoso career and worldly success to alienated friends and nasty criticism, Liszt never allowed them to steer him away from his chosen path. It’s quite a journey from a childish opera like Don Sanche (1825) to an oratorio on the grand scale like Christus (1866). The piano works provide even better examples. There is a universe of difference between the Clochette Fantasy (1832), the Sonata in B minor (1853) and Nuages gris (1881). What happened? What caused such profound changes? As Leslie Howard has suggested[13], the simplest explanation may be the truest one. Liszt simply lived too long; his was one of the longest creative lives in the history of music – more than 60 years! He fulfilled his genius completely by the age of 55 or so. Never content to repeat himself, Liszt then embarked, quite self-consciously, on predicting the music of the 20th-century. Even if it happened so, there must have been more to it.

A life in letters gives a unique opportunity to follow a change of outlook. Liszt passed through at least three marked stages: ebullient youth of virtuoso career and constant travel; maturity and vast productivity in Weimar of the 1850s; and rather cheerless late years in which he tried to drown severe bouts of depression into constant work, religious devotion, teaching and, again, travelling between Rome, Weimar and Budapest.

In the early 1850s, Liszt had a grand – some would say grandiose with a sneer – vision of turning Weimar into one of the musical capitals of Europe, just as it had been one of the literary capitals in the old days of Goethe and Schiller. Liszt saw himself and Wagner as the leading lights of this artistic Renaissance in the middle of Thuringia. You may call this ambition arrogant, but it was certainly not an ignoble one. And it’s worth remembering that Liszt was trying to achieve all that with a small provincial orchestra. How he performed Wagner and Berlioz with it is a minor miracle. At one place in his letters (324), he casually mentions he would have liked to conduct a performance of “Bach’s Passion [...] this colossal marvel” (presumably Liszt means Matthäus-Passion, not the much less popular Johannes-Passion) “if we were not so badly off in Weimar”. He satisfied himself with reading the score at a rate of forty pages per hour.

In any case, the Renaissance didn’t happen. In 1855, Liszt was still full of optimism and could write that it’s all very well to admire and study the illustrious dead, “but why not also occasionally live with the living?” And further (315): 

This is the method we have tried with Wagner, Berlioz, Schumann, and a few others, and it would seem that it hasn’t thus far turned out so badly that we have any reason to change our minds without urgent cause and put ourselves at the tail-end – of many other tails!

The significance of the musical movement of which Weimar is at present the very centre, lies precisely in this initiative of which our public doesn’t generally understand very much, but which is none the less acquiring its share of importance in the development of contemporary Art.

Even in 1860 Liszt remained a staunch supporter of the cause of Zukunftmusik (Music of the Future): “Let the people do what they may, it will triumph invincibly, because it forms an integral part of the sum of the just and true ideas of our age; and I am consoled by the knowledge that I have served it conscientiously, loyally, and disinterestedly.” (458). Liszt was right on both counts. He had done a lot about the cause and it did triumph in later years, most notably in the works of Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss whose symphonic poems would have been unthinkable without Liszt’s trailblazing examples from the 1850s.

But he didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. In the late 1850s, much to his dismay, Liszt found himself leading again the exhausting life of the travelling musician, only this time not as a pianist but as a conductor. Unlike Weimar, where he conducted mostly the music of others, Liszt travelled all over Europe mostly to conduct his own works. They never lacked a hard core of passionate supporters, but the public at large remained baffled by them. Some musical conservatives, Hiller and Joachim most notably, turned from good friends in Liszt’s youth to staunch enemies in his middle age. Even Bülow and Wagner, once his closest musical allies, all but abandoned Liszt in his old age. Bülow became an ardent Brahmsian and virtually stopped conducting or playing Liszt’s works. Wagner could appreciate the symphonic poems and program symphonies of the 1850s, but the spiritual heights of Christus were beyond his largely sensual and somewhat elementary mind.

There isn’t much in the letters about all that. But occasional references do slip in. To his elder daughter, Blandine, who was living in Paris with her husband at the time, he wrote in the end of 1857 this candid confession (392): 

As for Les Préludes, I sent this work to you so as not to refuse you – but do take care not to make publicity for it in any way, for on the one hand I feel no need to persuade people for whom I have no regard, and on the other I should be very sorry to expose you to filial disappointments! – For the rest, notwithstanding all the nonsense uttered and printed about my symphonic poems, these works are making their way astonishingly on this side of the Rhine, and one day people will have the surprise of hearing them in Paris and – who knows? – perhaps even that of applauding them. For my part, I have only one thing to do: to continue my work without troubling myself about all the rest – which in any case is never a great difficulty for people who know what they are doing.[14]

To Agnes Street-Klindworth in March 1858, Liszt confessed a disgust with worldly life (400) which may well cause cynical smirks on the kind faces of Liszt detractors: 

I can’t tell you how much the kind of life I am obliged to lead, when I am away from Weimar, is becoming more and more unbearable. Ever to have to be talking to a lot of people to whom most of the time I have nothing to say, putting up with the customary stupidities and duplicities, incessantly paying and receiving visits, spending a mass of money for the pleasure of being bored to death – what a laughable torment! And so I said yesterday that I envied my driver, who at least has over me the incontestable advantage of remaining on his box-seat like a veritable philosopher, while I am delivered up to the obligations of worldly life, to which I no longer feel the least bit suited.

By March 1861, the die was cast. Liszt was still unsure where he would live, but he knew perfectly well how he was going to live. The Weimar chapter of his life was over. As he wrote to the Princess (471): 

In any event, I shall not continue my mode of life, such as it has been these last ten years or so. I absolutely must have more peace, solitude, self-communion, and independence. My expenses must also be more restricted and better regulated, my work more continuous, less in fits and starts – it must hollow out its bed like a broad river.

More than a year later (July 1862), in one of the last letters he ever wrote to Blandine (507), Liszt was even more explicit about the disadvantages of the life he nevertheless found hard to shake off: 

The fact is, I am comfortable only in my own company and in that of the very small number of those I love and with whom I feel at one in thought and feeling. So far as other relationships are concerned, a good deal of reserve is advisable, seeing that people generally communicate only to be mistaken about one another. This maxim is borne out by a small recent experience, one to which I would once have been sensitive.

This “small recent experience” was Gounod’s visit to Rome. He spent six weeks there but never called. Liszt was understandably hurt. He had met Gounod and established a friendly relationship with him in Paris on the previous year. Ever the disinterested gentleman, sometimes almost to a fault, Liszt professed he would continue to praise Gounod’s music despite the snub. He was as good as his word. Few years later he produced two transcriptions, or paraphrases rather, from Gounod’s less popular operas to add to his stunning 1861 reworking of the famous Waltz from Faust which, as Leslie Howard has charmingly pointed out, “goes a long way towards restoring the demonic spirit of the play, and especially the dark purpose of Mephistopheles in the relationship between the lovers.”[15] Liszt actually mentions in a Parisian letter from May 1861 (474) that while he was dining “in a small gathering at the Metternichs’ last Monday” he met Gounod who had brought the score of his Faust “and for pudding I did him the honours of his Waltz, to the great satisfaction of those present.” I wish I’d been there. Did Liszt improvise what he later wrote down and published? Had he known the score before?     

Liszt never, of course, gave up the worldly life. This is no reason to question his sincerity in such passages. The conflict between worldliness and spirituality is real enough for most of us. If Liszt was never really successful in resolving it, he sure did a fine job of making the best of both worlds. The most hardened of cynics would say Liszt was joking about that, as did he about his religion, but they would be proved incontrovertibly wrong by his letters.

Liszt always had a strong sense of humour, sometimes too sharp but much more often too subtle for his contemporaries (or successors indeed!), but it certainly got more cynical and more acerbic with the advancing age. This is especially notable in regard to Liszt himself, his own works and position as an artist. In those twilight years, he was apt to carry the art of self-deprecation just a little too far. Already in 1862, Liszt refers to “the windings and meanderings of my Faust Symphony” (495), though he nevertheless recommends to Prince Constantin von Hohenzollern-Hechingen the so-called “Valse de Méphistophélès” (Mephisto Waltz No. 1, that is) as a “whimsical work, which is stuffed full of seasoning of various kinds and sprinkled with belladonna!” A year earlier, we read about “a cacophonous mish-mash adorned by the title of ‘Dante’ Symphony” (493). Most charming of all, and not as ironic as it might sound, in 1869 Liszt was grateful that an obscure Belgian pianist was brave enough to play his First Concerto, a much maligned work then as now; note how smoothly, as usual with Liszt, specific matters merge with general observations (629): 

Please also tell M. Brassin that I am very grateful to him for not being afraid to compromise his success as a virtuoso by choosing my Concerto. Up to the present, the best-known French pianists – with the exception of Saint-Saëns – have not ventured to play anything of mine other than transcriptions, my own compositions being necessarily considered absurd and insupportable. People know well enough what to think of them because of what is said about them by others, without needing to hear them for themselves.

The last sentence has more than a whiff of wisdom, and unfortunately it is true then as now. But Liszt didn’t make it easier for himself with such statements! Even though they were made in private letters, they probably leaked in the public space and gave his adversaries a good deal of ammunition.

The 1860s were years of Roman seclusion for Liszt. He still socialised a lot, including plenty of private performances for popes and who not, and he met all sorts of celebrities all over Europe. When he visited Paris in 1866, he was much in demand (566): “I receive about twenty letters a day – and just as many visits.” But on the whole he was living quietly in exotic places like Madonna del Rosario, a monastery just outside Rome, or Santa Francesca Romana, another one near the Roman Forum, or indeed in the Vatican where for a time he was a guest of Gustav Hohenlohe from whom he received the four minor orders of the Catholic Church in 1865. It was the same monsignor, later cardinal, Hohenlohe who put at Liszt’s disposal Villa d’Este at Tivoli and thus inspired some of the finest among the late piano works. Liszt spent a good deal of time in this magical place, and this is not surprising; for there he had (608) “all the comfort I could need, plus the view of the Roman Campagna with the dome of St Peter’s and its bambinello, the dome of the Madonna del Rosario, on the horizon. I see them continually from the terrace, from my turret window, and even, without having to move, from my desk. For such a view, one would give all the royal and imperial palaces in the world!”

The four minor orders, this most notorious episode, which Liszt took most seriously out of a lifelong vocation but most of his commentators have only derided, enjoys a famous quote often given without its context. This may only serve to arm even better the anti-Lisztians, but I nevertheless give it as an illustration how Liszt could be serious without losing his sense of humour and, above all, how he explains himself with complete sincerity (552): 

To speak familiarly, if ‘the habit does not make the monk’, neither does it prevent him being one; and in certain cases, when the monk is fully formed within, why not assume the outer garb as well?

But I am forgetting that I do not in the least intend to become a monk in the strict sense of the word. I lack the necessary vocation, and it is enough for me to belong to the hierarchy of the Church to the degree that the minor orders allow me. And so it is not the frock but the cassock that I have donned. And on this subject, Your Highness [Prince Constantin von Hohenzollern-Hechingen] will forgive me the slight vanity of mentioning that people pay me the compliment of saying that I wear my cassock as though I had worn it all my life.  

The 1870s were bleaker. The decade started off badly with the marriage between Cosima and Wagner, which was only the climax of a rupture that had begun a few years ago and came to an end with rather a strained reconciliation in 1872. Then there was Olga Janina, a talented pianist but totally unstable human being, who once invaded Liszt’s rooms in Budapest with a pistol and threatened to kill first him and then her. No wonder this creature elicited from Liszt such un-Christian epistolary utterances: “When it goes beyond a certain limit, tolerance becomes connivance.” Liszt didn’t “want to incur the reproach of having taken tolerance to extremes” (660), and in the case of the “Cossack Countess” he didn’t. Liszt had a much more positive attitude towards, but still very mixed feelings about, the biography Lina Ramann was writing at the time. He lived to see the first of three volumes and assisted the authoress as much as he could, going as far as changing his itinerary to grant her personal interviews at Nuremberg, but in his letters to the Princess he was rather offhand about the project (792): 

With regard to the last-named town [Nuremberg], I can’t make any further comments on to Lina Ramann – and only wish her to find satisfaction in her work, which she will put right or spoil as she finds fit! From the moment she began it, I told her that I attached no importance to my biography. I have lived only too much, and not well enough, in my opinion! What’s the good of sifting through the details of the past? Had she listened to me, her volume would have been limited to a musical and aesthetic analysis of my works – very defective, doubtless, but numerous enough to provide material for 100 or so pages of criticism, favourable or otherwise. By her noteworthy study of my Christus, Lina Ramann had made a good start on this path, which I advised her to follow, if indeed she wished to continue to occupy herself with me. Once again, experience has shown me that, with very few exceptions, good advice has been of little use. Chacun avise à sa guise [Everyone looks at things in his own way].

Liszt’s outburst about the disparity between the quality and quantity of his life, curiously reminiscent of Othello’s admission that he has loved “not wisely but too well”, needn’t be taken too seriously. But he was prophetic, indeed, if he thought his biographers would create a lot of mischief in the 20th century. Newman’s character assassination, first published in 1934, certainly did. Sitwell’s relatively well-known early biography (1934, rev. 1955), exonerating the man but slighting the composer, hardly helped the matter. Only in the 1980s and 1990s did Alan Walker finally set the record straight once and for all. Until then, as Liszt had all but predicted, the best book about him was Searle’s The Music of Liszt (1954, rev. 1966) which was true to its title and contained very little biography. As for Ramann’s neglect of his advice, Liszt was prepared for that by closer friends (676): “In this connection, I recalled that the role of certain friends, highly esteemed by me, consisted in showing themselves ready to render me every imaginable service except the one I had taken it into my head to ask them!”

While Liszt’s music continued to be played all over Europe, sometimes with him as a conductor or even a pianist, Liszt himself became even more disillusioned about his works. “It is not a light work” (655), he wrote with lovely sarcasm about Christus to Anton Rubinstein who was brave enough to conduct parts of it in Vienna in 1871, “may it not seem too heavy to the public!” There is a particularly harsh letter (786) to one “Mme Katalin Engeszer” from March 1878 in which Liszt strongly disapproves of a performance of the Gran Mass in his homeland. He goes quite a bit further: “In Budapest from now on I am to be regarded as neither pianist nor composer. I have declared that I no longer wish to play the piano in public, and want my compositions to remain unperformed.” There must be some background story to this letter, but it remains, at least to me, unknown. It is certainly unusual for Liszt, especially at that age, to be so angry in his letters; he did play the piano for charity, and many of his works were performed, many times later in Hungary. Another letter, almost as harsh (795), breaks the business relationship with a Budapest publisher who, according to Liszt, feared “that they will compromise themselves with my honourable name, and merely trot out sophistries to suit themselves”. This was in November 1878 and the reason was that the publishing house had exhibited “none of the works of Franz Liszt which belong to it” at the World Exhibition in Paris.

Most grievous of all, the relationship with the Princess became notably sorer at that time, largely thanks to her publishing the first volumes of the monumental (eventually running to 24 volumes!) critique of the Catholic Church. Liszt disagreed with many of her conclusions and in the process other personal bruises surfaced. In the late 1870s, after some three decades of epistolary bliss, there entered a marked note of bitterness in the letters between Liszt and Carolyne. “Your Roman habits”, Liszt wrote to her in December 1878 (796), “have given you a measure of absolutism which brooks no argument. The most discreet and respectful observations you regard as slights, and even outrages!”

Once she accused him of ingratitude and of not writing enough about his doings. Liszt was deeply hurt (769) by the former (“If I thought I deserved this reproach, nothing would be left to me but to die at the very earliest”) and dejected by the latter (Alas! I am hardly interested in my existence any more, and do not find that its details make an agreeable communication!”). The sad climax was probably reached, or at least prepared, on 15 June 1877 or thereabouts when Liszt, evidently still sore about the accusation of ingratitude, wrote to the Princess from the depth of his sorrowful soul (773): 

Without complaining, I often suffer from living – health of the body remains to me, that of the soul is lacking. Tristis est anima mea! However, to my numerous real and alleged faults will never be added that of ingratitude, the very worst of all!

“Tristis est anima mea” (My soul is exceedingly sorrowful) is, of course, the anguished soliloquy of Jesus Christ from the third part of Christus, easily one of the finest moments in the whole oratorio and, indeed, in the whole of Liszt’s output. But it’s also a quotation from the Bible (Mark 14: 34-36). As Alan Walker noted, Liszt deliberately didn’t finish it, knowing only too well that the Princess would: “usque ad mortem” (even unto death).[16]

In view of all this, no wonder bouts of depression became more frequent and more severe in the late 1870s. Even the process of musical creation, the greatest consolation of Liszt’s life, the last refuge where he could escape worldly troubles, was not always working during that dark decade. Even the composition of masterpieces like Aux Cyprès de la Villa d’Este could plunge Liszt into the darkest depths of despair. This is one place where Mr Williams has decidedly failed to include the most telling letters. These date from the autumn of 1877 and can be found in Walker’s biography: 

For the last two weeks I’ve been absorbed in cypresses... I have composed two groups of cypresses, each of more than two hundred bars, plus a postludium, to the cypresses of Villa d’Este. These sad pieces won’t have much success and can do without it. I shall call them Thrénodies, as the word élégie strikes me as too tender, almost worldly.

A few more leaves have been added to the cypresses – no less boring and redundant than the previous ones! To tell the truth I sense in myself a terrible lack of talent compared with what I would like to express; the notes I write are pitiful. A strange sense of the infinite makes me impersonal and uncommunicative.

Alan Walker is right that “anyone interested in the psychopathology of the musical mind will marvel that the creation of the “Cypress” pieces aroused in Liszt a sense of his own inadequacy.”[17] On the other hand, the composition of these lovely, haunting and shamefully neglected pieces may have had some therapeutic effect on Liszt. The one letter about them included by Mr Williams, to Carolyne from 23 September 1877, refers to the completion of the works in a less depressing way (778): 

These 3 days I have spent entirely under the cypresses! It was an obsession, impossible to think of anything else, even church. Their old trunks were haunting me, and I heard their branches singing and weeping, bearing the burden of their unchanging foliage! At last they are brought to bed on music paper; and after having greatly corrected, scratched out, copied and recopied them, I resign to touching them no more. They differ from the cypresses of Michelangelo by an almost loving melody.

(These “cypresses of Michelangelo” are somewhat cryptic. Mr Williams is silent about them, too. Apparently, some cypresses of Santa Maria degli Angeli were supposed to be related to Michelangelo in some way, perhaps planted by him, but years later, in 1882 (862) Liszt was assured by “two German savants” that this was not so and withdrew the name of Michelangelo – “a worthy second to his patron saint, the Archangel Michael” – from the published version of the second threnody.)

By 1880, Liszt seems to have reached some sort of equilibrium. He was never quite the same again, and neither was his relationship with the Princess: both were damaged beyond repair. But he does sound slightly more, if not cheerful, at least resigned at the end of this terrible decade (813, 828, 829): 

I shall soon have some definite news about the Liszt Concert being planned in Vienna. To tell the truth, I would prefer it not to take place – the weariness of age, and some inner sadness or other, fruit of a too long experience, are making it increasingly distressing for me to show myself in public. And so I have refused several recent and flattering invitations. My bit of celebrity weighs on me singularly – it is a tyrannical blind alley from which there is no escape! I should like to do nothing more but work, and pray in my corner – unattainable, it seems!

No one will believe me if I say that I am becoming more and more impersonal! Yet it is the simple truth – to the point that to hear myself spoken of, even to be praised, often pains me. May God temper the wind to the shorn lamb.

My conscience often pains me – but not always according to what other people like to say! That is why I have become absolutely impersonal!

Did the 1880s bring Liszt further calm and consolation, resignation perhaps? So far as we can tell from this selection of letters, or indeed from the music composed during this period, hardly. Self-doubts continued to assail the composer: “I continue to blacken music paper, and do nothing but cross out and erase” (889), he wrote frustrated in 1883: “Most of the things I could write don’t seem to me to be worth the trouble!” And yet, Liszt never stopped working; whether from inner compulsion or from mere habit (or, most likely, from both), matters not. Music is richer because of that, and so are we.

The last years saw the composition of the bizarre late works that anticipated so much of the 20th-century but, ironically, remained largely unknown for most of it. Alan Walker has unforgettably called the most brutal of them (Unstern, Nuages gris, Csárdás macabre) “fragments broken off from a greater whole, each one offering a glimpse of the pathology of despair.”[18] There was more than that, as Mr Walker well knew. There was a group of morbid works, notably the pieces inspired by Wagner’s death (R. W. – Venezia, Am Grabe Richard Wagners) or one that indeed anticipated it (La lugubre gondola) in what may well be the spookiest premonition in music history. But also composed at that time were piano pieces like Mephisto Waltz No. 3 and the four Valses oubliées, by turns whimsical and wistful (all badly neglected on record, alas!), and the last, 13th symphonic poem, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, whose outer sections are full of serenity that fears neither death nor life. Little is mentioned about all that in the correspondence, but the context is usually disturbing, for instance in this letter to Lina Ramann from 9 February 1883 (877): 

Here [in Budapest], I can hardly get down to my real work. It was easier for me in Venice. There, I wrote various things, among them a third elegy, dedicated to Lina Ramann. Don’t be frightened by the title, ‘die Trauer Gondel’ (‘la gondola lugubre’). As you know, I bear in my heart a deep sorrow; now and then it has to break out in music.

As always with Liszt’s life, trying to summarise a certain period leads to oversimplification. Work aside, to simplify matters yet again, Liszt’s pleasures in the end of his life were mostly reduced to cognac, cigars, whist and his pupils. He continued travelling and socialising at a rate that would have killed a lesser man far sooner. When it finally did, in July 1886, it happened rather suddenly but not without numerous health problems as a prelude, not least weakened eyesight that left Liszt virtually blind in the last months of his life – and thus unable to supply (944) “the transcriptions which pay!”

As you can see, Liszt never lost his delicious sense of humour. When his friend Munkácsy was painting “a large-scale” portrait of him and living in a magnificent house, Liszt couldn’t resist a quip (930): “Rubens was only a discreet precursor!” He was happy that his works were gaining more and more performances, even some positive reviews, but he couldn’t resist having some fun at his own expense, either. When “a young and remarkably talented Russian pianist [...] risked a Liszt Concert” (893) in 1883, including a tough work like Totentanz, Liszt is amused no end: “the delinquent’s name is Siloti [...] he possesses everything necessary to succeed as a celebrated pianist – plus the very favourable negative advantage of not being a composer.”

Unless strictly necessary, I have deliberately refrained from discussing Liszt and women in this review. Far too much has been written on the subject, usually lurid gossip of no importance whatsoever. Suffice it to say that the whole relationship with Marie – from passionate love starting in 1834 to jealous bickering and somewhat acrimonious break-up in 1844 to uneasy truce in later years – can be followed in these letters. The whole of affair with Carolyne – from Kiev and Woronince in the late 1840s to the family life under cover in Weimar in the 1850s to the rocky friendship in later years – can also be traced almost like an epistolary novel. Enough about Liszt and women! I would mention only one special letter from 1861 in which Liszt relates to Carolyne a meeting he had with Marie in Paris. He had the pleasure of telling her that (480) “Guermann’s walls are already painted [...] and he will paint others too – without bothering in the least about rubbish spoken or printed by others.”[19]

Marie and especially Carolyne (“the Kapellmeisterin”, as Liszt jokingly dubs her) are by far the most prominent correspondents, but also quite a lot of relatives (mother, son, daughters), fellow composers (Grieg, Borodin, Schumann, Chopin, Wagner) and many friends and acquaintances (anybody from writers and singers to cardinals and grand dukes) chime in. Liszt is respectful with other composers, playful with the likes of Georges Sand or Princess Belgiojoso, and affectionate with his mother or children. He is a man of many moods, but it’s rash to conclude he is insincere on that account: some people do contain multitudes. As for those mentioned just by the way because Liszt met them or read something written by them, they are untold numbers and generally treated with amiable irreverence. One delicious example is Alexander von Humboldt, “Chimborazo of science and amiability” (339), another is Ludwig Spohr: “Nestor of the chromatic scale” (420).

Liszt and his children is a theme with several unexpected variations. The letters to the little Blandine, his elder daughter, are especially charming. Time and again, her father chides her for not writing, speaking or behaving with a proper style. He is gentle but firm, and obviously concerned about her. Liszt may have left his children to others during their formative years, but he was certainly not indifferent to them. He was unfortunate enough to outlive both Blandine and his only son, Daniel, and there is some musical evidence that he felt their loss keenly.[20] There is some epistolary evidence, too. One of the longest letters (427) is about Daniel’s death. Liszt was there and described the whole thing to Carolyne. The style is restrained, but the experience must have been harrowing.         

There is a sad postscript about Liszt’s relationship with Blandine which, so far as I know, is entirely unknown. Alan Walker certainly mentions nothing about it in his biography. On his fateful way from Weimar to Rome in 1861, Liszt intended to stay with Blandine in St Tropez. He changed his plans in the last moment and went from Marseilles straight to Rome. To judge from a letter Mr Williams quotes in one of his priceless footnotes (Letter 491), Blandine must have been devastated: “The shock was so great that I needed some time to get over it. [...] While preparing your room I was saying a thousand things to you; I saw myself in your arms, had for a moment left this cold planet, and now have to return to it.” This is strange language for a daughter to use with her father, all the more so since they had seen each other a few months earlier in Weimar (Mr Walker mentions this, Mr Williams doesn’t). In the event, Liszt never saw his daughter again. She died less than a year later at the age of 26. One could almost propose the fanciful hypothesis that Blandine had a presentiment of this when the St Tropez rendezvous fell out.  

As far as other composers are concerned, Liszt is kind even when he is dismissive of their talents or personalities. But he is seldom so. Rather the reverse! He is generous and diplomatic. “Without always being of his opinion”, he wrote to the Princess in 1872 (667), “I very sincerely esteem and admire Rubinstein. He is a noble, ardent, richly gifted, prodigiously hard-working personality – and far superior to the greater part of celebrated and distinguished artistes that one encounters.” The great Russian pianist probably reciprocated this attitude, but the great Polish genius certainly did not. Chopin barely mentions Liszt in his surprisingly dull letters, and then either by the way or with bitter sarcasm. Liszt is on the other pole – about the Pole. One could almost say he idolised both the man and the music. In a letter to Wilhelm von Lenz from 1872, Liszt offers out of the blue this stirring analysis of Chopin’s genius (682), almost more substantial than the whole of his own book: 

You exaggerate too, it seems to me, the influence on Chopin of the Parisian salons. His soul was not in the least affected by them, and his work as an artist remains transparent, marvellous, ethereal, and of an incomparable genius – far removed from the errors of a school and the twitterings of a salon. There is in him something of the angel and of the fairy; still more, the heroic string, which has nowhere vibrated with such grandeur, such fresh passion and energy as in his Polonaises...

Liszt was not only a religious Catholic, a fact that served him well as a source of genuine spiritual strength. He was also a musical catholic; that is to say, he had a taste of rare catholicity. He adored Wagner, but he also appreciated Verdi: a feat very few music lovers, much less personally concerned in the matter, have managed to achieve ever since. Liszt is somewhat ambiguous about Verdi’s Requiem which he heard twice brand new in 1877: “an important and serious work” on the one hand, yet suspiciously popular on the other; perhaps some envy crept into Liszt’s opinion as he remarked that Verdi “has the double merit of composing conscientiously and profitably” (769). But twenty years earlier, in the late 1850s, Liszt used themes from Ernani, Rigoletto and Il trovatore for some of his most remarkable paraphrases, less expansive than those from his younger days, but certainly no less creative; as late as 1882, he composed another one inspired by Simon Boccanegra. Pity they never met, even though they easily could have. As Mr Williams notes in one of his invaluable footnotes (p. 931), Liszt and Verdi came as close to one another as sitting in different boxes at the same performance of Massenet’s Le Cid at the Paris Opera in March 1886. 

Liszt also championed young Russian nationalists such as Balakirev, Borodin, Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov. In his late years, he campaigned for their works to be performed regularly at the festival of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein (909), of which he was a co-founder with Franz Brendel. We now know that Liszt was quite wrong that these colourful mediocrities had more staying power than Tchaikovsky. The composer of works like Romeo and Juliet, Yevgeny Onegin and the Pathétique was a great deal more than just a “belated imitator of Mendelssohn and Schumann” (805). But greater music critics have committed far greater blunders (see Berlioz two paragraphs below). To end the Russian connection, it is curious to note that nowhere in these letters is Mussorgsky mentioned. Liszt must have known at least some of his works, and he must have recognised that the man had more genius in his little finger than the likes of Cui, Balakirev and Borodin in their whole bodies taken together.

Berlioz, Schumann and Wagner are the most interesting cases among the composers, not necessarily for what Liszt wrote to them, but rather because of what he wrote about them to others.

The case of Berlioz is rather posthumous, but it was started by the Frenchman while he was still alive. After more than three decades of mutual respect, if not exactly close friendship, their relationship went downhill in 1866. Liszt said the reason was their disagreement over the value of Wagner (856), but I suspect of equal if not greater importance was the fact that Berlioz called the Gran Mass “negation of art”. This may well be the greatest blunder of 19th-century musical criticism. No excuse can be found for Berlioz here. If he disliked the work, he could have said so without offence. It was the least he could for an old friend who had organised whole festivals to popularise his music. That the remark was probably occasioned by the disastrous 1866 performance at the St Eustache cannot be an excuse, either. A brief look at the score would have been enough for Berlioz to know this, far from being negation of art, is one of the few instances where the traditional Latin mass has been elevated to art.

Liszt did have a point on both personal and artistic grounds. It’s not hard to understand his reaction. He must have been hurt deeply that a work so close to his heart was insulted in this shameful way by a man who, friend or no friend, really should have known better. He did forgive, but he did not forget. He continued to praise Berlioz’s work, especially Benvenuto Cellini and Les Troyens, he did contribute to the funding of a Berlioz statue and he urged others to do so (882). But he remembered the slight at least twice in 1882, some 13 years after Berlioz had died. In a letter to the Grand Duke Carl Alexander (851), Liszt actually quotes the “exclamation” and hopes it is as wrong as Berlioz’s praise of the Grand Duke is right. In a letter to Carolyne a little later (860), he alludes to it with characteristic self-pity made charming by self-irony: 

Unfortunately I am only a poor celebrated pianist of long ago – and, as a composer, one of the most opposed, even by his deceased friends, such as Berlioz! Yesterday Saint-Saëns told me that at a performance of one of my symphonic poems, Berlioz went further than Schumann in showing disapproval. The last-named contended himself with shoving back his chair – Berlioz quietly left Salle Erard, seeing that Liszt’s music was the antithesis of music! In that, he had on his side the community of critics and the reigning tribe of loungers. All the same, my profound admiration for the genius of Berlioz remains intact!                

When he urges him to write chamber music as early as 1838-9 (73, 85), Liszt shows more insight into Schumann’s mind than Clara ever did. He praises handsomely his friend’s works but shrewdly observes that Kreisleriana and the C major Fantasy are “more difficult to the public to digest”, so he wouldn’t play them in concert for now, unlike Carnaval and Kinderszenen which he intended to. Couple of later letters (271, 272) deal with his production of Manfred in Weimar, for which he invited Schumann and hoped to keep the autograph score as a souvenir. Neither happened. Schumann didn’t come, excusable considering his mental condition at the time. The score was requested back by Clara, to whom Liszt replied politely but not, I think, without a touch of iciness (280). To his cousin Eduard in 1854, Liszt confided that he regarded Schumann “as a kind of Arrius in the little Church we are trying to build” (300). Significant remark!

As for Wagner, he is made some memorable fun of. When relates to the Princess his visit to Wagner in Zurich (1853), Liszt is positively hilarious at the expense of his operatic friend. But deep admiration is never far behind the burlesque (266): 

He looks well, while having got rather thinner in the last 4 years. His features, particularly his nose and mouth, have taken on a remarkably clean-cut and energetic character. He dresses rather elegantly, and wears a hat of a faintly pinkish white. His demeanour is by no means democratic – and he has assured me twenty times over that since he has been living here he has completely broken with the refugee party – and even got well in with the bigwigs of the local bourgeoisie and aristocracy. His relations with the musicians are those of a great general who has only a dozen candle-makers to discipline. His logic regarding artistes is merciless in its acerbity. As for me, he loves me with heart and soul, and doesn’t cease to say: ‘Sieh, was du aus mir gemacht hast [Look what you have made of me]!’ – when it is a question of matters pertaining to his reputation and his popularity. Twenty times a day he has thrown on my neck – then rolled on the ground, caressing his dog Peps and talking nonsense to him turn and turn about – and abusing the Jews, which is for him a generic term with a very extended meaning. In a word, a grand and magnificent nature, something like a Vesuvius spitting out fireworks, emitting sheafs of flame and bouquets of roses and lilacs.

The aforementioned letter to Eduard Liszt also contains a glowing appreciation of Wagner as well as the perceptive opinion that “at least a dozen years will be needed for his ideas to be digested and for the seeds he has sown to bring forth their harvests.” In his own letters, Liszt’s attitude verges on hero worship: “you stand alone; and so you can be compared only with yourself” (279). But he was doubtless sincere and never stopped encouraging Wagner to endure his exile. As for Wagner’s works, Liszt was, again, embarrassingly fulsome, yet prophetic: “such a text and such music are quite unparalleled, and a great part of the audience will certainly sit there totally flabbergasted” (367). That was written twenty years before the world premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen – which Liszt, amazingly, considered staging with Weimar’s modest resources and even wrote to the Grand Duke about that plan (366). Perhaps it was better that he never had the chance. The world premiere of Lohengrin in 1850 was more than enough. It’s one of Liszt’s most famous achievements, but its heroic dimensions have never been recognised.

The letters also bear witness to the notorious demands for money. Wagner may truly have been the most shameless creature in history! He regarded Liszt as little more than a bank account to lighten up his years of exile. There is one particularly painful letter (347) in which Liszt goes to embarrassing lengths to apologise for not being able to sent Wagner more money as “an annual commitment” (not my emphasis). As Liszt makes it clear, his own financial situation was far from splendid: 1000 thalers salary plus 300 thalers bonus a year as Kapellmeister in Weimar. Nor did he make much from his compositions, the ones that mattered most to him anyway: 

Since, several years ago, I took the serious decision to devote myself to my artistic career, I have no longer been able to count on additional money from the music publishers. My symphonic poems (of which in a fortnight’s time I shall send you a few in full score) bring me in not a ha’penny – in fact, even cost me the considerable sum I have to spend on copies to distribute to friends. My Mass and my Faust Symphony are likewise quite unprofitable works – and I have no prospect of earning money for several years yet. Fortunately I can just about keep going; but I have to pinch a good deal and avoid getting into difficulties, which might affect my whole position very badly.

This is the simple explanation why Liszt continued to publish transcriptions and paraphrases well into his middle and even old age: they were his major source of income. Music publishers swallowed them with alacrity they never even pretended to show in regard to the Faust and Dante Symphonies, the B minor Sonata and the Transcendental Studies, Années de pèlerinage and Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, Christus and St Elisabeth – the works, in short, which Liszt regarded as his true artistic legacy. The fact that he emphasised the word “unprofitable” in the passage above speaks volumes.

Send me the scores of the Gran Mass and the Dante Symphony, Wagner once said (and Mr Williams quotes in a footnote), “but money first”. Liszt was understandably incensed, and replied that he wouldn’t send the scores because they were “not valid as bank shares” (412). Thus they quarrelled briefly – “but seriously”, Mr Williams adds ominously – in the beginning of 1859. Cordial relations were soon restored but didn’t last long. Two years later, Wagner came back to Germany but Liszt went to live in Rome, and their correspondence virtually stopped. The relationship continued strained and awkward, all the more so when Wagner (just two years Liszt’s junior) became Liszt’s son-in-law, until the German’s death in 1883. But the friendship ended more than two decades before that.

This is not to say Liszt ceased to respect, admire and even defend his friend. On the contrary, he remained as zealous a supporter as the composer of Parsifal ever had. When in 1872 the inexplicably influential Hanslick made the great discovery that Wagner suffered from (or enjoyed rather) a specific form of monomania, namely pride in himself, Liszt offered this cutting remark for an answer (690): “Would this not be a desirable counterweight to another monomania still more prevalent and widely accepted – pride in one’s stupidity?!” Another thing that remained constant throughout was the boundless admiration Liszt had for Wagner’s music. This is often expressed in extravagant terms and at least once a subject of the ultimate comparison (and compliment) in all art (683): 

However gigantic be the totality of this oeuvre of the Nibelungen, it is its harmonious proportions and sustained sublimity that I admire above all. Down the centuries, in the realm of the fine arts in general, human genius has seldom manifested itself in analogous fashion. By the autocracy and vitality of its inspiration, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel would perhaps be the closest term of comparison.

Last but, perhaps, not least, readers looking for the most often quoted passages from Liszt’s letters will find most of them here. Even Chopin’s opinion of Liszt’s playing his own (Chopin’s) etudes is included. It was apparently part from a joint letter to Ferdinand Hiller by Liszt, Chopin and the cellist Auguste Franchomme from 20 June 1833 (10): 

I am writing to you without knowing what my pen is scribbling, because Liszt is at this very moment playing my études and transporting me away from any decent ideas. I should like to rob him of his way of playing my own études.

The regiment anecdote with the Russian tsar, an outstanding example of royal tactlessness – I almost suspect it was unconscious – is also here (147). And so is invention of the piano recital (84): 

This is how my first week in Saint Petersburg went. Arriving on Saturday evening (ten days ago), I was summoned to the Tsaritsa the next day, Sunday. Grand Court soirée. The Tsar accosts me thus: ‘We are almost compatriots, Monsieur Liszt.’ – ‘Sire?’ – ‘You are Hungarian, are you not?’ – ‘Yes, Your Majesty.’ – ‘I have a regiment in Hungary.’

What a contrast to the tiresome musical soliloquies (I know not what other name to give to this invention of min) which I have devised especially for the Romans, and which I am quite capable of importing to Paris, so boundlessly impudent do I become! Imagine that, failing to concoct a programme which would have any kind of sense, I dared, for the sake of peace and quiet, to give a series of concerts entirely alone, affecting the style of Louis XIV and saying cavalierly to the public, ‘Le Concert – c’est moi.’ For the curiosity of the thing, here is the programme of one of these soliloquies.

1.     Overture to William Tell, performed by M. L.

2. Reminiscences des Puritains. Fantasy composed and performed by the above-mentioned!

3.     Etudes and fragments, by the same to the same!

4.     Improvisations on given themes – still by the same.

I’m sorry to say I couldn’t find anywhere in these letters Liszt’s wonderful motto that in this life you have to choose which verb to conjugate, to have or to be. Mr Williams uses these very words as one of the epigraphs to his book, but he doesn’t source them properly.[21] The javelin metaphor, however, does come from Liszt’s own pen. It is sometimes attributed to the Princess, but only by people unaware that she is actually quoting, slightly paraphrasing to be exact, “the sun of her life”. It comes from a letter to her penned in the beginning of 1874 (711): 

My sole ambition as a musician has been, and will be, to hurl my spear into the undefined void of the future.... So long as this spear be of good quality and fall not back to earth, the rest is of no importance to me whatsoever!

It is rather a shame this book is so scarce and so pricey. I guess you can find it in many libraries around the world. But it’s really nice to have it on your shelves as a reference or a volume to dip into at any time and in any mood with great pleasure. Reading it from cover to cover was an experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world, an epic journey through an inexhaustible mind and a fantastic life.

If you think Liszt is just another composer of flashy piano pieces, you needn’t waste shelf space with this book. But if Liszt is somebody special for you, somebody whose works tell you things about yourself you think you should know, this volume is absolutely indispensable. All Lisztians around the world, to whom Alan Walker dedicated his magnificent biography, owe Adrian Williams almost as deep gratitude. I am very much looking forward to reading as soon as possible his earlier Portrait of Liszt (1990). I’m sure it’s very much worth reading. 

[1] “Epilogue: An Open Letter to Franz Liszt” in Reflections on Liszt, Cornell University Press, 2005, pp. 239-55.

[2] Toscanini is also on record (letter to Ada Mainardi from 17 July 1933) calling the B minor Mass “Mont Blanc”, but at the expense of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis which in his unpopular opinion (shared by me, non sequitur) amounted only to Resegone (1,875 m in the Bergamasque Prealps). See The Letters of Arturo Toscanini, ed. Harvey Sachs, Knopf, 2002, p. 147.

[3] “Beethoven’s Weihekuss Revisited” in Reflections on Liszt, pp. 1-10 (cf. note 1).

[4] Franz Liszt’s Briefe, 8 vols., Leipzig, 1893–1905; Briefwechsel zwischen Franz Liszt und Hans von Bülow, Leipzig, 1898; Briefwechsel zwischen Franz Liszt und Carl Alexander, Grossherzog von Sachsen, Leipzig, 1909; Franz Liszt’s Briefe an seine Mutter, Leipzig, 1918.

[5] This was published in 2000 by Pendragon Press as Franz Liszt and Agnes Street-Klindworth: A Correspondence, 1854–1886, No. 8 in the very scholarly, but very scarce and very expensive, Franz Liszt Studies Series.

[6] Correspondance de Liszt et de la Comtesse d’Agoult, 2 vols., Paris, 1933-4.

[7] Reflections on Liszt, p. xiv (cf. note 1).

[8] Ibid., p. xiii.

[9] Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times, Picador [2019], p. 10.

[10] See also Ben Arnold’s fine essay “Liszt as a Reader, Intellectual and Musician” in Analecta Lisztiana I: Liszt and His World, ed. Michael Saffle, Pendragon Press, 1993, pp. 37-60. The book is subtitled “Proceedings of the International Liszt Conference held at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University 20-23 May 1993” and has appeared as No. 5 in Franz Liszt Studies Series (cf. note 5). Mr Arnold has taken the trouble to compile an appendix with several tables listing all works in French and German (including translations of classics in Greek and Latin as well as of modern works in English, Italian and Russian) Liszt has cited, quoted from or referred to, and thus probably read at least in part; separate poems are also included, many of which (marked) Liszt set to music. Mr Arnold has reduced Liszt’s “Core Reading” to 13 authors and one collaborative work (in alphabetical order): Bible, Byron, Chateaubriand, Dante, Goethe, Hugo, Lamartine, Lamennais, Montaigne, Pascal, Sand, Schiller, Shakespeare, Thomas à Kempis. What matters is not, of course, how much one has read but what results reading has produced. Liszt’s works inspired by literature, which cover anything from Lieder and solo piano pieces to symphonic poems and program symphonies, are quite a solid proof that his reading was highly productive.

[11] See note 1 to this review and note 7 to this one.

[12] Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848–1860, Cornell University Press [1993], p. 501.

[13] Liner notes to Vol. 11 from Leslie’s recording of Liszt’s Complete Piano Music.

[14] Cf. Somerset Maugham, another great artist (the critics be blown!) and great man (the biographers be blown!) who knew what he was doing: “Nor do I mind what anyone thinks of me as a writer. On the whole I have done what I set out to do and the rest does not concern me. I have never much cared for the notoriety which surround the successful author and which many of us are so simple as to mistake for fame...” Preface to The Partial View, Heinemann, 1954.

[15] Liner notes to Liszt at the Opera I, Hyperion, n.d. [recorded in 1989], Vol. 6 from Leslie’s magisterial series of recordings.

[16] Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Final Years, 1861–1886, Cornell University Press [1997], p. 369. Mr Walker uses a different translation and quotes one sentence more in the beginning which Mr Williams should have retained: “My difficulty in writing is increasing and is becoming excessive – as is my weariness of living! Without feeling sorry for myself, I often suffer from [merely] existing – physical health remains, that of the spirit is lacking! Tristis est anima mea!”

[17] Ibid., pp. 370-1.

[18] Ibid., p. 438.

[19] This may be obscure to non-Lisztians. Marie’s notorious novel Nélida (1846) was her way of hurting Liszt as much as she thought he deserved. The eponymous heroine from this forgotten piece of trashy fiction was unable to inspire the impotent painter Guermann who never managed to fill a blank wall with his works. No need to point out the blatant attempt for score-setting. But it might be worth admitting that both Marie and Liszt filled their walls pretty well – she with novels and histories, he with piano, orchestral, choral and organ works – and if Liszt remains woefully underrated today, who the heck reads Marie d’Agoult? For more details, see Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years, 1811–1847, Rev. Edn., Cornell University Press [1987], p. 395-401.

[20] The first two of Trois Odes funèbres, “Les morts” and “La notte”, were inspired by the deaths of Daniel and Blandine, respectively. See Leslie Howard’s liner notes to Volkov’s recording (Hyperion, 2010). It is often forgotten, though not by Mr Williams in his prefatory notes, that the Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen Variations (S180), as shattering a work as Liszt ever composed, was also inspired by Blandine’s death. The ending of this magisterial work is an optimistic, almost triumphant, version of the Lutheran chorale “Was Gott tut, dass ist wohlgetan”. But I still do wonder, as I have elsewhere, whether Liszt did consider Blandine’s death something well-done on God’s part.

[21] Alan Walker did, of course: The Final Years, p. 357 (cf. note 16). Mr Walker also used the phrase as an epigraph, to a chapter titled “Wanderer Eternal, 1876–1881”. Somewhat disappointingly, though, the source is not quite Liszt himself. It is rather his daughter: Cosima Wagner, Franz Liszt: Ein Gedenkblatt von seiner Töchter, 2nd edition, Munich, 1911, p. 117.