Monday 20 January 2020

Life and loves of Liszt without a soundtrack

Biography: Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar, Oliver Hilmes, Yale University Press, hdbk, 368 pages, €32.50

Escapades: Hilmes' biography of Liszt is woefully inadequate in chronicling his musical legacy
Escapades: Hilmes' biography of Liszt is woefully inadequate in chronicling his musical legacy
Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar by Oliver Hilmes

If not among the very greatest of composers, Franz Liszt remains one of the most famous - though largely to do with the frenzy that surrounded his public persona rather than with the piano works and orchestral pieces that today are his main creative legacy.

Indeed, more than a century before Beatlemania, poet Heinrich Heine had coined the phrase "Lisztomania", which was also the title of Ken Russell's daft 1975 biopic, starring Roger Daltrey as Liszt, Irish actress Veronica Quilligan as daughter Cosima and Ringo Starr as the Pope.

Russell's delirious retelling of Liszt's life isn't mentioned in this new biography by German writer Oliver Hilmes, though its opening pages suffer from their own form of delirium as we're promised a story that involves "scandalous love affairs", "numerous escapades" and "erotic fantasies".

After this excitable scene-setting the style (or that of its English translator) thankfully quietens down and Hilmes, who has previously written a well-regarded biography of Cosima, proves an engaging guide to Liszt's eventful life. It was a life that from a very early age was lived in public.

"The whole of Paris was infatuated with the boy," Hilmes notes of a French recital tour by the 11-year-old Hungarian prodigy.

As the boy became a man, mass hysteria among young women was to follow, with European tours marked by fainting females at recitals and invasions of Liszt's lodgings by females in search of souvenirs. Liszt himself played up to this image of a charismatically brooding and volatile genius, but also found time both for casual liaisons and tortured long-term relationships.

Aristocratic countess Marie d'Agoult was the first of these, providing him with sons and daughters, including Cosima, who later repaid her father's neglect by marrying the much older Richard Wagner and finally vengefully ensuring that Liszt was consigned to the role of servant to the "Bayreuth demigod".

In the meantime, though, Liszt had continued success both as a public performer (earning up to the equivalent of €50,000 a night) and as a private piano teacher and continued also to fall in love, notably with intellectually gifted princess Carolyne, one of Russia's wealthiest young widows and destined to be a lifelong companion, even if their relationship was often turbulent - leading Hilmes to pathetically muse that "the love between two people is notoriously hard to fathom".

In later life, Liszt entered holy orders, becoming the Abbe Liszt and visited by an admiring Pope Pius IX in Rome, while also appearing in a black soutane at a Parisian recital. But his new-found piety didn't stop him having a relationship with Baroness Olga von Meyendorff or being pursued by another Olga, an infatuated piano student who, in Hilmes anachronistic description, "suffered from substance abuse" and ended up writing vicious books about her idol.

The biographer tells all of this with considerable gusto, but you're left feeling that this is a somewhat sensationalist account of a sensational life. And ultimately, of course, all that really matters today is the music that Liszt left behind, which is where the book is woefully inadequate.

The extraordinary B minor piano sonata merits no more than a cursory paragraph, the Années de Pèlerinage fare no better, while the 15 Hungarian rhapsodies are dispatched in a sentence. Liszt's stature may be less than that of Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert, but his legacy deserves better than that.

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