Were I to tell you what my feelings were on carefully perusing and reperusing this essay, I could hardly find terms to express myself. Let this suffice: I feel more than fully rewarded for my trials, my sacrifices and artistic struggles, on noting the impression I have made on you in particular. To be thus completely understood was my only ambition; and to have been understood is the most ravishing gratification of my longing.
—Liszt in a Letter to Wagner
In writing of Liszt there is a strong temptation to work the superlative to its limit. In this instance it is well to overcome temptation by succumbing to it.
That word “genius” is much bandied, and often used without warrant; but for those rare beings who leap from the brain of Jove, full-armed, it is the only appellation. No finespun theory of pedagogics or heredity can account for the marvelous talent of Franz Liszt—he was one sent from God.
Yet we find a few fortuitous circumstances that favored his evolution. Possibly, on the other hand, there are those who might say the boy attracted to himself the human elements that he required, and thus worked out his freedom, acquiring that wondrous ability to express his inmost emotions. Art is the beautiful way of doing things. All art is the expression of sublime emotions; and there seems a strong necessity in every soul to impart the joy and the aspiration that it feels. And further, art is for the artist first, just as work is for the worker—it is all just a matter of self-development. And how blessed is it to think that every soul that works out its own freedom gives freedom to others! Liszt is the inspirer of musicians, just as Shakespeare is the inspirer of writers. Strong men make it possible for others to be strong. No man of the century gave the science of music such an impulse for good as this man. To go no further in way of proof, let the truth be stated yet once again, that it was Franz Liszt who threw a rope to the drowning Wagner.
On October Twenty-second, in the year Eighteen Hundred Eleven, when a man-child was born at the village of Raiding, Hungary, the heavens gave no sign, and no signal-flags nor couriers proclaimed the event, all as had been done a week before when a babe was born to the Prince and Princess Esterhazy at the same place. Now the child born last was the son of obscure parents, the father being an underling secretary of the Prince, known as Liszt. The child was very weak and frail, and for some months it was thought hardly possible it could live; but Destiny decreed that the boy should not perish.
The first recollections of Liszt take in, in a happy view, four men playing cards at a square table. One of these men was the boy’s father, another was Mein Herr Joseph Haydn, and the other two players are lost in the fog of obscurity. Did they ever know what a wonderful game they played, as little Franz Liszt, sitting on a corner of the table, listened to their talk and admired the buttons on the coat of the Kappellmeister? After the card-game Haydn sat at the piano and played, and the boy, just three years old, thought he could do that, too. Then there was another Kappellmeister in the employ of Prince Nicholas Esterhazy at Eisenstadt, and his name was Hummel. He was a pupil of Mozart, and used to tell of it quite often when he came up to Raiding on little visits, after the wine had been sampled. Liszt the Elder used to help Hummel straighten out his accounts, and where went Liszt the Elder, there, too, went little Franz Liszt, who wasn’t very strong and banked on it, and had to be babied. And so little Franz became acquainted with Hummel and used to sit on his knee at the piano, and together they played funny duets that set the company in a roar—two tunes at a time, harmonious discords and counterpoint, such as no one ever heard before, or since.
At this time there was no piano at the Liszt cottage, but the boy learned to play at the neighbors’, and practised at the palace of the Prince. His father and mother once took him there to hear Hummel. On this occasion Hummel played the Concerto by Reis in C minor. At the close of the performance, little Franz climbed up on the piano-stool and very solemnly played the same thing himself, to the immense delight of the listeners.
The father of Liszt has recorded that at this time the child was but three years old, but after taking off the proper per cent for the pride of a fond parent, the probabilities are the boy was five. This is the better attested when we remember that it was only a few weeks later that, on the request of Prince Esterhazy, the boy played at a concert in Oedenburg.
This launched the boy on that public career which was to continue for just seventy years. There is good evidence that the boy could read music before he could read writing, and that he threw into his playing such feeling and expression as Ferdinand Reis, who merely imitated his master, Beethoven, had never anticipated. That is to say, when he played “Reis,” he improved on him, with variations all his own—attempts often made with the work of great composers, but which incur risks not advised.
It will be seen that Liszt, although born in poverty, was from the very first in a distinctly musical environment. He could not remember a time when he did not attend the band-concerts—his parents wanted to go, and took the baby because there were no servants to take charge of him at home. Music was in the air, and everybody discussed it, just as in Italy you may hear the beggars in the streets criticizing art.
The delightful insouciance of this child-pianist won the heart of every hearer, and his success quite turned the head of his father, the worthy bookkeeper.
To give the child the advantages of an education was now his parents’ one ambition. Having no money of his own, the father importuned his employer, the Prince, who rather smiled at the thought of spending time and money on such an elfin-like child. His playing was, of course, phenomenal, unaccountable, a sort of bursting out of the sun’s rays, and, like the rainbow, a thing not to be seized upon and kept. It was mere precocity, and precocity is a rareripe fruit, with a worm at the core. This discouragement of the over-ambitious father was probably wise, for it gave the boy a chance to play I-Spy and leapfrog in the streets of the village, and to roam the fields. The lad became strong and well, and when ten years of age he had grown into a handsome youngster with already those marks of will and purpose on his beautiful face that were to be his credentials to place and power.
He had often played at concerts in the towns and villages about, and when there were visitors at the palace this fine, slim son of the bookkeeper was sent for to entertain them.
This attention kept ambition alive in the hearts of his parents, and after many misgivings they decided to hazard all and move to Vienna to give their boy the opportunities they felt he deserved.
The entire household effects being sold, the bookkeeper found he had nearly six hundred francs—one hundred fifty dollars. To this amount Prince Esterhazy added fifty dollars, and Hummel gave his mite, and with tears of regret at breaking up the home-nest, but with high hope, flavored by chill intervals of fear, the father, mother and boy started for Vienna.
Arriving in that city the distinguished Carl Czerny, pupil of Beethoven, was importuned to take the lad. Only the letter from Hummel secured the boy an audience, for Czerny was already overburdened with pupils. But when he had listened to the lad’s playing, he consented to take him as a pupil, merely saying that he showed a certain degree of promise. It is sternly true that Czerny did not fully come into the Liszt faith until after that concert of April Thirteenth, Eighteen Hundred Twenty-three, when Beethoven, ripe with years, crowded his way to the front and kissed the player on both cheeks, calling him “my son.” Such a greeting from the great Master spoke volumes when we consider the lifelong aversion that Beethoven held toward “prodigies,” and his disinclination to attend all concerts but his own.
And thus did Franz Liszt begin his professional pilgrimage, consecrated by the kiss of the Master.
Paris was the next step—to Paris, the musical and artistic center of the world. To win in Paris meant fame and fortune wherever he wished to exhibit his powers. The way the name of Franz Liszt swept through the fashionable salons of Paris is too well known to recount. Scarcely thirteen years of age, he played the most difficult pieces with peculiar precision and power. And his simple, boyish, unaffected manner—his total lack of self-consciousness—won him the affection of every mother-heart. He was fondled, feted, caressed, and took it all as a matter of course. He had not yet reached the age of indiscretion.
Music is a secondary sexual manifestation, just as are the songs of birds, their gay and gaudy plumage, the color and perfume of flowers that so delight us, and the luscious fruits that nourish us—all is sex. And then, do you not remember that expression of Renan’s, “The unconscious coquetry of the flowers”? Without love there would be no poetry and no music. All the manifest beauty of earth is only Nature’s nuptial decoration.
James Huneker, not always judicious, but a trifle more judicial than others that might be named, declares that two women, making a simultaneous attack upon the great composer, caused him to cut for sanctuary, and hence we have the Abbe Liszt, thus proving again that love and religion are twin sisters.
The old-time biographers can easily be placed in two classes: those who sought to pillory their man, and those who sought to protect him. Neither one told the truth; but each gave a picture, more or less blurred, of a being conjured forth from their own inner consciousness. Franz Liszt was naturalized in the Faubourg Saint Germain. It was here that he was first hailed as the infant prodigy, and proud ladies, at his performances, pressed to the front and struggled for the privilege of imprinting on his fair forehead a chaste and motherly kiss.
Eight years had passed: years of work and travel and constant growing fame. The youth had grown into a man, and his return to the scene of his former triumphs was the signal for a regathering of the clans to note his progress—or decline. The verdict was that from “Le Petit Prodige,” he had evolved into something far more interesting—”Le Grand Prodige.” Tall, handsome, strong, and with a becoming diffidence and a half-shy manner, his name went abroad, and he became the rage of the salons. His marvelous playing told of his hopes, longings, fears and aspirations—proud, melancholy, imploring, sad, sullen—his tones told all.
Fair votaries followed him from one performance to another. Leaving out of the equation such mild incidents as the friendship for George Sand, which began with a brave avowal of platonics, and speedily drifted into something more complex; also the equally interesting incident of his being invited to visit the Chateau of the lovely Adele Laprunarede, and the Alpine winter catching the couple and holding them willing captives for three months, blocked there in a castle, with nothing worse than a conscience and an elderly husband to appease, we reach the one, supreme love-passion in the life of Liszt. The Countess d’Agoult is worthy of much more than a passing note.
At twenty years of age she had been married to a man twenty-one years her senior. It was a “mariage de convenance”—arranged by her parents and a notary in a powdered wig. It is somewhat curious to find how many great women have contracted just such marriages. Grim disillusionment following, true love holding nothing in store for them, they turn to books, politics or art, and endeavor to stifle their woman’s nature with the husks of philosophy.
Count d’Agoult was a hard-headed man of affairs—stern, sensible and reasonably amiable—that is to say, he never smashed the furniture, nor beat his wife. She submitted to his will, and all the fine, girlish, bubbling qualities of her mind and soul were soon held in check through that law of self-protection which causes a woman to give herself unreservedly only to the One who Understands. Yet the Countess was not miserable—only at rare intervals did there come moods of a sort of dread longing, homesickness and unrest; but calm philosophy soon put these moods to rout. She had focused her mind on sociology and had written a short history of the Revolution, a volume that yet commands the respect of students. At intervals she read her essays aloud to invited guests. She studied art, delved a little in music, became acquainted with the leading thinking men and women of her time, and opened her salon for their entertainment.
Three children had been born to her in six years. Maternity is a very necessary part of every good woman’s education—”this woman’s flesh demands its natural pains,” says a great writer in a certain play. A staid, sensible woman was the Countess d’Agoult—tall, handsome, graceful, and with a flavor of melancholy, reserve and disinterestedness in her make-up that made her friendship sought by men of maturity. She talked but little, and won through the fine art of listening.
She was neither happy nor unhappy, and if the gaiety of girlhood had given way to subdued philosophy, there were still wit, smiles and gentle irony to take the place of laughter. “Life,” she said, “consists in molting one’s illusions.”
The Countess was twenty-nine years of age when “Le Grand Prodige,” aged twenty-three, arrived in Paris. She had known him when he was “Le Petit Prodige”—when she was a girl with dreams and he but a child. She wished to see how he had changed, and so went to hear him play. He was insincere, affected and artificial, she said—his mannerisms absurd and his playing acrobatic. At the next concert where he played she sought him out and half-laughingly told him her opinion of his work. He gravely thanked her, with his hand upon his heart, and said that such honesty and frankness were refreshing. After the concert Liszt remembered this woman—she was the only one he did remember—she had made her impression.
He did not like her.
Soon Liszt was invited to the salon of the Countess d’Agoult, and he, the plebeian, proudly repulsed the fair aristocrat when her attentions took on the note of patronage. They mildly tiffed—a very good way to begin a friendship, once said Chateaubriand.
The feminine qualities in the heart of Liszt made a lure of the person who dared affront him. He needed the flint on which his mind could strike fire—nothing is so depressing as continual, mushy adulation. He sought out the Countess, and together they traversed the border-land of metaphysics, and surveyed, as the days passed, all that intellectual realm which the dawn of the Twentieth Century thinks it has just discovered.
She taunted him into a defense of George Sand, who had but recently returned from her escapade to Venice with Alfred de Musset. Liszt defended the author of “Leone Leoni,” and read to the Countess from her books to prove his case.
When haughty, proud and religious ladies mix mentalities with sensitive youths of twenty-four, the danger-line is being approached. The Grand Passions that live in history, such as that of Abelard and Heloise, Petrarch and Laura, Dante and Beatrice, swing in their orbit around world-weariness. Love does not concern itself with this earth alone—it demands a universe for its free expression. And the only woman who is capable of the Grand Passion—who stakes all on one throw of the dice—is the melancholy woman, with this fine, religious reserve. No one suspected the Countess d’Agoult of indiscretion—she was too cold and self-contained for that!
And so is the world deceived by the Eternal Paradox of things—that law of antithesis which makes opposites look alike. Beneath the calm dignity of matronly demeanor the fires of love were banked. Probably even the Countess herself did not know of the volcano that was smoldering in her heart. But there came a day when the flames burst forth, and all the reserve, poise, quiet dignity, caution and discretion were dissolved into nothingness in love’s alembic.
Poor Franz Liszt!
Poor Countess d’Agoult!
They were powerless in the coils of such a passion. It was a mad tumult of wild intoxication, of delicious pain, of burning fears, and vain, tossing unrest. The woman’s nature, stifled by its six years of coaxing marital repression, was asserting itself. Liszt did not know that a woman could love like this—neither did the woman. Once they parted, after talking the matter over solemnly and deciding on what was best for both—they parted coldly—with a mere touching of the lips in a last good-by.
The next week they were together again.
Then Liszt fled to the Abbe Lamennais, and in tears sought, at the confessional and in dim retirement, a surcease from the passion that was devouring him. Here was a pivotal point in the life of Liszt, and the Church came near then, claiming him for her own. And such would have been the case, were it not for the fact that one of the children of the Countess d’Agoult was sick unto death. He knew of the sleepless vigils—the weary watching of the fond mother.
The child died, and Franz Liszt went to the parent in her bereavement, to offer the solace of religion and bid her a decent, respectful farewell, ere he left Paris forever. He thought grief was a cure for passion, and that in the presence of death, love itself was dumb. How could he understand that, in most strong natures, tears and pain, and hope and love are kin, and that each is in turn the manifestation of a great and welling heart!
Liszt stood by the side of the Countess as the grave closed over the body of her firstborn child. And as they stood there, under the darkening sky, her hand went groping blindly for his. She wrote of this, years and years after, when seventy winters had silvered her hair and her steps were feeble—she wrote of this, in her book called, “Souvenirs,” and tells how, in that moment of supreme grief, when her life was whitened and purified by the fires of pain, her hand sought his. The deep current of her love swept the ashes of grief away, and she reached blindly for the hands—those wonderful music-making hands of Liszt—that they might support her. And standing there, side by side, as the priest intoned the burial service, he whispered to her, “Death shall not divide us, nor is eternity long enough to separate thee from me!”
It was only a few days after that Liszt left Paris—but not for a monastery. He journeyed to Switzerland, and stopping at Basle he was soon joined by the Countess, her two children, and her mother.
All Paris was set in an uproar by the “abduction.” The George Sand school approved and loudly applauded the “eclat”; but it was condemned and execrated by the majority. As for the injured husband, it is said he gave a banquet in honor of the event; his feelings, no doubt, being eased by the fact that the goodly dot his wife had brought him at her marriage was now his exclusive possession. He had never gauged her character, anyway, and he inwardly acknowledged that her mind was of a sort with which he could not parry.
And now she had wronged him; yet in his grief he took much satisfaction, and in his martyrdom there was sweet solace.
The chief blame fell on Liszt, and the accusation that he had “broken up a happy home” came to his ears from many sources. “They blame you and you alone,” a friend said to him.
“Good! good!” said Liszt, “I gladly bear it all.”
George Sand, plain in feature, quiet in manner, soft and feminine when she wished to be, yet possessing the mind of a man, went to Switzerland to visit the runaway Liszt and the “Lady Arabella.” At first thought, one might suppose that such a visit, after the former relationship, might have been a trifle embarrassing for both. But the fact that in the interval George Sand had been crunching the soul of Chopin formed an estoppel on the memory of all the soft sentiment that had gone before. George Sand brought her two children, Maurice and Solange, and the “Lady Arabella” had two of her own to keep them company. A little family party was made up, and with a couple of servants and a guide, a little journey was taken through the mountain villages, all in genuine gipsy style. George Sand, who worked up all life, its sensations and emotions, into good copy, has given us an account of the trip, that throws some very interesting side-lights on the dramatis personæ.
The recounter and her children were all clothed in peasant costume—man-style, with blouses and trousers. Gipsy garbs were worn by the servants, and Liszt was arrayed like a mountaineer, and carried a reed pipe, upon which he, from time to time, awoke the echoes. When the dusty, unkempt crew arrived at a village inn, the landlord usually made hot haste to secrete his silverware. Once when a sudden rainstorm drove the wayfarers into a church, Liszt took his seat at the organ and played—played with such power and feeling that the village priest ran out and called for the neighbors to come quickly, as the Angel Gabriel, in the guise of a mountaineer, was playing the organ. Anthem, oratorio, and sweet, subtle, soulful improvisation followed, and the villagers knelt, and eyes were filled with tears. George Sand records that she never heard such playing by the Master before; she herself wept, and yet through her tears she managed to see a few things, and here is one picture which she gives us: “The Lady Arabella sat on the balustrade, swinging one foot, and cast her proud and melancholy gaze over the lower nave, and waited in vain for the celestial voices that were supposed to vibrate in her bosom.
“Her abundant light hair, disheveled by the wind and rain, fell in bewildering disorder, and her eyes, reflecting the finest hue of the firmament, seemed to be wandering over the realm of God’s creation after each sigh of the huge organ, played by the divine Liszt.
“‘This is not what I expected,’ said she to me languidly.
“‘Ah, that is what you said of the mountain peaks and the glacier, yesterday,’ said I.”
It will be seen, by those who have read between the lines, that George Sand did not much like “the fair Lady Arabella of the wondrous length of limb.” In passing, it is well to note, in way of apology for this allusion as to “length of limb,” that George Sand was once spoken of by Heine as “a dumpy-duodecimo.” It is to be regretted that we have no description of George Sand by the Lady Arabella.
Years passed in study and writing, with occasional concert tours, wherein the public flocked to hear the greatest pianist of his time. The power, grasp and insight of the man increased with the years, and wherever he deigned to play, the public was not slow in giving him that approbation which his masterly work deserved. Liszt was one of the Elect Few who train on. On these short concert trips his wife (for such she must certainly be regarded) seldom accompanied him—this in deference to his wish, and this, it seems, was the first and last and only cause of dissension between them.
The Countess was born for a career and her spirit chafed at the forced retirement in which she lived.
Ten years had gone by and three children had been born to her and Liszt. One of these, a boy, died in youth, but one of the daughters became, as we know, the wife of Richard Wagner, and the other daughter married Oliver Emile Ollivier, the eminent statesman and man of letters—member of the Cabinet in that memorable year, Eighteen Hundred Seventy, when France declared war on Germany. Both of these daughters of Liszt were women of rare mentality and splendid worth, true daughters of their father.
Position is a pillory; sometimes the populace will pelt you with rose-leaves—at others, with ancient vegetables. Liszt believed that for his wife’s peace of mind, and his own, she should not crowd herself too much to the front—he feared what the mob might say or do. We can not say that she was jealous of his fame, nor he of hers. However, as a writer she was winning her way. But the fateful day came when the wife said, “From this day on I must everywhere stand by your side, your wife and your equal, or we must part.”
Liszt made princely provision for her welfare, and the support of their children, as well as those that had come to her before they met.
She went south to Italy, and he began that most wonderful concert tour, where, in Saint Petersburg, sums equal to ten thousand dollars were taken at the door for single entertainments.
Countess d’Agoult was the respected friend of King Emmanuel, and her salon at Turin was the meeting-place of such men as Renan, Meyerbeer, Chopin, Berlioz and Rossini. She carried on a correspondence with Heinrich Heine, was the trusted friend of Prince Jerome Bonaparte, Lamartine and Lamennais, and was on a footing of equality with the greatest and best minds of her age. She wrote several plays, one of which, “Jeanne d’Arc,” was presented at the Court Theater of Turin, with the Royal Family present, and was a marked success. Her criticism on the work of Ingres made that artist’s reputation, just as surely as Ruskin made the fame of Turner. But one special reason why Americans should remember this woman is because she first translated Emerson’s “Essays” and caused them to be published in Italian and French.
I am not sure that Liszt ever quite forgave her for not dying of broken heart, when they parted there at Lake Maggiore. He thought she would take to opium or strong drink, or both. She did neither, but proved, by her after-life, that she was sufficient unto herself. She was worthy of the love of Liszt, because she was able to do without it. She was no parasitic, clinging vine that strangles the sturdy oak.
The Abbe Lamennais, the close friend of Liszt, once said, “Liszt is a great musician, the greatest the world has ever seen, but his wife can easily take a mental octave which he can not quite span.”
The Countess d’Agoult died March Fifth, in Eighteen Hundred Seventy-six, at the age of seventy years. When tidings of her passing reached the Abbe Liszt, he caused all of his immediate engagements to be canceled and went into monastic retirement, wearing the robe of horsehair and a rope girdle at his waist. He filled the hours for the space of a month with silent reverie and prayer.
And even in that cloister-cell, with its stone floor and cold, bare walls, the leaden hours brought the soundless presence of a tall and stately woman. Through the desolate bastions of his brain she glided in sweet disarray, looked into his tear-dimmed eyes, smoothing softly the coarse pillow where rested that head with its lion’s mane which we know so well—a head now whitened by the frost of years. No sound came to him there, save a soft voice which Fate refused to silence, and this voice whispered and whispered yet again to him: “Death shall not divide us, nor is eternity long enough to separate thee from me!”
Religion is not the cure of love. Perhaps religion is love and love is religion—anyway, we know that they are often fused. For a time after Liszt had parted from the Countess, fortune smiled. Then came various loans to friends, managerial experiments, the backing of an ill-starred opera, and a season of overwrought nerves.
Luck had turned against the supposed invincible Liszt. Then it was that the Princess Wittgenstein appears on the scene. This fine woman, earnest, strong in character, intellectual, had tried ten years of marital hard times and quit the partnership with a daughter and a goodly dot.
The Princess had secretly loved Liszt from afar, and had followed him from town to town, glorying in his triumphs, feeding on his personality.
When trouble came she managed to have a message conveyed to him that an unknown woman would advance, without interest or security, enough money for him to pay all his debts and secure him two years of leisure in which he might regain his health and do such work as his taste might dictate.
Of course Liszt declined the offer, begging his unknown friend to divulge her identity that he might thank her for her disinterested faith in the cause of Art.
A meeting was brought about and the result was as usual. The Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar, in the face of scandal, took the Abbe and Princess under protection,giving them the Chateau of Altenburg, near Weimar, for a retreat. There Liszt, guarded from all intrusion, composed the symphonies of “Dante” and “Faust,” sonatas, masses and parts of “Saint Elizabeth.” For thirteen years they lived an idyllic existence. Then, having married her daughter by her first husband to Prince Hohenlohe, the Princess set out for Rome to obtain a dispensation from the Pope, so she and the Abbe could be married. Her husband, who was a Protestant, had long before secured a divorce and married again. Pope Pius the Ninth granted her wish, and she hastened home and prepared for the wedding. It was said that flowers were already placed on the altar, the marriage feast was prepared, the guests invited, when news came that the Pope had changed his mind on the argument of one of the lady’s kinsmen. We now have every reason to believe, though, that the Pope changed his mind on the earnest request of Liszt.
On the death of the Princess Wittgenstein, the Pope dispensed Liszt from his priestly ties, but he was called the Abbe until his death.
Whenever I find any one who can write better on a subject than I can, I refuse to go on.
There is a book called, “Music Study in Germany,” written by my friend Amy Fay, and published by The Macmillan Company, from which I quote.
There are a dozen biographies of Liszt, but none of them has ever given us such a vivid picture of the man as has this American girl. The simple, unpretentious little touches that she introduces are art so subtile and true that it is the art which conceals art. The topmost turret of my ambition would be to have Amy Fay Boswellize my memory.
Says Amy Fay:
Liszt is the most interesting and striking-looking man imaginable, tall and slight, with deep-set eyes, long iron-gray hair, and shaggy eyebrows. His mouth turns up at the corners, which gives him a most crafty and Mephistophelian expression when he smiles, and his whole appearance and manner have a sort of Jesuitical elegance and ease. His hands are very narrow, with long and slender fingers that look as if they had twice as many joints as other people’s. They are so flexible and supple that it makes you nervous to look at them. Anything like the polish of his manner I never saw. When he got up to leave the box, for instance, after his adieux to the ladies, he laid his hand on his heart and made his final bow—not with affectation, or in mere gallantry, but with a quiet courtliness which made you feel that no other way of bowing to a lady was right or proper.
But the most extraordinary thing about Liszt is his wonderful variety of expression and play of feature. One moment his face will look dreamy, shadowy, tragic; the next he will be insinuating, amiable, ironical, sardonic; but always the same captivating grace of manner. He is a perfect study. He is all spirit, but half the time, at least, a mocking spirit, I should say. All Weimar adores him, and people say that women still go perfectly crazy over him. When he walks out, he bows to everybody just like a king! The Grand Duke has presented him with a beautiful house situated on the Park, and here he lives elegantly, free of expense.
Liszt gives no paid lessons whatever, as he is much too grand for that, but if one has talent enough, or pleases him, he lets one come to him and play to him. I go to him every other day, but I don’t play more than twice a week, as I can not prepare so much, but I listen to others. Up to this point there have been only four in the class beside myself, and I am the only new one. From four to six o’clock in the afternoon is the time when he receives his scholars. The first time I went I did not play to him, but listened to the rest. Urspruch and Leitert, two young men whom I met the other night, have studied with Liszt a long time, and both play superbly.
As I entered the salon, Urspruch was performing Schumann’s “Symphonic Studies”—an immense composition, and one that it took at least half an hour to get through. He played so splendidly that my heart sank down into the very depths. I thought I should never get on there! Liszt came forward and greeted me in a very friendly manner as I entered. He was in a very good humor that day, and made some little witticisms. Urspruch asked him what title he should give to a piece he was composing. “Per aspera ad astra,” said Liszt. This was such a good hit that I began to laugh, and he seemed to enjoy my appreciation of his little sarcasm. I did not play that time as my piano had only just come, and I was not prepared to do so, but I went home and practised tremendously for several days on Chopin’s “B minor sonata.” It is a great composition and one of his last works. When I thought I could play it, I went to Liszt, though with a trembling heart. I can not tell you what it has cost me every time I have ascended his stairs. I can scarcely summon up courage to go there, and generally stand on the steps a few moments before I can make up my mind to open the door and go in.
Well, on this day the artists Leitert and Urspruch, and the young composer Metzdorf, were in the room when I came. They had probably been playing. At first Liszt took no notice of me beyond a greeting, till Metzdorf said to him, “Herr Doctor, Miss Fay has brought a sonata.” “Ah, well, let us hear it,” said Liszt. Just then he left the room for a minute, and I told the three gentlemen they ought to go away and let me play to Liszt alone, for I felt nervous about playing before them. They all laughed at me and said they would not budge an inch. When Liszt came back they said to him, “Only think, Herr Doctor, Miss Fay proposes to send us all home.” I said I could not play before such artists. “Oh, that is healthy for you,” said Liszt with a smile, and added, “you have a very choice audience now.” I don’t know whether he appreciated how nervous I was, but instead of walking up and down the room, as he often does, he sat down by me like any other teacher, and heard me play the first movement. It was frightfully hard, but I had studied it so much that I managed to get through with it pretty successfully. Nothing could exceed Liszt’s amiability, or the trouble he gave himself, and instead of frightening me, he inspired me. Never was there such a delightful teacher! and he is the most sympathetic one I’ve had. You feel so free with him, and he develops the very spirit of music in you. He doesn’t keep nagging at you all the time, but he leaves you your own conception. Now and then he will make a criticism or play a passage, and with a few words give you enough to think of all the rest of your life. There is a delicate point to everything he says as subtle as he is himself. He doesn’t tell you anything about the technique; that you must work out for yourself. When I had finished the first movement of the sonata, Liszt, as he always does, said “Bravo!” Taking my seat he made some little criticisms, and then he told me to go on and play the rest of it.
Now, I only half-knew the other movements, for the first one was so extremely difficult that it cost me all the labor I could give to prepare that. But playing to Liszt reminds me of trying to feed the elephant in the Zoological Garden with lumps of sugar. He disposes of whole movements as if they were nothing, and stretches out gravely for more! One of my fingers fortunately began to bleed, for I had practised the skin off, and that gave me a good excuse for stopping. Whether he was pleased at this proof of industry, I know not; but after looking at my finger and saying, “Oh!” very compassionately, he sat down and played the whole three last movements himself. That was a great deal and showed off his powers. It was the first time I had heard him, and I don’t know which was the most extraordinary—the Scherzo, with its wonderful lightness and swiftness, the Adagio with its depth and pathos, or the last movement, where the whole keyboard seemed to “donnern und blitzen.” There is such a vividness about everything he plays that it does not seem as if it were mere music you are listening to, but it is as if he had called up a real, living form, and you saw it breathing before your face and eyes. It gives me almost a ghostly feeling to hear him, and it seems as if the air were peopled with spirits. Oh, he is a perfect wizard! It is as interesting to see him as it is to hear him, for his face changes with every modulation of the piece, and he looks exactly as he is playing. He has one element that is most captivating, and that is a sort of delicate and fitful mirth that keeps peering out at you here and there. It is most peculiar, and when he plays that way, the most bewitching expression comes over his face. It seems as if a little spirit of joy were playing hide-and-go-seek with you.
At home Liszt doesn’t wear his long Abbe’s coat, but a short one, in which he looks much more artistic. His figure is remarkably slight, but his head is most imposing. It is so delicious in that room of his! It was all furnished and put in order for him by the Grand Duchess herself. The walls are pale gray, with a gilded border running round the room, or rather two rooms, which are divided, but not separated, by crimson curtains. The furniture is crimson, and everything is so comfortable—such a contrast to German bareness and stiffness generally. A splendid grand piano (he receives a new one every year,) stands in one window. The other window is always open and looks out on the park. There is a dovecote just opposite the window, and doves promenade up and down upon the roof of it, and fly about, and sometimes whirr down on the sill itself. That pleases Liszt. His writing-table is beautifully fitted up with things that match. Everything is in bronze—inkstand, paper-weight, match-box, etc.—and there is always a lighted candle standing on it by which he and the gentlemen can light their cigars. There is a carpet on the floor, a rarity in Germany, and Liszt generally walks about and smokes and mutters, and calls upon one or the other of us to play. From time to time he will sit down and himself play where a passage does not suit him, and when he is in good spirits he makes little jests all the time. His playing was a complete revelation to me, and has given me an entirely new insight into music. You can not conceive, without hearing him, how poetic he is, or the thousand nuances that he can throw into the simplest thing, and he is equally great on all sides. From the zephyr to the tempest, the whole scale is equally at his command.
Liszt is not at all like a master, and can not be treated as one. He is a monarch, and when he extends his royal scepter you can sit down and play to him. You never can ask him to play anything for you, no matter how much you’re dying to hear it. If he is in the mood he will play; if not, you must content yourself with a few remarks. You can not even offer to play yourself.
You lay your notes on the table, so he can see that you want to play, and sit down. He takes a turn up and down the room, looks at the music, and if the piece interests him he will call upon you. We bring the same piece to him but once, and but once play it through.
Yesterday I had prepared for him his “Au Bord d’une Source.” I was nervous and played badly. He was not to be put out, however, but acted as if he thought I had played charmingly, and then he sat down and played the whole thing himself, oh, so exquisitely! It made me feel like a wood-chopper. The notes just seemed to ripple off his fingers’ ends with scarce any perceptible motion. As he neared the close I noticed that funny little expression come over his face, which he always has when he means to surprise you, and he then suddenly took an unexpected chord and extemporized a poetical little end, quite different from the written one. Do you wonder that people go distracted over him?
One day this week, when we were with Liszt, he was in such high spirits that it was as if he had suddenly become twenty years younger. A student from the Stuttgart conservatory played a Liszt concerto. His name is V., and he is dreadfully nervous. Liszt kept up a running fire of satire all the time he was playing, but in a good-natured way. I shouldn’t have minded it if it had been I. In fact, I think it would have inspired me; but poor V. hardly knew whether he was on his head or on his feet. It was too funny. Everything that Liszt says is so striking. For instance, in one place where V. was playing the melody rather feebly, Liszt suddenly took his seat at the piano and said, “When I play, I always play for the people in the gallery, so that those people who pay only five groschens for their seats also hear something.” Then he began, and I wish you could have heard him! The sound didn’t seem to be very loud, but it was penetrating and far-reaching. When he had finished, he raised one hand in the air, and you seemed to see all the people in the gallery drinking in the sound. That is the way Liszt teaches you. He presents an idea to you, and it takes fast hold of your mind and sticks there. Music is such a real, visible thing to him that he always has a symbol, instantly, in the material world to express his idea. One day, when I was playing, I made too much movement with my hand in a rotary sort of a passage where it was difficult to avoid it. “Keep your hand still, Fraulein,” said Liszt; “don’t make omelet.” I couldn’t help laughing—it hit me on the head so nicely. He is far too sparing of his playing, unfortunately, and like Tausig, sits down and plays only a few bars at a time generally. It is dreadful when he stops, just as you are at the height of your enjoyment, but he is so thoroughly blase that he doesn’t care to show off before people and doesn’t like to have any one pay him a compliment about his playing. In Liszt I can at least say that my ideal in something has been realized. He goes far beyond all that I expected. Anything so perfectly beautiful as he looks when he sits at the piano I never saw, and yet he is almost an old man now. I enjoy him as I would an exquisite work of art. His personal magnetism is immense, and I can scarcely bear it when he plays. He can make me cry all he chooses, and that is saying a good deal, because I’ve heard so much music, and never have been affected by it. Even Joachim, whom I think divine, never moved me. When Liszt plays anything pathetic, it sounds as if he had been through everything, and opens all one’s wounds afresh. All that one has ever suffered comes before one again. Who was it that I heard say once, that years ago he saw Clara Schumann sitting in tears near the platform during one of Liszt’s performances? Liszt knows well the influence he has on people, for he always fixes his eyes on some one of us when he plays, and I believe he tries to wring our hearts. When he plays a passage and goes pearling down the keyboard, he often looks over at me and smiles, to see whether I am appreciating it.
But I doubt if he feels any particular emotion himself when he is piercing you through with his rendering. He is simply hearing every tone, knowing exactly what effect he wishes to produce and just how to do it. In fact, he is practically two persons in one—the listener and the performer. But what immense self-command that implies! No matter how fast he plays you always feel that there is “plenty of time”—no need to be anxious! You might as well try to move one of the pyramids as fluster him. Tausig possessed this repose in a technical way, and his touch was marvelous; but he never drew the tears to your eyes. He could not wind himself through all the subtle labyrinths of the heart as Liszt does. Liszt does such bewitching little things! The other day, for instance, Fraulein Gaul was playing something to him, and in it were two runs, and after each run two staccato chords. She did them most beautifully and struck the chords immediately after. “No, no,” said Liszt; “after you make a run you must wait a minute before you strike the chords, as if in admiration of your own performance. You must pause, as if to say, ‘How nicely I did that!'” Then he sat down and made a run himself, waited a second, and then struck the two chords in the treble, saying as he did so, “Bravo!” and then he played again, struck the other chord and said again, “Bravo!” and positively, it was as if the piano had softly applauded.
Liszt hasn’t the nervous irritability common to artists, but on the contrary his disposition is the most exquisite and tranquil in the world. We have been there incessantly and I’ve never seen him ruffled except two or three times, and then he was tired and not himself, and it was a most transient thing. When I think what a little savage Tausig often was, and how cuttingly sarcastic Kullak could be at times, I am astonished that Liszt so rarely lost his temper. He has the power of turning the best side of every one outward, also the most marvelous and instant appreciation of what that side is. If there is anything in you, you may be sure that Liszt will know it. On Monday I had a most delightful tete-a-tete with Liszt, quite by chance. I had occasion to call upon him for something, and strange to say, he was alone, sitting by his table writing. Generally all sorts of people are up there. He insisted upon my staying for a while, and we had the most amusing and entertaining conversation imaginable. It was the first time I ever heard Liszt really talk, for he contents himself mostly with making little jests. He is full of esprit. Another evening I was there about twilight and Liszt sat at the piano looking through a new oratorio which had just come out in Paris, upon “Christus.” He asked me to turn for him, and evidently was not interested, for he would skip whole pages and begin again, here and there. There was only a single lamp, and that a rather dim one, so that the room was all in shadow, and Liszt wore his Merlin-like aspect. I asked him to tell me how he produced a certain effect he makes in his arrangement of the ballad in Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman.” He looked very “fin” as the French say, but did not reply. He never gives a direct answer to a direct question. “Ah,” said I, “you won’t tell.” He smiled and then immediately played the passage. It was a long arpeggio, and the effect he made was, as I had supposed, a pedal effect. He kept the pedal down throughout, and played the beginning of the passage in a grand sort of manner, and then all the rest of it with a very pianissimo touch, and so lightly, that the continuity of the arpeggios was destroyed, and the notes seemed to be just strewn in, as if you broke a wreath of flowers and scattered them according to your fancy. It is a most striking and beautiful effect, and I told him I didn’t see how he ever thought of it. “Oh, I’ve invented a great many things,” said he, indifferently—”this, for instance”—and he began playing a double roll of octaves in chromatics in the bass of the piano. It was very grand and made the room reverberate.
“Magnificent,” said I.
“Did you ever hear me do a storm?” said he.
“Ah, you ought to hear me do a storm! Storms are my forte!”
Then to himself between his teeth, while a weird look came into his eyes as if he could indeed rule the blast, “Then crash the trees!”
How ardently I wished that he would “play a storm,” but of course he didn’t, and he presently began to trifle over the keys in a blase style. I suppose he couldn’t quite work himself up to the effort, but that look and tone told how Liszt would do it. Alas, that we poor mortals here below should share so often the fate of Moses, and have only a glimpse of the Promised Land, and that without the consolation of being Moses! But perhaps, after all, the vision is better than the reality. We see the whole land, even if but from afar, instead of being limited merely to the spot where our foot treads.
Once again I saw Liszt in a similar mood, though his expression was this time comfortably rather than wildly destructive. It was when Fraulein Remmertz was playing his “E flat concerto” to him. There were two grand pianos in the room; she was sitting at one, and he at the other, accompanying and interpolating as he felt disposed. Finally they came to a place where there was a series of passages beginning with both hands in the middle of the piano, and going in opposite directions to the ends of the keyboard, ending each time with a short, sharp chord. “Pitch everything out of the window!” cried he, and began playing these passages and giving every chord a whack as if he were splitting everything up and flinging it out, and that with such enjoyment that you felt as if you’d like to bear a hand, too, in the work of demolition! But I never shall forget Liszt’s look as he so lazily proposed to “pitch everything out of the window.” It reminded me of the expression of a big tabby-cat as it sits by the fire and purrs away, blinking its eyes and seemingly half-asleep, when suddenly—!—! out it strikes with both its claws, and woe to whatever is within its reach!
Categories: The Book Lover