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Franz Liszt was born in 1811. He had the hot Hungarian blood of his father, the fervid German spirit of his mother, and he inherited the lofty independence, with none of the class prejudices, of the old Hungarian nobility from which he sprang. Liszt's father, Adam, earned a modest livelihood as agent and accountant in the house of Count Esterhazy. In that great musical family, inseparably associated with the names of Haydn and Schubert, Adam Liszt had frequent opportunities of meeting distinguished musicians. The prince's private band had risen to public fame under the instruction of the venerable Haydn himself. The Liszts, father and son, often went to Eisenstadt, where the count lived; there they rubbed elbows with Cherubini and Hummel, a pupil of Mozart.
This was a bitter pill to the eager student. He hardly knew how little he required such patronage. In a very short time "le petit Liszt" was the great Paris sensation. The old noblesse tried to spoil him with flattery, the Duchesse de Berri drugged him with bonbons, the Duke of Orleans called him the "little Mozart." He gave private concerts, at which Herz, Moscheles, Lafont, and De Beriot, assisted. Rossini would sit by his side at the piano, and applaud. He was a "miracle." The company never tired of extolling his "nerve, fougue et originalite," while the ladies who petted and caressed him after each performance, were delighted at his simple and graceful carriage, the elegance of his language, and the perfect breeding and propriety of his demeanor.
He was only twelve when he played for the first time at the Italian Opera, and one of those singular incidents which remind one of Paganini's triumphs occurred. At the close of a bravura cadenza, the band forgot to come in, so absorbed were the musicians in watching the young prodigy. Their failure was worth a dozen successes to Liszt. The ball of the marvellous was fairly set rolling. Gall, the inventor of phrenology, took a cast of the little Liszt's skull; Talma, the tragedian, embraced him openly with effusion; and the misanthropic Marquis de Noailles became his mentor, and initiated him into the art of painting.
In 1824 Liszt, then thirteen years old, came with his father to England; his mother returned to Austria. He went down to Windsor to see George IV., who was delighted with him, and Liszt, speaking of him to me, said: "I was very young at the time, but I remember the king very well--a fine, pompous-looking gentleman." George IV. went to Drury Lane on purpose to hear the boy, and commanded an encore. Liszt was also heard in the theatre at Manchester, and in several private houses.
On his return to France, people noticed a change in him. He was now fourteen, grave, serious, often pre-occupied, already a little tired of praise, and excessively tired of being called "le petit Liszt." His vision began to take a wider sweep. The relation between art and religion exercised him. His mind was naturally devout. Thomas a Kempis was his constant companion. "Rejoice in nothing but a good deed;" "Through labor to rest, through combat to victory;" "The glory which men give and take is transitory," these and like phrases were already deeply engraven on the fleshly tablets of his heart. Amid all his glowing triumphs he was developing a curious disinclination to appear in public; he seemed to yearn for solitude and meditation.
In 1827 he again hurried to England for a short time, but his father's sudden illness drove them to Boulogne, where, in his forty-seventh year, died Adam Liszt, leaving the young Franz for the first time in his life, at the early age of sixteen, unprotected and alone. Rousing himself from the bodily prostration and torpor of grief into which he had been thrown by the death of his father, Franz, with admirable energy and that high sense of honor which always distinguished him, began to set his house in order. He called in all his debts, sold his magnificent grand "Erard," and left Boulogne for Paris with a heavy heart and a light pocket, but not owing a sou.
He sent for his mother, and for the next twelve years, 1828-1840, the two lived together, chiefly in Paris. There, as a child, he had been a nine days' wonder, but the solidity of his reputation was now destined to go hand in hand with his stormy and interrupted mental and moral development. Such a plant could not come to maturity all at once. No drawing-room or concert-room success satisfied a heart for which the world of human emotion seemed too small, and an intellect piercing with intuitive intelligence into the "clear-obscure" depths of religion and philosophy.
But Franz was young, and Franz was poor, and his mother had to be supported. She was his first care. Systematically, he labored to put by a sum which would assure her of a competency, and often with his tender genial smile he would remind her of his own childish words, "God will help me to repay you for all that you have done for me." Still he labored, often woefully against the grain. "Poverty," he writes, "that old mediator between man and evil, tore me from my solitude devoted to meditation, and placed me before a public on whom not only my own but my own mother's existence depended. Young and over-strained, I suffered painfully under the contact with external things which my vocation as a musician brought with it, and which wounded me all the more intensely that my heart at this time was filled entirely with the mystical feelings of love and religion."
Of course the gifted young pianist's connection grew rapidly. He got his twenty francs a lesson at the best houses; he was naturally a welcome guest, and from the first seemed to have the run of high Parisian society. His life was feverish, his activity irregular, his health far from strong; but the vulgar temptations of the gay capital seemed to have little attraction for his noble nature. His heart remained unspoiled. He was most generous to those who could not afford to pay for his lessons, most pitiful to the poor, most dutiful and affectionate to his mother. Coming home late from some grand entertainment, he would sit outside on the staircase till morning, sooner than awaken, or perhaps alarm, her by letting himself in. But in losing his father he seemed to have lost a certain method and order. His meals were irregular, so were his lessons; more so were the hours devoted to sleep.
At this time he was hardly twenty; we are not surprised anon to hear in his own words, of "a female form chaste, and pure as the alabaster of holy vessel," but he adds: "Such was the sacrifice which I offered with tears to the God of Christians!"
I will explain. Mlle. Caroline St. Cricq was just seventeen, lithe, slender, and of "angelic" beauty, with a complexion like a lily flushed with roses, open, "impressionable to beauty, to the world, to religion, to God." The countess, her mother, appears to have been a charming woman, very partial to Liszt, whom she engaged to instruct Mademoiselle in music. The lessons went not by time, but by inclination. The young man's eloquence, varied knowledge, ardent love of literature, and flashing genius won both the mother and daughter. Not one of them seemed to suspect the whirlpool of grief and death to which they were hurrying. The countess fell ill and died, but not before she had recommended Liszt to the Count St. Cricq as a possible suitor for the hand of Mademoiselle.
The haughty diplomat, St. Cricq, at once put his foot down. The funeral over, Liszt's movements were watched. They were innocent enough. He was already an enfant de la maison, but one night he lingered reading aloud some favorite author to Mademoiselle a little too late. He was reported by the servants, and received his polite dismissal as music master. In an interview with the count his own pride was deeply wounded. "Difference of rank!" said the count. That was quite enough for Liszt. He rose, pale as death, with quivering lip, but uttered not a word. As a man of honor he had but one course. He and Caroline parted forever. She contracted later an uncongenial marriage; he seems to have turned with intense ardor to religion. His good mother used to complain to those who came to inquire for him that he was all day long in church, and had ceased to occupy himself, as he should, with music.
It was toward the close of 1831 that Liszt met Chopin in Paris. From the first, these two men, so different, became fast friends. Chopin's delicate, retiring soul found a singular delight in Liszt's strong and imposing personality. Liszt's exquisite perception enabled him perfectly to live in the strange dreamland of Chopin's fancies, while his own vigor inspired Chopin with nerve to conceive those mighty Polonaises that he could never properly play himself, and which he so gladly committed to the keeping of his prodigious friend. Liszt undertook the task of interpreting Chopin to the mixed crowds which he revelled in subduing, but from which his fastidious and delicately strung friend shrank with something like aversion.
From Chopin, Liszt and all the world after him got that tempo rubato, that playing with the duration of notes without breaking the time, and those arabesque ornaments which are woven like fine embroidery all about the pages of Chopin's nocturnes, and lift what in others are mere casual flourishes into the dignity of interpretative phrases and poetic commentaries on the text.
People were fond of comparing the two young men who so often appeared in the same salons together--Liszt with his finely shaped, long, oval head and profil d'ivoire, set proudly on his shoulders, his stiff hair of dark blonde thrown back from the forehead without a parting, and cut in a straight line, his aplomb, his magnificent and courtly bearing, his ready tongue, his flashing wit and fine irony, his genial bonhomie and irresistibly winning smile; and Chopin, also, with dark blonde hair, but soft as silk, parted on one side, to use Liszt's own words, "An angel of fair countenance, with brown eyes from which intellect beamed rather than burned; a gentle, refined smile, slightly aquiline nose; a delicious, clear, almost diaphanous complexion, all bearing witness to the harmony of a soul which required no commentary beyond itself."
Nothing can be more generous or more true than Liszt's recognition of Chopin's independent support. "To our endeavors," he says, "to our struggles, just then so much needing certainty, he lent us the support of a calm, unshakable conviction, equally armed against apathy and cajolery." There was only one picture on the walls of Chopin's room; it hung just above his piano. It was a head of Liszt.
It is no part of my present scheme to describe the battle which romanticism in music waged against the prevalent conventionalities. We know the general outcome of the struggle culminating, after the most prodigious artistic convulsions, in the musical supremacy of Richard Wagner, who certainly marks firmly and broadly enough the greatest stride in musical development made since Beethoven.
In 1842 Liszt visited Weimar, Berlin, and then went to Paris; he was meditating a tour in Russia. Pressing invitations reached him from St. Petersburg and Moscow. The most fabulous accounts of his virtuosity had raised expectation to its highest pitch. He was as legendary even among the common people as Paganini. His first concert at St. Petersburg realized the then unheard-of sum of #2,000. The roads were crowded to see him pass, and the corridors and approaches to the Grand Opera blocked to catch a glimpse of him. The same scenes were repeated at Moscow, where he gave six concerts without exhausting the popular excitement.
On his return to Weimar he accepted the post of Capellmeister to the Grand Duke. It provided him with that settled abode, and above all with an orchestra, which he now felt so indispensable to meet his growing passion for orchestral composition. But the time of rest had not yet come.
In 1844 and 1845 he was received in Spain and Portugal with incredible enthusiasm, after which he returned to Bonn to assist at the inauguration of Beethoven's statue. With boundless liberality, he had subscribed more money than all the princes and people of Germany put together, to make the statue worthy of the occasion and the occasion worthy of the statue.
The golden river which poured into him from all the capitals of Europe now freely found a new vent in boundless generosity. Hospitals, poor and needy, patriotic celebrations, the dignity and interests of art, were all subsidized from his private purse. His transcendent virtuosity was only equalled by his splendid munificence; but he found--what others have so often experienced--that great personal gifts and prodigious eclat cannot possibly escape the poison of envy and detraction. He was attacked by calumny; his gifts denied and ridiculed; his munificence ascribed to vainglory, and his charity to pride and ostentation; yet none will ever know the extent of his private charities, and no one who knows anything of Liszt can be ignorant of the simple, unaffected goodness of heart which prompted them.
Still he was wounded by ingratitude and abuse. It seemed to check and paralyze for the moment his generous nature. Fetis saw him at Coblenz soon after the Bonn festival, at which he had expended such vast sums. He was sitting alone, dejected and out of health. He said he was sick of everything, tired of life, and nearly ruined. But that mood never lasted long with Liszt; he soon arose and shook himself like a lion. His detractors slunk away into their holes, and he walked forth victorious to refill his empty purse and reap new laurels.
His career was interrupted by the stormy events of 1848. He settled down for a time at Weimar, and it was then that he began to take that warm interest in Richard Wagner which ended in the closest and most enduring of friendships.
He labored incessantly to get a hearing for the "Lohengrin" and "Tannhaeuser." He forced Wagner's compositions on the band, on the grand-duke; he breasted public opposition and fought nobly for the eccentric and obscure person who was chiefly known as a political outlaw and an inventor of extravagant compositions which it was impossible to play or sing, and odiously unpleasant to listen to. But years of faithful service, mainly the service and immense prestige and authority of Liszt, procured Wagner a hearing, and paved the way for his glorious triumphs at Bayreuth in 1876, 1882, and 1883.
I have preferred to confine myself in this article to the personality of Liszt, and have made no allusion to his orchestral works and oratorio compositions. The "Symphonic Poems" speak for themselves--magnificent renderings of the inner life of spontaneous emotion--but subject-matter which calls for a special article can find no place at the fag-end of this, and at all times it is better to hear music than to describe it. As it would be impossible to describe Liszt's orchestration intelligibly to those who have not heard it, and unnecessary to those who have, I will simply leave it alone.
I saw Liszt but six times, and then only between the years 1876 and 1881. I heard him play upon two occasions only, and then he played certain pieces of Chopin at my request and a new composition by himself. I have heard Mme Schumann, Buelow, Rubenstein, Menter, and Esipoff, but I can understand that saying of Tausig, himself one of the greatest masters of technique whom Germany has ever produced: "No mortal can measure himself with Liszt. He dwells alone upon a solitary height."
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