Oliver Hilmes’ fascination with Liszt’s public notoriety stands front-and-center in this biographical effort, even if that’s, arguably, the least-satisfying aspect of the pianist’s career.
Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar by Oliver Hilmes. Translated by Stewart Spencer. Yale University Press, 368 pages, $38.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
What remains to be said about Franz Liszt, the 19th-century keyboard virtuoso, composer, pedagogue, abbé, author, and playboy (among other things), if he’s shorn of the aura of celebrity that surrounded him for virtually all his career? Not much. At least that seems to be the conclusion reached by Oliver Hilmes’ 2011 biography, Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar, now out in an idiomatic, quick-paced translation by Stewart Spencer.
Hilmes’ fascination with Liszt’s public notoriety stands front-and-center in this biographical effort, even if that’s, arguably, the least-satisfying aspect of pianist’s career. “The word ‘superstar’ is likely to put modern readers in mind of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other pop stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna,” is how the Prologue’s first sentence runs, and if such an observation reeks a bit of desperation that doesn’t seem to have bothered Hilmes, who follows his chosen path to its logical conclusion. The book’s closing paragraph notes that “Liszt once said: ‘In life one must decide whether to conjugate the verb “to have” or the verb “to be.”’ He clearly opted for the second of these alternatives.” Well, doesn’t that just sum everything up in brilliant, thought-provoking fashion?
Of course, it’s good that Hilmes didn’t go the opposite direction and try and force a conclusion where there wasn’t one: biography needn’t have a moral, after all. And one might counter with the claim that, in focusing on Liszt’s fame, his compulsive womanizing, his severe contradictions of character, his interactions with some of 19th-century Europe’s most brilliant and idiosyncratic personalities, and so on, Hilmes is simply reporting the historical record and providing a welcome counter-balance to decades of overly-discreet (or dismissive) handling of these subjects. And that’s a valid point. But there are major problems when choosing this emphasis.
First, in this instance at least, it means that Hilmes all but neglects Liszt’s most important musical legacy: his compositions. Wagner, for one, once admitted to his wife, Cosima, that he had “stolen much” from her father’s works (Hilmes’ cites this observation in his Prologue). But at the end of the book we’re left none the wiser regarding what Wagner pilfered, why he might have done so, and – best of all – how Liszt created such singular, visionary music in the first place. Indeed, Hilmes all but glosses over the basics of Liszt’s not inconsiderable output. There’s scarcely a mention here of the thirteen revolutionary symphonic poems (they’re dispatched in a single paragraph on page 118) and only cursory discussion of the Faust and Dante Symphonies. The piano concertos are likewise absent from serious conversation. A number of major religious works (such as the “Gran” Mass, The Legend of Saint Elizabeth, and the oratorio Christus) are cited, but Hilmes doesn’t bother to analyze them in any depth. A reader might begin to suspect that the author has some bias against the music itself and that he’s trying his best to avoid having to examine it at all.
But that’s not entirely what’s going on because Hilmes does, from time to time, drop in on a piece that he seems to genuinely like. He alludes, however briefly, to a number of short, early works and talks a little bit about the Sonata in B minor. He offers a thoughtful study of the Variations on J. S. Bach’s “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.” And there’s a section in the closing chapter that probes some of Liszt’s forward-looking late music, like Nuage gris and La lugubre gondola. In these passages Hilmes demonstrates he can write compellingly about music: his analysis is clear, articulate, and understanding of context (both expressive and musical). If only the volume had featured more of this type of writing and applied it less arbitrarily.
This lack of a thorough, serious examination of Liszt the Musician helps partially explain why, come the end of the book, he remains such an enigmatic and distant figure, still a bit of a caricature. What’s more, the big questions — musical and otherwise — that we might ask about him remain largely untapped or unanswered. For instance, what motivations drove Liszt’s music, particularly its progressive elements and his novel approaches to instrumentation and form? How can we reconcile the complicated relationships he had with women (most notably his famous mistresses, Marie d’Agoult and Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein) and his deep, life-long, and apparently sincere interest in Roman Catholicism? How could a man whose close relationship with his father was a defining characteristic of his early life be so thoroughly absent and disengaged from the lives of his own offspring? What ties all the disparate strands that make up Liszt into one? And so on.
Admittedly, some of these questions may be impossible to answer: Liszt seems to have been part Sphinx, revealing only what he wanted others to know and then only on particular occasions. And Hilmes recognizes this fact when he engages with some of these themes. But he doesn’t follow them very far down the road or take after them very aggressively. At the end, it’s remarked that some think “the ‘real Liszt’ lies hidden behind a whole series of masks” — and things are left at that. It’s an appropriate, if unsatisfying, conclusion to a book whose overriding focus on the superficialities of fame, celebrity, and personality too often reads like, if not an appeal to the lowest common denominator, then at least an admonition against the dangers of thinking too deeply about anything.
Having said all this, there are moments in the narrative that rise above the ordinary. The first chapter, for instance, which recounts Liszt’s genealogy and early life, is arguably the biography’s liveliest and most personal. It covers the discovery of Liszt’s exceptional musical talent; his family’s move from Hungary to Vienna (where he studied with Carl Czerny and Antonio Salieri) and, later, to Paris; and the first wave of recitals and tours that made him one of the great musical stars of the 1820s. Most touching is the way Hilmes portrays Liszt’s relationship with his father, Adam, a worldly-wise, music-loving clerk formerly employed by the Esterhazy family (he was reported to be a card-playing pal of Haydn’s) whose own, thwarted dreams of musical glory were lived out (and, one presumes, exceeded) in the career of his son.
Similarly, Hilmes writes with real feeling about Liszt’s relationships (such as they were) with his three children, all the progeny of his relationship with d’Agoult. Left largely to grow up under the care of Liszt’s mother, Anna, and later, the daughters, to the domineering instruction of von Sayn-Wittgenstein’s former governess, theirs wasn’t an easy childhood and Liszt was far from a model father. That two of them – Liszt’s son, Daniel, and daughter, Blandine – died young only adds to the tragedy of the story. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel the pathos in Hilmes’ recounting of the aftermath of Blandine’s demise. Liszt had, at the last minute, called off a visit to her home the autumn before her death, and Hilmes juxtaposes the news of her passing with a snatch of a letter she had written her father at the time. “I could already see myself in your arms,” Blandine wrote, “and had for a moment left behind me this cold planet of ours. Now I have to return to it.” Liszt’s precise reaction to the event is left to speculation, but here’s as powerful an indictment of Liszt’s often-selfish ways as Hilmes makes.
Of Liszt’s third child, Cosima, Hilmes paints an unsparing, monstrous portrait (it should be noted that one of Hilmes’ previous biographies is a well-regarded study of this appalling individual). Self-serving, manipulative, and egocentric, she was in many ways the perfect match for her second husband, Liszt’s contemporary and sometimes-rival, Richard Wagner. Together, Cosima and Richard embarrassed Liszt (most notoriously by Cosima leaving her first husband, Liszt’s celebrated pupil, Hans von Bülow, to become Wagner’s mistress) or used him to their own ends, sometimes flattering him but more often ignoring him over the last fifteen or so years of his life. It’s the crowning irony of Liszt’s biography that he spent his final days and illness in Wagner’s shadow — in Bayreuth, during the second Bayreuth Festival in 1886. Then again, given how shamefully Liszt neglected his children for so much of their lives, perhaps there’s a measure of justice in his spending his last hours under such circumstances.
As for the other important relationships in Liszt’s life, Hilmes gives them due heed. Liszt’s famous, long-term affairs — the first, in which he was totally mismatched, emotionally and temperamentally, with d’Agoult; the second with his intellectual equal, von Sayn-Wittgenstein — are painted with clarity and a good deal of sympathy. Both women, when they met Liszt, were locked in loveless, doomed marriages. For d’Agoult, her relationship with Liszt offered a physical and emotional escape from her situation and also, she hoped, the opportunity to attain a kind of immortality as Liszt’s muse. When the latter didn’t happen and the relationship broke down in the mid-1840s, she published a novel called Nélida, a thinly-veiled attack on Liszt dramatizing his neglect of her; it was a deeply wounding experience for him.
Liszt’s relationship with von Sayn-Wittgenstein at least ended amicably. Hilmes goes into great detail examining their long, ultimately doomed efforts to marry (Carolyne’s attempts to divorce her husband were quashed by a cabal that included Tsar Alexander II and Pope Pius IX) and draws on their extensive correspondence over the last period of each others’ lives (they died less than a year apart).
The remaining big events of Liszt’s life (the intense touring, the “Lisztomania” craze, the Weimar period, the years of semi-seclusion in Italy) plus a bevy of other characters — writers, artists, musicians, politicians — pass by in a bit of a blur owing to a lack of narrative structure and focus. People, events, and episodes, some big and some small, tend to come and go with about as much build-up and let-down as the Kansas prairie. Little differentiation, for instance, is given to Liszt’s first love affair with Caroline Saint-Cirq; his encounter with Paganini (that set him on the course to become Europe’s greatest virtuoso); his rivalry with Sigismund Thalberg; his important work as a conductor in Weimar; and his many travels between Germany, Hungary, and Italy. In all, the depiction Hilmes provides is quite busy and hectic, no doubt a reflection of Liszt’s reality, but a frustratingly shapeless one, at that.
This is especially surprising, given 1) the colorful nature of many of these characters (Liszt’s lover, Agnes Street-Klindworth, was, according to Hilmes’ research, a spy) and 2) how politically and culturally significant many of them were. We see this most clearly in Hilmes’ selective focus on Liszt’s students. There were many, and Liszt encountered them in a combination of private lessons, master classes, and travels. In terms of ability, they ranged from charlatans to virtuosi. In Hilmes’ narrative, each type gets about equal weight, regardless of importance. Thus we spend a fairly significant amount of time with one Olga Janina, a subpar pianist whose affair with Liszt culminated in her threatening to shoot him. When that failed, she followed d’Agoult’s example and published a series of novels that made a mockery of Liszt’s outward shows of piety. It’s an entertaining tale: she’s a rather bizarre individual, and Hilmes obviously relishes writing about both. But there’s considerably more ink spilled on Janina than there is attention paid to several of Liszt’s more musically significant students, such as Arthur Friedheim, Emil von Saur, and Carl Reinecke. Clearly, Janina’s is a more dramatic story and it makes for fun reading. But is it all that relevant to Liszt’s legacy? I, for one, am unconvinced it is.
Of course, sometimes the smaller characters Hilmes emphasizes yield important details: Lina Schmallhausen’s report of Liszt’s final days and hours, for instance, are compelling. But at other junctures, vital figures don’t get sustained attention: Street-Klindworth receives a substantial introduction (Hilmes notes that she was “one of the most important women in Liszt’s life”), but she’s absent for long stretches of the story. In fact, Street-Klindworth draws less air time than Janina (fourteen pages to eighteen). It’s all perfectly unbalanced. Indeed, as far as the supporting cast is concerned, the book’s best scenes, in terms of content and weightedness, are the ones that start in the 1860s, when Liszt’s world increasingly intersected with that of the Wagner’s. Here, Hilmes’ writing takes on a sharp, colorful focus. Vexing and infuriating as the behavior of the principal players can be, it makes for lively, energetic reading.
If only such traits were demonstrated consistently throughout Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar. Instead, Hilmes provides a disappointingly haphazard depiction of, arguably, the 19th century’s eminent musical figure. As its subtitle promises, the study presents its subject as the archetype of the modern pop music star, whether that be Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, Madonna, Michael Jackson, or Taylor Swift, and, in so doing, reminds us how slowly (if at all) the most fundamental of human behaviors change. Indeed, the 19th century and our own age are in many ways more similar than we may often expect or want to believe. There is surely some value in recognizing that fact. Whether or not it outweighs the number of unanswered questions Hilmes raises concerning Liszt’s life, though, remains an open question.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette