Sardonically christened ‘Lisztomania’ by the German poet Heinrich Heine, an infectious disease swept through musical Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. Women were its main victims, with fetishism and erotic fantasies the presenting symptoms; the lady who devoutly poured the dregs from Franz Liszt’s tea-cup into her scent-bottle was a typical case. Moreover, clad in black and tossing his shoulder-length locks as he swayed histrionically over the keyboard, Liszt too was addicted to playing his part in this communal rapture.
Oliver Hilmes oddly suggests at the end of his book that the ‘real Liszt’ may never have existed, and that his personality consisted of ‘irreconcilable opposites’. But lifelong narcissism combined with a deep sense of artistic purpose would seem to furnish a perfectly adequate explanation for his switchback career. At sixteen, while earning fabulous sums as a recitalist, he professed himself sick of being ‘a performing dog’, and longed for the seclusion of a monastery; at twenty he gaily dived into the Parisian salons, while immersing himself in proto-Marxist philosophy; when he was thirty-five, and at the height of his fame, he suddenly abandoned his virtuoso career to devote himself to conducting, teaching, and concertizing for charity; at sixty-five he took orders to become an abbé, but that in no way inhibited his brilliantly successful talent for self-publicity, or for bewitching the female pupils who continued to pursue him sexually almost to the end of his days. Charismatic Olga Janina, like Liszt a cigar-smoker, laid siege to him armed with a revolver (to dispatch him, if he didn’t yield) and a bottle of poison (to dispatch herself).
If this book has a once-over-lightly feel, that is because there were many intertwined strands in Liszt’s extraordinary life, each of which could merit a book in themselves. As a musical biography, Hilmes’s account is superficial compared with Alan Walker’s three-volume Franz Liszt (Faber), which authoritatively analyses Liszt’s achievements as composer, conductor and polemicist, and demonstrates his pivotal importance in the development of European music.
But Hilmes is illuminating on the emergence – and continuance into old age – of Liszt’s preternatural gifts as a pianist. And by drawing on hitherto unpublished documentary sources he provides a riveting chronicle of the composer’s tangled relationships. He spent six sexually-tempestuous years with the Countess Marie D’Agoult, followed by thirty-nine tormentedly religious ones with the intellectually formidable (and immensely rich) Princess Carolyne von Sayne-Wittgenstein; his flings on the side tended to be quite serious too – he was no Don Juan.
But the real tragedy lay in Liszt’s relationship with his daughter Cosima, who waited half her life to punish the father who had deserted her mother and placed his daughters under a pathologically cruel governess. As wife of the egotistic Richard Wagner, whose music Liszt loyally championed for forty years, Cosima contemptuously reduced her father to the status of a lackey in the Wagner establishment, denying him all affection in his helpless dying days.
[A version of this article was published in The Economist]