Book Review: Franz Liszt
by Oliver Hilmes
translated by Stewart Spencer
Yale University Press, 2016
“The normal way biography is written is to allow the basic materials – letters, diaries, manuscripts – to disclose the life. And if those materials are missing, one goes out and finds them,” writes Alan Walker in his intensely good 1983 biography of Franz Liszt, Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years, 1811-1847, and then immediately adding: “That did not happen with Liszt.” The Virtuoso Years was the first volume in an exhaustive three-volume biography Walker wrote of the composer and piano prodigy, and even that three-volume biography was only half of what this one brilliant writer wrote about the man. Needless to say, there have been hundreds and hundreds of other works on Liszt, from fat single-volume overview biographies to fine-focus studies of every aspect of the life and times. You’d think the market would be saturated, but Liszt – both the man and his music – is electrifying, so books of all types continue to appear.
One of those was Oliver Hilmes’s 2011 work Liszt Biographie eines Superstars (published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth) which now gets an English-language translation for Yale University Press by Stewart Spencer. Hilmes refers to Liszt’s life as “one of the great romances of the nineteenth century,” and yet for all that his book (a comparatively svelte 300 pages) almost never passes up an opportunity to swoop down on some bit of salacious gossip or other, he tells the story of that great romance in a very non-Romantic way. In place of florid credulity and blinding sentimentality, these pages brim with acerbic good sense, and they keep an assessing, often controlling eye on the main character, appreciating the excesses that ruled the early decades of his life without ever siding with those excesses at the reader’s expense:
Liszt enjoyed playing the part of a snob when he arrived at a concert venue with his secretary in a private carriage. Belloni would open the carriage door and Liszt would alight with an air of seigneurial grandeur. It was ‘indispensable’ if he was to make any impression, he assured Marie d’Agoult. Here we see an aspect of his character that was generally denied by his earliest biographers, who were keen that Liszt should appear as a model of spotless brilliance. But such vanity and a tendency to give himself airs and graces were undoubtedly parts of his personality. He was a brilliant pianist, but one with a love of ostentation. For him, it was never just about the music but also involved an element of showmanship. He offered his audiences a great spectacle that revolved around a single actor: himself.
This account by Hilmes follows Liszt through all the well-known stages of his life, from child prodigy to superstar itinerant performer to world-renowned figure to fading retiree. These final years of the composer’s life Hilmes handles with particular sensitivity and subdued wit, crafting, for instance, a memorable picture of the stay Liszt spent in Venice in 1882 with his daughter Cosima and his monstrous son-in-law Richard Wagner, during which Liszt’s boorish son-in-law conducted exactly the kind of vicious bullying campaign on Liszt as he conducted on everybody he knew throughout his entire life. It makes certain of Hilmes’s scenes of gentle foreboding almost pleasant:
From his rooms at the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi Liszt had a view of the Grand Canal and could occasionally see funeral gondolas shrouded in black glide past through the mists of the lagoon, a disturbingly beautiful sight that inspired him to write La lugubre gondola, a moving threnody that recreates the morbid atmosphere of those December days in Venice. The piece, which exists in multiple versions, later acquired a sad notoriety as it appears to anticipate Wagner’s death. Indeed, Liszt himself was not entirely blameless in this regard, for he admitted to one of his publishers, ‘As if by way of a premonition I wrote this elegy in Venice six weeks before Wagner’s death.’ It was entirely possible, therefore, that Wagner heard his own funeral music being written.
Even after reading and enjoying Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar, it’s a bit difficult to know where to place it, what to do with it amidst the great overstacked library of books about Liszt. It’s certainly more inclusive than any of the specialist studies, and although the Walker trilogy still remains the indispensable life, there is in Hilmes a certain 21st century knowingness that Walker never displays nor even attempts. And the Hilmes is a thousand pages shorter without ever being neglectful – this too may weigh on modern readers a bit pressed for time.