Classical Music from Germany – Current trends

“Lisztomania”: Pianist, conductor and composer Franz Liszt’s bicentenary

A “divine” pianist, as he was called in Weimar whilst serving as court conductor there. Franz Liszt would be 200 years old this year, in 2011, if he were still alive.

Franz Liszt was born in 1811 in Doborján (German: Raiding), a German-speaking town in the Kingdom of Hungary at the time. His father, who initially taught the boy himself, eventually brought the 10-year-old to Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny in Vienna for his further education. In 1830, after Liszt’s years as a child prodigy, began a period of “desultory studying and producing in Paris”. He was soon admitted to the salons, an indispensible showcase for artists at the time. That is where, in late 1832, he met Marie d’Agoult, a married woman with whom he was later to have three children, Blandine-Rachel (1835), Cosima (1837) and Daniel (1839).

A decade of concert tours

“The high life”, Liszt said of the peak of his career, from 1838 to 1848, during which he toured the continent, bringing down the house throughout Europe. He performed in Paris, London, Berlin and St. Petersburg, but also in provincial backwaters – a fact that figures prominently in our modern-day image of the man. Liszt established a new concert genre: the solo piano recital. His repertoire, always played from memory, ranged from Bach through Beethoven to Chopin, as well as his own compositions, such as the extremely popular Grand Galop chromatique. He would also perform virtuosic arrangements of folk songs and art songs for piano (e.g. Schubert’s Erlkönig), as well as resounding medleys of airs from popular operas (e.g. Réminiscences de Don Juan). Though he only stayed in Berlin for a few months, a veritable “Lisztomania” (Heinrich Heine) broke out there in the spring of 1842. Swept away by the sheer brilliance of his playing, the public coveted and fetishized everyday items of his, including his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves, and were awe-struck whenever a piano string broke or an entire grand piano came crashing down under his ferocious performance. “A divinity, and we hearken on our knees,” noted Robert Schumann.

Court conductor in Weimar

In 1841, after a concert in Weimar, Liszt was appointed court conductor there. He did not take up the post till January 1844, the year in which he broke with Marie d’Agoult for good. Then in 1847 he met the Polish Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. She followed him to Weimar, where the two of them resided in the Altenburg castle, waiting for years – ultimately in vain – for the Vatican to annul Carolyne’s existing marriage so they could get married. His contemporaries may well have been amazed that, after such resounding success in Europe’s capitals, Liszt would move to such a small city. And yet his possibilities there were vast. Liszt himself summed up the years from 1848 to 1861 as a period of “collecting and working in Weimar”.

Liszt settled down in Weimar. He developed his conducting skills here. He could experiment with new compositional formats there, above all with symphonic poems as a fusion of the symphonic concept and poetic subject-matter (Tasso, Orpheus, Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne (aka Bergsinfonie) after Victor Hugo’s eponymous poem). The symphonic poem represented a shift towards programme music, which from the mid-19th century would lead to passionate debate, the controversy over the so-called Neudeutsche Schule (New German School) of music.

Under Liszt’s direction, the Weimar court theatre and orchestra gained international fame, as a sizeable circle of pupils and adepts formed up around him. The world premiere of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin in 1850 caused a sensation throughout Europe. On the other hand, the local public’s appreciation for and loyalty to Liszt ebbed over time. That disappointment was compounded by grief at the death of his 20-year-old son Daniel in 1859. Liszt resigned as court conductor in late 1861 and increasingly devoted his energies to composing.

At Monte Mario monastery in Rome

Of a strongly religious bent ever since his youth, Liszt subsequently elaborated ideas on how to reform church music. In 1863, after an extended sojourn in Rome, he entered a monastery on Monte Mario, took holy orders on 25 April 1865 and was soon thereafter ordained an abbé, a secular Catholic clergyman. Franz Liszt was thenceforth, if not a priest, at least a cleric, wearing his cassock even when giving concerts again in his old age. Along with Weimar and Budapest, where Liszt was appointed president of the newly-founded Hungarian Music Academy, Rome was to remain one of Liszt’s homes during the last 20 years of his life.

Liszt and Wagner

Liszt’s life and music cannot be discussed in full without mentioning Richard Wagner. Above all, their shared view of the future of composition in Germany made for strong ties of affinity between the two composers. But they were also bound by Wagner’s relationship with Liszt’s daughter, Cosima von Bülow née Liszt, of which Liszt was initially critical. It was Cosima who, after Wagner’s death, took over the direction of the Bayreuth Festival, and it was there with his daughter in Bayreuth that Liszt died on 31 July 1886.

Liszt bicentenary

This year, many German cities will be celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of composer, pianist, conductor and music critic Franz Liszt. A number of events will be held in Weimar in particular. The Altenburg castle, which now houses a music college and the Franz Liszt Centre as well as the Franz Liszt Society of Weimar, is open to the public, as is his house on the premises, where he dwelt from 1869–1886. A regional exhibition entitled Franz Liszt: A European in Weimar runs to 31 October, partly at the Schiller Museum and partly at the Castle Museum, where the exhibit Cosimo’s Piano retraces the technical development of the piano against the historico-cultural backdrop of the Liszt era.

The bicentenary will be celebrated at various events in Weimar, including the Kunstfest Weimar pèlerinage (19 August to 11 September 2011) (Pèlerinage Arts Festival, named after Liszt’s piano cycle Années de pèlerinage), held annually since 2004, under the artistic direction of Liszt’s great-great granddaughter Nike Wagner. In addition, as part of the Lisztomania ’11 festival from 17–23 October, there will be a conference on Interpretations of Liszt, as well as a revival of the historic 1857 concert for the inauguration of the Schiller memorial with the original programme, a Liszt/Beethoven concert on period grands, a festival concert directed by Christian Thielemann, and the closing concert of the FinaLISZT piano competition with the Staatskapelle Weimar, held jointly with the City of Bayreuth.
Dr Christiane Tewinkel
studied school music, German and English language and literature in Freiburg and musicology and music theory at Harvard University, and did her PhD in Würzburg, Germany. She lives in Berlin, working as a musicologist and free-lance author.

Translation: Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
August 2011

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