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Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt


Franz Liszt

By Harriette Brower

Franz Liszt, in his day the king of pianists, a composer whose compositions still glow and burn with the fire he breathed into them; Liszt the diplomat, courtier, man of the world—always a conqueror! How difficult to tell, in a few pages, the story of a life so complex and absorbing!

A storm outside: but all was warmth and simple comfort in the large sitting-room of a steward's cottage belonging to the small estate of Raiding, in Hungary.

It was evening and father Liszt, after the labors of the day were over, could call these precious hours his own. He was now at the old piano, for with him music was a passion. He used all his leisure time for study and had some knowledge of most instruments. He had taught himself the piano, indeed under the circumstances had become quite proficient on it. To-night he was playing something of Haydn, for he greatly venerated that master. Adam Liszt made a striking figure as he sat there, his fine head, with its mass of light hair, thrown back, his stern features softened by the music he was making.

At a table near sat his wife, her dark head with its glossy braids bent over her sewing. Hers was a sweet, kindly face, and she endeared herself to every one by her simple, unassuming manners.

Quite near the old piano stood little Franz, not yet six. He was absolutely absorbed in the music. The fair curls fell about his childish face and his deep blue eyes were raised to his father, as though the latter were some sort of magician, creating all this beauty.

When the music paused, little Franz awoke as from a trance.

"Did you like that, Franzerl?" asked his father, looking down at him. The child bent his curly head, hardly able to speak.

"And do you want to be a musician when you grow up?" Franzerl nodded, then, pointing to a picture of Beethoven hanging on the wall, exclaimed with beaming eyes: "I want to be such a musician as he is!"

Adam Liszt had already begun to teach his baby son the elements of music, at the child's earnest and oft-repeated request. He had no real method, being self-taught himself, but in spite of this fact Franz made remarkable progress. He could read the notes and find the keys with as much ease as though he had practised for years. He had a wonderful ear, and his memory was astonishing. The father hoped his boy would become a great musician, and carry out the dream which he had failed to realize in himself.

Little Franz was born in the eventful year of 1811,—the "year of the comet." The night of October 21, the night of his birth, the tail of the meteor seemed to light up the roof of the Liszt home and was regarded as an omen of destiny. His mother used to say he was always cheerful, loving, never naughty but most obedient. The child seemed religious by nature, which feeling was fostered by his good mother. He loved to go to church on Sundays and fast days. The midnight mass on Christmas eve, when Adam Liszt, carrying a lantern, led the way to church along the country road, through the silent night, filled the child's thoughts with mystic awe.

Those early impressions have doubtless influenced the creations of Liszt, especially that part of his "Christus" entitled "Christmas Oratorio."

Before Franz was six, as we have seen, he had already begun his musical studies. If not sitting at the piano, he would scribble notes—for he had learned without instruction how to write them long before he knew the letters of the alphabet, or rudiments of writing. His small hands were a source of trouble to him, and he resorted to all kinds of comical expedients, such as sometimes playing extra notes with the tip of his nose. Indeed his ingenuity knew no bounds, when it came to mastering some musical difficulty.

Franz was an open minded, frank, truth-loving child, always ready to confess his faults, though he seemed to have but few. Strangely enough, though born an Hungarian, he was never taught to speak his native tongue, which indeed was only used by the peasants. German, the polite language of the country, was alone used in the Liszt home.

The pronounced musical talent of his boy was a source of pride to Adam Liszt, who spoke of it to all his friends, so that the little fellow began to be called "the artist." The result was that when a concert was to be given at the neighboring Oldenburg, Adam was requested to allow his wonder child to play.

When Franz, now a handsome boy of nine, heard of the concert, he was overjoyed at the prospect of playing in public. It was a happy day for him when he started out with his father for Oldenburg. He was to play a Concerto by Reis, and a Fantaisie of his own, accompanied by the orchestra. In this his first public attempt Franz proved he possessed two qualities necessary for success—talent and will. All who heard him on this occasion were so delighted, that Adam then and there made arrangements to give a second concert on his own account, which was attended with as great success as the first.

The father had now fully made up his mind Franz was to be a musician. He decided to resign his post of steward at Raiding and take the boy to Vienna for further study.

On the way to Pressburg, the first stop, they halted to call at Eisenstadt, on Prince Esterhazy. The boy played for his delighted host, who gave him every encouragement, even to placing his castle at Pressburg at his disposal for a concert. The Princess, too, was most cordial, and gave the boy costly presents when they left.

At Pressburg Adam Liszt succeeded in arranging a concert which interested all the Hungarian aristocracy of the city. It was given in the spacious drawing-rooms of the Prince's palace, and a notable audience was present. Little Franz achieved a triumph that night, because of the fire and originality of his playing. Elegant women showered caresses upon the child and the men were unanimous that such gifts deserved to be cultivated to the utmost without delay.

When it was learned that father Liszt had not an ample purse, and there would be but little for Franz's further musical education, six Hungarian noblemen agreed to raise a subscription which would provide a yearly income for six years. With this happy prospect in view, which relieved him of further anxiety, the father wrote to Hummel, now in employ of the Court at Weimar, asking him to undertake Franz's musical education. Hummel, though a famous pianist, was of a grasping nature; he wrote back that he was willing to accept the talented boy as a pupil, but would charge a louis d'or per lesson!

As soon as the father and his boy arrived in Vienna, the best teachers were secured for Franz. Carl Czerny was considered head of the piano profession. Czerny had been a pupil of Beethoven, and was so overrun with pupils himself, that he at first declined to accept another. But when he heard Franz play, he was so impressed that he at once promised to teach him. His nature was the opposite of Hummel's, for he was most generous to struggling talent. At the end of twelve lessons, when Adam Liszt wished to pay the debt, Czerny would accept nothing, and for the whole period of instruction—a year and a half—he continued to teach Franz gratuitously.

At first the work with such a strict master of technic as Czerny, was very irksome to the boy, who had been brought up on no method at all, but was allowed free and unrestrained rein. He really had no technical foundation; but since he could read rapidly at sight and could glide over the keys with such astonishing ease, he imagined himself already a great artist. Czerny soon showed him his deficiencies; proving to him that an artist must have clear touch, smoothness of execution and variety of tone. The boy rebelled at first, but finally settled down to hard study, and the result soon astonished his teacher. For Franz began to acquire a richness of feeling and beauty of tone wonderful for such a child. Salieri became his teacher of theory. He was now made to analyze and play scores, also compose little pieces and short hymns. In all these the boy made fine progress.

He now began to realize he needed to know something besides music, and set to work by himself to read, study and write. He also had great opportunity, through his noble Hungarian patrons, to meet the aristocracy of Vienna. His talents, vivacity and grace, his attractive personality, all helped to win the notice of ladies—even in those early days of his career.

After eighteen busy months in Vienna, father Liszt decided to bring his boy out in a public concert. The Town Hall was placed at his disposal and a number of fine artists assisted. With beaming face and sparkling eyes, the boy played with more skill, fire and confidence than he had ever done before. The concert took place December 1, 1822. On January 12, 1823, Franz repeated his success in another concert, again at the Town Hall.

It was after this second concert that Franz's reputation reached the ears of Beethoven, always the object of the boy's warmest admiration. Several times Franz and his father had tried to see the great master, but without success. Schindler was appealed to and promised to do his best. He wrote in Beethoven's diary, as the master was quite deaf:

"Little Liszt has entreated me to beg you to write him a theme for to-morrow's concert. He will not break the seal till the concert begins. Czerny is his teacher—the boy is only eleven years old. Do come to his concert, it will encourage the child. Promise me you will come."

It was the thirteenth of April, 1823. A very large audience filled the Redouten Saal. When Franz stepped upon the platform, he perceived the great Beethoven seated near. A great joy filled him. Now he was to play for the great man, whom all his young life he had worshiped from afar. He put forth every effort to be worthy of such an honor. Never had he played with such fire; his whole being seemed thrilled—never had he achieved such success. In the admiration which followed, Beethoven rose, came upon the platform, clasped the boy in his arms and kissed him repeatedly, to the frantic cheers of the audience.

The boy Franz Liszt had now demonstrated that already at eleven years old, he was one of the leading virtuosi of the time; indeed his great reputation as a pianist dates from this third Vienna concert. The press praised him highly, and many compared him to the wonderful genius, Mozart. Adam Liszt wished him now to see more of the world, and make known his great talents, also to study further. He decided to take the boy to Paris, for there lived the celebrated composer, Cherubini, at that time Director of the Paris Conservatoire.

On the way to Paris, concerts were given in various cities. In Munich he was acclaimed "a second Mozart." In Strassburg and Stuttgart he had great success.

Arrived in Paris, father and son visited the Conservatoire at once, for it would have been a fine thing for the boy to study there for a time, as it was the best known school for counterpoint and composition. Cherubini, however, refused to even read the letters of recommendation, saying no foreigner, however talented, could be admitted to the French National School of Music. Franz was deeply hurt by this refusal, and begged with tears to be allowed to come, but Cherubini was immovable.

However they soon made the acquaintance of Ferdinand Paër, who offered to give the child lessons in composition.

Franz made wonderful progress, both in this new line of study, and in becoming known as a piano virtuoso. Having played in a few of the great houses, he soon found himself the fashion; everybody was anxious for "le petit Litz" as he was called, to attend and play at their soirées. Franz thus met the most distinguished musicians of the day. When he played in public the press indulged in extravagant praise, calling him "the eighth wonder of the world," "another Mozart," and the like. Of course the father was overjoyed that his fondest hopes were being realized. Franz stood at the head of the virtuosi, and in composition he was making rapid strides. He even attempted an operetta, "Don Sancho," which later had several performances.

The eminent piano maker, Erard, who had a branch business in London and was about to start for that city, invited Liszt to accompany him and bring Franz. They accepted this plan, but in order to save expense, it was decided that mother Liszt, who had joined them in Paris, should return to Austria and stay with a sister till the projected tours were over.

Franz was saddened by this decision, but his entreaties were useless; his father was stern. The separation was a cruel one for the boy. For a long time thereafter the mere mention of his mother's name would bring tears.

In May, 1824, father and son, with Erard, started for England, and on June 21 Franz gave his first public concert in London. He had already played for the aristocracy in private homes, and had appeared at Court by command of King George IV. The concert won him great success, though the English were more reserved in their demonstrations, and not like the impulsive, open-hearted French people. He was happy to return to Paris, after the London season, and to resume his playing in the French salons.

The next spring, accompanied by his father, he made a tour of the French provinces, and then set out for a second trip to England. He was now fourteen; a mere boy in years, but called the greatest pianist of the day. He had developed so quickly and was so precocious that already he disliked being called "le petit Litz," for he felt himself full grown. He wished to be free to act as he wished. Adam, however, kept a strict watch on all his movements, and this became irksome to the boy, who felt he was already a man.

But father Liszt's health became somewhat precarious; constant traveling had undermined it. They remained in Paris quietly, till the year 1826, when they started on a second tour of French cities till Marseilles was reached, where the young pianist's success was overwhelming.

Returning to Paris, Franz devoted much of his time to ardent study of counterpoint, under Anton Reicha. In six months' study he had mastered the difficulties of this intricate art.

Adam Liszt and Franz spent the winter of 1826-7 in Switzerland, the boy playing in all important cities. They returned to Paris in the spring, and in May, set out again for England on a third visit. Franz gave his first concert in London on June ninth and proved how much he had gained in power and brilliancy. Moscheles, who was present, wrote: "Franz Liszt's playing surpasses in power and the overcoming of difficulties anything that has yet been heard."

The strain of constant travel and concert playing was seriously telling on the boy's sensitive, excitable nature. He lost his sunny gaiety, grew quiet, sometimes almost morose. He went much to church, and wanted to take orders, but his father prevented this step. Indeed the father became alarmed at the boy's pale face and changed condition, and took him to the French watering place of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Here both father and son were benefited by the sea baths and absolute rest. Franz recovered his genial spirits and constantly gained in health and strength.

But with Adam Liszt the gain was only temporary. He was attacked with a fever, succumbed in a few days and was buried at Boulogne. The loss of his father was a great blow to Franz. He was prostrated for days, but youth at last conquered. Aroused to his responsibilities, he began to think for the future. He at once wrote his mother, telling her what had happened, saying he would give up his concert tours and make a home for her in Paris, by giving piano lessons.

Looking closer into his finances, of which he had no care before, Franz found the expenses of his father's illness and death had exhausted their little savings, and he was really in debt. He decided to sell his grand piano, so that he should be in debt to no one. This was done, every one was paid off and on his arrival in Paris his old friend Erard invited him to his own home till the mother came.

It was a sweet and happy meeting of mother and son, after such a long separation. The two soon found a modest apartment in the Rue Montholon.

As soon as his intention to give lessons became known, many aristocratic pupils came and found him a remarkable teacher. Among his new pupils was Caroline Saint Cricq, youngest daughter of Count Saint Cricq, then Minister of the Interior, and Madame his wife.

Caroline, scarcely seventeen, the same age as her young teacher, was a beautiful girl, as pure and refined as she was talented. Under the eyes of the Countess, the lessons went on from month to month, and the mother did not fail to see the growing attachment between the young people. But love's young dream was of short duration. The Countess fell ill and the lessons had to be discontinued. Caroline did not see her devoted teacher till all was over.

There was now another bond between them, the sympathy over the loss of their dear ones. The Count had requested that the lessons should be resumed. But when the young teacher remained too long in converse with his pupil after the lessons, he was dismissed by the Count, and all their sweet intercourse came to an abrupt end.

Mme. Liszt did all she could to soothe the grief and despair of her son. For days and weeks he remained at home, neglecting his piano and his work. He again thought of the church with renewed ardor and told his mother he now had decided to become a monk. His spirits sank very low; he became ill, unable to leave the house and it was reported everywhere he had passed away.

Again he rallied and his strong constitution conquered. As strength slowly returned, so also did his activity and love of life.

During his long convalescence he was seized with a great desire for knowledge, and read everything he could lay hands on. He would often sit at the piano, busying his fingers with technic while reading a book on the desk before him. He had formerly given all his time to music and languages; now he must know literature, politics, history and exact sciences. A word casually dropped in conversation, would start him on a new line of reading. Then came the revolution of 1830. Everybody talked politics, and Franz, with his excitable spirits, would have rushed into the conflict if his mother had not restrained him.

With all this awakening he sought to broaden his art, to make his instrument speak of higher things. Indeed the spirit must speak through the form. This he realized the more as he listened to the thrilling performances of that wizard of the violin, Paganini, who appeared in Paris in 1831. This style of playing made a deep impression on Liszt. He now tried to do on the piano what Paganini accomplished on the violin, in the matter of tone quality and intensity. He procured the newly published Caprices for violin and tried to learn their tonal secrets, also transcribing the pieces for piano.

Liszt became fast friends with the young composer, Hector Berlioz, and much influenced by his compositions, which were along new harmonic lines. Chopin, the young Polish artist, now appeared in Paris, playing his E minor Concerto, his Mazurkas and Nocturnes, revealing new phases of art. Chopin's calm composure tranquilized Liszt's excitable nature. From Chopin, Liszt learned to "express in music the poetry of the aristocratic salon." Liszt ever remained a true and admiring friend of the Pole, and wrote the poetic study sketch of him in 1849.

Liszt was now twenty-three. Broadened and chastened by all he had passed through, he resumed his playing in aristocratic homes. He also appeared in public and was found to be quite a different artist from what the Parisians had previously known. His bold new harmonies in his own compositions, the rich effects, showed a deep knowledge of his art. He had transcribed a number of Berlioz's most striking compositions to the piano and performed them with great effect.

The handsome and gifted young artist was everywhere the object of admiration. He also met George Sand, and was soon numbered among that wonderful and dangerous woman's best friends. Later he met the young and beautiful Countess Laprunarède, and a mutual attraction ensued. The elderly Count, her husband, pleased with the dashing young musician, invited him to spend the winter at his chateau, in Switzerland, where the witty Countess virtually kept him prisoner.

The following winter, 1833-34, when the salons opened again, Liszt frequented them as before. He was in the bloom of youth and fame, when he met the woman who was to be linked with his destiny for the next ten years.

We have sketched the childhood and youth of this wonderful artist up to this point. We will pass lightly over this decade of his career, merely stating briefly that the lady—the beautiful Countess d'Agoult, captivated by the brilliant talents of the Hungarian virtuoso, left her husband and child, and became for ten years the faithful companion of his travels and tours over Europe. Many writers agree that Liszt endeavored to dissuade her from this attraction, and behaved as honorably as he could under the circumstances. A part of the time they lived in Switzerland, and it was there that many of Liszt's compositions were written.

Of their three children, the boy died very young. Of the girls, Blandine became the wife of Émile Ollivier, a French literary man and statesman. Her sister, Cosima, married first Hans von Bülow and later Richard Wagner.

In 1843 Liszt intended to take Madame with him to Russia, but instead, left her and her children in Paris, with his mother, as the Countess was in failing health. His first concert, in St. Petersburg, realized the enormous sum of fifty thousand francs—ten thousand dollars. Instead of giving one concert in Moscow, he gave six. Later he played in Bavaria, Saxony and other parts of Germany. He then settled in Weimar for a time, being made Grand Ducal Capellmeister. Then, in 1844-45, longing for more success, he toured Spain and Portugal.

A generous act was his labor in behalf of the Beethoven monument, to be erected in the master's birthplace, Bonn. The monument was to be given by subscriptions from the various Princes of Germany. Liszt helped make up the deficit and came to Bonn to organize a Festival in honor of the event. He also composed a Cantata for the opening day of the Festival, and in his enthusiasm nearly ruined himself by paying the heavy expenses of the Festival out of his own pocket.

The political events of 1848 brought him back to Weimar, and he resumed his post of Court Music Director. He now directed his energies toward making Weimar the first musical city of Germany. Greatly admiring Wagner's genius, he undertook to perform his works in Weimar, and to spread his name and fame. Indeed it is not too much to say that without Liszt's devoted efforts, Wagner would never have attained his vogue and fame. Wagner himself testified to this.

While living in Weimar, Liszt made frequent journeys to Rome and to Paris. In 1861 there was a rumor that the object of his visits to Rome was to gain Papal consent to his marriage with the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein. During a visit to Rome in 1864, the musician was unable to resist longer the mysticism of the church. He decided to take orders and was made an Abbé.

Since that time, Abbé Franz Liszt did much composing. He also continued to teach the piano to great numbers of pupils, who flocked to him from all parts of the world. Many of the greatest artists now before the public were numbered among his students, and owe much of their success to his artistic guidance.

In 1871, the Hungarian Cabinet created him a noble, with a yearly pension of three thousand dollars. In 1875, he was made Director of the Academy at Budapest. In addition, Liszt was a member of nearly all the European Orders of Chivalry.

Franz Liszt passed away August 1, 1886, in the house of his friend, Herr Frohlich, near Wagner's Villa Wahnfried, Bayreuth, at the age of seventy-five. As was his custom every summer, Liszt was in Bayreuth, assisting in the production of Wagner's masterpieces, when he succumbed to pneumonia. Thus passed a great composer, a world famous piano virtuoso, and a noble and kindly spirit.

For the piano, his chosen instrument, Liszt wrote much that was beautiful and inspiring. He created a new epoch for the virtuoso. His fifteen Hungarian Rhapsodies, B minor Sonata, Concert Études and many transcriptions, appear on all modern programs, and there are many pieces yet to be made known. He is the originator of the Symphonic Poem, for orchestra; while his sacred music, such as the Oratorio "Christus," and the beautiful "Saint Elizabeth," a sacred opera, are monuments to his great genius.

Franz Liszt