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Franz Liszt by Oliver Hilmes

Franz Liszt by Oliver Hilmes


Beautiful, debonair and “unstoppably priapic”, Franz Liszt was the most glamorous and charismatic of the great composers, said Rupert Christiansen in the Literary Review. Born in Hungary in 1811, he became famous as a piano prodigy while still in his teens; a brilliant improviser and “unabashed” showman, he drew huge crowds – which led to the coining of the term “Lisztomania”. Yet Liszt was always ambivalent about his career as what he called a “performing dog”, and when his bookkeeper father – who’d pressured him into becoming a recitalist – died in 1827, he gave up touring and moved to Paris. There he became a prolific womaniser, taking up with a string of (generally married) aristocrats. One union, with Countess Marie d’Agoult, resulted in three children, including Cosima, who would become Richard Wagner’s wife. Oliver Hilmes’s biography, published in German in 2011, draws freely on the “deeper researches” of Alan Walker’s three-volume study. Hilmes does a “fair-minded” job of charting the career of this “iconic” figure, who was “a romantic in every sense of the word”.

After ten tempestuous years with d’Agoult, mostly in Switzerland and Italy, Liszt’s relationship with her “fell apart”, said Jessica Duchen in The Sunday Times, and he returned to the life of the touring virtuoso. The children were despatched to Paris to live with his mother, while d’Agoult “retreated to write a revenge novel”. The main woman in Liszt’s life over the next four decades was the “intellectual and controlling” Polish princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. She persuaded him to give up touring and concentrate on composing: the pair settled in a grand villa in Weimar, where he wrote most of the music for which he is remembered. Such is the “forensic exactitude” with which Hilmes brings Liszt’s world to life that you feel as if you are “visiting the characters at home”.

In the early 1860s, that relationship foundered, though Liszt and the princess remained lifelong friends, said Andrew Taylor in The Times. Shocked by the deaths of two of his children, Liszt took religious orders, and became an abbé: a vow of celibacy was not required, so he was still able to indulge his sexual appetites. After Cosima’s marriage to Wagner, Liszt moved to Bayreuth, where, despite having championed Wagner’s music, he was both exploited and neglected. At his funeral, organised by Cosima, the organist didn’t even play any of his music. Hilmes’s life is “not a book for musicologists”. But as a portrait of Liszt the “man and superstar”, it is thorough, “surprising” and “entertaining”.

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