Liszt in Weimar

“Do I care how fast you can play your octaves?”, Liszt remarked to a pupil in a master class, clearly unimpressed with the playing “what I wish to hear is the canter of the horses of the Polish cavalry before they gather force and destroy the enemy!”

The dashing Hungarian Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) is chiefly remembered today as a colourful musical visionary and a peerless virtuoso pianist whose fame and reputation opened the doors of concert halls, Imperial palaces and boudoirs across Europe.

For most of his life, Liszt was also a sought-after and influential music teacher and guru, inspiring a whole generation of composers and performers. He famously supported the composers Hector Berlioz, Camille Saint-Saëns, Edvard Grieg and his friend and firebrand, Richard Wagner.

He first gave lessons in piano and composition following the death of his father in 1827, forgoing his lucrative activities as an itinerant adolescent piano virtuoso to live with his mother in Paris. Like Schubert before him, his teaching brought him into contact with attractive young talent and he had his first passionate (but doomed) affair with one of his pupils, Caroline de Saint-Cricq, the ensuing emotional fallout nearly derailing his musical career for good.

Caricature, Liszt in concert (1842)
Caricature, Liszt in concert (1842)

He gave piano and composition lessons in earnest during his tenure as Kapellmeister to the court in Weimar where he lived from 1848 – 1861. He had been appointed as honorary Kapellmeister earlier in 1842 and had given occasional concerts there during his glittering and headline-grabbling career as a touring virtuoso. The wild acclaim which greeted his tours was dubbed “Lisztomania” (although the 1975 film of the same name directed by Ken Russell does scant justice to his music). The punishing demands of his extravagant lifestyle took their toll and at the age of 35 (or “…midway through the path of our life” as his hero Dante once wrote), he withdrew from the limelight and took up permanent residence in Weimar in 1848 at the prompting of his mistress and companion, the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. There he devoted himself entirely to nurturing new musical talent and to writing music.

Weimar was then a small city of around 12,000 citizens and a noted cultural centre, having been the home to the great German poets Goethe and Schiller. Under the patronage of the Grande Duchess Maria Pavlovna (sister of the Russian Tsar Nicholas I) it boasted an academy of arts, a theatre, an orchestra and a community of poets, painters and musicians. It also had a newly built railway line, which became useful for Liszt’s travels to other German cities.

The Altenburg, Franz Liszt's residence in Weimar from 1848–1861
The Altenburg, Franz Liszt’s residence in Weimar from 1848–1861

Liszt cut a controversial and larger than life figure in Weimar. He scandalised the public by living “in sin” with Sayn-Wittgenstein  at the Altenburg mansion outside Weimar. Moreover, they were Catholics in a staunchly Protestant community. Like Goethe before him, he escaped imprisonment for ‘adultery’ thanks to his Imperial connections but the local officials made their displeasure known and he quickly made enemies and had occasional brushes with the law.

To the alarm of the musical establishment, he saw his mandate as Kapellmeister to revitalise the rather stagnant Weimar musical culture. He was largely successful in this aim and, thanks to him, Weimar would become known as a progressive musical centre in contrast to the more conservative Leipzig and Vienna. But this was only achieved after a herculean struggle, not helped by what he deemed to be a philistine public (“The Weimarers are all donkeys!” he once exclaimed – to his cost). His residence soon became a magnet for new and aspiring talent who flocked from all over Europe to study with him and, ever generous, he never accepted money for his lessons.

In spite of Liszt’s prodigious skills, his peerless technique was only achieved by the dint of dogged and concerted study. And he expected the same commitment from his pupils, accepting only those who were already technically accomplished. To those who requested technical help he would say “Wash your dirty linen at home!”

It was in Weimar that Liszt created the master class, which formed the basis of much of his teaching. Today, a master class is often a public performance where musicians receive individual guidance from an eminent musician on matters of style and interpretation. For Liszt, it was a private but regular gathering of around 10 -20 pupils in which performers played from memory. Liszt normally introduced each piece with reference to the composer’s other works; he was interested in discerning the emotion and character of a piece, concentrating on the “what” and “why” of performance rather than simply the “how”. He sometimes stopped the performance mid-flow for open discussions and to suggest improvements to the performer for the next class. In this way, he believed that the exposure to a wide repertoire and performance styles, together with gentle criticism, would inspire and encourage his students.

In spite of his prolific output, Liszt wrote few, if any, didactic materials. The authenticity of his posthumously published Technical Exercises is disputed by some scholars and his studies (such as the 12 awe-inspiring Études d’exécution transcendante) are hardly technical studies in the tradition of Czerny or Moscheles. With their poetic titles, they more resemble “assault courses”, testing the limits of the pianist, the piano (and sometimes the listeners). While many insights into his methods can be found in his published writings, he preferred working with his pupils individually rather than following a particular school or regime and he became a much admired and respected teacher.

Franz Liszt by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1856)
Franz Liszt by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1856)

Visiting Weimar in 1854, the novelist George Elliot observed of Liszt’s playing “Genius, benevolence, and tenderness beam from his whole countenance, and his manners were in perfect harmony with it. … His manipulation of the instrument was quiet and easy, and his face was simply grand; the lips compressed and the head thrown backward. When the music expressed quiet rapture or devotion a smile flitted over his features; when it was triumphant the nostrils dilated. There was nothing petty or egotistic to mar the picture”.

Liszt took many risks in Weimar with his unstinting advocacy of new and controversial works and he upset many at the Weimar court with his unfailing support for Wagner, whom he had helped flee to Switzerland in 1849. Liszt conducted the first performances of Wagner’s Lohengrin and those of other composers including Schubert’s Alfonso und Estrella, and Cornelius’s Der Barbier von Bagdad. He also conducted celebrated revivals of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser, Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini and Verdi’s Ernani. He turned his own hand to writing orchestral music, producing 12 symphonic poems (a form he invented), two symphonies (inspired by Goethe and Dante) and two piano concertos. Tapping into the local traditions of organ playing, he composed two masterpieces which transformed the repertoire, the startlingly chromatic Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H, and the breathtaking Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.

Liszt struggled to have his compositions taken seriously in Weimar, many taking the view of the acerbic critic Hanslick that his compositions were an attempt to engender intellectual respectability after a raffish career on the concert platform – complete nonsense of course – but one that  proved difficult to shake off, even to this day. And then there is the oft-repeated story of Brahms (whose name is sometimes coupled with Liszt’s) who is said to have fallen asleep during a performance of Liszt’s revolutionary Sonata in B minor for piano. It did however suit the local politics that Liszt’s achievements should be belittled at every step in the hope that this perceived interloper and dilettante would take the hint and leave. Over the years he bore this humiliation like a true diplomat – with an air of polite disdain and detachment, masking a private exasperation which he occasionally blurted out to his close friends.

Liszt and his students (1884)
Liszt and his students (1884)

Nevertheless the students kept coming, together with artists, writers and poets, of whom many became personal friends. The Altenburg mansion in the hills overlooking Weimar became a symbol of change: the old order below, with Liszt above at the vanguard of a progressive German Romantic movement. But with the pressures piling up, and after innumerable slights and run-ins with the authorities, he did eventually “take the hint” and resigned his post in 1858 but he continued to teach, finally moving to Rome in 1861. Later, as the Abbé Liszt, he divided his annual teaching activities between Rome, Weimar and Budapest, while writing unusually stark and primitive music that would inspire a whole new generation of composers, including Bartók.


Kevin Painting

Published 25 September 2015 on primephonic