6. Marie d'Agoult
6. Marie d’Agoult.

In the Paris of the 1830s the salon was the centre of intellectual and artistic life. Here mingled all the radical ideas of post-Revolutionary France. The fashionable hostesses of the stately homes of the Faubourgs St-Germain and St-Honoré vied with one another to entertain the most interesting personalities. Among the writers were Sainte-Beuve, Hugo, Balzac and George Sand; the painters included Delacroix, Devéria and Ary Scheffer. Soon this volatile mixture was enriched by a flood of refugees from Warsaw, including Chopin and the Polish nationalist poet Mickiewicz. Merely to call the roll is to name many of the leaders of the Romantic movement itself. This was the milieu in which the young Liszt developed many of his abiding notions about music and its relationship with the other arts.

Towards the end of 1832 Liszt was introduced to Countess Marie d’Agoult, the woman who was to become his lover, bear him three children and share his life for the next 12 years. Marie was 28; Liszt was 22. She was unhappily married to an older husband by whom she already had two daughters, Louise and Claire. Her marriage to Count Charles d’Agoult, a French cavalry officer, had taken place on 27 May 1827, before a glittering assembly in the fashionable Church of the Assumption, and the marriage contract had been witnessed by Charles X. Five years later the union was dead in all but name, and when Liszt met her Marie was living an independent life. Born Marie-Catherine-Sophie de Flavigny, she was descended from the powerful Bethmann family of Frankfurt, which had built up a fortune through its banking enterprises. There is no evidence that the Bethmanns were Jewish, despite their name and much debate on the matter. It was Bethmann money that paid for Marie’s dowry and helped her to buy her palatial home, the Château de Croissy, which lay 9 km outside Paris.

At first Liszt and Marie took pains to keep their liaison secret. Throughout 1833 and 1834 they arranged various trysts – sometimes at his cramped bachelor apartment in Paris (jocularly referred to by them as the ‘Ratzenloch’ – or rat-hole), and sometimes at Croissy. The fact that they were apart for much of this time generated a clandestine correspondence (first published in 1933–4) which provides clear evidence of the turbulent nature of the relationship. Whether under normal circumstances Marie would ever have abandoned hearth and home for Liszt is a matter of debate. In December 1834, however, Marie’s six-year-old daughter Louise died, and that precipitated a crisis. Marie became suicidal and threatened to drown herself. She travelled to Paris, was reunited with Liszt, and became his lover in the full physical sense. That must have been no later than March 1835; their first daughter, Blandine-Rachel, was born in December of that year.

Alan Walker