8. The Glanzzeit 1839-47
8. The Glanzzeit, 1839–47

During the years 1839 to 1847 Liszt unfolded a virtuoso career unmatched in the history of performance. He is still the model followed by pianists today. He was the first to play entire programmes from memory; the first to play the full range of the keyboard repertory (as it then existed) from Bach to Chopin; the first consistently to place the piano at right-angles to the stage, so that its open lid reflected the sound across the auditorium; the first to tour Europe from the Pyrenees to the Urals. Even the term ‘recital’ was his. He introduced it on 9 June 1840 at a concert in London at the Hanover Square Rooms. It was Liszt’s way of announcing that his career was taking a new direction; henceforth he would present concerts without the benefit of assisting artists. As early as May 1839 he had given some solo concerts in Italy (not yet called ‘recitals’) and had jocularly observed that he was affecting the style of Louis XIV: ‘Le concert, c’est moi!’ he exclaimed (Briefe, C1893–1905, i, 25). His recitals have never been fully chronicled, but he gave well over 1000 during these fleeting years. He played in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Austria, Britain, Ireland, Romania, Turkey and Russia. And he undertook all this before the age of the railway, when travel was difficult and had to be accomplished mostly by post-chaise over rough terrain, often at night.

The Glanzzeit began with six Beethoven Memorial Concerts in Vienna, between 18 November and 4 December 1839. At the first concert, Liszt gave the première performance of his new transcription of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in the presence of the Dowager Empress and her retinue. The Viennese press spoke truer than it knew when it hailed Liszt as ‘Protector of Beethoven’. Liszt’s lifelong championship of the composer was intensified, and as the tours unfolded he introduced his audiences to works such as the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Diabelli Variations, which were still generally unknown.

From Vienna, Liszt made his way to Hungary and arrived in Pest in November 1839. It was his first return to his native land since his childhood and he was given the sort of reception normally reserved for potentates. He was by now the best-known living Hungarian, far better known abroad than the country’s leading politicians. Hungary was locked in a struggle for independence from Austria, and found in Liszt a national hero. Everywhere he went he was greeted with the phrase ‘Eljen! Liszt Ferenc’ (Hail! Franz Liszt). He made patriotic gestures such as donning national costume and playing in public his arrangement of the Rákóczy March – a melody which was at that time banned by the Austrian authorities. On 4 January 1840 Liszt was presented with a ceremonial sword of honour on behalf of a grateful nation in a moving ceremony at the National Theatre. His speech of thanks offers telling proof of his support of Hungary’s political aspirations.

Liszt renewed his contact with gypsy music and Hungarian folk music at this time. He visited a gypsy encampment and wrote a vivid description of what he observed (Gesammelte Schriften, vi, 135–7); he also heard a number of the best gypsy bands, and was inspired to produce a series of pieces called Magyar dallok (‘Hungarian National Melodies’). These compositions were later revised and published under the generic title ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’ (1851–3). They contain colourful evocations of gypsy bands, including the cimbalom-like effects in the Tenth Rhapsody (ex.2). The ‘gypsy scale’ is also in evidence, with its mournful augmented 2nds, as in the first part of the 13th Rhapsody (ex.3). Liszt has been maligned for mistaking some of the music played by gypsies (containing popular melodies of the day) for genuine Hungarian folksongs; his book Des bohémiens (1859) further clouded the issue, made him some prominent enemies in his homeland and caused the rhapsodies themselves to fall into disrepute. In 1840 there was general confusion even within Hungary itself as to what constituted gypsy as opposed to Hungarian music. Modern scholarship has revealed that Liszt did indeed incorporate genuine Magyar folk melodies into his rhapsodies, albeit ones he heard filtered through gypsy improvisations.

In Leipzig Liszt got to know Robert Schumann, who wrote some important reviews of his Gewandhaus concerts (given in March 1840) for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (1840, no.12, pp.118–20). Schumann described Liszt’s performance of Weber’s Concert-stück as ‘extraordinary’, but could find only qualified praise for the Finale of the Pastoral Symphony, which he called ‘a wilful choice’ because the original was very well known to the Gewandhaus audience. ‘We had at least seen the lion shake his mane’, Schumann concluded.

A climax of sorts was reached in Berlin in 1841. After a sensational series of concerts in the Singakademie (attended by Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer and Spontini, as well as the entire Prussian royal family), Liszt was driven to the Brandenburg Gate in a coach drawn by a team of white horses, with crowds lining the Unter den Linden bidding him farewell. ‘Not like a king, but as a king’, wrote Rellstab in one of the best accounts we have of this visit. Such images of the profligate Liszt still haunt the literature and colour the way we view his life. The behaviour of his audiences has been compared to the mass hysteria associated with revivalist meetings or 20th-century rock stars, and prompted Heine to identify the phenomenon as ‘Lisztomania’. Female admirers sought souvenirs in the form of hair clippings, cigar stubs and the dregs from his coffee cups. There is a rich supply of anecdotes from those years, part of that stock-in-trade material which his popular biographers have not been slow to use. Generally overlooked in the hullabaloo surrounding the Berlin concerts is a remarkable musical achievement: during his ten-week sojourn in the Prussian capital Liszt gave 21 concerts and played 80 works, 50 of them from memory. Few modern pianists could match that feat.

One of the best documented journeys was the long and arduous tour of the British Isles in 1840–41. It was arranged by the impresario and conductor Louis Lavenu, who assembled a small troupe of four or five musicians including the Welsh singer John Orlando Parry, whose diaries give a colourful account of those times. Liszt was the star attraction, and he was tempted by Lavenu’s invitation because he needed the money to cover the rising expenditures of his family in Paris. The party appeared in such places as Oxford, Chichester and Exeter in the south, and Manchester, Halifax, Preston, Rochdale and Darlington in the north. In November 1840 Lavenu took his group across the Irish Sea where they performed in Dublin, Cork and the smaller market towns of southern Ireland. The tour, which later encompassed Scotland, was dogged by misfortune, attracted small audiences and confronted out-of-tune pianos and other mishaps, all faithfully reported in Parry’s diaries. Lavenu lost more than £1000 on the venture (a small fortune in those days) and Liszt’s fees remained unpaid. 45 years elapsed before Liszt returned to Great Britain.

While England may have failed to rally to the ‘King of Pianists’, the rest of Europe responded with enthusiasm. Hans Christian Andersen attended one of the Hamburg recitals in 1842, and left a graphic pen-portrait of the pianist.
As Liszt sat before the piano, the first impression of his personality was derived from the appearance of strong passions in his wan face, so that he seemed to me a demon nailed fast to the instrument whence the tones streamed forth – they came from his blood, from his thoughts; he was a demon who would liberate his soul from thraldom; he was on the rack. His blood flowed and his nerves trembled; but as he continued to play, so the demon vanished. I saw that pale face assume a nobler and brighter expression; the divine soul shone from his eyes, from every feature; he became as beauteous as only spirit and enthusiasm can make their worshippers.
Pursuit of ecstasy and its transmission to the public were primary goals, and they turned Liszt into the quintessential romantic.

Liszt acquired many honours and decorations during these years, and he was willing to wear them on stage. For this he was regularly lampooned by the press, especially in France. However, Liszt’s display of these decorations had less to do with vanity than with a desire to raise the status of musicians generally. In Madrid he received the Order of Carlos II from Queen Isabel. In Turkey the Sultan, Abdul-Medjid Khan, presented him with the Order of Nichan-Iftikar. In Belgium the king bestowed on him the Order of the Lion of Belgium. In Moscow he was introduced to Tsar Nicholas I, who did not give him a decoration at all but presented him instead with a pair of performing bears. Perhaps this symbol of a circus reflected Nicholas’s true opinion of Liszt. The Tsar, having made a noisy entrance at one of Liszt’s concerts, had begun to talk loudly during the playing; whereupon Liszt stopped. When Nicholas inquired the cause, Liszt bowed stiffly and said: ‘Music herself should be silent when Nicholas speaks’. It was, as Sacheverell Sitwell pointed out, the first time that ‘music herself’ had answered back.

Even as he enjoyed his greatest triumphs as a virtuoso, Liszt’s troubled relationship with Marie d’Agoult and the uncertain future of their three children were casting shadows over his private life. Mme d’Agoult had returned to Paris in November 1839 to seek a reconciliation with her estranged family; while the Flavignys were ready to embrace her, they could not embrace her children by Liszt. The three infants were housed with their grandmother, Anna Liszt, who gave them much love and affection and acted in every respect as their mother. Liszt visited his children whenever he was in Paris, and held himself financially responsible for them, paying for their upkeep and education. In 1844, the rupture with Marie d’Agoult became permanent as a result of his widely publicized dalliance with the dancer Lola Montez, and they did not see each other again for 16 years. Marie d’Agoult assuaged her bruised feelings by adopting the pen name ‘Daniel Stern’ and writing her roman à clef, Nélida, in which Liszt is depicted as an impotent painter, Guermann Regnier, with herself as the wronged heroine. Liszt always refused to recognize himself in this novel, although the character-assassination was damaging.

The most arduous tour of the Glanzzeit was the one that took him through the Danube principalities and Ukraine, during an 18-month period in 1846–7. Starting in Vienna, in March 1846, he wandered through Prague, Pest, Temesvár and Arad (Transylvania), gradually moving east to Bucharest and Iaşi, in Moldavia. By February 1847 he had reached Kiev; from there he progressed to Odessa, sailed across the Black Sea and arrived at Constantinople where he played in the Tchiragan Palace before the Sultan in June 1847. For these concerts Erard had sent over one of his best grand pianos which Liszt described as ‘a magnificent instrument’. By July he was back in Ukraine and gave ten concerts in Odessa. The very last recital he gave for money took place in Elisavetgrad, in September. He was still only 35 years old. Had Liszt died at that moment, the title of the first modern pianist could not have been withheld from him.

Alan Walker