4. The Death Of Adam Liszt
4. The death of Adam Liszt.

Liszt left England with his father in August 1827. They had now been touring more or less incessantly for three years and Adam arranged a short holiday at Boulogne-sur-Mer to take the waters. Within days, however, Adam had succumbed to typhoid fever; he died in Boulogne on 28 August and was buried in haste the next day, in the Cimetière de l’Est, following a funeral service at the church of St Nicolas. The experience proved to be deeply traumatic for Liszt; the topic of death and dying became a preoccupation which often came out in his music (e.g. in his Apparitions, De profundis and Pensée des morts). While his later tours sometimes took him close to Boulogne (and on one occasion, in 1840, into the city itself), the memory was so painful that he never visited his father’s grave. A funeral march (composed two days after his father’s death) is believed to be the young Liszt’s musical tribute to his father.

It was Liszt’s sad duty to write to his mother and inform her of his father’s death. During the tours Anna Liszt had stayed with a sister in Graz; she was reunited with her famous son in Paris after a separation of three years. Adam left his family in straitened circumstances and the 16-year-old Liszt assumed the responsibility of being the sole breadwinner. He was obliged to sell his Erard grand piano to pay off some debts, and to seek a regular income as a fashionable teacher of the sons and daughters of the French aristocracy. At first he and his mother rented an apartment at 38 rue Coquenard, and then at 7 rue de Montholon in the district of Montmartre.

Among his pupils was the countess Caroline de Saint-Cricq, the 17-year-old-daughter of the Minister of Commerce in the government of Charles X. The couple fell in love, and although the relationship was innocent, the count banned Liszt (‘a mere musician’) from the house after discovering the pair prolonging a music lesson far into the night. Shortly afterwards Caroline was married to a wealthy landowner with estates near Pau in southern France, and left Paris. As a result of the rejection, which followed so hard on the death of his father, Liszt suffered a nervous breakdown. His absence from the concert platform during the 1827–8 season led to rumours of his death, and Le corsaire published a false obituary notice of him (23 October 1828). On the day of his ‘demise’, however, Liszt was at home on the rue de Montholon quietly celebrating his 17th birthday. It is clear, nevertheless, that he was in poor health. The journal Observateur des Beaux-Arts openly declared that Liszt’s illness was directly connected to the death of his father. Wilhelm von Lenz visited him shortly afterwards, and described Liszt as ‘a pale and haggard young man’. Anna Liszt told von Lenz that Liszt ‘busied himself no more with music’ and was almost always at church. Seized again with religious mania, Liszt often prostrated himself on the flagstones of St-Vincent-de-Paul and was deterred from entering a seminary only by the joint pleadings of his mother and his father confessor, Abbé Bardin. It was the July Revolution of 1830 that roused him from his lethargy. Hearing the sound of gunfire, he rushed outside and witnessed hand-to-hand fighting in the streets. He joined the crowds in shouting support for General Lafayette, who had taken up the people’s cause. When Anna Liszt later reflected on these turbulent times, she observed: ‘The cannons cured him!’ Liszt began to sketch out a ‘Revolutionary Symphony’ whose manuscript bears the dates ‘27, 28, 29 juillet – Paris’, the ‘Three Glorious Days’. Only the first movement was finished; it later became the Symphonic Poem Héroïde funèbre, in which form it was associated with the revolutionary wars of 1848–9.

Liszt became a voracious reader (he was by now fluent in French, henceforth his language of preference) and absorbed the writings of Sainte-Beuve, Hugo and Balzac. He also fell under the spell of the Saint-Simonians, whose avowed aim of combining socialism with the teachings of Christ made a deep appeal to him. For a time Liszt attended the sect’s clandestine revivalist meetings, conducted by its charismatic leader Father Enfantin, during which he would sometimes improvise on the piano for the congregation. He never became a Saint-Simonian, however, despite some later misleading comments by Heine. After the sect’s headquarters at 6 rue Monsigny were raided by the police, its leaders gaoled or forced into exile, Liszt found a more lasting outlet for his idealism in the revolutionary teachings of Abbé Felicité de Lamennais. Liszt described Lamennais as a ‘saint’, and visited him at his home at La Chênaie, in Brittany (1834). Lamennais had already broken with the Catholic Church as a result of the publication of his magnum opus Paroles d’un croyant, which Pope Gregory XVI had attacked in his encyclical Singulari nos (July 1834). For several weeks Liszt sat at the feet of his mentor at La Chênaie, during which time Lamennais came to regard Liszt as ‘one of the most beautiful and noble souls that I have met on this earth’. It was at La Chênaie that Liszt composed his Apparitions for piano. Later he dedicated to Lamennais his socialistic march Lyon, inspired by the revolt of the silkworkers of that city. It bears the motto ‘To live working, or to die fighting’.

Alan Walker