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The subtitle of this remarkable book – Musician, Celebrity, Superstar – at once tells you where the chief interest of author Oliver Hilmes rests. Liszt was, indeed, all of these things, bewilderingly multifaceted and of superhuman strength and achievement. Yet he also paid a heavy price in his journey from ‘Le petit Litz’ (as the French, to his annoyance, called the young prodigy) to ‘Le Grand Liszt,’ marked by a rapid and increasing contempt for his role as, possibly, the greatest of all pianists. As his fame grew, he was betrayed by those supposedly closest to him (the ‘green-eyed monster’ of jealousy and incomprehension) and his final years were dogged by ill- health, alcoholism and a despair reflected in music of a dark-hued austerity. As Alfred Brendel put it, his was an odyssey from ‘l’exuberance de coeur’ to ‘l’amertume de coeur’ (exuberance to bitterness). Above all else, Liszt fulfilled his father’s prophecy that he would be compromised by a succession of women who clung limpet- like to his outer glamour and charisma, their social rank (one a countess, another a fake countess, another a princess) belying their mediocrity when refracted through the prism of Liszt’s brilliance.

Yet a paradox arises when you consider Liszt’s vanity, his ‘egotistical sublime’, his ‘taking his success as a matter of course’ and ‘with overmuch countenance’. Stung to the quick by his rejection, the romantic novelist Countess Marie d’Agoult declared him ‘a Don Juan parvenu’, asking, ‘What do I have in common with an amiable good-for-nothing, a fair-ground entertainer?’ Yet if both she and Princess Carolyne Sayne-Wittgenstein (‘a monstrum per excessum’) sought to entangle Liszt in their intellectual confusion, they remained forever in love with a figure who, Houdini- like, eluded their clutches: D’Agoult produced a scabrous novel, Nelida, with its all-too-recognisable portrait of Liszt; the princess, meanwhile, produced her 24 unreadable volumes, Des causes intérieures.

Liszt’s genuine (if passing) love for such persons tells you much about his contradictory nature and essence. Simultaneously attracted and repulsed by a lifestyle that veered recklessly from the active to the contemplative and vice-versa, from his knowledge that ‘the world wants rubbish’ to a desire to flaunt his worldly acclaim, he ended his days as little more than an ignominious player in Wagner’s glory, his music widely derided, its true range and quality only recognised long after his death.

Finally, if it is true that a musician’s truest biography lies in his music, Oliver Hilme’s engrossing study tells you that biographical considerations are essential to an understanding of Liszt’s stature.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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