Two Masters of 19th-Century `New' Music
Charismatic Franz Liszt and fellow Romantic composer-conductor Hector Berlioz sparkle on biographical podium
LISZT by Derek Watson, New York: Schirmer Books/Macmillan, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons) 404 pp., illustrated. $24.95
by D. Kern Holoman, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
687 pp., illustrated. $30
FRANZ LISZT: A CHRONICLE OF HIS LIFE IN PICTURES AND DOCUMENTS
by Ernst Burger, translated by Stewart Spencer, Foreword by Alfred Brendel,
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 358 pp., illustrated, $75
FRANZ LISZT (1811-1886) and Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) were often linked, along with Richard Wagner (who married Liszt's daughter Cosima), as a ``Holy Trinity'' of the so-called ``new'' music.
A shared concern with lyrical expressiveness and the potential of musical drama, plus some similarities of compositional technique did not, however, amount to a coherent school of music. Relations between Berlioz and Wagner were slightly chilly.
Yet all three partook of the pervasive spirit of Romanticism, which, particularly on the Continent, took shape under the shadows of Napoleon and Byron.
Napoleon emblemized the heroic, self-made man defying fate, conquering by sheer force of will and personality.
Byron embodied the cultural shift from the older view of the artist as craftsman and praise-singer to the Romantic idea of the artist himself as hero. Or, as Byron himself demonstrated, half hero, half antihero: rebellious, isolated, self-communing, yet in touch with the spirit of his times and presenting himself as a compelling, charismatic figure on the world stage.
In some ways, this spelled the beginning of the star system as we know it in all its squalor and glamour.
Rhythm of 19th-century Europe
Reading D. Kern Holoman's rivetingly detailed account of the young musician's struggles, Berlioz, one feels the pulse of life in 19th-century Paris - a rhythm every bit as frenetic as the Jazz Age.
The budding composer's quarrels with his provincial parents (who wanted him to stick to his medical studies); his tireless efforts at self-promotion (hiring musicians, renting concert halls and candles to light and heat them); his melodramatic love affairs; and his constant struggle to earn a living and gain recognition for his work: All of this has a very familiar ring.
Similarly, Liszt's exhausting schedule of concert tours and the phenomenon of ``Lisztomania'' that swept over Europe are proleptic of the world of modern rock stars. Well before the advent of film, recording, or video, Lisztomania transformed the concert performer into a kind of cult figure, an object of adulation and controversy, and even the subject of spiteful, kiss-and-tell novels by former friends and mistresses.
Problems of celebrity status
The problem of an artist's reputation - particularly the envious backlash that often follows in the wake of charismatic celebrity - preoccupies pianist Alfred Brendel in his foreword to Ernst Burger's illustrated biography, Franz Liszt: A Chronicle of His Life in Pictures and Documents:
``The combination of a lively mind, personal magnetism, masculine beauty ... and a love life bordering on scandal turned out to be, within one human being, barely forgivable,'' remarks Brendel with a nice irony. He notes that the pathos of Mozart's early death and Beethoven's deafness are absent in Liszt, leaving ``little food for pity.'' Even Wagner's monstrous egotism, Brendel reminds us, proved easier for his admirers to swallow than Liszt's generosity and religious piety.
The text of Burger's biography lacks the bite of Brendel's foreword, but it serves to interconnect solidly the wealth of material - pictures, letters, reviews, concert programs, musical and literary manuscripts - the author has chosen to illuminate Liszt's life and career.
A dedicated father
From these, we get a particularly revealing look at the efforts of Liszt's dedicated father, who superintended his ``prodigy'' years.
``Probably more portraits were made of Liszt than of any other celebrity throughout the 19th century.... Goethe could no doubt have travelled throughout Europe incognito, but Liszt never,'' observes Burger.
In addition to countless portraits, drawings, sculptures, and caricatures of Liszt from boyhood to old age, there are pictures of such famous contemporaries as Chopin, Brahms, Wagner, and B"ulow, not to mention the many influential women in Liszt's life. First published in German in 1986, this book makes a handsome, if hefty, gift for modern-day Lisztomaniacs, more likely to be appreciated by the already-converted than by the envious or the skeptical.
Liszt himself was aware of the conflict between the demands of celebrity and his desire to leave a more lasting legacy as a composer. Retiring just before his 36th birthday from his whirlwind schedule of virtuoso piano performances, he accepted a post in Weimar, where he wrote the bulk of his compositions, including 12 symphonic poems, two symphonies, concerto works, sacred music, and many brilliant transcriptions.
Yet Liszt's artistry as a pianist was clearly exceptional, even if later generations can know it only through the testimony of his contemporaries.
Although Mendelssohn accused him of taking liberties with the scores, most others who heard him were inclined to agree with Saint-Sa"ens' assessment: ```When interpreting the classics he did not substitute his own personality for the author's, as do so many performers; he seemed rather to endeavor to get at the heart of the music and find out its real meaning....'''
Following his Weimar period, Liszt, a devout, but free-thinking Roman Catholic, took holy orders and became ``L'Abb'e Liszt.'' His last years were divided among the cities of Weimar, Rome, and Pest in his native Hungary.
Accessible to all readers
Derek Watson, a composer, pianist, lecturer, and broadcaster who has written on Bruckner and Wagner, has organized his lively, concisely written biography, Liszt, in a manner that makes it extremely accessible to specialist and nonspecialist alike.
Seven chapters devoted to biography (just over half the book's total length) are followed by nine shorter chapters on the more technical aspects of his work as pianist, transcriber, and composer. Footnotes at the bottom of the page, where they belong but are so rarely found nowadays, save readers the trouble of having to flip to the back to check references.
As early as 1837, before Lisztomania reached its height, the poet Heine cannily observed, ```It is significant that no one speaks of him with indifference. ... It takes fire to enkindle men, whether to hate or love.'''
A balanced view
Watson judiciously guides us through the extremes of worship and execration that Liszt evoked in his contemporaries and his biographers. He clears Liszt of the charge of hypocrisy, emphasizes his profound generosity toward other composers, but presents at least one unvarnished glimpse of unexpected heartlessness in Liszt's desire to deny his children the joy of their estranged mother's company.
Despite this, Watson is able to argue persuasively that Liszt's remarkable charisma had a lot to do with his qualities of caritas (his avowed motto) and courage, which Liszt himself described as ```the mainspring of our best qualities; where it is lacking they wither, and without courage one is not even sufficiently prudent.''' A study in contrasts
Within a framework of similarities - musical daring, dramatic personalities, difficult love lives, celebrity and controversy - Liszt and Berlioz provide a study in contrasts.
While Liszt was a child prodigy, a Hungarian of German ancestry whose early career was supervised by a father and other teachers well-versed in German and Viennese musical tradition, Berlioz grew up in the narrower world of French musical tradition without exceptional teachers - and without showing stellar gifts as an instrumentalist.
Determination and personality
Berlioz's ``volcanic'' personality and his sheer determination to write music made him a leading composer, who left us such works as ``Harold en Italie'' (inspired by Byron's ``Childe Harold''), ``La Damnation de Faust'' (inspired by Goethe and other versions of the Faust legend), and ``Rom'eo et Juliette'' and ``Beatrice and Benedict'' (after Shakespeare).
The lesson that Berlioz learned in 19th-century Paris was just how much an artist may have to do for himself. He earned a substantial portion of his living as a journalist, which also gave him the chance to create a critical climate receptive to his music. He became an important conductor, mainly because he found he could not rely on others to conduct his compositions correctly.
Holoman, a professor of music at the University of California, Davis, has previously cataloged and edited Berlioz's works.
His thorough knowledge of his subject is stamped on every page of this exhaustive and absorbing biography, which presents Berlioz and his music seriously and enthusiastically, but with just the right touch of critical distance to put this romantic ``volcano'' into proper historical perspective.