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The Virtuoso Liszt


  • 16 b/w illus. 2 tables 10 music examples
  • Page extent: 300 pages
  • Size: 229 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.44 kg


 (ISBN-13: 9780521108720)

Introduction: a virtuoso in context

Virtuosity is about shifting borders. The musician, the athlete, and the magician are potentially virtuosos as soon as they cross a limit - the limit of what seems possible, or what the spectator can imagine. Once this act of transgression is complete, the border shifts, and the boundaries of the possible are redrawn. If the performer does not cross a new, more challenging one, he will no longer be perceived as a virtuoso. He can move the border along either a qualitative or quantitative axis. A magician, for example, may astound his audience by pulling a dove out of a black hat resting on the table, then go on to pull two doves out of the hat. And then, to top it all off, he might pull three doves out of a hat that is not resting on the table, perhaps even with his coat off. But this movement of the border to the next quantitative level of difficulty, however integral to virtuoso performance, cannot go on for long. Soon the spectator will demand a new trick, indeed a whole repertory of new tricks: the border must be moved qualitatively. So the virtuoso magician then makes things float, disappear, reappear, or explode. He reads hidden cards. He detaches limbs from the body. It is all amazing, and yet these tricks, still, are only the clichés of the professional magician - mere craft. To be a truly surpassing virtuoso, he must have his own tricks, inventing new impossibilities to be transcended, for these are the only impossibilities that will any longer seem truly impossible.

   Franz Liszt remains the quintessential virtuoso because he was constantly and insistently mobilizing, destabilizing, and reconstituting borders. In terms of sheer skill of pianistic execution - the quantitative border - he was evidently surpassed within his lifetime. None of his protegés and imitators, however, came even close to him in extending the virtuoso’s relevance qualitatively - beyond the sphere of music and into the social environments he entered. It is well known that the range of musical materials Liszt absorbed and reconstituted through his virtuosity was unusually wide, encompassing nearly every genre and style in the contemporary world. Yet he also absorbed a great deal from his non-musical environment - social styles, literary currents, political movements, ethical fashions - and worked these elements into his persona and performing style. He was constantly redefining himself, playing off and adapting to the varied local contexts he encountered.

   Described this way, Liszt can sound like a figure of absolute omnipotence - a supreme master of himself and of everything in his environment, a manipulator of the symbolic resources of his day. The virtuoso Liszt has, indeed, always served as a figure for fantasies of omnipotence: over pianos, women, and concert audiences. His concert career is imagined as an effortless march from one capital to another, where audiences wait to drink in his transcendent genius and send him off with roars of applause. A cursory reading of Liszt’s correspondence, however, exposes this image as a fantasy. Reading his letters, it becomes clear that he was constantly watching his audiences, measuring out his prospects for success, and actively shaping his reputation in the press. He worried about audiences, approaching every new city with a measure of trepidation. If he felt uncertain that a concert or concert series would be well attended, he would cancel it, look for a smaller hall, or turn it into a private concert. On several occasions he suspected that opponents were conspiring to ruin his concerts with sneers or booing, and in some cases these suspicions turned out to be justified.

   Liszt’s relationship to audiences was thus far from omnipotent. He had to win them over.He explored the resources for gaining the public’s approval, and because the audiences were so varied from place to place, he developed multiple strategies. Aristocrats and intellectuals, men and women, wealthy bourgeois and poor beggars, learned connoisseurs and humble amateurs, Frenchmen and Germans all looked to him for something different, and he rarely failed to deliver. Liszt became one of the most widely admired figures of his time not because his enormous musical talent made such popularity inevitable, but because his audiences madesymbolic demands upon him that he was willing and able to fulfill. He successfully carved out identities specific to the different worlds he entered. His relationship to the social world was one not of mastery, but of dynamic, responsive contact.We know that Liszt possessed a remarkable capacity to pick up musical materials and recast them according to his own individual stamp. But in the virtuoso years, he was working almost exclusively with materials not of his own invention, materials that form a veritable compendium of contemporary musical life.Viewed this way, Liszt appears to be a carte blanche on which the world of the 1830s and 1840s wrote itself. Liszt can seem to stand above and beyond his environment, but to an important extent he was a product of it, and occasionally it swallowed him entirely.

   This book is a reconstruction of the virtuoso Liszt through the eyes and ears of contemporary audiences, critics, and readers. The result is several Liszts, each developed according to the priorities and emphases of particular audiences and writers. Many of these constructions could not peacefully coexist and came into conflict with one other. I intentionally throw the spotlight on controversies he provoked to show how the larger social, political, and cultural debates of the time played themselves out in his reception. Furthermore, I counterpoint the reception of Liszt with his own, considerably self-conscious attempt to construct and control his public identity, an endeavor in which he did not always succeed. Liszt’s virtuoso identity was in perpetual flux as he and his audiences tried to make him mean different things. Each chapter tells a story of how he, journalists, and audiences together negotiated his significance or identity. Not all of the multiple layers of his identity were rooted directly in his virtuoso performances. They also emerged from his social affiliations, personal behavior, literary publications, concertizing strategies, and press publicity. But in chapters 1, 2, and 5, I make efforts to show how Liszt’s performing style - both its visual and aural dimensions - became infused with social meaning and addressed the symbolic needs of his audiences.

The biographical tradition

Until recently, nearly all studies of the virtuoso Liszt emerged from the biographical tradition established by Lina Ramann and recently updated by Alan Walker.1 The vision that informs these biographies is the “greatness” of Liszt’s concert career, just as “greatness” serves as master theme of all traditional biography. To convey the greatness of his virtuoso travels, it sufficed to describe the episodes with the highest public profile, such as the Liszt-Thalberg contest of 1837, the return to Pest in 1839, and the “Lisztomania” of Berlin in 1842. Ramann and Walker, the most important biographers, left many gaps in the chronicle of Liszt’s concert tours, and numerous recent studies have filled in these gaps. They form the foundation on which this book builds. Geraldine Keeling has uncovered many previously unknown Parisian concerts, Michael Saffle has filled in huge gaps in the German chronicle, and the Liszt Society Journal has traced his English tours thoroughly.2 The more we find out about his concert career, however, the less glamorous it appears. We encounter shabby, out-of-tune pianos, half-empty halls, tiny provincial towns where Liszt played only to pick up extra cash, petty local musicians who plot against him out of professional jealousy, audiences who can’t make heads or tails of Weber’s Konzertstück, and devastating financial losses. The thoroughness of the biographical tradition has, paradoxically, nearly undone the premise of Liszt’s “great” concert career.

   But if Liszt’s concert career was not uniformly great and spectacular, what made the great moments truly great? Biographers implicitly answer this question with reference to his merits as an artist. His genius and his virtuosity are the generators, the engines of his great moments. Audiences appear in biographies only to pay witness to, and affirm, the artist’s supreme talent, while we, the readers, are implicitly asked to clap along. Yet we only know of Liszt’s great moments at all because we have traces of the public enthusiasm they generated. Biographers deduce Liszt’s greatness, that is, from the demonstrations of his audiences. They are thus caught in a circular logic: on the one hand, Liszt’s audiences applaud enthusiastically because he is a great artist; on the other, Liszt is a great artist because the audiences applaud enthusiastically.

   The only way to break out of this circle is to show that the applause of his audiences does not simply reflect the artist’s genius, but also reflects the interests and values of the applauders. I begin from the assumption that Liszt’s great moments can only be explained by taking into account the tastes, dispositions, and symbolic needs of contemporary audiences. His appeal was rooted in aspects of the social and public life of the 1830s and 1840s that have nearly disappeared from view. Contemporary audiences cared deeply about charity for the poor and unfortunate, marveled at Napoleon’s prowess and brilliance, attended theatres where aristocrats and bourgeois were battling for social terrain, or witnessed their countries developing into nation-states - and each of these things powerfully mediated their reactions to Liszt. Much of this book is devoted to reconstructing these historical trends, in an attempted archaeology of Liszt’s phenomenal popularity. It thus lays emphasis on his public faces and personas, which look quite different fromthe dreamy romantic artist we encounter in various young portraits.

   Traditional biographies place Franz Liszt, conceived as a person or self, at the center of attention. Here I consider Liszt, in contrast, as a figure of public discourse - a cluster of ideas, meanings, and projections that led critics and audiences to react to him in particular ways. This anti-subjective move has been made in several recent studies. Lawrence Kramer, adopting a broadly new historicist approach, interweaves Liszt’s virtuosity with various strains of contemporary cultural practice, including theatrical life, the carnivalesque, balls, and monarchical ritual. Richard Leppert and Stephen Zank assess the virtuoso Liszt as a figure of the emergent modernity of the early nineteenth century, focusing on industrialization, masculine domination, militarism, and the formation of bourgeois subjectivity. Susan Bernstein discusses Liszt’s virtuosity in relation to romantic philosophy, with its remarkable privileging of music over language. Drawing from the theoretical perspective of Paul de Man, Bernstein argues that his performances and published writings radically destabilized the music-writing hierarchy that served as a precondition for elevating music to the status of pure, self-originating meaning.3

   The hermeneutic, cultural, and historical emphasis of these studies has shed entirely new light on Liszt and the cult of the virtuoso, and the dialectical methods they employ are particularly well suited to their subject. While my interests are similar, my approach and results are more expository in character. I am concerned to present the universe of discourse that surrounded Liszt in its documentary richness, bordering sometimes on anthropological “thick description” of single concerts or episodes, as well as the diachronic trajectory of his career. This book is thus less explicitly theoretical, and more historically detailed, than these other recent studies. And although I share the anti-subjective premises of recent studies, Liszt-as-subject remains an important, active contributor to the discursive matrix that surrounded him. I emphasize that Liszt was directly engaged in public discourse about himself. In the cultural field he was just one among many players wrestling for the authority over his significance, but he was an unusually important one.


The historical emphasis of this study has led me to draw on an eclectic range of documents from Liszt’s time - scores, periodicals, illustrations, correspondence, memoirs, and monographs - to recover major themes and debates in the press, previously unexplored dimensions of Liszt’s performing language, individual episodes of his career, and audience dispositions. The body of evidence I am working with is unusually fragmented. Its main unit is the concert review or concert report, usually just a few paragraphs or a column in length. My reconstruction of larger patterns therefore entails a citation-heavy accumulation of details from diverse sources. This has the disadvantage of leaving less room for the analysis of verbal rhetoric and of the motivations of individual authors. Such fragmentation has the advantage, however, of offering a greater diversity of viewpoints. Furthermore, concert reviews are usually loosely framed, lacking a strong agenda. They respond to the concert event with little intellectual mediation. Unconstrained by specific demands or themes, reviewers often isolate the details that strike them, and these details can be the most valuable ones. The more synthetic books and pamphlets on Liszt that appeared during his career - those of d’Ortigue, Christern, Duverger, Schober, and Rellstab, for example - were mostly written by his close friends and probably in consultation with him. They are in many ways less reliable, as an index of more general perceptions, than individual concert reviews.

   The greatest difficulty of using periodicals extensively is gauging the degree to which they reflect opinions and attitudes of the larger public. Determining the relevance or authority of periodical articles demands consideration of the author’s priorities, the journal’s profile, and the prospective readership. Musicological studies have too often offered journal citations to describe how past musical cultures “thought” about an artist or a work, or about music in general. Katherine Ellis, in her study of the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, has challenged this tendency by showing the wide range of institutional and economic pressures to which the editor and publisher, Maurice Schlesinger, had to respond. While it is important to approach journals skeptically when writing music history, however, their contents cannot be reduced to the idiosyncratic impressions of individual writers. In general I consider motifs and patterns that appear repeatedly in contemporary writings to reveal a more general cultural interpretation of Liszt, and in discussing such motifs I give less attention to individual writers. At other times I focus on highly idiosyncratic writings about Liszt, in which he is blatantly appropriated for particular ideological ends.

   Although my historical approach is not narrative, much of the material to be presented is anecdotal. At times I accumulate anecdotes in order to show the recurrence of certain responses to Liszt, and in such places the reader may note a certain disconnectedness. This disconnectedness is inherent in the subject matter, for Liszt was constantly playing to new audiences, each of which was forming fresh impressions of his playing. In pursuing Liszt’s relationship to audiences, my main unit of analysis is not the individual concert, but his visit to an individual locale - which I refer to as an “episode.” Liszt’s visits tended to become civic events, accompanied by a wealth of press reports and public activity, and this is the framework within which it is most useful to evaluate his public identity. My presentation of detailed “local” studies contrasts sharply with the traditional biographical approach, which emphasizes the “universal” Liszt and romanticizes his wandering virtuoso existence.

Who were Liszt’s audiences?

To study the symbolic investments of contemporary audiences in Liszt, it is necessary to get a sense of who attended his concerts. In the absence of detailed records showing who bought tickets, we can only determine who they were by conjecture. Studies of concert life in the early nineteenth century have consistently emphasized the prominence of the prosperous bourgeoisie in concert audiences, and it is often assumed that Liszt’s audiences were accordingly bourgeois. In terms of sheer numbers, it seems incontrovertible that the middle bourgeoisie was the core of his audience. He filled his halls with hundreds of people, and the middle bourgeoisie was by far the most numerous social level among those that had the financial means to attend.

   There are, however, major problems with assimilating Liszt’s audience to that of the growing sphere of public concerts, for his concerts bore a distinctive, and rather exclusive, social tone. Tickets to his concerts were typically slightly more than double the going prices for public concerts, and he usually restricted the prices to two levels. Such prices filtered out those families from the lower bourgeoisie that did attend public concerts, and were even a strain for the middle bourgeoisie. The lower social classes, however, did occasionally have the opportunity to hear Liszt in performance. When he played in very large halls, such as Vienna’s grösser Redoutensaal or the theatre in St. Petersburg, there were a number of quite inexpensive tickets available, probably to fill in areas that would otherwise remain empty (due to bad lines of vision or an association with the lower classes). Such occasions are not nearly as common as concerts with two price tiers. Liszt tended to place them at the end of an extended stay in a single city, to help give his departure a grand public profile.

   While the high ticket prices of his normal concerts siphoned off the lower bourgeoisie, they in no way scared away the more prosperous middle level of the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, the prices made his concerts most attractive to this class by conferring high prestige upon the event. The elite classes, too, sought social distinction at Liszt’s concerts, but they were able to generate it in private contexts as well, and did not particularly need a virtuoso for this purpose. The middle bourgeoisie, on the other hand, was excluded from the private halls of high prestige, and Liszt’s concerts compensated for this exclusion, making it available to them for the purchase of a ticket. Liszt incarnated the concert hall as a temple of prestige through several means. He often surrounded himself on stage with a semicircle of distinguished women, or alternatively, reserved the first few rows of the orchestra section for them. During the pauses he would circulate and converse with them.On several recorded occasions he mingled with the women in the orchestra section before playing, and made his entrance onto the stage from there. In the cities with a francophone aristocracy (most of the large capitals) or with a court, these women were the same people with whom he had been circulating in private society.4 This importation of the aristocratic salon into the concert hall is unique to Liszt, and constitutes one of the unrecognized valences of his famous invention: the solo recital.

   While the middle bourgeoisie predominated numerically among Liszt’s listeners, then, they did not predominate symbolically. The tone of the concert was built around an idea of exclusive, elite distinction, to which the middle bourgeoisie could aspire only in fantasy.5 There was thus a difference between who Liszt’s audiences actually were and who they appeared to be. In reality they were a shade more prosperous than the general concert-going public, but otherwise they were not substantially different. What is crucially different with Liszt’s audiences is how they were represented, for this representation inflected their experiences and symbolic investments.

   Liszt’s audiences include not only those who heard him in the concert hall or the private salon, but also those who read about him in newspapers and journals, and those who heard about him in public conversation, for Liszt was a figure of public discourse independently of his concerts. His fame always preceded his arrival, and audiences waited for his performances with immense anticipation. This made it possible for people who could not afford his concerts - namely students and the lower classes - to participate in his reception. They lined the streets when he left a city, or gathered around his hotel balcony and cheered or sang songs for him. They gave his reception a public scope that ticket prices precluded.

   Concert reviews of Liszt include many comments about the behavior of his audiences. While these comments are sometimes believable as plain facts, they more often bear an implicit polemical or rhetorical purpose, and must be treated as representations. For Liszt’s concerts raised the question of the legitimacy of audience behavior to an unprecedented degree. His audiences displayed levels of enthusiasm that appeared aberrant or excessive even by the more relaxed standards of concert etiquette that then prevailed. Most critics evaluated public entertainments - musical or otherwise - along a continuum between aesthetic pleasure and sheer sensual pleasure, the former legitimate and the latter illegitimate. All virtuoso concerts evidently fell somewhere in the middle: they were neither too severe nor too light, neither high art nor low entertainment. Liszt’s concerts, however, starkly posed the endpoints of this continuum against one another. His performances seemed at once drenched in fantasy and overcharged with nerve-shaking stimulation, making it difficult to separate the aesthetic and the corporeal, the legitimate and the illegitimate.

   Faced with this destabilized hierarchy of legitimacy, critics made redoubled efforts to maintain it. They urged audiences to remain civil, or mocked those who let their enthusiasms stretch too far. Gradually they were installing in contemporary audiences what I would call a “concert-superego” - an internal voice that would say “no” to the sensual transports of exciting virtuosity. This resonates strongly with the larger cultural project of promoting the model bourgeois subject: an individual who masters his pleasures and maintains a modest demeanor in public. Yet critics declared the behavior of Liszt’s audiences illegitimate for other reasons, and in the chapters that follow we will see the category of “bad enthusiasm” being put to various ends. The Parisians will use it to affirm their superiority over the “provincial” Hungarians; the south Germans will reaffirm their liberal political orientation by criticizing the Berlin public; and within Berlin, many critics will rescue the legitimacy of their own pleasures by assigning the excesses of enthusiasm to women. The management of pleasure is, in short, one of the main themes of the story of Liszt’s reception. Because of this, we have to treat portrayals of his audiences as figures of discourse. In doing so, we will find out as much about the newly developed authority of the music critic as about Liszt’s virtuoso powers.

Liszt and the listener

The figure of the listener, a newcomer to musicology, inhabits several pages of this study. Studies of how people in the past listened is motivated principally by a rejection or suspicion of idealist aesthetics, according to which the listener and the music come into contact in the disinterested realm of pure mind or Geist. This model of listening is institutionalized in the customs of today’s concert life, and it is only through historical investigation of the concert event that we can understand how people in the past experienced music differently. James H. Johnson, focusing on Paris in the years 1750-1850, shows listening as a mode of social behavior aimed at the production and reproduction of social status.6 Leon Botstein has proposed that silent reading was such a pervasive activity among concert audiences in the nineteenth century that literature mediated their understanding of instrumental music.7 However incomplete these studies may be, they have begun to identify the assumptions, priorities, and investments with which audiences came into the concert hall, and the perceptual filters through which they processed musical information.

   In this book I will propose no general theory of how Liszt’s audiences listened, but I will often discuss larger cultural dispositions that directly affected their perceptions of him in performance. Chapter 1, for example, delves into the vocally centered listening preferences of some factions in Paris, which played an important role in Liszt’s rivalry with Sigismond Thalberg. In chapter 2 I explain how the cult of Napoleon and the celebration of military valor bolstered Liszt’s popularity. And in chapter 4 I emphasize the pervasiveness of charity in the everyday lives of Liszt’s audiences, which made them respond enthusiastically to his aura of benevolence and Christian virtue. All of these audience dispositions have faded since Liszt’s time. In examining them we see elements of his virtuoso identity that are today obscure, and we see his popularity not as an inevitable consequence of a transcendental genius, but as contingent upon circumstances specific to his historical period.

   Although Liszt’s audiences brought symbolic and aesthetic dispositions with them to the concert hall, he had a remarkable ability to make listeners focus their attention on him and him alone. He absorbed his listener so completely in the sound and spectacle of his virtuosity that the listener lost all awareness of the concert environment.With the institution of solo recitals he reconstituted the performance space to encourage the highest degree of visual, aural, and psychological concentration. Even when he played with an orchestra, I argue in chapter 1, he could hold in check the orchestra’s diffuseness by projecting himself as the leader, hierarchically subordinating the other performers to his performing self. In this study, then, I also consider the effect of Liszt’s playing on the “absorbed” spectator, bracketing off levels of mediation implicit in the concert as a social event.

   This does not constitute a return to the assumptions of idealist aesthetics. First, I account for differences in habits of spectatorship: connoisseurs, men of letters, the Parisian dilettantes, and amateurs all entered into the experience of Liszt with different eyes and different ears. Liszt’s performances presented a plethora of visual and sonic data, and listeners took in this information through differently configured filters. Second, I discuss the role of unaestheticized sound (the sheer volume and density of sonority) and unaestheticized sight (his violent approach to the keyboard) in shaping the listener’s experience. My method for reconstructing the listener’s experience might loosely be described as phenomenological, as it attempts to representhowan individual listener processed all the stimuli coming from Liszt’s virtuoso performance. Carolyn Abbate has shown how the interpenetration of opera’s separate discursive levels - sight, sound, voice, orchestra, plot, narrative - renders opera’s meanings radically overdetermined and often internally contradictory. The range of discursive variables in Liszt’s performance is narrower than in operatic performance:my analyses will work mainly with the elements of sound, sight, and musical codes. I will argue, nevertheless, that Liszt’s virtuosity was, like operatic performance, an indeterminate, untidy discourse with a surplus of meanings, posing the very difficulty of reading rather than presenting to listeners an object for reading.<

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