Franz Liszt: An Artist-Turned-Monk

Franz (Ferenc) Liszt is a great Hungarian pianist and composer. He was born on October 22nd, 1811, in the Kingdom of Hungary which was part of the Austrian Empire at the time. His father worked as a steward of one of the estates belonging to the Esterházy princes. He played several musical instruments and was a member of the orchestra, in particular, when it was directed by Joseph Haydn. In his youth, he was a novice at a Franciscan monastery. Later on, he left monastic life, but maintained a long-standing friendship with one of the monks. Maybe, that was the reason why he named his only son “Franciscus”, or Ferenc, in Hungarian. The mother of the composer-to-be was Austrian, and German was the language commonly spoken in the family. So, the little prodigy was most likely referred to as Franz.

Naturally, Franz’s first music teacher was his father. Besides, he learned to sing and play the organ at the local church. His first public performance occurred when he was 8. The talented boy was noticed by wealthy art-lovers, and he got a chance to continue his studies in Vienna, where he went together with his father in 1821.

In the Austrian capital, the famous author of studies (or “etudes”) Carl Czerny became Franz’s piano teacher, the lessons being free. Musical theory was taught to Liszt by Antonio Salieri (apparently, the latter did not take his new student as a worthy rival, so it could be managed without poisoning this time around). Franz’s stay in Vienna was crowned by a kiss of the great Beethoven, which was imprinted on the prodigy after one of his brilliant performances. But this kiss proved to be for Liszt not the outcome, but exactly a pledge of his further ascension to the new heights of mastery.

In 1823, Liszt went to Paris to enter the conservatoire there. But the then director of the institution, L. Cherubini, opposed his entry. So, Liszt had to take lessons from conservatoire teachers privately. To pay the expenses, Franz-turned-Francois Liszt would make his teaching rounds from early morning till late at night. Besides, he would often perform at concerts, for which he started to compose his virtuosic pieces.

In 1827, his father died. The passing away of a dear and spiritually close person dealt a heavy blow to the young Liszt. He withdrew from society for several years. In this period of time, he would plunge into reading, filling the gaps in his education. Besides, he would often converse with his spiritual advisor, abbot Lamennais, a man of wide outlook, who tried to link Christianity to the ideas of social reorganization. Those ideas appeared to be consonant with Liszt, who was depressed by the imperfection of the world, by evil and injustice thriving far and wide. Also, as an artist, he was irked by being treated like a “clown” and longed for genuine understanding.

The July 1830 revolution returned Liszt to public life and gave him new hopes. He resumed his concert and creative activities. The circle of his acquaintances widened. Among his friends there were such literary figures as A. Dumas, V. Hugo, and A. Musset. H. Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” had a strong impact on him, and he made its piano arrangement. The violinist N. Paganini was on tour in Paris at the time, and his playing pushed Liszt to achieve new heights of technical perfection; he arranged for the piano Paganini’s “Caprises”. Meeting with F. Chopin strengthened poetic and romantic trends in Liszt’s creative personality.

In 1835, Liszt got infatuated with the countess Marie d’Agoult, who was an ardent art lover and a bit of a writer. Together with her, he left for Switzerland. Still, Liszt continued to give concerts. In doing so, he made a stress on enlightenment. He tried to “bring up” the audience. Playing his brilliant arrangements, he would familiarize listeners with Beethoven’s concertos and symphonies, Verdi’s operas, etc. Moreover, he would come out as an essay writer – jointly with his mistress, he would contribute to one of Paris music journals, including the article “On the role of art and the status of the artist in modern society”.

In 1839, relations between Franz and Marie became strained. Liszt decided to donate a large sum of money for the renovation of the Beethoven monument in Bonn and also to the flood victims in Hungary. Withdrawal of such a sum from the “family” budget meant putting an end to a relatively settled and well-to-do life and resuming a “vagrant” life of a piano virtuoso. The countess was not happy about such prospects, the more so that their romance had resulted in the birth of three children. So, Marie with the children returned to Paris, where Liszt’s mother was to help her as a baby sitter. Liszt, however, set off touring his native Hungary.

Liszt’s “years of pilgrimage” lasted until 1848. During this period of time, he crisscrossed Europe several times. His virtuosity reached unmatched heights. The public literally carried him in their arms and made him a cultural icon. Nevertheless, he kept his head. At his concerts, he continued to popularize the greatest classical music samples. Besides, a lion share of his concerts’ proceeds would go to charity, including provision of the necessary facilities for classical schools, creation of pension funds for musicians, and even the construction of the Cologne cathedral.

Liszt would also visit Russia, where many prominent Russian cultural figures had a chance to admire his playing. In the meantime, he was admired by the playing of Anton Rubinstein, whom he recognized as his piano successor. The great guest performer liked very much the emerging Russian classical music, especially M. I. Glinka’s; Liszt made a number of piano arrangements of pieces by Russian composers. Also, Liszt had a clash with the Tsarist autocracy. Here, he stayed true to Beethoven’s precepts suggesting no servility to the powers that be. During a concert at the Winter Palace, Liszt exchanged “niceties” with Emperor Nicholas I. As a result, his first visit to Russia ended in being ordered to leave the country within 24 hours.

Still, Liszt would turn up in Russia time and again. During his guest tour in Kiev in 1847, he met his second great love. That was the princess Carolyne Wittgenstein (born Iwanowska), who became Liszt’s true friend and remained such to the end of his days. She sacrificed everything for him and secretly fled to him together with his little daughter.

All of a sudden, the Russian autocracy turned to Liszt its merciful side. The Russian emperor’s sister, grand duchess Maria Pavlovna, offered patronage to the lovers. She invited both to Weimar, the capital of a small principality of which she was the ruler. Liszt was supposed to place himself at the head of the city’s music life.

Liszt gladly accepted the grand duchess’s invitation. The more so that he lost by then his faith in the idea of using a concert platform for enlightening the public. Neither success, nor virtuosity, nor even art as such were an aim in itself for him. He believed that art was rather a means to elevate man so as he could perceive a certain supreme reality, a celestial world, which was inaccessible in the bustle of everydayness. At the age of 35, at the peak of his popularity, he abandoned performing activities.

The time spent in Weimar proved to be the most fruitful for Liszt, as a composer. He put their sketches in order, finished and remade a great number of his works. His “Years of Pilgrimage” took shape, both piano concertos were completed, rhapsodies, new etudes, his famous b-minor sonata, and orchestral pieces emerged. Young musicians would come to him from all over the world to improve their professional skills. One of them, Hans von Bülow, married his daughter Cosima.

Liszt resumed his enlightening activities, but this time as an opera director and conductor. Thanks to him, many earlier unstaged productions came to be staged in Weimar, including contemporary operas, such as R. Schumann’s “Genoveva” and R. Wagner’s “Loengrin”. At symphony concerts, many earlier unperformed pieces came to be heard, including those by F. Mendelsohn and H. Berlioz, and also compositions by Liszt himself. Together with Carolyne, Liszt would write various essays and articles, and also the book “The life of Chopin”, to pay tribute to the memory of his untimely deceased friend.

And now dark clouds started to gather over this serene period of Liszt’s life. In 1859, his son died, and in 1862, one of his two daughters. Carolyne’s and Liszt’s efforts to formalize their relationship ended in a failure. While permission from the pope had been obtained, the Russian autocracy, now in the person of the “progressive” Alexander II, again showed its obstinacy. Francois and Carolyne were not fated to become a legally married couple. They moved to Rome only to live in separate houses.

In 1865, Liszt received the tonsure from the Franciscan monks. Maybe, there was an element of theatricality in it. Anyway, Liszt’s act was pointing the direction in which the way out of the vicious circle of this world should be sought. His yearning for a “celestial world” which could be heard so distinctly in his compositions, had now found an expression in his daily life. He continued to compose, but now predominantly in the genre of church music.

His monkhood did not prevent him from active participation in social life, which he now could not but perceive unequivocally as vanity, although a necessary vanity. “Father Liszt” spent his declining years plying between Rome, Weimar, and Budapest. He continued to compose, secular music inclusive, and, surely, he taught. Among his pupils was S. Rachmaninoff’s cousin, A. Siloti. Many his fellow composers would come to see him, including A. Borodin and P. Tchaikovsky.

In 1869, Liszt’s daughter Cosima, separated H. von Bülow and married R. Wagner. Liszt took painfully this consecutive trouble, the more so that he had considered Wagner to be his best friend and like-minded person. Realizing, however, that Wagner’s act was rather a display of his nobility, not perfidy, he gradually thawed out and accepted the fait accompli. It may be another excuse for Wagner that his and Cosima’s son (and, respectively, Liszt’s grandson), Sigfried, subsequently became a well-known composer and conductor, and also a popularizer of his father’s and grandfather’s legacy.

Death caught the great romantic musician in Bayreuth, at one of the festivals of music by his no less famous son-in-law. It happened on 31st of June, 1886, when Liszt was 74.

Liszt was an intelligent artist. Music was not an end in itself for him, but, rather, a means of expressing a certain Idea. Liszt was among the first musicians to openly proclaim the programmaticism of his works. Still, not any programme could become a source of inspiration for Liszt, as a composer. He considered especially suitable for this purpose to be “philosophical epics”, among which, in Liszt’s view, Goethe’s “Faust” was the greatest.

The above agenda are expressed, perhaps, most succinctly in his b-minor sonata. The sonata’s programme could be formulated as man’s yearning for an Ideal, for reaching new heights of perfection – this is the Faustian principle in man. Impeding this yearning is a doubt personified in the character of Mephistopheles. The sublime and the vile are fighting inside of man, and neither principle manages to gain the upper hand.

Liszt’s music’s programmaticism underwent evolution, which could be seen in his piano cycle “The years of pilgrimage”. The First Year’s pieces largely convey the feelings evoked by nature scenes. The Second Year’s pieces had been inspired by great works of art; included here is his Dante Sonata. The Third Year is dominated by religious motifs. Thus, the three “years” become symbols of the three stages of Man’s spiritual ascension, that is, Nature, Art, and Religion.

Liszt’s music is turned to the heavens. It may not be just hovering above the world, but it surely leaves it behind (1). And his monkhood came as a natural continuation of his “musical” impulse. Taking after the great romanticist, let us lift up our hearts:

1) It was with Alexander Scriabin that music would altogether break away from the world.


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