How can one write anything at all about so magisterial a study dedicated to one of the most extraordinary men who ever lived and which took its author about 1600 pages and more than two decades of his life to write?
Impossible. But that doesn't mean one cannot at least try.
In short, Alan Walker's three volume study Franz Liszt is an incredible literary and scholarly achievement. It really is hard to believe that such combination of brilliant writing style can be coupled with so high an informational content and with such an impeccable scholarship. But it happens to be true. Small wonder that Mr Walker's three volumes are currently the most comprehensive and the most authoritative study of Franz Liszt's life available in any language. Indeed, this is likely to remain so for a good many years ahead.
To say that Alan Walker's style is absorbing, gluing to the pages and reads like a novel is so trite and so hackneyed a cliche that hardly bears repetition. But it happens to be true - and is the best proof known to me that a biography can be scholarly written and enjoyable to read at the same time; claims that the former is incompatible with the latter are often made - chiefly by excellent scholars who are indifferent writers or vice versa. As for Alan Walker's literary style, considering the complexity of his subject and the scope of his work, it simply cannot be bettered; even his Acknowledgments sections are readable. It is a style not just clear, lucid and perfectly organized, but also engaging, amusing, and penetrating, one that boldly approaches perfection, namely being like a conversation with an old friend beside the fireside with a glass of something sufficiently alcoholic in hand. If I must find some drawbacks, I would point out several awkward digressions - for example, the Franco-Prussian War or the Vatican diplomatic intrigues - which are discussed into somewhat excessive detail, or the music examples which sometimes tend to overwhelm the pages and frustrate the layman reader who can't read music at all; both defects, however, are very minor ones. In general, in a remarkably high percentage of these 1500 pages, Alan Walker's style is as close to perfection as any non-fiction writing can hope to reach. He gives just enough details about Liszt's works and the historical background of his life; those who look for in-depth musical analyses or history of Europe stuff, really should look into other books. The focus here from beginning to end remains on Franz Liszt.
Indeed, for me at least, this is by far the most important aspect of Alan Walker's work: it is concerned first and foremost with Liszt himself, not just with the spectacular facts of his life but with his fascinating personality as well. After reading these three volumes, I felt like I had known Liszt for decades; his music I have always loved, but only after reading Alan Walker's monumental biography have I learned that the human being behind this stupendous musical output deserves to be loved, too. There is, however, one inherent danger here and I am sure Mr Walker must have been aware of it while he was writing: the danger of idealizing Liszt; from there it is just one step to goofy adulation and hero worship of the worst possible kind. But yet again, Alan Walker has passed the test superbly. It is obvious that he has a genuine affection for the great composer but he somehow manages always to remain cool, objective and dispassionate guide into Liszt's inner world; and, it must be said, anybody who wants to challenge Mr Walker's opinions must have a knowledge of the Liszt literature that is nothing short of staggering. I daresay few would dare. Indeed, Liszt's portrait drawn by Mr Walker does seem idealized now and then, but it does look extremely convincing as well. The great composer, pianist, and conductor who was proud to be Hungarian, preferred to speak French and spent most of his life in Germany must have been a man of incredible charm, rare frankness of opinion and simply unbelievable generosity of spirit; I can't help reflecting that Mr Walker uses the famous description 'saintly Liszt' only half-jokingly, or not at all. The biographer is by no means uncritical to his subject; when Liszt makes unkind remarks or behaves like a bad father, this is dully acknowledged by Mr Walker, but he never emphasise it unduly. On the whole, his portrait of Liszt is a far cry from the popular notion of meretricious poser hungry for the idolatry of everybody around him that has prevailed the Liszt scholarship for well over half a century. So is Mr Walker's view of Liszt's music, for that matter. In both cases his striving for objectivity and his uncanny persuasiveness are remarkable, to say the least.
Then there are the facts of Liszt's life, inextricably intertwined with his personality of course, and here the scholarly excellence of Alan Walker shines through. Archetypal Romantic who led one of most mesmerising lives of all great composers, Franz Liszt must be a real hell for the biographer; it's easier to ask not what he was, but what he was not, indeed. He was the greatest piano virtuoso of his time, and most likely of all times, who invented the piano recital as such and made one of the most spectacular careers in the history of music, with swooning audiences from Spain to St. Petersburg and from London to Constantinople; not to mention that he completely revolutionised both keyboard performance practice and composition. He invented the so called symphonic poem (symphonische Dichtung) and thus radically changed the composition for orchestra as well; not to mention that he was one of the first modern conductors, that is one of the first to be far more than just ''walking metronomes''. Even his church music, in a way, was unorthodox and revolutionary at the time. The exact number of his compositions is still not clear, but they are about 1300 and range from three minute piano pieces to three hour oratorios for huge orchestra, choir and soloists. One wonders how on earth did Liszt have the time only to put all that music down on paper? In addition to all this Liszt was an indefatigable champion of modern (for his time) composers, most notably Wagner and Berlioz; he was one of the greatest piano pedagogues of the XIX century, championing the master class as such and producing keyboard giants like Hans von Bülow, Carl Tausig, and numerous others; he also was voluminous writer of letters, essays and books, even if is still controversial how much of his writings were written in co-authorship with the two most important women in his life. Of course he was notorious for his liaisons with married women; one of them was a countess who bore him three illegitimate children, the other one was a princess with whom he lived for more than a decade as man and wife without marriage (what a scandalous thing to do!); not to mention the numerous swooning females who pestered him all his life, one of them even threatened to kill first him and then herself, ''failing in both endeavours'' (Walker). Last but not least, Liszt's entering the lower orders of the Catholic Church later in his life was just another gossip-friendly surprise. As Alan Walker put it succinctly in his no less compelling Reflections on Liszt (Cornell, 2005): 'Merely to report the facts is to run the risk of being accused of writing fiction.'
But reporting the facts Alan Walker does: year by year the whole amazing life of Franz Liszt is mapped out. What is more, Mr Walker also reports his sources. Always. There is hardly a single page in all three volumes without footnotes in which numerous biogrpahies, memoirs, studies, diaries, collections of letters, even archives are listed with their initials and the exact pages where the information in question comes from. The bibliographies in the end of each volume are the most staggering I have ever seen; there can one find all details about these mysterious initials in the footnotes - and probably everything ever written about Liszt's life, including a good many unpublished documents. The indefatigable striving of Alan Walker to document meticulously every possible source and to base every single fact on a testimony he has seen himself is something to marvel at. All those years he spent writing his magnum opus were chiefly spent in libraries and archives all around the world: Weimar, Budapest, Paris, Rome, London, Washington, among others. Alan Walker himself was the man who discovered the manuscript of the diary of Lina Schmalhausen, one of Liszt's students, which did throw new light on the death of Liszt in Bayreth in 1886 (and later was published in a book form, edited by Mr Walker of course.) It is Alan Walker too who in the present study often quotes in their entirety letters of Liszt which were previously published only in severely edited versions - or weren't published at all. It is essential to understand that discovering the lives of the great from the past is a dynamic process; new and relevant sources are constantly discovered and re-discovered, sometimes they change a certain area out of recognition. Despite this fluidity of scholarship, if I may put it in so pompous a way, Alan Walker's painstaking research, meticulously numbered sources and determination to look at any issue from all possible points of view not taking anything for granted, have certainly established him as the most authoritative and reliable source about the life and character of Franz Liszt. This is likely to remain so for a good many years ahead. That's for sure.
One of the greatest advantages of Mr Walker's impeccable scholarship is his demolishing of numerous myths that are always associated with Liszt, indeed some of them have circulated through the literature for well over a century. As a matter of fact, not only no other great composer has ever had a more fascinating life, but none has been subject to more contradictory opinions or more fanciful mythology, either. The only possible exception is Richard Wagner. Is it a coincidence that his life was so firmly linked with Liszt's, not to mention the similar artistic revolutions they simultaneously made in the opera house and in the concert hall, respectively? Hardly. It is indeed a pity that Wagner's life, despite the tons of books that have been written, still lacks a definitive biography comparable to Alan Walker's Franz Liszt. For it is not at all presumptuous to claim that the Lisztian scholarship has been changed completely by the latter. Indeed, the studies of Liszt's life and personality should be divided historically to ''B. W.'' and ''A. W.'' - ''Before Walker'' and ''After Walker''. Virtually the complete Lisztian mythology - and staggering amount of nonsense that is - has been brought to trial by Alan Walker, and he is thoroughly convincing about many aspects of Liszt's life that will never again be the same. Some of the most famous Lisztian legends and Mr Walker's brilliant dealing with them are well worth mentioning for at least two reasons: 1) they are examined in a most sensible and perceptive way coupled with degree of scholarship that takes account of every possible document under the sun (or collecting dust in archives all over the world); and 2) they tell us as much about Liszt's unique personality as anything.
To start in chronological order, the legendary Weihekuss of Beethoven is one of the best known stories about Liszt. In a nutshell: on 13th of April, 1823, after a concert in Vienna given by the then 11-year-old Liszt, Beethoven was supposed to have come on the stage and gave him a ''consecration kiss'' on the forehead which the composer regarded as his true artistic consecration all his life. The amazing thing about this story is that it appeared in print just 12 years later, in the first attempt for a biography of Liszt (when he was 23!) by Joseph d'Ortique which was published in Gazette Musicale de Paris as early as 1835. Almost four decades later (1873) a lithograph celebrating the occasion was made and used for years afterwards as a ''proof'' for the kiss despite being made exactly half a century after the Vienna concert in question. All of Liszt's numerous biographers later were only too eager to include the romantic episode in their writings.
Here Alan Walker comes with a startling revelation: essentially and privately for Liszt, the story appears to have been true. Indeed, Liszt himself told it to one of his female students late in his life; the possibility of this oral version being a fabrication of the lady's fertile imagination might well be ruled out by the fact that there is a corroboration that comes directly from the Master. There is only one other place where the kiss is known to be mentioned by Liszt, in written form at that: one of his letters to Carl Alexander, the Grand Duke of Weimar and close friend of Liszt. The letter is remarkable since the kiss is mentioned just by the way and in the highly emotional context of Liszt's compositional process; this makes clear that Liszt did regard Beethoven's gesture as his artistic consecration - and Beethoven himself as something very much like God; it is worth noting that this God found in Liszt one of his most fervent prophets: it was not for nothing that the Hungarian maestro was acclaimed as one of the most profound interpreters of the Ninth symphony XIX ever saw. The only significant difference - and quite a difference it is - between Liszt's version and the official myth is that the Weihekuss happened not on the stage but in the Beethoven's apartment where Liszt was led by his teacher Carl Czerny (Beethoven's pupil) to be heard by the old composer. As for Beethoven himself, he was quite deaf at the time and his notebooks confirm that he didn't attend the concert on 13th of April and that the young virtuoso was his guest. This is the only meeting between Liszt and Beethoven for which it is known to have occurred. Mr Walker does not forget to note that, in the version told to his student, Liszt did make a mistake about Beethoven's address in Vienna at the time, but that's hardly surprising when one tells half a century old story and such a mundane detail by no means affect the credibility of Liszt's account. This version of the Weihekuss myth easily explains why Liszt never denied the story and why he so rarely talked/wrote about it: for it was essentially true for him and because it was a very personal and intimate moment, respectively. If the whole thing was just a complete sham, it must have been created by Liszt himself in a most blatant way. There is no surviving evidence that such behaviour was typical for Liszt in any period of his life.
Perhaps the greatest myth about Franz Liszt is his Don Juan status. The popular version of this story is that during his unprecedentedly successful career as a piano virtuoso between 1839 and 1847 Liszt had numerous lovers all around the Old World and his love affairs were the talk of Europe; well, the latter may well have been true - but this is no proof for the former. Yet again, Alan Walker is devastating: surely Liszt was no saint and he must have had a fling or two here and there, especially since his relationship with Marie d'Agoult (the mother of his three children) was rapidly deteriorating in the early 1840s, but the concept of Liszt as the eternal lover is now subject to a complete revision. Alan Walker shows conclusively that documentary evidence about Liszt's amours during his stupendous career are surprisingly missing; and where there is no such thing, history should better remain silent about it. Mr Walker's integrity in the matter can hardly be questioned since he was the man who ''discovered'' one of Liszt's most unknown affairs with the gentle sex: his passionate love for Agnes Street-Klindworth during the 1850s (when he lived with the Princess) had never been told in the detail it deserves before the publishing of the second volume of Mr Walker's magisterial study. As for Liszt as Don Juan during his Glanzzeit, his two most popular ''affairs'', with Marie Duplessis and Lola Montez, are excellent examples of what the wrong PR (or absence of any) can do for you.
The warm feelings that must surely have existed between Liszt and Marie Duplessis paint the sad picture of an entirely platonic relationship, rather than the passionate love affair as it is usually described by pseudo-biographers; much less has Liszt ever had any desire to live with the famous courtesan, or at least nothing has survived to confirm this. Indeed, there is evidence for the opposite: apparently Marie wanted Liszt to take her with him on his tours, despite her grave health condition. By the time they met for the first time - November 1845 - Marie was only 21 years old but had already suffered from the consumption that was to lead her into the grave less than year and a half later; to put the matter bluntly, she could hardly have been suitable for anybody's lover at that time.
The case with the famous Spanish dancer Lola Montez is infinitely more absurd. To use Alan Walker's unforgettable description: ''Her name was not Lola, she was not Spanish, and, if her critics are to be believed, she was not a dancer either.'' As a matter of fact, she was Irish, her name was Eliza Gilbert and her virtuoso art was not to dance but to seduce - she did pretty well here since one of her numerous lovers was the very Ludwig II of Bavaria. As for her immensely popular in the Liszt literature affair with the Hungarian pianist, Alan Walker states that whatever its nature was, it lasted no more than a few weeks and, yet again, there is no firm proof that it ever actually happened. Which is strange indeed, since Lola was never shy enough not to boast with her lovers but in her nine volume (!) memoirs she mentions Liszt only in passing. The claims of some would-be biographers that she followed the great pianist on his tours all around Europe and even reached Constantinople with him are proved to be pure fantasy by Alan Walker's simple comparison of dates: while Liszt was on tour in Spain, Lola fancied herself a dancer in Warsaw and St. Petersburg.
Special attention should be paid to one of the most popular myths about Liszt and Lola, namely that he once locked her in a hotel room and then run away having pre-paid the owner about the material damage which the lady would doubtlessly cause when she found she had been duped. This story appeared for the first time in Julius Kapp's biogrpahy (1909) and was promptly copied in all later attempts for description of Liszt's life. In general, Kapp's biography is quite reliable because it relies chiefly on testimony from Liszt's students, but the hotel room incident (or accident) was more than half a century older and where exactly did Kapp get this information from still remains a mystery. From all evidence that has survived, it seems that this part of the Lisztian mythology is indeed a perfect myth; Lord of the Rings is pure history compared to that.
(As for Olga Janina - the cossack countess who was neither a cossack nor a countess - she scarcely deserves to be mentioned. Her threats to assassinate both Liszt and herself are well known, and they just confirm the diagnosis that the lady must have been mentally unstable, which is also corroborated by her habit to keep numerous types of pills and powders in her clothes. Olga was a talented pianist, but she was by far not the most talented among Liszt's pupils. When the Maestro's patience came to an end, the ''cossack countess'' fancied herself a writer of books which can have no real value for the Liszt scholarship.)
Another part of Liszt's long and fascinating life that will never be same after Alan Walker is the thwarted marriage between the Maestro and the Princess. This is surely not the place to discuss into detail what is the difference between divorce and annulment of a marriage, nor to examine the numerous battles Carolyne fought for more than ten years to get divorced from her husband or their marriage to be annulled by the Pope himself. Suffice it to say that, in January 1861, she finally succeeded and was allowed to marry Liszt by all canons of the Catholicism - something both had dreamed about for more than ten years. Much less widely known, however, is the fact that they procrastinated this so desired marriage for more than ten months - and for many reasons, none of them convincing. As is well known, their enemies did not waste the time, they infiltrate the Vatican with all of its monstrous intrigues and the marriage between Liszt and Carolyne was thwarted the day before it was about to occur - 22nd of October, 1861, Liszt's 50th birthday. The Princess refused to continue the fight and the couple never married, though for more than a decade - to the dismay of the Weimar court - they had lived together as man and wife.
Alan Walker is uncompromisingly frank: the marriage did not happen because the Princess gave up; moreover, Liszt was well rid of her. These are serious claims and they do turn upside down the popular version that Liszt and Carolyne did not marry because the church's etiquette was appalingly obsolete or because their enemies' intrigues were too dangerously cunning. Far from it. The ten month delay tells the whole story itself: Liszt and Carolyne simply did not want that marriage. Indeed, what could it have meant to them to be signed as man and wife in the church's registers after having lived as man and wife in God's eyes for more than a decade? Exactly nothing. Though both were devout catholics, Liszt and Carolyne probably realised only too well how absurd the catholic conception of marriage really is; even though the princess had managed to annul her previous one, this was never final: anybody anytime could come, claim to have enough evidence, open the case and send everything in hell again. Despite that Liszt and Carolyne remained friends until the death of the Maestro's life 25 years after the black October 1861, Alan Walker is quite positive that their relationship was not so cloudless as it had been before. The Princess may not have been mentally deranged suicidal woman like Marie d'Agoult, but her behaviour in these late years was quite eccentric, to put it mildly. She was a maniacal hypochondriac, to start with; she also talked with spirits of dead people and she was quite occupied with the writing of a 24 volume (!) critique of the Catholic church in the most inappropriate historical moment. Small wonder that in his late years Liszt returned to Rome, where she lived, with greater and greater reluctance - and for a shorter and shorter periods of time.
Last but certainly not least - perhaps most important of all indeed - is Alan Walker's treatment of the so called ''War of the Romantics'' which is unlikely to be surpassed in terms of clarity and insight by any future publications - especially as far as Liszt's personality is concerned. Most certainly this is not the place to go into detail about this quite complicated subject; Alan Walker has done this brilliantly. Brahms' sleeping while Liszt played his B minor Sonata, but not his own, Brahms', music; Clara Schumann repellent bigotry, bitchiness and hypocrisy; the negative attitude of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann towards Liszt; the shameful manifesto of Brahms and company against the ''music of the future'' championed by Liszt and Wagner; the caustic sarcasm of the latter in his writings aimed at the conservative Leipzig school; and so on and so forth, everything is there, methodically, lucidly and scholarly presented by Mr Walker. If one must summarise all that confused medley of complicated relationships between so many people of true genius, one is stunned by the fact how little part did Liszt take into the so called ''War of the Romantics'' and, furthermore, how many people of his own circle turned later against him or repaid his tireless promotion of their music with nothing but words. It's a sad list to read. Joachim and Bülow, two of the greatest among the violinists and the pianists of the XIX century respectively, were also one of Liszt's staunchest supporters - in their early years; later both turned into some of the most ardent admirers of Brahms and altogether forgot Liszt. The whole gratitude that Clara could express to Liszt for promoting her husband's music was to refuse to go on one stage with him. Wagner, of all people, should have been grateful to Liszt that he and his music were not forgotten during his years of exile; for it was most of all Liszt who conducted, staged and transcribed Wagner's music during that period. How did Wagner thanked for all that? Typically in his style - he didn't. Well, actually he did - with two speeches. Later Wagner made a very successful career as a conductor. How many times do you think he included a work of Liszt in his programs? Not even once. Nor did Berlioz who also was quite successful on the rostrum; and a decade earlier Liszt had made ''Berlioz weeks'' in Weimar during which he conducted the then (and still) considered as extravagant works of the great French composer.
In his absorbing prologue to Volume Two, ''A Giant in Lilliput'', Alan Walker has one of his many flashes of brilliance and he offers a rarely perceptive and penetrating explanation about this sad phenomenon. Ironically, Liszt's apparently detached, disinterested and, above all, universal eagerness to help his fellow composers entirely for the sake of their genius may well have been the reason for their turning against him. In a charming footnote, Mr Walker reminds us that this devotion of Liszt to other composers was quite unique among the great Romantics of XIX. No other composer of comparable stature ever did anything like that. Mr Walker continues to call the notion of Wagner or Berlioz sending money to Chopin or Schumann, let alone arranging concerts of their works, hilarious and crowned only by their mutual help in this respect - somewhat unkind but very just remark. Mr Walker does acknowledge Schumann's help to many a young composer on the pages of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik but he makes no bones that ''recognition of that sort, offered from the armchair of a study and taking no more time than the half-hour or so required to dash off a five-hundred-word review, involves neither lifelong commitment nor the evangelical fervour that Liszt brought to the task.'' I couldn't for the life of me say it better than Mr Walker did, so I would allow myself to quote his words yet again, for they seem to me a perfect conclusion of this little and badly written review-essay. Franz Liszt's ''universal beneficence'' was his most divine characteristic - and his heaviest cross to bear as well:
''As long as Liszt was throwing the full weight of his resources behind Wagner, Wagner was hardly in a position to complain. But what comfort could this bring to Berlioz? By the same token, when Liszt helped Berlioz, the cause of Wagner was temporarily held in abeyance. Largesse for others always appears to be less just than largesse for oneself. The conclusion may seem bizarre, but it will withstand scrutiny. So many of Liszt's contemporaries turned against his universal beneficence precisely because it was universal, and not reserved for their own exclusive use. Genius can tolerate much, but the one thing that it is usually quite incapable of tolerating is the recognition of genius in others. Certainly it is not in the nature of genius to subordinate itself before its own kind. That is why the appearance of Franz Liszt is such a rare phenomenon in Art.''