"It is a peculiarity of Liszt's music that it faithfully and fatally mirrors the character of its interpreter. When his works give the impression of being hollow, superficial and pretentious, the fault usually lies with performer, occasionally with the (prejudiced) listener, and only rarely with Liszt himself."
- Alfred Brendel. Liszt Misunderstood (1961)
Reading the second volume of Alan Walker's biography of Liszt, 'Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848-1861', it is clear that the struggles he undertook willingly during his life persist to this day.
Liszt is a fascinating character and extraordinary central figure in the development of classical music. It is not only that much of his music remains underrated, but also his influence and encouragement to composers across the long span of his life is easily overlooked. On a simple level Liszt's ability to see the genius in Berlioz and Wagner, to champion their music when not many others were is to his credit. But looking a little deeper, as Walker's exceptionally detailed account of the Weimar period permits, one must admit that Liszt's radical (at the time) understanding of the art of the conductor, together with his unwavering certainty that music had to develop in new directions, mark him out as something more than many of his contemporaries.
Liszt was also, in the field of music, an exceptionally generous personality. Having spent a few hundred pages cataloging how the critic Eduard Hanslick savaged Liszt's endevours both as a composer and a conductor, Walker describes how the two met at a dinner party and sat down to play some four-handed Schubert. Certainly Hanslick deserves some credit too for having the grace to lay down the cudgel for one evening, but then again he was slinging the arrows. Liszt's generosity also extended to bailing out Wagner on more than one occasion. Given the content of Wagner's letters and his extraordinary ego it is surprising Liszt only showed his anger when Wagner had the temerity to ask for a pension.
'The Bearer of the Beautiful' is the phrase Liszt used to describe the role of the Artist. As Walker describes on more than one occasion, Liszt had a profound belief that music was 'the voice of God' and that the true artist had a sacred duty towards music. I doubt such a philosophy was more accepted then than it would be today. It is not so much the clear link Liszt draws to religion but the concept of the musician as a willing servant to music. And yet, when we reflect upon the musicians that most affect us while we listen to them, is it not their 'authenticity' that we find most persuasive?
At its best Walker's biography of Liszt is a wonderful advocate for the forgotten Liszt. The dissection of Liszt development as a composer of orchestral music sets about placing the Symphonic Poems and the Faust and Dante Symphonies in their proper place in the development of Romantic music. Walker enthusiasm is such that one is inevitably pushed to listen to these works again. Walker also does manful service in showing how Liszt worked exceptionally to reshape the role of the conductor; without much of his work in Weimar and in the teachings he passed on to his pupils it is impossible to see how concert performance would have developed to today's norms.
Walker is of course a genuine (and absolute) advocate for Liszt. On cannot help feeling that on occasion he sidesteps some of Liszt's more questionable behaviour, or at the very least mounts a genteel defense. Liszt's family life was both complicated and painful, but leaving his children so long in the care of others is remarkably heartless, given his deep affection and generosity towards his friends and admirers.
Things get even more tricky when dealing with Liszt's support for Wagner, particularly his silence over Wagner's anti-Semite pronouncements. Walker makes the case that Liszt was marked 'guilty by association', which he feels is unfair given the composer's numerous Jewish pupils and supporters. Perhaps Liszt, as in many other cases, felt that his actions would speak louder than any words he might publish, but he showed incredibly poor judgement in allowing Princess Carolyne to spread racist nonsense in a book that bore his name. But as been proven so often over the last two hundred years, saying and dong nothing in the face of brutality and intolerance invites it to continue and flourish.
It is no surprise that Liszt should flawed judgement at times in his life. Walker's front foot defense is in part a response to the legacy of Liszt's previous biographers, who either had a personal axe to grind or started from the position of questioning Liszt's place in the pantheon. Walker's incredible energy and dedication to rooting out the truth of his subject is both miraculous and marvelous, probably leaving little room for improvement in the future. In the case of all such works of research and biographical analysis surely the final measure is if they illuminate our understanding of the subject themselves. By this measure certainly Liszt has a worthy champion.