LISZT ON CHOPIN, CHOPIN ON LISZT

Given his stature as the composer of a tremendous musical oeuvre, it is perhaps not surprising that Ferenc Liszt is less often considered as a romantic author, yet his writings reveal an unusual and less broadly familiar side of the towering figure of music and pianistry. One stumbles across connections in his writings that are closely intertwined with his compositions and indeed the artistic principles he championed throughout his life. Liszt’s book on Chopin is outstanding even among his other written works in the quality of its poetry and the subtle depictions of mood. While the notion of a close friendship between the two is indeed little more than a romantic legend, their professional and personal lives nonetheless often intersected and overlapped. They were both Central Europeans. Chopin was born on 1st March, 1810 in Zelazowa Wola, a city that had been part of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth before the final partition in 1795, and Liszt was born in Doborján (today Döblingen in Austria) on 22 October, 1811. Both children grew up in a supportive milieu. Their parents quickly realized their sons’ unusual talents and attentively saw to it that the budding prodigies receive the appropriate education and training. The two families were also willing to make sacrifices in order to support the boys’ callings. The fathers, Adam Liszt and Mikolaij Chopin, purchased instruments, by no means a small investment under the circumstances in which they lived, and paid for first-rate private instruction. In search of the finest instructors Chopin’s family ended up sending the boy to Warsaw to study with Zywny and later Elsner. The two composers, of whom Chopin always spoke with the greatest veneration, fundamentally shaped his approach to music and his relationship to the arts. Liszt’s parents spared no expense in their strivings to ensure their brilliant son receive only the finest instruction. Liszt thus became the student of Carl Czerny, from whom he learned foundations of music and piano technique that were to last him a lifetime. Much as Chopin held his first instructor in enduring esteem, so Liszt’s respect for Czerny never waned, as evidence both by the numerous works dedicated to him and the fact that during the concert organized in Paris by princess Belgiojoso for the benefit of Italian refugees (for which the famous Herameron was composed) Liszt parodied all his contemporaries with the exception of Czerny and Chopin.

Yet if one compares the years spent by Liszt and Chopin studying their art, Chopin’s schooling could perhaps be said to have been more favorable. Until the age of twenty he was able to learn and develop in familiar surroundings without interruption or upheaval. Though his father was French, he always held a passionate attachment to his Polish roots. He had a thorough knowledge of Polish literature and poetry, as well as Polish folk music. During his period of emigration he endured a torturous longing for his homeland, and he always communicated with his family and friends in his mother tongue. Liszt, by contrast, was quickly swept up by the lifestyle of the wunderkind, which made it impossible for him to study or learn anything (beyond piano performance) systematically or methodically. He recognized this early on and as began as an autodidact to acquire the erudition later recognized as impressively broad. From age sixteen he lived in Paris, so it is hardly a surprise that French literature and culture played a significant role in shaping his interests. French quickly supplanted German, his mother tongue, as his most natural language of self-expression. As he had no relatives or friends remaining in Hungary with whom he might have maintained a relationship, the Hungarian language and any sense of Hungarian cultural identity were pushed into the background until the floods of 1838, after which he began to rediscover both his own Hungarian identity and Hungarian folk music.

Chopin and Liszt quickly began to perform in public as child prodigies and the contemporary press immediately began to compare them. According to a review printed in the January, 1823 issue of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of Leipzig of a concert held by Liszt in Vienna on 1st December, 1822, “Again it seems a young virtuoso has fallen from the heavens, as it were, who moves us to the most profound state of wonder considering his age, this boy’s performance borders on unbelievable.” A few months later a review printed in the Kuryer dla Peci Pilknej of a concert held by Chopin in Warsaw on 24th February, 1823 read, “After this evening we certainly no longer need envy Vienna for her Hochwohlgeborener Herr List (sic!), since our capital boasts his equal, or perhaps a pianist more perfect: the Hochwohlgeborener Herr Chopin.”

They later met in Paris, where Liszt attended Chopin’s concert of 26th February, 1832, Chopin’s first performance in the Salle Pleyel. They often appeared together in concerts and as part of events organized for charity, and their performances were always the center of attention. Reviews refer to them as the two greatest virtuosos of the day, artists “both of whom have attained the same lofty standard and sense with equal depth the essence of art.” Both were frequent guests of the famous Parisian salons. They performed together for prince Adam Czartorisky, perhaps the most important figure of circles of Polish emigrés, in the salon of countess Delfina Potocka, and for the Austrian ambassador to Paris, Antal Apponyi. As their relationship as friends and fellow artists developed they always held shared admiration for each other’s talent. The letter written by Liszt, Chopin, and Auguste Franchomme to Ferdinand Hiller in June 1833 offers a familiar example of this. Chopin at one point writes, “I hardly even know what my pen is scribbling, since at the moment Liszt is playing one of my etudes and distracting my attention from my respectable thoughts. I would love myself to acquire from him the manner in which he plays my [etudes].” In another famous letter written twenty-seven years after Chopin’s death to Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein Liszt commented, “no one compares to him: he shines lonely, peerless in the firmament of art.” In 1835 the relationship between the two artists suffered a serious blow when, according to anecdote, Liszt used Chopin’s lodgings during his friend’s absence for a tryst with Marie Pleyel. Chopin was a close friend of Camille Pleyel, Marie’s mother, so Liszt’s conduct left him in a very uncomfortable position. After Liszt moved to Geneva in the summer of 1835 an then to Italy, the friendship between the two grew a bit more distant. Changes in their personal lives also hardly helped to nurture close ties. A rivalry began to form between their companions, Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin, better known by her penname George Sand, and Marie d’Agoult, otherwise known by her penname Daniel Stern, and the two women both used the composers as a kind of trump card against each other. There is an interesting and almost fateful parallel between the lives of George Sand and Daniel Stern. They each traveled to an abandoned monastery on a romantic island, Sand to Valldemossa and Stern to Nonnenwerth, with their young lovers, only later to leave bearing the burdens of their disillusionments. When their relationships with the composers had ended both women wrote novels about their famous romances rife with thinly veiled allusions, taking care to deny all responsibility and put themselves in a favorable light. In Lucrezia Floriani Sand depicts prince Karol as a weak, sickly man, and in Nélida d’Agoult portrays Guermann as artistically untalented and petty. The novels caused scandals on publication and prompted acrimonious debates, yet neither Chopin nor Liszt was willing to recognize himself in the figure of Karol or Guermann.

On 26th of April, 1841 Chopin gave another concert in Salle Pleyel in Paris on which Liszt wrote a long review, published in the Revue et Gazette Muscale, that left itself open to varying interpretations. While Liszt expressed his unequivocal admiration for his fellow artist, Chopin and his circle of friends, not to mention his family members, found his remarks cause for offense. They took exception to the fact that Liszt did not praise Chopin as a composer and failed entirely to mention the opus 38 Ballad in F major, opus 40 Polonaise in A major, and opus 39 Scherzo in C sharp minor, all of which Chopin had performed as part of the program. As of the end of the 1830s Chopin had clearly grown increasingly distant from the works of Liszt and the pyrotechnical elements of many of his compositions for the piano. In his choice of instrument he favored the Pleyel piano, which was less dynamic but more subtle and nuanced in its tones, while Liszt preferred the Erard for its rich, full resonance. By the time, Liszt mania was spreading like wildfire. Whether he was performed in the concert hall of a big city, the village pub, a factory district, or a harbor, Liszt’s concerts were never customary or routine. Awestruck by Liszt’s breathtaking virtuosity and style, audiences reveled and raved, quite beside themselves with wonder and enthusiasm. Very few artists are able to achieve such successes or bathe in the glory of idolization. It seems quite possible that Chopin’s self-imposed seclusion was motivated at least in part by jealousy, as he was never able to spellbind an audience in quite the same way, partly because of his physical condition (he was often sickly), but more importantly because of his terrible stage fright. He was undoubtedly aware of this when he said to his fellow artist, “I am not suited to give concerts, I, who is made timid by the audience… in front of unfamiliar faces I go mute. But this is your calling, for if you cannot win the audience, you have something with which to strike it dead.”

But Liszt may well also have been jealous of Chopin. He found unbearable the thought that he was only seen as a virtuoso and his compositions, unlike those of Chopin, were hardly met with a single word of praise. Furthermore, recent research suggests the existence of an approach to piano performance, alongside the more familiar style of spectacular, awe-inspiring pyrotechnics. Recent research suggests the simultaneous presence at the time of two distinctive styles, one favouring the intimacy of the salon, the other more inclined to sway large audiences with virtuoso performance. The two artists met for the last time in December 1845. In November 1849, a few weeks after Chopin’s death, Liszt had a monument erected in memory of his fellow artist, the first in the world, and undertook to write the first monograph on Chopin’s life and work.

In his decision to author a book on Chopin Liszt was motivated by several factors. With the deaths of Chopin and Mendelssohn the generation of early Romantics lost two of its seminal figures. By the end of the 1840s the artistic movement and program associated with the names Schumann, Hiller, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Liszt seemed to be crumbling. It is hardly surprising that Liszt slowly came to feel himself increasingly alone, the last remaining representative of a trend. Recognition of the place of the arts and the calling of the artist was hardly widespread in public thinking at the time. As Liszt’s earlier writings make clear, the notion of artistic heritage was always central to his thinking, as was the teaching of the arts and the circumstances and social role of the artist. It was his intention to liberate the artist from all limitations and constraints so that he would be able to follow the promptings of inspiration and in doing so fulfill his calling. He demanded, almost obsessively, that the artist be accorded the appropriate reverence, for only then could be realized the romantic view according to which only one last relic of humanity’s golden age yet remained: art.

The title itself is tellingly concise, F. Chopin, the triumphant proper name that begs no further explanation. In order to write a book on Chopin’s life Liszt needed reliable information, so he turned to Chopin’s sister Ludwika with questions. The mourning family declined his requests for assistance, however, in part because of Liszt’s one-time critical remarks, in part because of the many questions he raised concerning the relationship between Chopin and Sand, but most importantly because of the regrettable timing of his inquiry, exactly two weeks after Chopin’s funeral. Ludwika fended off Liszt’s questions by suggesting he seeks answers to his questions from the “official widow” Jane Stirling, one of Chopin’s former students, who, however, gave no answers of any real worth. Given his ignorance of many of the necessary details, Liszt’s book, written in French, is often imprecise or misleading, though full of biographical references. It should be considered not so much a reliable monograph as the portrayal – complex, at times grandiloquent, at times pathetic – of a great artist and admired friend.

Liszt’s inspired and almost imagistic depiction of Chopin and the world in he lived and moved is captivating. It teems with romantic flights of fancy, veiled interconnections, visions of landscapes, and literary quotations. The unusual attributives, the enumerations, and the emphasis on oppositions all show the influence of the spirit of French Romanticism of the age. Using references to works by Dante, Petrarch, Tasso, Shakespeare, Goethe, Byron, and Miczkiewicz, pithy proverbs and adages, and works of the visual arts, Liszt expresses not only the ideas he sought to put into words, but also the fundamental inspiration of his own compositions. Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein worked together with Liszt on the book, assisting primarily with descriptions of the Polish historical background. Before publishing the manuscript Liszt sent it to his friend Sainte-Beuve, asking him to edit it, but Sainte-Beuve politely declined. Eventually it was published in installments in the February through August 1851 issues La France Musicale and in 1852 later as a book by Escudier. In 1874 Breitkopf&Härtel suggested that it be published again in a revised format. Liszt entrusted the task of reworking the text to Carolyne. Given that he spent the vast majority of his time traveling, Liszt was unable to check the second edition, which was significantly expanded between 1876 and 1879 and hardly resembled the first, so its publication was cause for later misunderstandings. He was understandably unable to make any unambiguous remarks concerning his paramour’s role, but he did comment to Friedrich Niecks that the second edition “was written by Carolyne.”

The new Hungarian edition published by Gondolat Kiadó in 2010 in honor of the bicentennial of Chopin’s birth and on the threshold of the bicentennial of Liszt’s is a reprint, with corrections of misprints and some expressions, of the translation of the 1852 edition by Countess Ottilia Wass entitled Chopin Liszt Ferencz után. The diction and style may seem a bit distant or even ponderous to a reader of today, but in my view the text nonetheless bears the most affinities with the spirit of Liszt’s era, the romantic world of which Liszt and Chopin were two of the leading artists. Given limitations of space I included only the most essential details in the appendix in order to offer the reader a bit of assistance in understanding some of the more interesting interconnections. It is a captivating book that will be particularly fascinating reading for those interested both in the life and art of Chopin and the complex world of Liszt.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email

More
articles

LEADERSHIP IN WAR

Winston Churchill had no doubts about the importance of studying history: ‘In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.’ This includes its subset, leadership in war. Great war leaders, as

REFLECTIONS ON ‘A NATION DISMEMBERED’

“But obligations are reciprocal. Those who gained at Trianon have obligations as well. Their obligation is to shape countries with an absolute minimum of injustice so that they can ask

THE ROLE OF THE UNITED STATES IN HUNGARY’S TRIANON TRAGEDY

“The extremely influential pan-Slavic movement and the idea of dismantling Austria–Hungary emerged in Cleveland and Pittsburgh after a long period of Germanization in the nineteenth century, while the quasi-declaration of