Liszt anecdote provides glimpse of celebrity

FileFranz Liszt photo.jpg

I found a little essay about Franz Liszt in a book I chose rather impulsively from the racks of a used-bookstore hereabouts, and I want to mention it because it’s a contemporary memory of the great Hungarian and sometimes such memories get overlooked, especially if the memoirist isn’t a member of the famous person’s circle.

This memory comes from an essay by Ford Madox Ford, excerpted from his 1911 book Memories and Impressions, apparently, and contained in a beautiful little Bodley Head volume published in 1962.

Ford was taken to a concert when he was young and saw Liszt, which could only have been in 1886, the year the composer died, since he hadn’t visited England since 1841. Ford writes of seeing him come on stage in the company of “the late King and the present Queen Mother,” which, since he’s writing in 1911, would mean the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

He tells a funny story about how Liszt took his seat from him temporarily as he tried to dodge having to sit on the stage; Alexandra pulled the old pianist out of the seat and sat there herself, and installed Ford on her knee, which he calls “a gracious act.”

A few days later Ford was taken to see Liszt again at a house where he was staying, and arrived to find everyone entreating a reluctant Liszt, who at this time was 74 and ailing, to play. He refused, but then his eyes light upon Ford:

Little boy, I will play for you, so that you will be able to tell your children’s children that you have heard Liszt play.’

And he played the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. I do not remember much of his playing, but I remember very well that I was looking, while Liszt played, at a stalwart, florid Englishman who is now an earl. And suddenly I perceived that tears were rolling down his cheeks. And soon all the room was in tears. It struck me as odd that people should cry because Liszt was playing the Moonlight Sonata.

I like the immediacy of that anecdote, and that Liszt can be seen in it behaving just the venerable celebrity he was. He was well aware of the breadth of his fame, and he found the youngest person in the room to extend that fame into generations unborn.

It adds some humanity to what we know about Liszt, and it reminds my inner librarian to check out Alan Walker’s big bio of the composer, which came out around 1996. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another commemorative volume of some sort for the Liszt bicentenary in 2011.

It also makes me want to check out more of his music, not all of which I care for. I don’t like either of the piano concerti, or the Tasso or Les Preludes tone poems, and I’m not enamored of the B minor Sonata, either. But I do like the Totentanz, and the Weinen, Klagen variations, and much of the Annees de Pelerinage. What I would really like to study is the late piano works (Nuages gris, for instance), the art songs, and some of the religious music, such as Christus.

I’m of the same opinion as most experts on Liszt that I’ve read: There’s so much music there, and so much of it is unknown, that studying his writing is bound to be revelatory. It’s another example of the fact that a figure can loom as large as Liszt, for as long as he has, and the musical world at large can still know so little about his work and his life.

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