Liszt the enigma
by Andrew Haringer
Nadar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) has always been a difficult figure to classify. He is best known today for his second Hungarian Rhapsody, a flashy piano piece familiar to millions from its use in several inspired Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry cartoons. Liszt worked hard to shake the public persona of self-aggrandizing showman, but it remains a common perception today. To the degree he is thought of by the general public, it is not as a great composer such as Mozart or Beethoven, but as the sort of long-haired, vaguely ridiculous artist so brilliantly skewered by Bugs and Tom. Even the music world—though it accords him a certain degree of status as perhaps history’s greatest piano virtuoso—has not fully embraced his compositions, typically accepting only a handful of piano pieces without reservation. This lopsided view of Liszt also extends to his personal life, which is typically characterized as mired in shallowness, womanizing, and narcissism. As we will see, Liszt was not without his faults, and yet to overemphasize his failings would be to ignore the devout Catholic faith that runs as a constant thread throughout his life. This sincere Christian worldview informed Liszt’s most laudable actions, from his seriousness as an artist, to his charitable enterprises, to his personal generosity. We cannot entirely dismiss the charges of artistic superficiality, of overweening posturing and licentiousness, for Liszt’s indefatigable nature did often lead him astray. Nevertheless, his story provides a valuable lesson about God’s grace and its power to bring peace to the most restless spirit. Liszt’s childhood was securely rooted in the faith of his parents. Before marrying, Liszt’s father Adam briefly trained for the priesthood with Franciscan monks and later named his son after the order. Franz evinced strong religious inclinations at an early age and sought to enter the seminary in his teens. However, his father had worked hard to cultivate his son’s natural talent as a musician and convinced him to continue along a path that brought him from obscurity in rural Hungary to international renown. Still, upon Adam’s death in 1827, a devas-
tated Liszt once more attempted to join the priesthood, only to be deterred once again by his mother, Anna, and his priest. The immediate catalyst for this second religious awakening was not the death of Liszt’s father, but rather the failure of the first of what would become a string of love affairs. In this case, his attempt to marry the daughter of a prominent government official was thwarted by her father, who considered a musician unworthy of her hand. Fall 2012
Fall 2012 issue of The Williams College Telos. Theme: Hunger.