This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Liszt at Home

17 April 2021


It's a room, perhaps a parlor or office in a residential house.
An old man with long white hair pauses
at his cluttered desk to turn towards the camera.
He wears slippers with
something like a dark dressing gown,
and has an expression of mild annoyance.
Papers and books are scattered around
on small tables and atop a piano.
Heavy drapes are drawn back from sunlit windows
to nourish numerous houseplants.
 
It's a curious photograph to see on a postcard.
Who is this?
Is he someone famous?
A writer? A cleric? A statesman?
 
 The caption on the back offers only the simplest description.
Weimar. Franz Liszt. Original-Aufnahme (original image).

It was sent in fact from Weimar, East Germany on 13 June 1961.
The writer, Otti, offers Frau Grimm
1000 thanks for the money from Hamburg.


 

 
 
By coincidence the postmark of 1961
was 150 years after the old man's birth in 1811,
and 77 years after the original photograph
was taken inside his home in 1884.
It was an office in a way.
It was his music room.
 
 
 
Liszt's Music Room at Weimar, 1884
Source: Wikimedia

He was the celebrated pianist, composer, and conductor,
Franz Liszt
, (22 October 1811 – 31 July 1886),
one of the greatest musicians of the 19th century. 

 
  
 
Franz Liszt, 1843
photograph by Herman Biow (1804–1850)
Source: Wikipedia

 
In this earliest known photograph from 1843, we can see Franz Liszt in his prime. It shows his distinctive profile, the one most familiar to anyone who heard him perform seated at a piano. He is clean-shaven with straight brown hair cut in a longer style then fashionable with artists. 
 
The next example shows Liszt in 1872 performing a recital in Budapest for the Austrian-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I, who sits in the front row with Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduchess Gisela and other members of the royal family. The piano is positioned to allow us to see that is a Bösendorfer piano, made in Vienna. Since 1830, it had been the official piano of the Austrian Emperor, for whom nothing but the best would do.
 
Liszt giving a concert for Emperor Franz Joseph I,
on 18th March 1872 on a Bösendorfer piano.
Painting by Franz Schams (Austrian painter, 1823 - 1883)
Source: The Internet

Franz Liszt was born in 1811 in the village of Doborján, in the Kingdom of Hungary. However, today as a result of a treaty following WW1, the town is now called Raiding and is in eastern Austria. As a young child, Liszt demonstrated extraordinary musical gifts and was given his first instruction on the piano by his father, Adam Liszt (1776–1827). Adam played several musical instruments and had once been in service to the Hungarian Prince Esterházy, Nikolaus II.  At the court, Adam got to know the great composer, Franz Joseph Haydn, (1732–1809), who for many years was the Kapellmeister, or music director, of Prince Esterházy's court orchestra.
 
Franz Liszt rapidly acquired exceptional skill at the piano, and by age 9 was playing concerts. After the success of these first public performances, Adam took his son to Vienna where he arranged Franz to take lessons with Carl Czerny, a noted piano teacher who had studied with Ludwig van Beethoven. While there in 1822-23, young Franz also gave concerts and once met Beethoven, even though by this time Ludwig was too deaf to have heard anything Liszt played. For the rest of his life Liszt would be considered the successor to Beethoven's genius. Considering that Liszt's contemporaries included the great pianist/composers, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, (1809–1847); Frédéric Chopin, (1810–1849); and Robert Schumann, (1810–1856), this was a mark of how the public viewed his remarkable genius. 

Sharp-eyed readers may have spotted Beethoven's portrait on the wall of the music room hidden by the foliage. One of Liszt's biggest projects was making piano transcriptions of all of Beethoven's nine synphonies. These monumental works were not abridged and contained all of Beethoven's orchestral music, cleverly arranged by Liszt for 10 fingers. When published these transcriptions helped to further Beethoven's legacy at a time when his symphonies were not well known.
 
After some years presenting his son around Germany and Austria, Liszt's father Adam died in 1827, whereupon Liszt and his mother moved to Paris, which was then the center of musical culture in Europe. It was there that Liszt first heard Niccolò Paganini, the Italian violin virtuoso, and resolved to become his equal as a pianist. Readers may remember that Paganini had the same inspiring effect on the Norwegian violinist, Ole Bull, who I wrote about earlier this year in Ole Bull, Adventures in America, part 1. Ole and Liszt met in Paris and became lifelong friends and often performed together.
 
With hard work Liszt developed incredible new techniques and styles of playing the piano that transformed him into one of the most celebrated concert artists of his time, appearing at all the major centers of European musical culture. During the course of his life, as well as Ole Bull, Liszt also became the friend and benefactor of many notable musicians including Frédéric Chopin, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Camille Saint-Saëns, Edvard Grieg, Joachim Raff, Mikhail Glinka, and Alexander Borodin. Perhaps his closest connection was with the German opera composer Richard Wagner, (1813–1883), whose operas he promoted by conducting the overtures with his orchestra at Weimar. In 1864 Wagner began a scandalous affair with Liszt's daughter, Cosima, (1837–1930), who was then married to Hans von Bülow, (1830–1894), a conductor of Wagner's music and formerly one of Liszt's most talented piano students. Somehow Liszt continued a close relationship with Cosima, Wagner, and von Bülow, perhaps because his own life with Cosima's mother, Countess Marie d'Agoult, was just as unorthodox. Cosima had three children by Wagner and eventually they married, but needless to say, it was a very complicated era. 
 
On 31 July 1886,  Franz Liszt died at the age of 74 in Bayreuth, Germany. At the time, he was attending the Bayreuth Festival, hosted by his daughter , Cosima Wagner, who would continue the legacy of her late husband, Richard, for nearly 50 more years.

During his long career, Franz Liszt performed thousands of concerts, conducted some of the greatest orchestral music of the 19th century, and composed over 1,400 individual pieces of music, more than the combined works of Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms. His piano music took the instrument to new heights of virtuosity. His symphonic tone poems inspired countless composers to take up this dramatic orchestral form. To describe Liszt as a giant of music is not an exaggeration. Alan Walker, his most recent biographer, required three volumes to tell the life story of Franz Liszt.

What intrigues me about Franz Liszt is that decades after his death, his artistry was commemorated in a wide variety of picture postcards. A photograph of Liszt in his music room may be understandable in the 150th year of his birth, but there are a surprising number of postcards of Liszt that were produced long after his death. Let's start with another example of his famous profile.
 
 
 

This photo was taken late in his life and has the simple caption on the front.  Liszt. There is no other explanation of who he is, or why anyone would wish to share his photo. What is noticeable to those who knew him, is that he wears a simple clerical-like collar.
 
Throughout his life, despite several wayward transgressions, Franz Liszt was guided by a deep Catholic faith, especially during times of personal tragedy. In 1859 he suffered the loss of his son, Daniel, and then in 1862, his 26-year-old daughter Blandine also died. Liszt's reaction was to go into religious seclusion at the monastery Madonna del Rosario, near Rome. In 1865 he received the first four minor orders of the Roman Catholic church. Afterwards he was often referred to as Abbé Liszt.

This postcard was sent on 15 July 1910 to Frau O_? Händlemeier from someone with terrible handwriting.
 
 


 
 

 
Another portrait taken at about the same time has Franz Liszt's full name captioned on the front, but again there is no musical context. His collar is similar to what he wears in the previous photo, but I'm unsure if it really is a Catholic clerical collar. Perhaps Liszt preferred to dress in simple and humble attire to represent his devotion. The object hanging from a cord may be a set of pince-nez spectacles. This postcard was sent on 21 October 1911 with a Swiss postmark.
 
 
 

 
In both photographs the phrase, "warts and all" comes to mind, as one can not miss the warts on Liszt's face. The phrase is attributed to Oliver Cromwell, (1599–1658) when he was Lord Protector of England. Supposedly Cromwell instructed Sir Peter Lely, the artist commissioned to paint his portrait, "Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it."

It is interesting to compare these photos of an unvarnished Liszt to the portrait of him that I featured in my series last year on the Austrian artist, Hermann Torggler's Great Composers - part 2.  Torggler takes a sympathetic approach to draw out the personality of a revered old man, but also includes some of Liszt's facial roughness. I think all three portraits attempt to show Liszt more as a devout religious man, rather than the celebrated musician he was. 

This postcard was sent 21 November 1916 to Dr. Maria Grass of Innsbruck, Austria.
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

It is hard to imagine the young romantic artist from this postcard photo of an old man seated before an upright piano. It is one of the few photos of Franz Liszt actually looking as if he is playing the piano. His name is captioned on the front of the card, but again there is no context to explain who this musical genius is. He could easily be mistaken for a music hall performer from when this postcard was posted in Germany on 25 October 1911.
 
The period of Liszt's concert tours in Europe was surprisingly brief, roughly from 1839 to 1847. But his performances helped define the concepts of a solo piano recital, a word that Liszt himself first coined for this kind of solo concert. His virtuosic showmanship also made him one of the first internationally known celebrities. Liszt's concerts were renown for how he captivated audiences, especially women, in a kind of mystical ecstasy. At the peak of his touring career, his concert schedule often put him on stage three or four times a week, and it is estimated that he played over a thousand concerts over this period. His first concert tours established both his fame and his wealth, which he generously turned into a lifelong habit of philanthropy.
 

One of the many useful genres on YouTube are music videos that feature a performance overlaid with the sheet music. Franz Liszt is well represented in this kind of video, and I thought including one would help demonstrate his genius as a composer and pianist. Here is a video of Liszt's Transcendental Etude No.5, Feux Follets performed by the fantastic Russian pianist, Evgeny Kissin. According to one commentator, the great Russian-American pianist Vladimir Horowitz, considered this short piece of Liszt's one of the most difficult to play. You do not have to read music to appreciate that each dot represents 1/10th of the fingers available to a pianist. Extra points if you can count the number of hemidemisemiquavers.
 


 

 
 
 

 

This next postcard is an unknown artist's impression of Franz Liszt playing the piano as he imagines ghostly horsemen galloping across the sky. It resembles the previous photo of Liszt, minus the ghosts. The artist's signature is in the top right corner but is unclear except for a date 1914. The portrait is certainly not as good as Hermann Torggler's but it does convey a romantic notion of Liszt as the creator of fantastical music. 

The back caption says, Fr. Liszt. Rhapsodie hongroise.  There is a handwritten date of 18/XI~916 and the stamps and postmark are from Hungary, which was an independent part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Liszt always identified as Hungarian, but the language spoken in his village and in his family was German. After he left his birthplace at age 9 he lost touch with native Hungarian speakers and never learned to speak or write Hungarian. As an expatriate who spent much of his life in Paris, he was most fluent in French. And of course, like any musician, he also knew Italian, and as a Catholic he understood Latin. 

 
 

 

 
 

 
This bizarre portrait of Liszt (NSFW) sketches his profile from a photograph and adds a collage of naked women writhing about his face. There is also a facsimile of Liszt's signature and three measures from his well-known composition, the Rhapsodie Hongroise. It's a style of grotesque art postcard that was popular at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. I have found more portraits like this of other composers, presumably by the same artist, which I will show another time. Surprisingly this postcard does give more context as to who Franz Liszt was. 

The postcard was sent from Belgrade, then the capital of the Kingdom of Serbia, on 24 May 1909.
 
 

 

 
 
 

After he retired from concert touring in 1847, Liszt lived in Weimar, Germany, where he had been appointed Kapellmeister Extraordinaire to the court. This was the period when he settled down and composed most of his orchestral and choral music. He lived in this modest house with the Polish Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, (1819–1887). She was influential in helping Liszt write many publications, and also making connections to several important musicians, notably the French composer Hector Berlioz. This photograph comes from a postcard sent through the East German Post in September 1967.




 
Weimar was an important center for the German Enlightenment and Liszt was just one of several cultural figures associated with the city. The German writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, (1749–1832) and Friedrich Schiller, (1759–1805) also lived in Weimar. In this next Greetings from Weimar postcard the homes of Goethe, Liszt, Schiller, and the Goethe-Schiller Archive are all illustrated. It dates from 18 March 1899. The writer's atrocious handwriting is so obscure that I can't even guess what the language is. I looks more like shorthand code. The postman had a clearer address to read as it was sent Hier, meaning in the city of Weimar.
 
 
 



 
 

 
Another souvenir of Weimar has an illustraion of Franz von Liszt. Liszt was made a Ritter, or knight, by Emperor Francis Joseph I in 1859, which was intended to put him on a rank able to marry Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. However for complicated reasons involving her estranged husband, the Russian Tsar, and the Vatican it never happened, so Liszt never used this title of nobility in public.

This postcard was sent on 1 December 1899 from Laibach, now known as Ljubljana, the capital and largest city of Slovenia.
 
 

 

This last postcard uses the same colored engraving of Liszt without his house in Weimar. I bought it partly for the writer's beautiful cursive handwriting. 
 
 

                                        29 V. 1899                                                                 29 V. 1899
illkommen Du herziges Pärchen. Ihr                   Welcome you sweet couple. your
allerliebsten Küherkinder von Thunersee!              dearest cowschildren from Lake Thun!
Sie hat mich ungemein gefreut, Deine    
               She made me very happy, yours 
letze Karte, besonders, weil ich weiss, dass    
        last card, especially because I know that
ein lieber freund von mir sie gemacht hat.    
          a dear friend of mine made them.
Leider haben wir hier in unserin total    
                 Unfortunately we have here in our total
spiessbürgerlichen Ort nicht gross Ans-                 bourgeois place not big selection           
wahl in schönen Karten, und da muss     
               in beautiful cards, and there must
ich denn etwas Originelles wählen;     
                  something original when I choose;
hoffentlich kommt darm Abwechslung     
            hopefully there will be a change
da rin von unserer Reise, die wir in     
                  from our journey that we in
4 Hochen antreten. Hir Thuner     
                         4 highs complete(?). Hir(?) Thuner
werden natürlich am grossen Fest     
                    are of course at the big festival
Sonntags nicht fehlen dürfen; das wäre     
            Not to be missed on Sundays; that would
doch zu schade !? Henn möglich     
                      too bad!? Henn(?) possible
kommen wir Samstag Abend. Hoffent-     
           let's come Saturday evening. Hopefully
lich wird die Stadtmusik nicht ver-     
                    the town music does not get 
fehlen uns abguholen. - ?  Viele herzl. Grüsse     
    missed to pick us up, -? Many heartfelt regards
an Dich u. alle die Lieben Deinen von Stemainut    
to you and all the loved ones from Stemainut(?)    

 
The postcard was sent the next day, 30 May 1899, from Buchs, Switzerland to Fräulein Celine Fall of Thun, Switzerland.  Thun is a town on Lake Thun, in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland region, with dramatic views of the Alps. Buchs, about 120 miles east of Thun, is near the tiny principality of Lichtenstein. In 1899 you could send postcard from your Swiss hotel in the morning and expect it arrive later that afternoon, 120 miles away. That's a model of an efficient postal service!

 

 
Back in February 2014, I wrote a story entitled Brahms & Liszt, about two postcards of Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt. These were the first postcards of composers that I acquired for my collection. At the time I was curious about how each man's likeness was depicted without reference to their music, even though both Brahms and Liszt were incredible pianists and famous composers. Those postcards, like these I've featured today, only showed the person and nothing of their musical art. It seemed amazing to me that decades after their deaths, images of great musicians were purchased as souvenir postcards.

When I discovered these postcards of Franz Liszt, I felt they were commemorating something different. Maybe not so much Liszt the musician as Liszt the genius, or Abbé Liszt the devout man of piety. They seem almost a kind of religious talisman, maybe an icon of reverence or even veneration. What seems odd is that Liszt's celebrity as a pianist really hit its peak in the era before photographs, roughly 1840 to 1850. His compositions are generally too difficult for amateur pianists, so his keyboard music would likely only be heard in concerts when played by very skilled musicians. Nonetheless 100 or 150 years after his birth, Franz Liszt's portrait profile, his house, even his music room, were still memorable enough to share with a friend or relation. Why is that? I don't know that I have an answer.

In the International Movie Database, the useful compendium of cinema facts and trivia, there is an entry for Franz Liszt, (1811–1886). Under his Filmography are 405 listings for Soundtrack, and 40 for Music Department, going back to 1917. It's a shame that his agent couldn't negotiate for better royalties than the Emperor of Austria.

 
 


For one final perspective on the genius of Franz Liszt, I offer a performance by a contemporary pianist who I think most exemplifies the style and virtuosity of Liszt. Here is the Chinese pianist Lang Lang playing Liszt's Réminiscences de Don Juan (S. 418) at Carnegie Hall in 2003. Based on themes from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, it is a tour de force that words alone can not describe. Stay at least until the theme at 3:50 and I think you will be hooked to hear the rest. The sound quality and the cameras on Lang Lang's face and hands are superb. I think even Franz would be impressed.
 
 

 

 
 
 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is
In the Hall of the Mountain King.





4 comments:

Liz Needle said...

A fascinating biography of one of my favourite composers. Thank you for that detailed account.
You are amazing at bringing your research to light. Looking at that first photo, I thought I recognised Beethoven in the portrait on the wall? It would not surprise me if Liszt admired him enough to hang his portrait.

kathy said...

Oh my! So many notes! Reading this and then watching the video of Lang Lang provided my first smile of the day. I'm in awe of the genius of the music and the musician. And Lang Lang got an aerobic workout to boot!

Also love the small world connection with Ole Bull.

Molly's Canopy said...

Once again, I am in awe of your postcard/photo collection -- and so many of Liszt. I also love his connection to Ole Bull! This is a fascinating portrait, more detailed than your previous one about him -- and I wonder if the fact that some of his photos simply have his name speaks to his lasting impact across generations, that he would be known without further information. The musical clips are excellent.

If you have time to have a look, I also have one more musical post (besides the post I did for Sepia Saturday) that you might enjoy. There is a letter-writing component as well. https://mollyscanopy.com/2021/04/line-dancing-and-long-distance-friendships-atozchallenge/

La Nightingail said...

A fine history lesson told in postcards! I really enjoyed the video which included the written music along with the piano playing. It was a challenge to follow along, but I managed fairly well. I cannot play the piano and read music at the same time. I must look at the written music and work it out on the piano, then commit it to memory in order to play it fluently. But I can read piano accompaniment to solo and choral singing quite well and thus was able to follow along in the video. Unless I missed it (?), you didn't mention the famous story of the contest between Liszt and Chopin wherein Liszt challenged he could compose a piano piece Chopin couldn't play. Chopin took up the challenge but lost - by a nose. It's a fun story. I hope it's true? :)

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