- Franz Liszt
Since its publication in 1989, Serge Gut's Franz Liszt (Paris: Editions de Fallois/L'Age d'Homme) has established itself as the definitive biography of the composer in French. While Gut's assessments of Liszt's life and works have met with occasional criticism, particularly from Alan Walker, author of the definitive study of Liszt in English (Franz Liszt, 3 vols., rev. ed. [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987–97]), they have nevertheless significantly shaped European scholarship on Liszt for the last two decades. Due to the attendant burst of scholarly activity following the 1986 centennial of Liszt's death, the upcoming bicentennial of his birth, and the lack of a comprehensive, single-volume study of Liszt in German, however, Gut's study warranted an update. Taking a page from his subject, who revised many of his early compositions in order to produce the ever-elusive "definitive" version, Gut has produced here a substantial update which nevertheless retains vestiges of its predecessor. While most "life-and-works" monographs integrate the music with its maker, Gut keeps the two largely segregated. Thus, part 1 of his study, "The Life," is a blow-by-blow chronology of Liszt's activities on and off stage, including his involvements with Marie d'Agoult (chap. 4), mother of his three children and collaborator on a number of his early writings, the last two years of his concert period (chap. 8), and the wanderings of his "vie trifurquée" (chap. 12). Most of the early chapters (chaps. 1–4) run about ten pages in length, the latter ones (chaps. 8–12) double that.
Gut gives the most concentrated treatment to the so-called Glanzzeit, the eight-year period during which Liszt established himself as the preeminent pianist of his generation. While a number of authors have covered this period by offering an overview of Liszt's greatest triumphs, such as his phenomenal series of concerts in Vienna (1838–39) or Berlin (1841–42), or delved into the rationale for Liszt's famous London "recitals" of 1840, Gut takes an unusual—and potentially divisive—approach by titling chapters 6 and 7 "The Gypsy and the Virtuoso." To be sure, Gut covers the major events of Liszt's concert years (and on pp. 70–71 includes an excellent table of Liszt's concert activities between 1840 and 1847), but he hardly glorifies them. The first section of chapter 6, for instance, debunks the myth that as "the most wonderful virtuoso ever," life for the concert artist was easy. Today we might be accustomed to superstars—even those in the classical music world—flying first class and taking limousines to and from the concert hall. Liszt, Gut explains in fascinating detail, rode public stagecoaches throughout his concert years (and often beyond), a mode of transport that was unreliable, lacked privacy, and had an unreasonably high success rate of flipping over. Gut turns next to Liszt's finances, explaining that while Liszt could earn significant income from his concerts, especially in large cities, his generosity kept him in a precarious state of financial health. An unusual way, indeed, to begin the history of the world's most famous virtuoso. [End Page 326]
If the remainder of chapter 6 highlights the tension between Liszt's artistic aspirations and his "nomadic instinct" (p. 68), in which Liszt's virtuosity becomes as much a blessing as a curse during his storied appearances in Pest, Berlin, Lyon, Paris, and even Russia, then chapter 7 seeks to explain how that tension has given rise to a number of ostensibly incompatible elements of Liszt's reputation. Robert Schumann, for instance, approved of Liszt's performances of his music, yet Clara Schumann in her later years would dismiss Liszt as a malevolent influence on contemporary music. Liszt was drawn to the "magnetic intellect" of Bettina von Arnim, who nevertheless fabricated significant portions of her associations with Goethe and Beethoven. Indeed, Liszt's own involvement with Beetho ven was...