by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, June 9, 2003
"The Death of Franz Liszt,” a new book by Alan Walker, belongs to the curious subgenre of books about the deaths of composers. In truth, I know of only two others, but each is a macabre little classic. One is Alexander Poznansky’s sober-minded “Tchaikovsky’s Last Days,” which shows that the composer of the “Pathétique” did not commit suicide at the behest of a homophobic cabal of law-school alumni, as some have claimed, but died horribly of cholera, as his doctors said he did. The other is Hans Moldenhauer’s melodramatic “The Death of Anton Webern,” which describes the accidental killing of the most esoteric of twelve-tone composers. It happened in 1945, during the American occupation of western Austria. Webern had stepped outside to enjoy a cigar and was on his way in when he collided with a jumpy G.I., who summarily shot him. The soldier later drank himself to death. The ultimate blame, Moldenhauer says, lies with “strange and inscrutable fate.”
Liszt’s death was neither mysterious nor violent. He died of a heart attack at the fairly ripe old age of seventy-four. What makes the story of his final illness gripping—inscrutably fateful, even—is that it unfolded against the gothic backdrop of Bayreuth, where his comrade, son-in-law, and sometime nemesis Richard Wagner had forged the “Ring.” Wagner died in Venice, in 1883, and was buried in the garden of his Bayreuth home. Liszt died three years later, in the house across the street. It was, Walker suggests, not the place where he would have preferred to breathe his last. Liszt’s friendship with Wagner had always been a loaded and lopsided one. “To Bayreuth I am not a composer but a publicity agent,” Liszt once complained. He watched as passages of his own scores magically reappeared in “Tristan” and “Parsifal.” He brooded over the aloofness of his daughter Cosima, who, after an internationally shocking adulterous interlude, became Wagner’s wife, protector, and alter ego. Still, he venerated Wagner, even at the risk of putting his own staggeringly original music in the shade.
Liszt in his declining years was attended round the clock by Lina Schmalhausen, a fanatical and probably infatuated pupil. Her meticulous record of Liszt’s last ten days constitutes the main part of Walker’s book. Cosima had asked her father to attend the Bayreuth Festival of 1886 on the ground that it needed his support. He arrived suffering from pneumonia, but Cosima’s doctor somehow missed the seriousness of his condition. He dragged himself to “Parsifal” and “Tristan,” suppressing a cough throughout. He repeatedly expressed annoyance that he was falling sick in Bayreuth, of all places—“right under the noses of those people,” he said. Cosima put in appearances at his bedside but was more concerned with overseeing the festival. Schmalhausen had been barred from the premises, but she managed to observe the Master on his deathbed while hiding behind bushes in the garden. Although Cosima insisted that her father’s dying word was “Tristan,” the last thing that Lina heard him say was “Please continue sleeping.”
I read the grotesque tale of Liszt’s death—which ends with a botched embalming and a dispute over ownership of the corpse—on the way to Cincinnati, where the city’s long-running May Festival was presenting the world première of Liszt’s final, unfinished composition: the oratorio “Saint Stanislaus.” The score was put together by the musicologist Paul Munson, who located in the Liszt archive in Weimar about an hour’s worth of more or less finished music, plus an aria that he orchestrated himself. He sent the score to James Conlon, a conductor with a sharp ear for overlooked works, who placed it on the program of the May Festival.
“Saint Stanislaus,” which Liszt began composing in 1874, is a thrillingly strange piece that sways between the mundane and the arcane, as the composer’s later music often does. What happened to this artist in old age is one of the enduring mysteries of musical history: the former showman of the European salons rocketed off into regions that no other nineteenth-century composer, not even Wagner, came near. The journey had much to do with Liszt’s increasing immersion in the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, in which he had taken four of the seven holy orders by 1865 (including Exorcist). He determined to revive archaic modes of plainchant and Renaissance polyphony, and imposed upon them experiments in alternative scales and unconventional harmony. The result is a sound that is unsettling even to modern ears.
Liszt was able to finish the first and last scenes of a projected four-part epic. “De Profundis,” in the fourth scene, exemplifies his late style. This section of the score was published shortly after the composer’s death, but few people have ever heard it. The organ begins with a slow-motion melody that is defined by jagged intervals of the major seventh and the tritone. After two fearsome dissonant chords, the chorus chants “De profundis” on a single note, and a solo baritone (Donnie Ray Albert, making the most of a punishingly difficult part) takes up another meandering, quasi-atonal line. The entire sequence is static, repetitive, ritualistic. It sounds less like Schoenberg, whom Liszt is often said to have anticipated, than like Messiaen, whose harmony was also premised on the mixing of modes.
Just as shocking, in a different way, is the music that comes after—“Salve Polonia,” a festive choral movement on Polish national themes. Given that Stanislaus is Poland’s national hero, the patriotic ending makes sense, but the contrast is so severe as to be surreal. The May Festival chorus sang magnificently, with high passion and true intonation; the Cincinnati Symphony, under Conlon, provided a galvanic accompaniment. Still, they could not save the music from a certain pompous anonymity. There are many other striking passages in the “Stanislaus” score—beautifully austere Renaissance-style writing in the first scene, for example—but the over-all effect is bewildering. It is as if the composer were being torn by opposing forces in his personality—the desire to play to the masses and the urge to turn his back on them.
Liszt wrote some of “Saint Stanislaus” while staying with Wagner in Venice, in late 1882. Wagner had only a few months to live, but he was still in command of all his faculties, not to mention his cruelties. He told Cosima that her father’s newest music, which he probably heard floating through the walls of the Palazzo Vendramin, was a symptom of “budding insanity.” More perceptive was an earlier comment that Liszt’s dissonances seemed to display a certain self-disgust, as if the composer were compensating for his youthful excesses. There is something to this. Many observers were suspicious of the suddenness with which the debonair superstar of the Romantic piano—the epicenter of the phenomenon that Heinrich Heine dubbed “Lisztomania”—made himself over as the black-clad Abbé Liszt.
But he was no charlatan. Even in his decadent, dandyish days, he had worked at his faith, and in old age he became that rare Christian who practices to the hilt the principle of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. He was generous beyond the bounds of what seemed credible. Most of the century’s major composers profited from his enthusiasm—even those who denounced him. He gave lessons to hundreds of pianists and never charged money. He sent large amounts to total strangers who importuned him in the mail. When staying in hotels, he often let his manservant have the more luxurious room. His spirituality, in other words, took the form of concrete action. Here was the root of his difference with Wagner, who was self-absorbed on a Pharaonic scale, and whose idea of religion came dangerously close to self-deification.
All the same, “Parsifal” succeeds in becoming the spiritually radiant work that “Saint Stanislaus” and other Liszt sacred pieces only aspire to be. It is at once popular and mystical, festive and arcane. It illuminates the highest hope that religion holds forth—the hope for a healed world. Liszt probably knew this, which is why he made his peace with the inscrutable fate of dying in Bayreuth. With a martyr’s devotion, he even asked at one point to hear Wagner’s prose writings read aloud.
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