Liszt summed up his aims in his testament in 1860: “At a certain time (about ten years ago) I envisaged Weimar as a new art period, similar to the one under Carl August, where Wagner and myself should have been leaders just like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller had been earlier, but unfavourable circumstances destroyed this dream.”
In 1848 Liszt settled down with Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein in Weimar, capital of the German feudal Grand Duchy of Sachsen-Weimar. Liszt served as a conductor, Kapellmeister in extraordinary service, at the court of Grand Duke Carl Friedrich and later of his son Carl Alexander. The princess escaped from Russia with her young daughter Princess Marie Sayn-Wittgenstein, leaving behind the greatest part of her immense fortune. For Liszt, it meant a complete change of life, with restrictions and obligations of several kinds. No longer was he a free, travelling, and glorified artist. Now he had a place to live with a steady job and a commitment to the princess with whom he had to accommodate himself. The princess, when they finally set up house together at the villa Altenburg, ran it as a grand house, constantly receiving guests (including the increasing team of students in Liszt’s master classes). Liszt no longer had much privacy, even when composing.
He had also his obligations towards the court and the Court Theatre, where he accomplished outstanding and pioneering work as conductor of operatic performances. He revived twenty operas of great value, among them works by Christoph Willibald von Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, Andre Gretry, Luigi Cherubini, Schubert, Weber, and Vincenzo Bellini. He also performed twentytwo operas of outstanding contemporaries, including Gioacchino Rossini, Otto Nicolai, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Schumann, Giuseppe Verdi, Peter Cornelius, and, above all Wagner and Berlioz. Liszt led seven world premiers, most notably Wagner’s Lohengrin and Cornelius’s Der Barbier von Bagdad.
Despite his great expectations, Liszt soon realized that living in Weimar placed severe restrictions on his private life as well as on his capacity as a creative artist. Very much in favour at a court that rigidly clung to old ceremonies and formalities, he did not succeed in making them accept the princess who had been unable to get divorced. Instead of his former admirers that had surrounded him before coming to Weimar, he found himself surrounded by the prejudiced dislikes of the drowsy, envious, petty-bourgeois in this legendary town that still promoted their famous and deceased citizens. Liszt’s presence as a foreigner, his French speech, his attitude of a grand seigneur, and his unusual attire evoked the growing indignation of the Weimar residents, not to mention his living with a princess who smoked cigars and was married to someone else.
As a conductor, he had to deal with the immense and increasing material difficulties of the small, provincial, declining, and retrograde German principality, which made work almost impossible for him. As a theatre leader, he had to endure—as long as he was able to—all kinds of intrigues. Above all, Liszt the idolized pianist who had stopped playing in public in order to focus on composing suddenly found himself attacked from all sides as a composer. Liszt, the father and master of the new trend of music mocked by the nickname Zukunftsmusik or “Music of the Future,” had to bear a hostile reception in nearly the whole of Germany.
In spite of all these external difficulties and of the internal one, his own restless spirit, his emphasis grew increasingly on composition. In his duties as theatre conductor, he, over time, became a master of handling the orchestra as well. Weimar became the zenith of his activity as a composer—the period where his most popular, monumental works were born or received their decisive version.
In addition to many of his major piano works and concerti from this period, he also composed his two large-scale symphonies and the majority of his symphonic poems (S 95-104), a one-movement form he invented. External elements inspired each of his symphonic poems, including Hungarian historical themes (Hero’ide funebre and Hungaria), themes of antiquity (Orpheus), and art (Hunnenschlacht). He based several orchestral compositions on literary works of Johann Gottfried Herder, Hugo, Byron, Goethe, Schiller, and Shakespeare.
The main points of Liszt’s style include few themes or short motives suitable to variation and changes of character as well of free use of chromaticism. He also frequently uses “Hungarian” or Gypsy scales and non-diatonic gamuts such as chromatic and whole-tone scales, and individual scale models and constructions.
Although many of Liszt’s Weimar orchestral works included theatrical-isms and bombastic effects, he influenced a large series of outstanding composers through his various innovations. This list includes Cesar Franck, Camille Saint- Saens, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Olivier Messiaen, Wagner, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Bedfich Smetana, Antonfn Dvorak, Edvard Grieg, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, Modeste Mussorgsky, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, Alexander Skryabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Bartok, and Kodaly. Nevertheless, Liszt may have never composed as much orchestral music had not Princess Carolyne continued to encourage him in these efforts, even if some of the loud and theatrical sections occurring in his “grand” works were quite likely because of the princess’s taste and influence.
Liszt wrote a large portion of his essays in this period as well that contained his ideas concerning problems of art, music, and artists. Nevertheless, they also included the princess’s elaborations with her Slavic inclination for loquacity and certain prejudices that in no manner matched the elegant literary French style of the enlightened Parisian, Marie d’Agoult, who had previously assisted him in his essays.
In no other phase of his life did Liszt remain in a single place as in Weimar. He departed only for occasional journeys to take cures, attend music festivals, or visit family or friends. He accompanied the princess and her daughter to Bad Eilsen and later travelled to Aachen to cure his own skin disease. He attended performances of his works in several places in Germany, Prague, Vienna, and Hungary where he was at the world premier of his Gran Mass in 1856. Upon occasion he visited family or friends. In August 1857 he attended his daughter Cosima and his favourite pupil Hans von Billow’s wedding in Berlin. Between 1853 and 1856 he twice visited with Wagner in Switzerland, who, after the uprising of 1849 in Dresden, succeeded to escape from Germany, thanks to Liszt, and lived there in exile. He travelled to Paris in 1853 to see his mother and children, to Amsterdam in 1854 to attend the foundation of the Music Society of the Netherlands, and to Brussels during the same year to meet his two daughters.
His position in Weimar became increasingly difficult. The delays in Princess Carolyne’s divorce proceeding made their position in Weimar socially unendurable. At home, as well as throughout Germany, an anti-Liszt campaign was waged against his works. His authority dwindled to an ever-decreasing extent at the theatre in Weimar because of the new and talented intendant, von Dingelstedt, who, on Liszt’s recommendation, had occupied the post in 1857. By 15 December hostility and intrigue became so intense that an open scandal broke out at the premier of Cornelius’s comic opera Der Barbier von Bagdad that Liszt conducted. Liszt promptly resigned. After Princess Marie Sayn Wittgenstein had married Prince Konstantin von Hohenlohe-Schillingsfiirst (later Lord Steward to the Emperor Francis Joseph) on 15 October 1859, Liszt no longer had reasons to remain in Weimar. After eleven years, it must have been a long and painful process for him to come to this decision. Weimar had turned out to be everything but the “homeland of the Ideal,” as Liszt had written to Carl Alexander (Crown Prince at the time) on 6 October 1846 before settling there.
His deception and bitterness in Weimar were crowned by a terrible blow: his twenty-year-old son Daniel, who was talented, amiable, and similar to the young Franz Liszt, fell seriously ill in Cosima’s home in Berlin. He died in Liszt’s presence. Months later, in May 1860, Princess Carolyne left for Rome in order to petition the pope to dissolve her marriage. Liszt, remaining alone in Weimar, became despondent. As soon as he was able to, he composed the staggering “oraison” Les morts on words of Lamennais in memory of his son. In September, he wrote his moving testament.
The year 1860 also saw the publication of protest against the “new music” of Liszt and Wagner that Johannes Brahms, Joseph Joachim, Julius Otto Grimm, and Bernhard Scholz signed. In August 1861, after a Weimar Festival and the foundation of the German General Music Association, Liszt, alone, liquidated his entire household. He left his home and Weimar. His departure meant the end of this exceptional period of ordered life and work some months before his fiftieth birthday. He visited Paris and arrived in Rome on the eve of his birthday to marry the princess the next day. At the last minute, however, the pope prevented the marriage. Alan Walker details the long, dark, and complicated story of this “thwarted marriage” in his Liszt, Carolyne and the Vatican. The Story of a Thwarted Marriage as it emerges from the original Church documents.
Leaving Weimar meant an end to an important period of his composing. According to several musicologists, Liszt’s compositions during his Weimar period represent the peak of his art. Nevertheless, others and I see his evolution as a composer continuing straight until his death. For me Liszt’s output during the last twenty-six years of his life remains the most important, interesting, and moving music he ever wrote. This music with its incomplete and experimental character and without frills or sensationalism became increasingly dark, lonely, personal, and sincere. This music was an outgrowth of his solitary and homeless life, an errant life of an artist growing old who endured many delusions and unfortunate experiences. Liszt could only have composed this music without the princess by his side because this type of music did not correspond to her taste.