This closing chapter of Liszt’s activities lasts seventeen years and constitutes the longest distinct compositional period of his life. When he left Rome in January 1869 at the persuasion of Grand Duke Carl Alexander to continue his work in Weimar, he was fifty-seven. When he died at the end of July 1886, he was nearly seventy-five.
The average person and the majority of artists who reach this age are past their creative best. That was not the case with Liszt. Apart from Verdi and Wagner, Liszt was an exception to this rule in the nineteenth century. Arguably, he composed his most mature, intriguing, and expressive works in this last period despite his disappointments and sufferings from melancholy as well as from his physical decline in health. On 4 February 1876 he expressed his own opinion of these works to Olga von Meyendorff, noting his “increasingly poor opinion of my things.” However, the end of his career, unlike of those of Verdi and Wagner, was not a brilliant conclusion, full of fresh inspiration like Otello and Falstaff or a self-apotheosis like Parsifal. Liszt’s culmination as a composer meant reducing his art to the essential and maintaining a certain unfinished and fragmentary quality that would lead into twentieth-century music.
His style of life as well differed from that of significant composers who reached his age. While many would live in their own homes in perfect comfort, the old Liszt—although complaining about the strains of journeying, and claiming “more than ever, my most ardent wish is to live in seclusion, away from the world, not involved in things—just as you would wish” — the old abbe could not relax in one place. He became a type of Flying Dutchman. Each year of his final period Liszt shuttled between his three “permanent residences,” creating his threefold life that he referred to as ma vie trifurquee. He usually spent his summers in Weimar where he lived in the Grand Ducal gardener’s residence known as the Hofgartnerei. He often spent his falls in Rome, living in different places including the Vicolo de’ Greci, no. 65 Via del Babuino (the princess lived in no. 89 of this street!), in Hotel Alibert, or near Rome in Tivoli at the Villa d’Este. Between November and April Liszt stayed the longest part of each year in the Hungarian capital Pest (called Budapest after November 1873). He lived at 20 Palatine street, 4 Fish Square (which became the first temporary residence of the new Music Academy), in the Hotel Hungaria on the shore of the Danube, and at last in Radial street (today: Andrassy street)—residence of the Music Academy (today called “Old Music Academy”) where the Liszt Museum and the Liszt Society are today. These three distant towns—Weimar, Rome, and Budapest—formed the axis of his life where he spent weeks or months nearly every year. There were some exceptions, however. In 1874 he did not go to Weimar because of his resentment against Grand Duke Carl Alexander who omitted sponsoring Wagner’s theatre and festival in Bayreuth. In 1872, 1876, 1882, and 1883, he did not return at all to Rome because of his anger with Princess Carolyne. He was upset with the princess’s incitement against Cosima and Wagner in the 1870s and her new notorious edition of his “Gypsy Book” in 1881 without his consent.
These were only the “permanent” residences, however. Annually, he visited his cousin Eduard Liszt and his family in Vienna, usually at Easter. From 1873 he often visited the Wagners in Bayreuth, usually in August. In addition, he often was the guest of royal and ducal families in Germany and the Netherlands or attended various music festivals in Germany or Zurich. He returned to Paris in 1878 as one of the judges at the World Exhibition and paid visits to illustrious friends in different parts of Italy, Austria, and Hungary. In 1881, 1882, and 1885 he was honoured by festivals in Belgium, organized as hommages a Liszt, and during his last spring, he took part at the brilliant celebrations given in his honour in Paris and London. Had his death not prevented him, he would have accepted an invitation to St. Petersburg. “Believe me,” wrote von Biilow to his daughter Daniela in December 1881, “movement is a need, a medicine for him [Liszt]. It belongs to his diet.”
Liszt did not long for an elegant home of his own. He lived modestly and his way of life was unbelievably ascetic. He absolutely did not care for money. He taught his students without charge and was always ready to help almost everyone who asked. After he had retired as a touring virtuoso, he continued to raise large sums for charitable and cultural purposes, although he himself owned little.
In his “twilight years,” Liszt—the travelling black-clad abbe, speaking French and German with sparkling wittiness—could upon occasion be heard as a conductor or a pianist (where he remained unrivalled). With his Mephistophelean smile and sarcastic humour, his wonderful eyes and long white hair, his legendary goodness and tolerance, his brilliant culture and manners of a grand seigneur, Liszt remained a captivating, colourful personality with a magic emanation until his end. He still drove the ladies wild and enjoyed the homage of young female pupils who swarmed around him in spite of his growing warts, false or missing teeth, or neglected external appearance (including his wornout cassock and shabby slippers he had to wear because of his dropsy, which are to be seen now in the Bayreuth Liszt-Museum). He remained a great, radiating, often impetuous, and indefatigable personality, even during the last months filled with great ovations in Western Europe—although upon occasion he fell asleep during a dinner given in his honour.
The extreme contradictions of his character became crystallized. As often as he actually attained the yearned-for creative solitude, he suffered from it as well. He passionately wished for the world and its homage as a man and an artist. The grim struggle against “the old and bitter enemy which is not the little devil of going out into society, but the real demon of extremity in emotion and excitation!” dwelling within him, raged on. He smoked cigars and consumed increasing quantities of alcohol. Carl Lachmund recorded that in 1882 Liszt drank “daily one bottle of cognac and two or three bottles of wine” in addition to drinking absinthe upon occasion. Through his undiminished and sincere faith, nevertheless, Liszt managed to survive his deep depression, weariness of life, and constant dissatisfaction with his own compositions in this last, declining period of health and life.
In his old age Liszt was celebrated in several countries. He had many admirers, but with the passing of time, several fell away from him. He continued to have lady-friends, old and new ones who came forward with arbitrary demands. In addition to the princess, Baroness Olga von Meyendorff nee Princess Gortchakova (1838-1926) filled this role. He had some faithful pupils of both sexes—in particular Lina Schmalhausen, August Gollerich, August Stradal, Bernhard Stavenhagen, and Istvan Thoman—who cared for him until the end. Yet he had no close and altruistic friend of his own to whom he could have spoken freely about his intellectual, physical, or psychological problems. Cosima could have been the only suitable person for this task, but she was under the complete influence of Wagner and cared only for her husband and Bayreuth. The ageing Liszt was poor, homeless, and lonely after all.
Liszt remained an extraordinary teacher. In Weimar numerous students, several of whom flocked to him solely because of his fame, surrounded him. In Rome his teaching was in a more intimate setting. In Budapest, where he was appointed President of the new Academy of Music in 1875, he taught classes from four to six o’clock four times a week. He consumed a great amount of his time and energy with house concerts held in his apartment in Fish square and later in the concert hall of Radial street. He also was confronted with bureaucratic misunderstandings in Hungary because of its historic and economic situation. Hungary had only recently, after the compromise with Austria in 1867, embarked on a bourgeois and capitalist development. The general attitude, nevertheless, did not keep up with the industrial revolution. Hungary remained stingy, feudal, and provincial in many respects.
His earlier works were played sometimes in Germany, Prague, Vienna, the Netherlands, Belgium, Zurich, and Rome. Performances of his work even spread to America because of the efforts of the conductor Leopold Damrosch. His music was heard little in Paris and London until near his death. In Italy only a narrow circle who had no interest in his secular music esteemed Liszt as a master of sacred music. Because of his presence in Rome, nonetheless, orchestras and chamber ensembles grew in the city, and Liszt often gave advice to the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia. His church music continued to be neglected in Rome and by the German Cecilians in Regensburg.
Liszt was celebrated at first in Hungary. The country felt honoured to have its great master at home for part of the year. King Francis Joseph granted him the rank of a councillor and an annual fee of 4,000 Forints. In 1873 Hungary brilliantly commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of his artistic career, and this tribute gave Liszt great pleasure. On 12 November 1873 he wrote to Cosima: “the success of this feast extraordinary indeed, is complete. No dissonance has troubled the general agreement.” He soon found he was laden with “obligations and irritations quite contrary to what I desire” while back in his native land. He continued in his letter to the princess on 7 October 1870: “Now I am to be thrust back into a busy life, and my friends devolve upon me the heavy burden of seeing to the prosperity and glory of all music, sacred and secular, in Hungary!”
Yet, Liszt accepted his burden, and largely because of his self-sacrifices, music institutions and musical life flourished in Hungary. Unfortunately, after a certain time, Hungary grew accustomed to his presence and gradually took him for granted, perhaps, in part, because of its provincial attitude and old resentment concerning his errors in the unfortunate “Gypsy book.” (By declaring in his book that Hungarian national music was of Gypsy origin, the Hungarian state refused to initiate him being buried in his native land.)
To make matters worse, the princess, without Liszt’s knowledge, republished the book in Leipzig in 1881 with all the old errors intact. In addition, the fiercely anti-Semitic princess rewrote and enlarged the chapter “Les Israelites,” adding to the allegations in the earlier version and including the latest slogans of the new race theory. In effect, she formulated one of the first inciting documents on the persecution of the Jews. Not only was this publication an absolutely unfair gesture towards the composer, it could not have happened at a worse historical moment. At the time, of all national minorities of Hungary, it was the Jews, at last achieving their emancipation, who most sincerely desired to become assimilated. Although the Government was liberal, a Parliament Party called “Anti-Semitic” existed promoting anti-Semitic manifestations. Consequently, in 1882, a false “blood trial” started, preceding the Dreyfuss affair in France by some years. A poor kosher butcher of a little village called Tiszaeszlar was accused of killing a young girl to use her blood in the Passover cake. In this tense atmosphere it is easy to imagine what a shocking effect the princess’s chapter (under the abbe” Liszt’s name!) produced. The princess wrote that “the Jews” were a parasite, unable to assimilate, that “their” very existence was a threat to people in their own countries, and that “this perilously noxious, bloodsucking race, thirsting for power, must be forcibly deported to Palestine.” These sentiments conformed perfectly to the slogans of the Anti-Semitic Party in Hungary and of those similar movements in Germany and France. In February 1883, when the Tiszaeszlar trial was still in progress, Liszt felt it necessary—without alluding to the fact that he was not the author of that chapter—to make clear publicly that he was a friend, not an enemy of the Jews. Despite Liszt’s noble attitude, the book had terrible consequences for him in the Budapest and in the Viennese press. His compositions were ill-treated with a prejudiced, stupid hatred equal to the princess’s notorious chapter.
These events contributed to the indifference and hostility with which many Hungarians viewed Liszt in his final years. Even the performance of his earlier works in Germany and the great ovations he enjoyed so much in Paris and London in the spring of 1886 turned out to be temporary. His late works were declared incomprehensible, and the immortality of his art was questioned. In the decades immediately following his death, when the irresistible charm of his personality could no longer win adherents, Liszt was, for a time, a neglected and scorned composer.
Throughout his life Liszt had been an extraordinarily healthy man in spite of his style of life. Walker documented that his “decline into the infirmities of old age can be traced” from 2 July 1881, when he fell down the stairs of the Hofgartnerei. “The accident seemed to trigger a number of ailments that until then had been lying dormant within him—including dropsy, asthma, insomnia, a cataract of the left eye, and chronic heart disease. This latter illness would kill him within five years.” His symptoms included “swelling of the ankles, loss of appetite, feelings of nausea in the mornings, a serious open wound in the right thigh . . . two fractured ribs with the possibility of bruising of the lungs, [and] pleurisy.”
Liszt’s final days were spent in Bayreuth and Luxemburg. Cosima, who had refused to meet her father, write to him, or accept his letters after Wagner’s death in 1883, had, unexpectedly, personally invited him to come to Bayreuth. At the beginning of July 1886, he attended the wedding of his favourite granddaughter Daniela, renting a private flat in Siegfriedstrasse near Villa Wahnfried. (The street is now called Franz Liszt Strasse, and the flat has been transformed into a Liszt Museum.) Then he visited his friends, the Hungarian painter Mihaly Munkacsy and his French wife at their villa in Colpach, Luxemburg. Despite his cold, Liszt returned to the Bayreuth Festival. His cold led to pneumonia, and he died on 31 July 1886. He was buried in Bayreuth in the municipal cemetery.