1823-1839 in Paris
Was Adam right to take the child prodigy to the leading metropolis of Europe and take him on concert tours instead of letting him study and develop in peace? Master Czerny, who found Liszt’s playing undisciplined some years later, actually disapproved of it.
From Liszt’s letters, written to his own children, we can see that he always felt handicapped because of his lack of formal education. In his essay “Lettres d’un bachelier es musique” published on 12 February 1837 in the Revue et Gazette music ale, he formulated it with more bitterness, mentioning that his father cast him “into the midst of a glittering society,” exposed him to the stigmatizing “humiliation of artistic dependency,” where he was “patronized and remunerated by” the aristocracy “like a juggler, or like Munito the performing dog.”
Many years later Liszt became much more tolerant of his father and highly appreciated his self-sacrifice. All things considered, Adam, in spite of several negative points, created unique opportunities for his son in his formative years. Thanks to his father, Liszt the prodigy became able to share in the most valuable double heritage of European culture of his time. The future master of romantic music grew up in Paris at the dawn of romanticism and received his education from the great poets, thinkers, and painters of the most important artistic movement of the nineteenth century. This development happened to a young boy whose musical training, artistic taste, and approach to music had been based in Vienna—the best possible place of his time in Central Europe. In this metropolis lived the greatest masters of classicism: Franz Joseph Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Especially the two latter masters had a definitive influence on Liszt’s own art. Beethoven’s kiss, which Liszt supposedly received in Vienna in 1823, was only a legend. The story, nonetheless, had a symbolic meaning for Liszt. Beethoven remained his idol. In the preface to Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies (1863-1865), he wrote, “The name of Beethoven is a name sacred in art.” In addition, Liszt donated large amounts for the Beethoven monument and festival in Bonn in 1845 and composed two cantatas in his honour. His composing art is deeply rooted in that of Beethoven’s. As a performer, his Beethoven interpretations were mentioned as sublime by Wagner and nearly everyone who had the chance to hear them. Liszt had a special predilection for the much less appreciated Schubert; he became one of Schubert’s first proponents, performing his own arrangements of Schubert’s songs throughout Europe. On the other hand, Liszt’s own style became fertilized to a high degree by the innovations of the great Austrian composer in the field of form and harmony.
Leaders of the Romantic Movement played a tremendous influence on Liszt. In Paris he met and knew many of these leaders: Victor Hugo, Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Vigny, Alfred de Musset, George Sand, Prosper Merimee, Heinrich Heine, and many others. Paris became his mental homeland and French, which he learned as a teenager, became his favourite language. Liszt became obsessed with French society and his self-study of ancient and contemporary French philosophers and writers. He shared their new aesthetic principles, breaking with the old traditions. Their idolized personalities — Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Count Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, Vicomte Francois-Auguste-Rene de Chateaubriand, and Lord Byron — became his own. Byron, in particular, influenced Liszt both in substance and appearance. These figures had a significant impact on his life and artistic development. Liszt was clearly drawn to the Christian socialist Utopian theory of his “paternal friend and benefactor,” the Abbe Felicite de Lamennais who soon broke with the Catholic Church. Lamennais had a decisive influence on Liszt, particularly concerning his ideas on the artist’s, especially the musician’s, mission and the ennoblement of mankind.
Even in the domain of music, Liszt’s training was not serious in Paris. Barred from becoming a student of the Conservatoire because he was “non-French” and consequently “a foreigner,” Liszt had to find his teachers outside of the Conservatoire. His father chose two teachers for him in music theory: the conductor and composer Ferdinando Paer, who probably orchestrated the thirteen-year-old’s only opera Don Sanche (1824-1825), and the Czech composer Antonin Reicha, who was an excellent teacher, as Hector Berlioz tells us. The young virtuoso’s career, however, made serious work nearly impossible.
Liszt hardly experienced any normal childhood. From age twelve he supported his parents who had given up everything for his sake. In December 1823 the family with their minimal savings arrived in Paris, the glittering and expensive Western metropolis. The child prodigy, le petit Litz as he was called, began giving concerts in the capital in private palaces as well as in public. By 1826 he was performing outside of Paris in the French provinces. On 17 October 1825 the premier of his opera Don Sanche took place at the Paris Opera. In May and June 1824, 1825, and 1827, he toured England with his father, and at the end of 1826 and beginning of 1827 he performed in Switzerland. His mother Anna returned to Austria to her relatives in the fall of 1825. In August 1827, while having a short rest with his son at Boulogne-sur-Mer, Adam suddenly fell seriously ill and died after a few days on 28 August. At this time Liszt asked his mother to come to France, and they lived together in Paris—Liszt returning home to her at their little Paris flat after his tours.
Developing into a most handsome, elegant, and attractive young man with good manners, Liszt gave piano lessons mainly to distinguished young girls in additions to his concerts in order to support his mother and himself. Admired by his pupils, at seventeen he fell in love with one of them, Countess Caroline de Saint-Cricq. Some months later, however, her father put an end to this relationship with this young “nobody,” triggering in Liszt an acute mental crisis. He retired completely from playing in public and wanted to join the church. His mother, however, prevented him from joining, as had his father not long before his death. Liszt revived during the three glorious days of the Paris revolution in 1830—a time in which he sketched his never-completed “Revolutionary” symphony.
About 1830 Liszt met three great musicians in Paris whose art and personalities produced a great effect and influence on his own evolution: Berlioz, the French composer and father to “program music” and “idee fixe”; Niccolo Paganini, the demoniac Italian violinist who produced fantastic, never before heard effects on his instrument thanks to his unimaginable, transcendental virtuosity; and Frederic Chopin, the Polish composer who created a new kind of a brilliant yet personal and poetic piano style based on improvisation, and rooted in the folk music of his dear, faraway, and oppressed patrie.
Around 1834 Liszt composed his first important piano works: the solo piece Harmonies poetiques et religieuses (S 150), the cycle Apparitions (S 155), and the unfinished piano concerto De profundis (S 691). He dedicated the concerto to Lamennais with whom he spent some wonderful weeks on the Abbe’s estate in La Chenaie, Brittany. At the time Liszt was in love with the Countess Marie d’Agoult, nee de Flavigny (1805-1876)—a beautiful, cultured, dazzling, spiritual, distinguished young lady, fired by literary ambitions and living in an unhappy marriage with an older husband. In May 1835 the already pregnant Countess and Liszt left Paris and rendezvoused in Geneva. The coming years were those of “pilgrimage” where the couple lived and travelled in Switzerland (until August 1837) and Italy (from August 1837). Liszt’s pilgrimage was influenced to a large degree by his model, Lord Byron and his hero, Childe Harold. Liszt made some triumphant returns to Paris during this time as well. He had developed into the most brilliant, incredible virtuoso genius of his time. It was a highly important period for him as a composer as well, creating his own, special musical idiom inspired by literature, nature, and the fine arts. His first cycle Album d’un voyageur (S 156, first version of the Swiss volume of Annees de pelerinage, S 160) as well as many sketches or early versions of later works (Annees, vol. I I : ltalie, S 161, piano concertos, and Grandes etudes S 137) were born in these years. His essays entitled “Lettres d’un bachelier es musique” appeared regularly in the Gazette Musicale de Paris, although Marie had actually written the essays based upon drafts Liszt gave her.
Marie gave birth to their three children: Blandine (1835-1862), Cosima (1837-1930), and Daniel (1839-1859). This period of Liszt’s life ends with his second concert tour to Vienna in November 1839. The first triumphal tour had been given there in April 1838 to benefit his Hungarian compatriots after the flood of the Danube in Pest. By this time, Liszt and Marie had fallen out of love, and in October 1839 Marie returned alone to Paris with the two little girls who were to live with Liszt’s mother. Their baby brother joined them a little later.