The man Liszt

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Extracts from a review of Ernest Newman’s book The man Liszt — Cassell & Co, 12s 6d [63p] net.

Criminology is not a new pursuit, but it is now followed assiduously by reputable members of the Crimes Club, who turn out detective stories in wanton profusion. It is protested that fictitious characters only are employed; and this because juries are apt to sympathise with living men whose foibles are exploited by writers of no outstanding imagination. With dead men, the case is different, for it is legally permissible to impute anything good or vile to the most renowned of them. Of course, all is done in the interests of truth, and that, like charity, should cover a multitude of sins. The flaw in the work of literary detectives, however, is that their witnesses are not generally available for cross-examination, without which Pigott would to this day be regarded as credible; and above all they take their cases before courts of morals having rules different from those prevailing at the time the alleged crimes were committed.

Most of the author’s friends admire his uncanny ability as a literary detective, and one at least recalls his claim in a Midland daily paper that the journalist-detective was much more sagacious than the police-detective. In this book Mr Newman seems to hold a Treasury brief, and he has got up his case so well that the man Liszt will be lucky if he gets off with less than hanging. It consists of an endless series of indictments, each supported by documents given more importance than sworn affidavit.

The main facts of the case are well known. Liszt, a Hungarian, was a showy sort of person who associated with various women in succession and together. The Countess d'Agoult bore to him a son and two daughters: Cosima married von Bülow and later passed her troth to Richard Wagner, and Blandine married one of Napoleon III’s prime ministers. The Countess at length objected to be one of the many and accordingly left him. Liszt sought consolation in religious observance, and returned to the world morally and physically the better. Then came on the scene a princess, Caroline von Wittgenstein, who reigned during a most important phase of Liszt’s life over the menage.

She smoked strong cigars and wrote devotional books, while the poor countess produced only fiction and philosophy. D’Agoult’s children came under the care and influence of von Wittgenstein, who seems to have failed to instil much religious fervour into Cosima. That lady certainly wrote in her diary, after having listened to a performance of her father’s oratorio, Christus: ‘For a man to renounce the achievement of greatest art in order to imitate the gabble of priests argues poverty of intellect. We are sad over this development of my father, the main responsibility for which certainly rests with the Princess Wittgenstein.’

The unsworn affidavits produced by counsel certainly destroy one’s belief in the saintliness of Liszt. It is imputed also that his generosity to composers was a pose. His attacks on Thalberg are doubtless reprehensible; that he should revel in such attacks is distressing to those who had hoped that one redeeming feature would be left to him. But such was not to be, for a verdict of guilty on the evidence produced seems inevitable. Such a verdict, however, like that given against the profligacy and obstinacy of kings and rulers, does not seem to move us all alike.

The consolation to Liszt is that he remains sufficiently great to have such a heavy indictment brought against him. Unfortunately it is not given to kings and queens, statesmen, poets and musicians to rise again from the dead and turn the tables on their biographers, a condition of things that would add much to the gaiety of nations.

Musical opinion, February 1935, pp. 409–410