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Friday 21 October 2011


The great pianist and composer Franz Liszt was born two hundred years ago on 22 October 1811. Almost half-way back to that time, in August 1912, my grandfather E. P. Whitehouse (don't bother looking him up -- he was a junior clerk on the Great Western Railway) drew the caricature of Liszt reproduced on the left. The drawing is based on a small sculpture by Jean-Pierre Dantan that can be seen in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris (the sculpture itself dates from 1836, when Liszt was just 25).

The term Lisztomania sounds like a modern coinage, but was actually first used by the poet Heinrich Heine in 1844. At that time, however, "mania" had quite a different meaning. Nowadays it refers to an intense fad or craze, whereas originally it was a medical term referring to a serious derangement of the mind. Here is Heine's description of the audience reaction to one of Liszt's concerts:
"What tremendous rejoicing and applause! A delirium unparalleled in the annals of furore! And what is the real cause of this phenomenon? The solution of the question belongs rather to the province of pathology than to that of aesthetics. The electric action of a demoniac nature on a closely pressed multitude, the contagious power of ecstasy, and perhaps a magnetism in music itself, which is a spiritual malady which vibrates in most of us... all these phenomena never struck me so significantly or so painfully as in this concert of Liszt's."
Apparently it was female listeners who were affected the most: fainting, screaming hysterically, wearing his portrait on brooches, taking cuttings of his hair, and even collecting his coffee dregs and discarded cigar stubs. It all sounds a lot like the Beatlemania of the 1960s, or any of the countless manias since then. This leads one to suspect that, despite the apparent change in meaning, the basic "mania" phenomenon is the same as it always was. What struck people as a serious derangement of the mind in the 1840s is now seen as the normal behaviour of young human females when they get close to their musical idols!

Liszt died in 1886, two years before the oldest surviving audio recording was made... so sadly we will never know what all the fuss was about. However, in parallel with his performing career Liszt was also a prolific composer, and many of his works are still popular today. He was a great innovator, and single-handedly created the musical form known as the symphonic poem, as well as producing two full-length symphonies based on Goethe's Faust and Dante's Divine Comedy. These were considered revolutionary at the time, because they attempted to tell a story using purely instrumental music. For some reason, the musical establishment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century enforced the view that all non-vocal music had to be abstract, and that if it tried to represent something then it was garbage. This is similar (although with one subtle and easy-to-miss difference) to the view of the artistic establishment that all painting had to represent something, and if it was abstract then it was garbage.

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