A Book of Liszts by John Spurling – review

What was it about Liszt that made women faint and fight each other?

"My biography is more to be invented than written after the fact" – so wrote Franz Liszt, and so it has proved to be. Many interpretations of his life, some extremely thorough and scholarly (Alan Walker's) and some more imaginative yet highly entertaining (Sacheverell Sitwell's), have appeared since his death in 1886. Now, the bicentenary of his birth in 1811 brings another chance to reassess the life of this great composer, pianist and musical innovator.

Often associated purely with virtuosity, Liszt has never received either the musical adulation heaped on his friend Frédéric Chopin, or the sympathy shown to Robert Schumann, sufferer of torments. (Both these giants of the Romantic school celebrated their bicentenaries last year – Chopin receiving far greater attention than Schumann.) Chopin and Liszt spent much time in Paris together. Chopin's mistress, George Sand, had been introduced to him at a party by Liszt's mistress Marie d'Agoult – Liszt warned Chopin about becoming involved with "man-eating" Sand, but despite this the four often travelled together.

Liszt was benevolent and charitable throughout his life, pioneering the "masterclass" as we now know it, never charging for his lessons and paying for a Beethoven monument in Bonn when funds had run out. But for some reason we still find it hard to like him. It could seem to the outsider that he had it all. A long life, prodigious pianistic talent, and more lovers and female attention than many men could hope for. And possibly an ego to match. Liszt was essentially the first "pop star" musical celebrity, and as "Lisztomania" swept across Europe in the 1840s he grew used to, and often bored with, a life of public adoration.

Women repeatedly fainted during his sold-out concerts and fought over his silk handkerchiefs and gloves; some even kept his cigar butts in their cleavages for months in order to have a little piece of the great virtuoso near their hearts. For his part, he was always particularly drawn to women of a higher social standing than himself: his two major love affairs were with aristocrats – Countess Marie d'Agoult (the mother of his three children) and Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, both of whom left their husbands to be with him.

And then there is the matter of his devotion to God. A devout Catholic, he had a lifelong struggle with religion; he joined a Parisian seminary aged 17, and in his later years took minor holy orders and became known as Abbé Liszt.

Many facets of his life are open to question. John Spurling's fictionalised biography, A Book of Liszts, takes the composer at his word and interprets, through fictive conversations and scenarios, much of Liszt's life to great effect. Creating a series of 15 "postcards" written from a variety of viewpoints by people prominent in the composer's life, Spurling draws the reader into Liszt's extraordinary world of women, music and God.

You get a real sense of the frustrating yet fulfilling time that Liszt and the countess spent together after they eloped to Switzerland to escape the gossip of Parisian society. The detailed description of the music he wrote under Marie's watchful eye (including the first book of Années de pèlerinage), and of her insatiable yet understandable jealousy of both his talent and numerous women, is highly imaginative. ("Franz, it is not being your mistress that I object to," Marie once said, ". . . I object to being one of your mistresses.")

The last chapter, in which Liszt takes his final train journey to Bayreuth to see his daughter Cosima (married to Wagner) and reflects on all that he has achieved and neglected – namely his children – makes for poignant reading: Spurling bases these pages to great effect on Liszt's setting of Via crucis (the Stations of the Cross).

A Book of Liszts alternates between chapters of fictionalised and true memoirs, and chapters that resemble a script from a play (for instance, a conversation in which Liszt tells Wagner he disapproved of Cosima marrying him). More theatrical than scholarly, it will appeal to anyone who enjoyed Benita Eisler's similar approach in her novel Chopin's Funeral. Those wishing for an in-depth, less fractured study should look to Walker's three-volume biography, but if you are happy with a lighter insight into Liszt's life then Spurling's book offers many pleasures. It fully inhabits the world of Liszt, and is a tremendous achievement.

The pianist Lucy Parham will perform her Odyssey of Love, an evening of words and music about the life of Franz Liszt, at the Kew music festival on 19 June (kewmusicfestival.com).

Lucy Parham

The GuardianTramp

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