‘Lisztomania’: Franz Liszt, sex, and celebrity

The 19th century witnessed the rise of the celebrity musician. Previously, musicians were wholly dependent on aristocratic or ecclesiastical patrons, and their output was determined by the wishes of these sometimes despotic individuals. Bach, for instance, was a mere Kapellmeister, and Haydn was not much more than a court servant. Even Mozart was unhappily dependent on patrons such as the Archbishop of Salzburg. Beethoven could perhaps be credited with starting the cult of the musician, but it was not until Paganini appeared on the musical scene in the early decades of the 19th century that a performer achieved celebrity status.

Niccolo Paganini, an Italian violinist, was renowned for his outstanding talent. His gripping performance style was an important influence for Franz Liszt, who attended one of his concerts in 1832, saying afterwards, “what a man, what a violin, what an artist! Heavens! What suffering, what misery, what tortures in those four strings!…As for his expression, his manner of phrasing – they are his very soul!” But Liszt’s meteoric rise would eclipse even Paganini’s bright star. As one observer remarked in 1832 of Liszt, “when he appears, he will eclipse all other like a sun!”

Franz Liszt was a musical genius, undoubtedly one of the greatest pianists of all time. He could boast of extraordinary technique and immense powers of expression, and was already delighting audiences at the age of twelve. At his first public concert in Vienna, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported that some audience members had cried out “A miracle!”, while others suspected some sort of trickery, until the piano was turned around so that the audience could see that he was really playing himself. Professional musicians were just as impressed with Liszt’s talent. In 1832, Liszt performed Mendelssohn’s incredibly difficult new piano concerto with brilliance and entirely without error – even though he had never seen the score before. Awestruck, Mendelssohn hailed this as a miracle.

Liszt in 1837, aged 26
Liszt in 1837, aged 26

Musical ability was, however, not the only reason for Lizst’s success and rise as a celebrity. He was blessed with an extraordinary charisma which mesmerised audiences, sending them into hitherto unknown frenzies of ecstasy, a phenomenon for which Heinrich Heine coined the term ‘Lisztomania’. In 1837, one observer described how “when I first heard him I sat speechless for a quarter of an hour afterwards, in such a stupor of amazement…Such execution…no one else can possess. He plays sometimes so as to make your hair stand on end!” In 1840 Robert Schumann described Liszt’s extraordinary power of “subjugating, elevating, and leading the public”, noting that audiences were “overwhelmed by a flood of tones and feelings”. Hans Christian Andersen, who attended another of Liszt’s recitals in 1840, touched on a common idea that Liszt was divinely inspired: “When Liszt entered the saloon,  it was as if an electric shock passed through it…the whole of Liszt’s exterior and movements reveal one of those persons we remark for their peculiarities alone; the Divine hand has placed a mark on them which makes them observable among thousands”.

Liszt was, furthermore, a master of self-promotion, augmenting his talent by projecting an almost superhuman image; a musician with mysterious, otherworldly abilities. Upon checking into a hotel in Chamonix in 1836, he listed his profession as “musician-philosopher” and his travel route as “in transit from Doubt to Truth”. Heine noted wryly of Liszt’s self-presentation that “the whole enchantment is to be traced to the fact that no one in the world knows how to organise ‘successes’ as well as Franz Liszt – or better, now to stage them. In that art, he is a genius”. Certainly, Liszt carefully cultivated his image, taking full advantage of new artistic mediums. His early depictions are traditional oil portraits, but he soon saw the utility of the lithograph, which could be produced and distributed quickly and cheaply. Liszt also took well to the new medium of photography, for which his pensive air was ideal, and he sat for Europe’s leading photographers from the mid-1850s onwards.

Lithograph of Liszt in 1846, aged 35
Lithograph of Liszt in 1846
Liszt in 1858, aged 47
Liszt in 1858, aged 47










Liszt became so famous that he soon had royalty and nobility at his feet. Liszt was from quite a humble background; his father had been a clerk-musician employed by Prince Esterházy, However, he himself was exceedingly intelligent and well-read, and liked to project a cultivated image, mixing with luminaries of the Paris literary world such as George Sand, Victor Hugo, Heine, Dumas and Balzac. With this successfully augmenting his musical talent, wherever Liszt went in Europe (and he appeared more than 3000 times in public between 1838 and 1846), the nobility clamoured to meet him and hear him play. Liszt did not stand on ceremony with anyone. Observers were astonished when, at the end of concerts, he would step into the front row and casually converse in French with the members of high nobility as if he were a close friend.

 Franz Liszt Fantasising at the Piano (1840). The imagined gathering shows his aristocratic, literary and artistic connections; seated are Alexander Dumas, George Sand and Marie d'Agoult, and standing are Hector Berlioz (or Victor Hugo), Paganini and Rossini. There is a bust of Beethoven on the piano, a portrait of Lord Bryon on the wall, and a statue of Joan of Arc on the far left.
Franz Liszt Fantasising at the Piano (1840). The imagined gathering shows his aristocratic, literary and artistic connections; seated are Alexander Dumas, George Sand and Marie d’Agoult, and standing are Hector Berlioz (or Victor Hugo), Paganini and Rossini. There is a bust of Beethoven on the piano, a portrait of Lord Bryon on the wall, and a statue of Joan of Arc on the far left.

Royalty were also keen to meet Liszt, and they showered him with honours. When Liszt left Berlin in 1842, King Friedrich Wilhelm gave him a coach pulled by six horses, accompanied by a procession of thirty other carriages and an honour guard of students. As the music critic Ludwig Rellstab put it, “he left not like a king, but as a king”. The Austrian authorities gave him a passport on which simply stood Celebritate sua sat notus (“sufficiently known by his fame”). By 1845, Liszt’s star was so high that rumours flew around that he was going to marry the fifteen-year-old Queen Isabella II of Spain, who had supposedly created the title of Duke of Pianozares for him. However, all this adulation didn’t make him more respectful to royalty, to whom he could on occasion be downright rude. When Tsar Nicholas I turned up late to a 1840 recital and started talking, Liszt stopped playing and sat motionless with head bowed. When Nicholas inquired why the music did not continue, Liszt said coolly, “Music herself should be silent when Nicholas speaks”.

An older Liszt performing in front of Kaiser Franz Joseph I (Note the flowers strewed around him)
An older Liszt performing in front of Kaiser Franz Joseph I. (Note the flowers strewed around him)

Although both men and women admired his performances, Liszt held a particular attraction for women. He was very good-looking, with strong features, luxuriant hair and a brooding air. Women wore Liszt’s image on cameos and brooches, fought to collect the dregs of his coffee cup, tore his handkerchiefs and gloves to shreds, wore his cigar butts in diamond-encrusted lockets, turned his discarded piano wires into bracelets, and so on. A contemporary caricature of a Liszt concert in Berlin in 1842 depicts an audience of frenzied women variously screaming, swooning, trying to storm the stage, observing him through binoculars (from the front row) and throwing flowers at him. Heine once consulted a specialist in womens’ diseases about ‘Lisztomania’; the specialist smiled knowingly and talked at length about the mass hysteria caused by a musical aphrodisiac in a confined space.

Caricature of women at a Liszt concert, 1842
Caricature of women at a Liszt concert, 1842

And Liszt was by no means immune to all this feminine adulation. He enjoyed numerous affairs, evincing a preference for ladies of the highest social rank. Among his early conquests were Countess Adèle Laprunarède and Countess Pauline Plater. When the latter was asked to rank the three great pianists who had performed in her salon, she judged on decidedly non-musical criteria, saying that Hiller would make the best friend, Chopin the best husband, and Liszt the best lover. Liszt’s most enduring relationship, however, was with Countess Marie d’Agoult, the daughter of a wealthy German banking family who had married into one of the oldest families in France. Together they had three illegitimate children, one of whom, Cosima, would go on to marry Richard Wagner.

Alan Walker, Liszt’s biographer, describes what was probably Liszt’s greatest achievement, completing the transition of the musician from servant to master: “Beethoven, by dint of his unique genius and his uncompromising nature, had forced the Viennese aristocracy to at least regard him as their equal. But it was left to Liszt to foster the view that an artist is a superior being, because divinely gifted, and the rest of mankind, of whatever social class, owed him respect and even homage”.

Liszt in 1847, aged 36
List in 1847, aged 36

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3 thoughts on “‘Lisztomania’: Franz Liszt, sex, and celebrity

    1. Thank you. The title was also an irresistible one to come up with!

      As for “mach schau” – the reaction elicited from Liszt’s audiences could certainly be compared to Beatlemania, although the comparison of course falters when we consider how small Liszt’s influence was in comparison; really it was limited to a small section of the middle and upper classes. But the phenomenon is none the less interesting for that, I think.

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