‘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

Dancing the lewd La Volta

Dancing, wrote Philip Stubbes in 1583, is altogether a “horrible vice”. In his infamous work The Anatomie of Abuses, Stubbes protested, “what clipping, what culling, what kissing and bussing, what smouching and slabbering of one another: what filthy groping and unclean handling is not practised everywhere in these dancings”. For dancing “provoketh lust, and the fires of lust, [which] once conceived…burst forth into the open action of whoredom and fornication”.

An Elizabethan country dance probably was a good excuse to take certain liberties with the opposite sex. However, I imagine that very near the top of Stubbe’s mental list of dances to be banned was the la volta. Also known as the volta or lavolta, this dance, which is believed to have originated in either Italy or the medieval Provençal courts, was introduced in Paris in around 1556 by Catherine de Medici. Like all French fashions, it made its way across the English Channel soon enough, quickly becoming a hit with the Elizabethan court.

What made the la volta different from most court dances was its bawdy nature. Contemporary critics (often strict Puritans like Stubbes) raged at its alleged indecency. The la volta required highly intimate contact between two partners of the opposite sex. It eschewed most of the stately parading which characterised the pavane and similar fashionable dances, instead consisting of an intricate series of quick steps and leaps. A guide to the dance advised that “if you wish to dance the la volta…you must place your right hand on the damsel’s back, and the left below her bust, and, by pushing her with your right thigh beneath her buttocks, turn her”.

A dance in Augsburg, c. 1500. Such slow and stately movements were the norm in couple dances until the la volta came along
A dance in Augsburg, c. 1500. Such slow and stately movements were the norm in couple dances until the la volta came along

Small wonder, then, that the lavolta was swiftly condemned throughout Europe among certain circles. In his 1592 work, Ein Gottseliger Tractat von dem ungottseligen Tantz (‘A Godly Treatise on the Ungodly Dance’), Johann von Münster fumed that even kings were promoting the wicked dance:

“In this dance the dancer with a leap takes the young lady – who also comes to him with a high jump to the measures of the music – and grasps her in an unseemly place…With horror I have often seen this dance at the Royal Court of King Henry III in the year 1582, and together with other honest persons have frequently been amazed that such a lewd and unchaste dance, in which the King in person was first and foremost, should be officially permitted and publicly practiced.”

A century later, another German, Johannes Praetorius, condemned the la volta in his book on the practices of witchcraft, Blockes-Berges Verrichtung. He wrote:

“A new galliard, the volta [is] a foreign dance in which they seize each other in lewd places and which was brought to France by conjurors from Italy…[It is] a whirling dance full of scandalous, beastly gestures and immodest movements…[The volta] is also responsible for the misfortune that innumerable murders and miscarriages are brought about by it”.

Several couples dancing the la volta, late 16th century. The participants have not been identified, but the painting is certainly of the French Valois school
Several couples dancing the la volta, late 16th century. The participants have not been identified, but the painting is certainly of the French Valois school

One critic of the dance went so far as to call for forcible state intervention, saying that “the volta should really be looked into by a well-ordered police force and most strictly forbidden”. Yet unfortunately for its detractors, the la volta remained in fashion until the second half of the 17th century. According to some historians, the la volta was actually the precursor of the waltz, a dance which would shock Europe in the later 18th century. If they are right, then perhaps the la volta lives on to this day, although its scandalous nature has been so diluted that the waltz seems an innocent and old-fashioned dance. Of which more in my next post…

On a final note: for the most accurate recreations of the la volta we have to turn to modern re-enactment; the first video below is a beautifully executed la volta, performed in the hall of Ightham Mote in Kent. The dance has also featured in period films and television series, with less success. Directors tend to take advantage of the la volta’s highly intimate nature in order to help ramp up sexual tension, but they lose the dance’s lively, spirited character.

The second video below, a clip from the 1998 film Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett in the title role, recreates an actual event when the queen danced the la volta with her court favourite, Robert Dudley (the Earl of Leicester). The dance is not very accurate; it leaves out the most indecent parts, for one thing. It is, however, certainly more accurate than the dance in the following extract from The Tudors, which, despite its claims, is not a la volta at all. Rather, it is some dance designed solely as a showpiece for Anne Boleyn in her attempts to seduce the king – which, judging by Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ expression, seem to be proceeding very well.


Further Reading

Phillip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (originally published 1583, this edition 1836)

Johann Struensee, the German doctor who ruled Denmark

Following several festivethemed posts, a three week Christmas break and the latest installment of Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History, now for something completely different. For most people in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, Danish history is a blank, perhaps filled in only by vague memories of Hamlet’s line “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. I’m going to write about one of the most significant figures in 18th century Danish history and possibly one of the most intriguing political figures I have ever come across: Johann Friedrich Struensee. Struensee was a man of contradictions; an intelligent and witty German doctor who believed passionately in Enlightenment ideals, yet an arrogant man who ruled Denmark as a dictator, supplanting a mentally ill king whilst having an affair with his queen.

Before I talk about Struensee in particular, here is some background. Denmark in the 1760s was a backward country. The rest of Western Europe was creaking its way towards Enlightenment. England had an emerging parliamentary democracy, and even in absolutist France writers and thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau were changing the way people viewed the world around them. Denmark was still a feudal state marked by oppression of the peasants and strict censorship. Denmark’s problems were compounded by the fact that its king, Christian VII, was not fit to rule. It’s not clear exactly what was wrong with him; probably he suffered from mental illness. His physical and mental health had been damaged by the brutal treatment meted out to him by his childhood custodian Count Reventlow, who had him cruelly beaten and debauched until he was so sunk into depravity that he was scarcely responsible for his own actions.

 

King Christian VII of Denmark
King Christian VII of Denmark

In the hope that a wife might be a good influence on the unstable king, Danish ministers married him off in 1766 to the 15-year old Caroline Mathilde, the youngest sister of George III. During the short honeymoon it seemed that their hope might be realised; Christian was attentive to his new wife and on his return evidence of his natural good nature showed in a desire to better the lot of the peasant both on his own estates and in the rest of Denmark. The recovery was, however, shortlived. He soon plunged once more into the wildest excesses, giving himself up to drunken orgies and visiting the taverns and brothels of Copenhagen. Christian and his drinking companions would go around smashing windows and creating disturbances, to the disgust of the inhabitants and the despair of the ministers. Meanwhile, the queen was left in lonely confinement, neglected and cruelly treated by the king. After the sickly crown prince Frederick was born in 1768, the king grew even worse; his periods of lucidity became less frequent, and he developed a fierce hatred towards his wife.

Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark
Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark
Scene from the marriage of Christian and Caroline, November 1766
Scene from the marriage of Christian and Caroline, November 1766

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was at this point that Johann Struensee entered Danish history. Struensee was a German doctor who in the late 1760s was working as a public physician in Altona, near Hamburg. His pitiful income wasn’t enough to support his lifestyle expectations, so he had to supplement it with private practice. It was in ministering to the rich and powerful that Struensee came into contact with a circle of aristocrats living in Altona in exile from the Danish court at Copenhagen. His sparkling wit, elegant manners and Enlightenment principles commended him particularly to two exiled Danish courtiers, Enevold Brandt and Count Rantzau. In Struensee, Brandt and Rantzau saw not only a fellow idealist, but the perfect means of getting themselves back into favour at court. At the time, the court was looking for a physician to attend Christian on his forthcoming tour of Europe. Rantzau saw his chance, and recommended Struensee for the post. When Struensee received the appointment in April 1768 (somewhat surprisingly considering his unconventional methods and suspicious political views), Brandt and Rantzau expected that he would use his new influence to get them once more promoted into court circles.

 

During the 8-month tour, Struensee gained Christian’s confidence and affection. The two of them discussed literature, philosophy and art, and went out drinking and whoring (unobtrusively). Danish ministers were pleased with Struensee’s influence on Christian, who began making fewer embarrassing scenes. In fact, the tour was a resounding success. The young king showed himself a charming and amusing guest; at parties and functions he was the centre of gaiety. What lay behind this improvement? Struensee had been in constant attendance during the entire tour. He seems to have made sure that the king was only seen in his best moods; his dark depressions and manic episodes were confined to the private sphere. There has been much conjecture about how Struensee achieved this apparent miracle; historians have suggested the use of anything from magnetism to concentrated doses of coca bean (i.e. cocaine).

Johann Struensee
Johann Struensee

Upon the court’s return to Copenhagen in January 1769, Struensee was appointed personal physician to the king and in May he was given the honorary title of State Councillor, which advanced him to the class of the third rank at court. Perhaps it was now that he started to envisage his role as a political advisor leading Denmark towards enlightenment. However, if he wanted to climb to the top of the greasy pole and have real influence on policy, he had to overcome two major obstacles. Queen Caroline and the long-serving chancellor Bernstoff were both opposed to Struensee. Bernstoff was worried by the German doctor’s radical ideas, and the Queen mistrusted him and his influence on her husband.

Bernstoff would prove impossible to placate, so Struensee turned his attentions to the queen. She was neglected and lonely and he now seemed to be one of the few people who paid her attention and tried to help alleviate her troubles. Struensee effected a partially successful reconciliation between Caroline and Christian; under his influence, the king ceased to treat Caroline with his previous contempt. A successful inoculation of the sickly crown prince in May 1770 against the smallpox epidemic ravaging Copenhagen further increased Struensee’s influence, and around this time he began a a clandestine relationship with the queen.

Now that the king and queen were both on his side, Struensee had the necessary political leverage to climb even higher. He kept on gaining promotions but generally kept a low profile as he started to take over the political machine. Once the king had dismissed Bernstoff in September, Struensee’s second obstacle was eliminated. However, by the end of 1770 he had grown impatient with the slow and conservative workings of the Danish government, and abolished the Council of State. He then appointed himself privy counsellor, thereby consolidating his power and starting the period generally referred to as the “Time of Struensee”. His official duty, which was to present reports from the various departments of state to the king, was much more influential than it may seem.

Struensee in 1771
Struensee in 1771

As King Christian was hardly responsible for his actions, Struensee was able to dictate whatever answers he pleased. Struensee really became Denmark’s king in all but name in July 1771 when he was appointed a “Geheimekabinetsminister” with the authority to issue orders which were to have the force of royal ordinances, even if unprovided with the royal sign-manual. The king was now effectively sidelined and was discouraged from interfering in state affairs. Between December 1770 and January 1772 Struensee pushed ahead with his Enlightenment project and issued no fewer than 1069 cabinet orders; a rate of more than three a day. Reforms initiated by Struensee during this period included:

  • Abolition of torture
  • Abolition of unfree labour
  • Abolition of the censorship of the press
  • Abolition of capital punishment
  • Abolition of the practice of preferring nobles for state office
  • Introduction of a tax on gambling and luxury horses to fund the nursing of foundlings
  • Ban of the slave trade in the Danish colonies
  • Removal of penalties against those who produced illegitimate children
  • Criminalisation and punishment of bribery
  • Re-organisation of judicial institutions to minimise corruption
  • Re-organisation and reduction of the army
  • Reform of the state-owned medical institutions

Struensee’s reforms were undoubtedly very forward looking; Voltaire himself sent a letter to congratulate Struensee and the king on their progressive. He seems to have genuinely believed in the vision of an enlightened Denmark where serfdom could be abolished and the tyrannous partnership of the church and the aristocracy broken in order to make way for the ‘free-thinking’ bourgeoisie. Yet however laudable his aims, his style of governance left much to be desired. Struensee simply didn’t seem to care that he offended the very people who he needed on his side. He rode roughshod over Danish customs and traditions, and insisted on conducting all his business in German. In order to ensure obedience, Struensee would dismiss entire staffs of public departments without pensions or compensation, and substitute them with nominees of his own who in many cases were inexperienced men who knew little or nothing of the country they were supposed to govern.

An 1873 depiction of the court in the "Time of Struensee". The intimacy between Caroline and Struensee is unmistakeable, whilst the king's alienation from state affairs is symbolised by his lounging in the background playing idly with a parrot; like him, it is a captive creature. Dowager Juliana Maria stalks in the background, observing the affair and perhaps already planning her coup
An 1873 depiction of the court in the “Time of Struensee”. The intimacy between Caroline and Struensee is unmistakeable, whilst the king’s alienation from state affairs is symbolised by his lounging in the background playing idly with a parrot. Queen Dowager Juliana Maria stalks in the background, observing the affair and perhaps already planning her coup

Public opinion began to turn against Struensee in the autumn of 1771, spurred on by the flood of anti-Struensee pamphlets (an ironic result of his abolition of censorship). The populace resented the intrusion of this foreigner into the highest levels of government and disapproved of his affair with the queen. Anger on the last count came to a head  in July 1771 when the Queen gave birth to Louisa Augusta, who was clearly Struensee’s child (portrait comparisons show a strong resemblance). At first the king refused to recognise the girl as his own, but Caroline and Struensee overcame this effort to show a will of his own. Rumours began to spread that Struensee had the king locked up and even that he had murdered him in order to maintain his own power. Opposition was growing from both inside and outside the palace.

Aristocrats who had been summarily dismissed from lucrative state offices, and whose property and influence were hard-hit by Struensee’s egalitarian-minded reforms, were fuming with resentment. Even Brandt, Struensee’s closest political ally, was becoming disaffected. In a letter asking Struensee either for a greater salary or a resignation from court, Brandt was scathing: “No despot ever arrogated such power as yourself, or exercised it in such a way. The King’s pages and domestics tremble at the slightest occurrence: all are seized with terror. They talk, they eat, they drink, but they tremble as they do so. Fear has seized on all who surround the minister, even on the Queen.”. The general ill-will which had been smouldering throughout the autumn of 1771 at last found its expression in a secret conspiracy headed by Count Rantzau, whom Struensee had neglected, and the Queen Dowager Juliana Maria, who wished to wrest power away from both the king and Struensee and divert it to herself and her son.

The Queen-Dowager showing the portrait of her only son hereditary prince Frederick
The Queen-Dowager showing off the portrait of her only son hereditary prince Frederick

The palace coup took place on 16th January 1772 in the early hours of the morning, during a masquerade ball. Struensee, Brandt and the Queen were arrested in their respective bedrooms and charged with plotting to murder the king, who was the next morning driven around Copenhagen in order to prove his ‘rescue’, to great public rejoicing. In the ensuing trial, Struensee defended himself with considerable ability, but the authorities were determined to make an example of him; he was executed on 28th April together with his long-time supporter Brandt. They were beheaded, drawn and quartered in front of a crowd of 30,000. Caroline was separated from her children and sent to live in exile.

Struensee is arrested in his bedchamber
Struensee is arrested in his bedchamber
Struensee's execution: he was beheaded, drawn and quartered
Struensee’s execution: he was beheaded, drawn and quartered

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fearing for her life, she appealed to her brother King George III of Great Britain for help. The nature of her disgrace was such that she could not receive asylum in England, but he did offer the castle at Celle, in the Hanoverian territories, for her use. Caroline lived only a few years, dying aged just 24. Back in Copenhagen, King Christian was as powerless as before, and the government reverted to a regency led by the Queen Dowager. Under her leadership Struensee’s reforms were rolled back, which proved just as unpopular with the Danish populace as Struensee had been. However, in 1784 Caroline’s son Frederick was able to regain power for his father, and the Queen Dowager’s faction was overthrown. Struensee’s early educational influence on Frederick showed itself when he succeeded to throne in 1808 and reinstated many of Struensee’s reforms, even doing what Struensee had not managed to do – abolish serfdom.

Princess Louisa Augusta in 1791: she bears a striking resemblance to Struensee
Princess Louisa Augusta in 1791: she bears a striking resemblance to Struensee
A drawing made by King Christian after the deaths of Brandt and Struensee, on which he writes "Ich hätte beide gern gerettet" ("I would have liked to have saved them both")
A drawing made by King Christian after the deaths of Brandt and Struensee, on which he writes “Ich hätte beide gern gerettet” (“I would have liked to have saved them both”)