For the Lisztomaniac

McLuhan’s dictum “the medium is the message” has some curious ramifications in the fourth dimension (the dimension of time). An archive gathered across any significant period will function not just as a record for the subject(s) portrayed in the images, but also testify to the history of the medium.

Sometimes that testimony is so strong that our understanding of the past is completely tied to the medium: as when we listen to recordings of singers from the past. While Jussi Björling’s voice is heard very clearly in recordings made at the end of his career (he died in 1960), the orchestra isn’t so clear in his early recording (1930s); the star of the previous generation, Beniamino Gigli isn’t captured quite so perfectly in the recordings from his time, while with Enrico Caruso, the recordings are sufficiently imperfect that we begin to wonder just how good he truly was, and how he would have sounded. And further back? The rest is silence, because we have no record.

This is a preamble to considering the photographs of Franz Liszt. So many of the great media icons of recent history are, alas, dead. While it’s true that Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix and James Dean died young, we have wonderful records of other stars who lasted at least as long as Liszt’s three quarters of a century. But none of them made their mark in the 19th century. The long-lived Hungarian pianist, composer, and (eventual) abbé was one of the first great artist-celebrities in history. While you may not think much of Ken Russell’s film Lisztomania (1975), I love this suggestive title, ahead of its time in deconstructing a classical icon. While it’s imprecise to see a 19th century pianist through the lens of a rock band (that is, to imagine Liszt as an early prototype of the Beatles or Elvis), there are still many parallels to consider. For example, as a result of the feverish attention the pianist generated, photographers were eager to take portraits, knowing they’d be hugely in demand. Again, we need to see past our prejudices; while portraits were already largely irrelevant as historic evidence in the days of Karsh, in a time of primitive photographic technology (ie the middle of the 19th century), the formal staged portrait was one of the key documentary sources.

Franz Liszt nelle fotografie d’epoca della collezione Ernst Burger is a handsome over-sized book recently acquired at the Edward Johnson Building’s music library, containing a wonderful collection of portraits of Liszt. Googling the title shows that it’s available from Amazon in several countries as well as the NY Public Library.

Burger’s book was partly occasioned by the Liszt bicentennial (in 2011), but driven principally by another (and for me, unexpected) motivation. In the prefaces we discover that the book records an exhibition held in Italy, where the great virtuoso frequently made his home: Villa d’Este.

Yes of course, I remember the Villa d’Este from L’Années de Pelerinage (“Years of Pilgrimage”).  

More about the music in a moment.

The exhibit was an opportunity for the proud inhabitants to celebrate Liszt’s connection to a small part of Italy that the composer-pianist used to frequent throughout his life, in an exhibition of photographic portraits, recorded in this wonderful collection.

These compositions are like travelogues, although the word really doesn’t do them justice. They’re arguably derivative, from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Berlioz’s program symphony Harolde en Italie. What Berlioz & Liszt accomplished has about as much to do with Byron, as Columbus’s exploits have to do with China (his original objective). Year One includes some remarkable mood pieces that resemble paintings, as though recording travels through the landscapes of Switzerland. 

Year Two takes us to Italy, including the famous Petrarchan Sonnets.

You may say that I digress, but I am talking about Liszt. I can’t show you the pictures, can i..? I can only speak of their subject, this fascinating fellow who went through several interesting incarnations. The earlier photos show the handsome pianist, clearly accustomed to public acclaim & attention. And then in this enormous collection of portraits, we see him morph into the figure he’d become, the abbé withdrawn from public life, aging but still strikingly handsome. Because of his fame, people often asked to be photographed with him: leading to many charming group photos.

No, these are not photos of a man playing a piano: which by the way could have been useful. How did Liszt sit? While we do see him pose politely at a piano, that’s not the same as a picture of how he looked while playing.  Yet we do have sketches showing us his attitudes at the piano, so it’s not as though we’re in the dark about this.

I can’t be objective, as I am the Lisztomaniac I spoke of in the title. I am so totally fascinated by the man that I find each of these photos intriguing.

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