I first encountered the romance between Franz Liszt and Comtesse Marie d’Agoult in Impromptu, a film full of famous artists in the script (Chopin, Liszt, Sand) and on the screen (Judy Davis, Hugh Grant, Mandy Patinkin & Bernadette Peters). Impromptu is really a film about Chopin, with Liszt & his Comtesse as a colorful part of background, badly misrepresented in the script. If you’ve seen the film you might use it as evidence in the question: “why didn’t Bernadette Peters have a film career?” Neither Peters nor Marie d’Agoult do very well at the hands of writer Sarah Kernochan, who backs Peters into a screaming shrewish corner, in one of the most unpleasant portrayals I have ever seen onscreen, making Liszt look like a fool in the process.
The bicentennial year for Liszt in 2011 encouraged a wealth of scholarly activity around the composer, something like the more recent bicentennials of Wagner & Verdi in 2013. As I’m a complete junkie for such things, I’m not sure that my perspective counts, a devoted follower, especially of the lives of the romantic composers.
Michael Short has assembled & translated the correspondence between Franz Liszt & The Comtess Marie d’Agoult, into an attractive oversize volume presenting all 473 letters with notes immediately below the letters. I am in a state of shock. I picked the book up from the library because I am always hungry for details about Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner.
I did not expect to stumble upon a romance. Over the course of those 473 letters, written between 1833 and 1864, we see the ups and downs of a remarkable love affair.
This is not, I must add, the reason I would expect scholars to read the book. Correspondence of a great artist can be used to back up all sorts of positions, because they afford testimony that’s otherwise unavailable. In addition to the simple pleasure of reading, regardless of who these people might be, there are details to the lives of famous people, sometimes including trivialities that could be important. For example, letter 96 (by Liszt) includes the following review offered in passing:
I have finally managed to see Les Huguenots, that had not been performed since my arrival. It contains some remarkable things. The instrumentation and production are prodigious.
Or in letter 106 (Feb 1837), Liszt writes the following partisan report:
I have just heard Thalberg; really it is a complete hoax. Of all those things that are supposed to be superior, he is certainly the most mediocre that I know. His last piece (composed recently) on God Save the King is even worse than mediocre. As I said to Chopin: “He is a great man manqué who has turned into an artist even more manque”
Berlioz & Chopin come up from time to time, but Richard Wagner only rears his head at the very end. The last letter, written by Liszt in 1864, is the first for almost a decade, and containing none of the obsessive romance found in most of the previous 400+. By this time RW (or his music) had displaced Md’A as the apple of Liszt’s eye.
For the first hundred letters it’s all Liszt, Marie only appearing for the first time in letter #83. It’s electrifying because her style is so completely different from his. Where he’s effusively poetic she’s as direct as an amorous shark, and I can’t help envying her meal.
[Basle June 2m 1835]
Tell me immediately the name of your inn and the number of your room. Do not go out. My mother is here my brother-in-law no longer. When you read this, I shall have spoken, until now I have not dared to say anything. It is a final and testing trial but my love is my faith and I have a thirst for martyrdom.
Even so it’s hardly surprising that Short gives us mostly Liszt, given that for the most part, he’s the one whose words matter at least in the scholarly world. Letter 113 (perhaps only the fourth or fifth specimen of her writing to this point) is one of the most wonderful letters in the book for what it might tell us about Liszt & his playing (first paragraph) even if it’s ultimately intangible and elusive information. The second paragraph (only presented in part) might be of more interest to literary scholars (but will they ever bother to read this book?) than musicologists, although at the end Marie seems to be telling us that George Sand is using Marie & Franz as her inspiration
I have just received a letter from Ronchaud who tells me that the concert at the Opera has been deferred until Palm Sunday. Would you like me to come? For myself, I am not sure. I fear that I might stop you working, embarrass you, be very fidgety myself, bring you bad luck. In the end I have struggled a lot and believe that It would be better if I did not come,. Reply to me positively: come or don’t come. And if I am to come, get me a ticket for a ground-level box. […]
George [Sand] has fallen out with Le Monde. The Abbe’s cuts to the 3eme Lettre a Marcie having aroused her suspicion, she wrote a perfectly nice, affectionate and reasonable letter to him [etc]
P.S. In the letter from G to the Abbe there is a very fine page about exceptional loves, noble, holy and imperishable loves, for which the inspiration is not foreign to us, I believe.
As the book progresses more and more of the letters are Marie’s for Franz, sometimes long diary entries. Her writing is much more prosaic, whereas his flies off into poetic fancy. This romantic tale is made three dimensional by the profound difference in their writing styles, reflecting their respective circumstances. This letter of Marie’s from January 1840, at a time when they hadn’t seen one another for at least two years — is simple testimony to the impossibility of their lives:
Letter 170, January 6, 1835
I have just received your letter from Pesth. It made me cry like a baby. How can you imagine that I am insensitive to such triumphs? They are fine, great, poetic! Oh if only I were there! always there! What a pitiful role I have come to play here…..
Or letter 176, January 25 1840:
This morning I received your letters from Pesth (please no more recommandirt letters) in which you detailed what you term household accounts. I was sadly moved by all that. The misfortune of only being your mistress and not your wife was rammed home to me as it had never been before, when I think that I have to stay far away from you on such days, such lovely and splendid days, my dear and great Franz, days of noble pride which You truly deserve!
What you say to me about permission to be unfaithful (in this connection I was posing a question, to which you didn’t reply, as is your wont) is full of heart and fills me with respect for you, although this way of feeling will always remain incomprehensible to me. It is as impossible for me to conceive as that pigs may fly, and I can only allow of it as an inexplicable fact. The final word in your letter Truth is useless. I swear by our children that even a white lie has become impossible for me with you. I hasten to rid myself of all my pent-up secrets and no confessor would ever have heard such a full and true confession. If I do not write to you, it is simply because I do not know if it would not be better to talk. What is certain is that my love, my veneration for you does nothing but increase and that your word ever and always will be the sole regulator of my actions.
As the years go by, his strength & independence grows while hers seems to wane, her obsession with him increasing. Richard Wagner only comes into the picture in the very last letter, featuring in the last paragraph of the last letter of their 473 letter correspondence. It is a letter consumed with musicological concerns, with no trace of the former romance, probably because by this point –many years later– the romance had died.
Correspondence of Franz Liszt and the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, Translated and Edited by Michael Short. Opening this book, expect to be moved.