Friday, March 22, 2013

That time when George Eliot hung out with Franz Liszt

Hanfstängl: Franz Liszt (1858). [Wikipedia] 
Weimar, August 1854. Franz Liszt, virtuoso pianist, one of concert music's first modern celebrities, is Kapellmeister to the Duke. Forty-three and still dashing, he is being pursued madly by a Wittgenstein princess.

Meanwhile, Liszt's old friend George Henry Lewes, a British intellectual, has come to town in the company of a young woman named Marian Evans. He is researching a biography of Goethe. She is translating Spinoza's Ethics. They are fleeing scandal after Lewes fled a marriage from which he could not secure a divorce despite his wife's public philandering to be with Evans. Evans has not yet started writing fiction, and is therefore not yet known to the world under the pen name that would make her famous: George Eliot.


And so it was that one of the 19th century's greatest novelists and most charismatic musicians became, for at least one lovely Thuringian autumn, friends. Eliot's biographer Gordon Haight writes:
They were soon on intimate terms with Liszt, meeting him every few days. He would drop in and chat for an hour, or, after dining with them at the Erb-prinz, come home to take coffee in the Kaufgasse, talking late into the evening.
Ary Scheffer: The Three Magi (1830s?)
with Franz Liszt as model in center
They could speak in German, but often chose to speak in French, presumably for the comfort of their friends the French ambassador and the Polish-Russian Princess Wittgenstein. They ate picnics in the garden, and E.T.A. Hoffmann read his own poems aloud. When it started to rain, they went indoors, and Liszt—who had at that point formally retired from concert life—plunked at the piano a bit:
I sat near him so that I could see both his hands and face. For the first time in my life I beheld real inspiration—for the first time I heard the true tones of the piano. He played one of his own compositions—one of a series of religious fantaisies. There was nothing strange or excessive about his manner. His manipulation of the instrument was quiet and easy, and his face was simply grand—the lips compressed and the head thrown a little backward. When the music expressed quiet rapture or devotion a sweet smile flitted over his features; when it was triumphant the nostrils dilated. There was nothing petty or egoistic to mar the picture. Why did not Scheffer paint him thus instead of representing him as one of the three Magi? 
Liszt was in the middle of bringing Wagner to Weimar; Eliot and Lewes were in the early audiences of Lohengrin, The Flying Dutchman, and Tannhäuser. (Eliot loved the last two, although Lewes left after act two of Lohengrin, and Eliot wrote that "indeed I too was weary.") Clara Schumann came to visit; Eliot called her "a melancholy, interesting creature... Her husband went mad a year ago." Liszt asked Eliot if she would translated an article he wrote on Meyerbeer and Wagner (for the latter, against the former) for English publication, which she did obligingly.

And all this spilled into an article she wrote the next year, when she wrote on "Liszt, Wagner, and Weimar" for Fraser's Magazine. Drawing on her exposure to Liszt's thoughts on Wagner on the occasion of Wagner's first visit to London, she was in essence the first remotely friendly critic of Wagnerian thought in the English language ("Wagner would make the opera a perfect music drama, in which feelings and situations spring out of character, as in the highest order of tragedy... The drama must not be a mere pretext for the music; but music, drama, and spectacle must be blended"). Her essay is open-minded if not exactly enthusiastic, the reaction of a person who discerns something worthwhile yet can't quite acclimate to an avant-garde: "With all my inability at present to enjoy his music as I have enjoyed that of Mozart, or Beethoven, or Mendelssohn, these two operas left in me a real desire to hear them again." Eliot never saw Tristan or the Ring; Wagner never read Middlemarch; presumably the only comparison you can draw is in terms of scale—but there's something quite Victorian about these brief encounters before the full flowering of the great artists of the second half of the century, like finding out that your aunt and first-grade teacher are good friends when you're a child—or like something out of Dickens, when the old beggar you helped as a kid turns out to be the making of you.

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1 comment:

  1. where did you find the image of the Scheffer painting?

    ReplyDelete