The second part of Alan Walker's projected three-volume life of Liszt opens with events any biographer would relish. At the height of an immensely successful, indeed unprecedented career as an international virtuoso of the piano, Liszt, aged 35 and (as he felt) nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, decided on a complete change. In September 1847 he finished his final grand concert tour. A few months later he settled down as a badly-paid, often-slighted 'Kapellmeister in Extraordinary' to the court at Weimar, a small town which - in the twilight of the Goethezeit - was far better known for its literary than its musical activities. And there he stayed for 13 years, conducting a second-rate orchestra and constantly battling with conservative local authorities. The reasons for this dramatic renunciation were clearly complex, but one factor seemed to outweigh all others: more than recognition as a performer, Liszt needed esteem as a composer. His life on the road had been too hectic to allow sustained composition, and he retreated to Weimar in order to write those large orchestral pieces that would enable him 'to reach that level of superior and solid renown that is my serious aim'.
LRB 7 December 1989 | PDF Download