“Je crain pour toi les femmes” “I fear for you and women”: Adam Liszt’s last words to his son, Franz, who was 16 at the time and had already been touring Europe for several years, generating rave reviews and a frenzy unprecedented in the history of performing musicians.
The early 19th century’s burgeoning middle class pushed music performance beyond the access-controlled spaces of wealthy patrons and into concert halls which could seat hundreds of people. The public’s growing romantic sensibilities demanded a hero, and the virtuoso pianist’s flying fingers and scintillating presence would facilitate the transcendental experience the people craved.
Liszt was arguably the favourite virtuoso pianist of the time. A gifted child whose family and community supported his musical education, he was performing publicly from the age of 9. Three years later, Beethoven’s disciple, Carl Czerny, declared he had nothing more to teach little Franz and sent him on his merry way to stardom.
Liszt established the idea of the ‘concert pianist’ who walks onstage from behind the wings, bursts forth countless notes sans music score as if channelling them from the heavens and leaves audiences with jaws dropped, paralysed in awe. Liszt’s stage presence was electrifying, his showmanship unsurpassed. Glistening arpeggios and crashing chords would surge from the keyboard between tender, singing melodies executed with utmost sensitivity. Young Franz had a notable effect on his audiences. Women would clamber to the stage with unbound excitement, throwing themselves towards him, fighting for a lock of hair or to collect his sweat in a phial. This sounds like a pretty standard scene for your average contemporary pop concert, but this early manifestation of a musician’s sex appeal was novel and rather unnerving to innocent bystanders.
Was Liszt Europe’s first Rock Star?
Heinrich Heine, German poet and friend of Liszt’s, coined the term Lisztomania. He wrote: “A physician, whose specialty is female diseases, and whom I asked to explain the magic our Liszt exerted upon the public, smiled in the strangest manner, and at the same time said all sorts of things about magnetism, galvanism, electricity, of the contagion of the close hall filled with countless wax lights and several hundred perfumed and perspiring human beings”
What really happened in those sweaty, activated concert halls? Liszt performed at the Theatre Graslin in Nantes, France, in 1875. During their off season this year, an evocation of Lisztomania will be aroused in the Theatre by way of an elaborate installation by South African artist James Webb, co-created with script writer Louis Viljoen. The reason I’ve got Liszt on my mind? I’ll happily be contributing to the sounds that will be emanating from the walls and corners of the Theatre Graslin.*And now?
The concert pianist’s spiel has pretty much remained the same (let’s talk about that another time) and the idea of the performing musician’s image has moved and morphed in countless ways in the performance spheres of other musics. One thing is for sure: people still want heroes and people still want sexy heroes. In the case of classical musicians, heroes who can play a million notes per second.**
*James Webb’s La Syzygie will be on from 1 July to 28 August 2016 as part of Le Voyage a Nantes festival, if you happen to be in the area
**Not all classical musicians are sexy
Add these to your lisztening liszt:
Ballade No. 2 in b, S. 171 – Lief Ove Andsnes
Piano Sonata in b, S178 – Yuja Wang
Années de Pèlerinage, S160 No. 6 ‘Vallee d’Obermann’ – Claudio Arrau
–by Coila-Leah Enderstein