An opinionated, marvelous, sensible book about poor Liszt, who was predisposed to fall into a certain kind of historical...


LISZT: The Artist As Romantic Hero

An opinionated, marvelous, sensible book about poor Liszt, who was predisposed to fall into a certain kind of historical chasm, from which nobody has been inclined to rescue him. Perenyi gives a good account of how it happened: the talent at first was not spectacular, but having played to society as a dragged poodle of a child, Liszt had perfected his manners and developed Hungarian swagger (not an asset even in those xenophilic circles) into a magnetizing flair. He had also evolved a serious streak, partly in reaction to the indignities of a prodigy's life, but also from the knowledge that he was not -- in a proper French sense -- really civilized. He was a passionate auto-didact with lofty ideas of art and immense natural gifts -- and because he was also very beautiful and had a weakish grasp of his own identity, he fell naturally into the role of Romantic genuis. Hugo and his cronies all saw him as such, though they couldn't have told you what he was playing, and it was as such that, with George Sand, Liszt trumpeted the ideas of Lammenais and then, contrarily, stormed the continent's salons and stages. Even his retreat into religion is not inconsonant -- and that is why his reputation is not all it could be today, when the Romantic personality strikes a sour note. Then or now, his work as a composer is barely considered. This is partly because of inferences drawn from his image, his admittedly scatter-shot endeavors and the fact that transcription, at which he excelled, is a downgraded art. Another reason, Ms. Perenyi says, is that many of his compositions represent a more genuinely radical application of the Romantic credo than the Romantics themselves were prepared to understand. Liszt was the first in musical history to bear this peculiarly modern burden of self-consciousness; and because there was a basic contradiction that even he couldn't have appreciated between being the artist and creating the art, it is no wonder confusion persists. Some myths, though, are easily corrected; Paganini probably had less to do with his technique than the Eruard piano company, and he certainly did the thinking behind Mme. D'Agoult's turbid transcriptions. The quality of the social history can perhaps be gauged from Perenyi's preference for a gloriously reclaimed George Sand over Liszt's other stupefying mistresses. Nonetheless a stunning biography, even if you never acquired the taste for a Hungarian etude.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 1974


Page Count: -

Publisher: Atlantic/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1974