Franz Liszt, from glory to darkness

Franz Liszt, from glory to darkness

  • Portrait of Franz Liszt.

    LEHMANN Henri (1814 - 1882)

  • In the concert hall.


  • Franz Liszt.

    HANFSTAENGL Franz Seraph (1804 - 1877)

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Title: Portrait of Franz Liszt.

Author : LEHMANN Henri (1814 - 1882)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 113 - Width 86

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage place: Carnavalet museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

Picture reference: 00-015028 / P. 1683

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

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Title: In the concert hall.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Creation date : 1847

Date shown: 1842

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Handcoloured lithographFranz Liszt at the "Singakademie" in Berlin in 1842Original title: Im Concertsaale

Storage place: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Berlin) website

Contact copyright: © BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - BPK image

Picture reference: 10-528259

In the concert hall.

© BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - BPK image

© BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - image BSB

Publication date: April 2012

CNRS Researcher Center for Research on Arts and Language

Historical context

Prodigy and renunciation

An extraordinary pianist and innovative composer, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was one of the greatest musicians of the 19th century.e century. He stayed in Paris from 1823 to 1835, and it was in the French capital that he gained international fame as a pianist of "transcendent" virtuosity. He falls in love with the Countess Marie d´Agoult, friend of George Sand.

From 1835 to 1847, Liszt toured Europe and performed in concerts which brought him glory, money and the admiration of female audiences: from Berlin to Constantinople, from Moscow to Paris, he unleashed enthusiasm during performances that fascinate spectators. But from 1847, deciding not to pass for a "public entertainer" any more, he gave up his career as a piano virtuoso and settled in Weimar, Germany. More and more attracted by Catholicism, he received minor orders in 1865 and became "Abbé Liszt". Piano teacher at the Budapest Academy of Music, he composed many religious pieces and broke more or less clearly with his past life: far from the virtuoso's prowess, he wrote increasingly stripped-down and austere works. He died in Bayreuth in 1886, three years after his son-in-law and friend Richard Wagner.

Each of these images eloquently testifies to one of the three great phases of Liszt's life: the pianist who fascinates Parisians, the virtuoso who sets European audiences on fire, the ascetic musician of recent years.

Image Analysis

An aesthetic and spiritual evolution

During Liszt and Marie d´Agoult’s trip to Italy in 1839, they met the German-born French painter Henri Lehmann (1814-1882) in Rome, who befriended them. This portrait of Liszt reveals the painter's admiration for the pianist and the influence of his master, Ingres. An appreciated portrait painter in his time, Lehmann wanted to express the magnetism that emanated from Liszt. Dressed in a black frock coat, Liszt adopted a classic three-quarter-length pose in an interior where nothing, neither piano nor sheet music, evokes music. Playing on the effects of chiaroscuro, the painter concentrated the light on the left hand - with disproportionately long fingers - of the pianist and especially on his face: Liszt fixes on the spectator a deep gaze, with an impenetrable expression, and seems look him up. Lehmann thus makes Liszt a double being, in the pure romantic tradition: between shadow and light, between public admiration and a taste for solitude, between Paris and Rome, between diabolical virtuosity and mystical aspirations, multiple interpretations can be proposed, which refer to to the complex personality of the musician.

The anonymous print entitled "In the concert hall" (1847) is of a totally different spirit: in 1842, Berliners fell into a veritable "Lisztomania" according to the poet Henri Heine. This print recalls that Liszt was an international star, adored by a predominantly female audience who seeks to attract his attention with his applause and his bouquets: Théophile Gautier also spoke, in Paris, of the “deluges of camellias” and of the “bombardment of bouquets. »Towards Liszt who, for his part, smiled sardonically from his piano. The author of the print also attests it, with the hindsight of the cartoonist who ironically sketches these young ladies no doubt more bewildered with admiration for the pianist than seduced by the music he performs. This is due to Liszt's very presence at the piano: he is shown here in action, wearing his black frock coat, his long hands waving above the keyboard. The designer magnifies the theatrical performance of the pianist, evoked in almost all the accounts of his concerts: grimaces, mimicry, hands that rise to the top of his head, so many traits that have been criticized from his beginnings in Paris. But this print also reveals that, as he himself feared, Liszt was becoming an entertainer: we observe him through binoculars, we press each other at the foot of the platform, we throw wreaths at him, we applaud him, but what about the music?

Hence the break with this career in 1847 and Liszt's new orientation towards a more collected life, far from the excesses of the virtuoso. The contrast is striking with the last image, which forms a synthesis of Lehmann's portrait and the print from 1847. This photo probably dates from 1869, and it is the work of Munich photographer Franz Hanfstaengel (1804-1877). From Berlin to Munich, everything has changed in the musician's life: the virtuoso has given way to Abbé Liszt. If he still wears his black frock coat, he is now alone in a dark room, sitting in front of a simple upright piano, and no longer trying to impress an audience. The demonic smile has disappeared, and it is a religious man, withdrawn into himself, who calmly and meditatively plays the score placed in front of him. The sobriety of the staging reflects the austerity that the Hungarian musician now favors in his life and in his works.


Romanticism and music

Liszt was one of the first international stars to spark protests of collective hysteria. His aura was extraordinary: an evil character that Gautier believed came from a Hoffmann tale, he was universally celebrated in his time. Princess Belgiojoso, a great admirer of Liszt and friend of Marie d'Agoult, Chopin and George Sand, summed up the exceptional status of the Hungarian pianist at the end of a famous pianistic duel that she had organized in 1837 between Liszt and Thalberg: “Thalberg is the world's leading pianist, Liszt is the only one. This is what makes the renunciation of fame even more remarkable from 1847. In this, Liszt is a good representative of the ideals of the romantic generation, because he was a man constantly torn between worldly life and mystical aspirations, between the love that women had for him and the celestial visions that he expressed in the Poetic and religious harmonies.

  • virtuoso
  • Wagner (Richard)
  • Liszt (Franz)


STRICKER Rémy, Liszt. From darkness to glory, Gallimard, 1992. GUT Serge, "Franz Liszt", Dictionary of music in France in the 19th century, Fayard, 2003.REYNAUD Cécile, Liszt and the romantic virtuoso, Champion, 2006.

To cite this article

Christophe CORBIER, "Franz Liszt, from glory to darkness"

Video: Liszt: Études dexécution transcendante