Saturday, December 12, 2009

And So Much for the Chouchou's Master

In the midst of packing, I've stumbled upon another one of my favorite books about singers and singing, the delightful 1923 memoir Singer's Pilgrimage by Blanche Marchesi, daughter of two of the most prominent voice teachers of the nineteenth century (if you want to hear something truly remarkable, here is a recording Mme. Marchesi made in her seventies of a "Sicilian Cart Driver's Song" -- listen for the splendid spoken asides, as the cart driver urges on his team.  Some of the best singing I've ever heard).

In her childhood and young adulthood, Mme. Marchesi rubbed shoulders with many of the great musicians of her day.  Here is her description of the conversion of Franz Liszt: 

. . . at that time artists like Liszt were very rare, and the admiration and hero-worship were almost stronger than to-day, while the romances they encountered would fill a dozen volumes.  Goethe's Werther was still the fashionable book, read by sentimental ladies, and poetry reigned supreme . . . . Virtuosos like Paganini, Liszt and [Anton] Rubinstein were demigods, and women, poor butterflies, or rather moths, would gaily burn themselves to death in their radiant light.  

At that time in Weimar Liszt was one of those suns who shone brightly on all the litle flowers that gathered around him, hoping to be loved, or even noticed.  Liszt could not see all these little flowers, his life being intimately linked at that time and filled with a great love affair, which it is not indiscreet to mention, as it is known all over the world.  his lady-love was the famous, beautiful Princess Wittgenstein, who lived in the same house with him in Weimar, having even taken her daughter with her . . . . it was like a fairy tale to see that wonderful Princess lie, clad in beautiful velvet frocks and veils, on a low couch, listening to the playing of her worshipped hero.  She was very proud of her lovely hands, and still more so of her feet.  At home she would wear silk or velvet slippers to go from one room into the other, and when lying down on her couch would drop them and put her two wonderful ivory-coloured feet on a red velvet cushion, in view of all persons present.  At dinner, when dessert was nearing, her little daughter was allowed to come down and greet the guests, and after making a few bows and kising Liszt's hand was allowed to retire with some sweets and fruit.

These quiet evenings at Weimar were followed by tragic days.  Liszt had great patience with the extravagant tastes of his Princess . . . . Mistaking this kindness and patience, she thought that she had made his heart a prisoner for ever.  Her dream was to unite her fate to Liszt's life of glory, and, desirous to break her marriage bonds and to marry Liszt, she dispatched him to Rome to try to bend the Pope to her will.  What was her surprise, her grief and her distress, when Liszt returned from Rome, to find that he had not only failed to bring the dispensation, but that he had entered Sacred Orders, and when he entered her room dressed as an abbé she fell in a dead faint at his feet.  Thus he cut off for ever the hopes of all the little flowers who would bewitch him on his further earthly artistic pilgrimage.


Enbrethiliel said...


Wow! So . . . what happened next?

Now I'm reminded of an exchange in Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens between an angel and a demon, which alludes to the lives of great musicians and composers.

"How many musicians do you think your side have got, eh? First grade I mean."

[The angel] looked taken aback.

"Well, I should think--" he began.

"Two," said [the demon]. "Elgar and Liszt. We've got the rest. Beethoven, Brahms, all the Bachs, Mozart, the lot. Can you imagine eternity with Elgar?"

When all is said and done, it's Good Omens is as Manichaean as it is fun.

Pentimento said...

Good question, Enbrethiliel, which sent me to Volume 3 of Alan Walker's Liszt biography, considered the locus classicus for all things Liszt (I am not a Lisztian myself, but I happen to own this volume because it pertained to my dissertation research). According to Walker, things were not exactly as Mme. Marchesi described them. The Princess Wittgenstein went to Rome *with* Liszt and undertook the annulment process there; the couple was supposed to get married in Rome. There were several obstacles, though, related to inheritance (the annulment itself wouldn't have been as complicated as all that, because her marriage was to a Calvinist, and he had abandoned her quite early on), and it appears that the Princess herself lost her nerve. Liszt took minor orders as a Franciscan a few months later.

By the way, that is hilarious about Elgar and Liszt being the only two in heaven.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think Vivaldi would have made it to Heaven as well. Don't you? =)

Thanks for looking up the rest of the story (or rather, the more accurate version of the story). I hope the Princess had her own happy ending, too, later in her life.

Pentimento said...

Hmmm . . . Vivaldi, the "Red Priest"? Not sure about him . . .

More about Princess Wittgentstein here:

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, dear. Was he that bad? =S

(I can look it up myself, of course, but thanks for sparking the research!)

Pentimento said...

It's hard to know about Vivaldi, but let's just say that where there's smoke there's usually fire: