Sunday, September 2, 2018

Oliver Hilmes's Biography of Franz Liszt

After having read the glowing editorial reviews Oliver Hilmes's biography of Franz Liszt received, I was extremely disappointed after I had finished reading it.  Though the book is well written, extremely readable and contains some genuine insights into Liszt's personality, there's too much that's missing.  For one thing, I've always felt a good biography should bring to life not only the subject but the times in which he or she lived.  In other words, there should be some form of context.  That's entirely absent here.  While Liszt lived during one of the most tumultuous periods in European history, those events are never fully discussed.  The Revolution of 1848 is barely mentioned and then only for the inconvenience it caused Wagner, who was forced to flee from Dresden to Switzerland.  Likewise, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 is passed over in a single paragraph.  The composer did not live in a vacuum, and it's really impossible to evaluate his life without some understanding of the momentous events occurring about him.

The book's most glaring deficiency is in its treatment of nineteenth century music.  On page 113 Brahms's name is included in a long list of composers who visited Liszt at Weimar.  That's the only mention of Brahms in the entire book.  One does not have to be a musicologist to know that the controversy that dominated classical music in the mid-nineteenth century was that between the progressive elements represented by Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz and the conservative Classical Romanticism of Brahms.  One need only read an article in The Independent by Jan Swafford, Brahms's biographer:
"Liszt was another matter. Early in his career, Brahms and a friend wrote a manifesto condemning the Music of the Future. Directed at Liszt, the manifesto was leaked before it was ready and served mainly to embarrass the authors and touch off the war."
It's incomprehensible that there should be no reference to any of this when in reality the conflict that ensued constituted one of the most salient features of Liszt's career.  Beyond that, there's no in depth analysis of his own music nor of his development as a composer.

What author Hilmes does discuss in depth are the more salacious aspects of Liszt's career.  The excesses of Lisztomania and the composer's numerous love affairs are described in detail.  Fifteen pages are devoted to one Olga Janina, a dysfunctional stalker who once threatened Liszt with a revolver and poison but otherwise played no significant role in his life.

In the end the reader is left with the uncomfortable impression that Hilmes has sacrificed scholarship for sensationalism.

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