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A Liszt Odyssey: An interview with Alan Walker

A Liszt Odyssey: An interview with Alan Walker

More than 20,000 published works exist featuring charismatic trailblazer Franz Liszt. But biographer Alan Walker sets a new standard for Liszt scholarship, as well as musicological research and biographical writing. "The Volumes" (Dr. Walker's reference to his mammoth three-volume Liszt biography) have been honored by the Royal Philharmonic Society Book Award, the Yorkshire Post Music Book Award, and the Medal "Pro Cultura Hungarica," bestowed by the President of Hungary. Dr. Walker has been recognized through many awards for his distinctive contributions to Liszt scholarship, including the Commemorative Plaque of the Budapest Liszt Society and the American Liszt Society. 

Dr. Walker actively discourages references to himself as "the world 's leading authority on Franz Liszt," claiming that such a description is absurd. But readers can draw their own conclusions by examining Dr. Walker's works and observing their critical acclaim. TIME magazine remarked that his work is "...a textured portrait of Liszt and his times without rival." The New York Times called his extensive research "incredible...Dr. Walker seems to know everything about Liszt, and anything connected with Liszt, during every single day of the long life of that genius." The Washington Post said that the third volume is an "unquestionable landmark" and "meticulously detailed, passionately argued, and sometimes wrenchingly moving." Harold Schonberg wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "A conscientious scholar passionate about his subject, Mr. Walker makes the man and his age come to life. These three volumes will be the definitive work to which all subsequent Liszt biographies will aspire." 

Rarely does a scholarly writer elicit such consistent praise from mainstream media. But these enthusiastic endorsements are no surprise to any reader familiar with Dr.Walker's work. His research and writing style result in books that serve as the most authoritative musicological documents, yet read like novels. 

In our interview, Alan Walker shares some of his surprising discoveries and reflections that developed while in pursuit of the Liszt story. Walker's own story provides insight into the life of a successful researcher and internationally renowned biographer as he describes his travels to Weimar, Budapest, Rome, Paris, and Washington, D.C.

Alan Walker producing a Liszt lieder recital in the BBC’s Maida Vale studios, 1968.

What set you on the path to chronicle Liszt's life and work in such depth? 

I had been interested in the piano, and even in Liszt, since my childhood. But it was not until I became a music producer at the BBC in London that I realized there was no reliable biography of Liszt in the English language. I had just produced a long series of Liszt piano recitals for BBC radio containing a lot of his unfamiliar pieces. The pianists I engaged included Louis Kentner, John Ogdon, Béla Siki, David Wilde, Shura Cherkassky, and Valerie Tryon. The programmes were occasionally esoteric and featured such rarities as the second Mephisto Waltz, the Apparitions, Nuages gris, and Unstern!. Some of the pieces had never been broadcast before, and there were some that had not yet been commercially recorded. That was in the 1960s, of course. It was only when all the programmes were ready and scripts had to be provided for the radio announcers to read at the microphone that I realized there was almost no information available about some of this music. So I had to roll up my sleeves, do the research, and write the scripts myself. Suddenly I found that I had become a biographer. It all happened by default. I had no idea at the time how far it would lead me. 

Before we discuss your work and thoughts as a leading authority on Franz Liszt, please tell us more about your time at the BBC and how your work there evolved into the process of becoming a biographer. 

It was during my time at the BBC that I became a writer. My job there was twofold: to write "presentation notes" for the radio announcers to read for the famous (and now defunct) Third Programme music broadcasts, and to engage artists for national broadcasting and help them plan their programmes. The first part of the job taught me the essential difference between the spoken and the written word, and it helped to sharpen my communication skills. The second part of the job brought me into contact with performers from all over the world. The BBC in those days was enjoying a golden age. It was like being a member of an elite music conservatory. One just sat in the studio and the whole world of music passed through. Among the many pianists with whom I worked, Arthur Rubinstein and Wilhelm Backhaus stand out as the most interesting. And among the violinists I most enjoyed meeting was Yehudi Menhuin. 

Being placed in charge of the BBC's Music Presentation Unit was an exacting challenge. I was thirty-one years old, and in retrospect I think I was unfitted for such a responsible position. I had to provide upwards of ten thousand words a week for distribution among the BBC radio announcers—words about piano music, orchestral and choral music, and lieder. These scripts had to be musicologically exact, but they also had to be written in such a way that the man on the street could readily understand them. It was a daunting task, but I rose to the challenge and improved on the job. I had two secretaries and access to a formidable archive of material which was kept in old, open files on dozens of feet of shelving. 

But then you resigned from the BBC and entered academia. What prompted this decision? 

After ten years I had started to suffer from burnout. I could not keep up the endless round of writing radio scripts and meeting deadlines. So I resigned and accepted an offer from McMaster University in Canada to become Chairman of the Music Department there. My new job gave me an opportunity to do research, without the imposition of deadlines.

Photograph by Franz Hanfstaengel, Munich 1869.

So you set out on your travels to research and tell the full story of Liszt's life. Where did you conduct your research? How long was your journey as Liszt's biographer?

I have always believed in the "geography of biography." You must visit the places you write about. It is the best way to bring your prose to life. Liszt was a non-stop traveler. Moreover, he left a paper-trail across Europe. So I had to pack my suitcases and follow his footsteps as best I could. 

My first stop was Hungary. I still recall going to the Institute of Musicology in Budapest in order to have a preliminary meeting with some of the country's leading Liszt experts—including Dezsö Legány, Mária Eckhardt, László Eösze, and Veronika Vavrinecz. We chatted for more than an hour. I was not sure how my plan to write a three-volume biography of Liszt might be received. In those days Hungarian scholars were not allowed to travel to the West, and that was a real hindrance to their work. I need not have worried. They were more than willing to share the results of their research with me. This saved me months of labour, particularly with regards to Hungarian sources. I have always been grateful to them for that. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came at the end of that meeting. One of them came up to me as I was leaving, and said: "Do not forget that it takes a life to study a life." I have never forgotten that comment. It haunts me still. Even though I was to spend twenty-five years bringing the three volumes to fruition, it makes me feel that I may have rushed things, because I obviously finished well before my life ran out. I have meanwhile been to Hungary more than thirty times, incidentally, and always feel completely at home there. 

As you know, some scholars have questioned whether Liszt was a genuine Hungarian. He lived most of his life away from Hungary. He was also born in a part of the country that was later ceded to Austria, and he spent many years as a resident of both France and Germany. Your biography highlights many aspects of his Hungarian background, but is this enough? Does the rest of the world really accept his national origin? 

It does not really matter what the rest of the world accepts. We must speak the truth. Liszt's great-grandfather, Sebastian, was born on Hungarian soil; his grandfather, Georg, was born on Hungarian soil; his father Adam, was born on Hungarian soil; and Liszt himself was born on Hungarian soil. What more is required to be a Hungarian? Evidently it is the ability to speak the Hungarian language, which Liszt lacked. But so did tens of thousands of other Hungarians who were brought up in the Western part of Hungary, which in the nineteenth century was mainly German-speaking. Let us not forget that even some of the leaders of the Hungarian nation could not speak Hungarian, including István Széchenyi. 

Liszt always identified himself with Hungarian causes, and on special occasions he wore national costume. He once wrote: "Despite my lamentable ignorance of the Hungarian language, from the cradle to the grave, I remain Magyar in heart and mind."

In your recently published memoirs1 you describe your first visit to Weimar in the 1970s, and the various adventures that you experienced there, including lost luggage, becoming soaked during a downpour when you arrived, and after three days with no change of clothing, ending up being temporarily fitted in the only clothes you could find close to your size: an ill-fitting boy scout's uniform, complete with epaulettes. 

Yes, that is true. And that is how I presented myself to Professor Dr. Karl-Heinz Hahn, who was in charge of the Goethe-Schiller Archive at that time. I still recall the look on his face as he greeted me that first morning. He probably thought that this was regulation dress for all "field-workers" from North America. You have to understand that this was during the darkest days of the Cold War, and visitors to East Germany, especially in a small town like Weimar, were not all that common.

Do you have any photographs? 

Alas, no. I am sorry about that because if they existed they would serve as a reality check on your runaway imagination. 

Nonetheless, the mind boggles. Tell us about being locked in the burial vault of Goethe and Schiller. 

When you write a biography it is useful to know where the bodies are buried. A tombstone can sometimes convey more information about the dearly departed than a book. A visit to Weimar's Stadtfriedhof is therefore essential for the Liszt biographer because so many members of his extended circle slumber there. And if you go to the Stadtfriedhof you can hardly avoid going to the Royal Burial Vault, where the coffins of Goethe and Schiller are on permanent display. So I went. At the end of a long afternoon, the woman in charge of the tourist shop above the vault closed the entrance door and left without realizing that I was still below, contemplating the coffins of Germany's two greatest men of letters. I had no idea how long I might remain incarcerated there, so I took the opportunity to make some notes about the thirty or so lead coffins that had been pushed into the shadows. These coffins contained the remains of the grand dukes of Weimar and their offspring going back three generations. It was serendipity. Surrounded by dead bodies, I acquired much valuable information while awaiting my release, which occurred a couple of hours later. Some German friends had expected me for dinner, and when I did not turn up, they raised the alarm.

After your three-volume biography of Liszt, you published the diary of Liszt's student Lina Schmalhausen, who was present at the time of his death in Bayreuth. The diary revealed the remnants of a serious rift between the composer and his daughter Cosima. Do you believe the memory of that rift influenced her children's and her own alleged ill-treatment of Liszt?

Why do you describe it as "alleged?" The diary makes clear the atmosphere of neglect and disregard for his welfare that Liszt suffered at the hands of his daughter Cosima and her children. His last ten days in Bayreuth were terrible. He became the victim of medical malpractice at the hands of Dr. Karl Landgraf, the Wagner family physician, whom Cosima had brought in to treat her dying father. Schmalhausen was not wrong to describe Landgraf as "the bungler of Bayreuth." Liszt died from a coronary thrombosis, although in the year of his death such a condition was unknown to the medical profession. A heart attack was usually described as a "seizure." A close reading of Schmalhausen's diary leads to the conclusion that Landgraf and his colleague Dr. Fleischer, brought in from nearby Erlangen, may have hastened Liszt's death by clumsily injecting morphine (or more likely camphor) directly into the heart instead of just beneath the surface of the skin. 

For the rest, Cosima's relationship with her father had been ambivalent since her childhood. He saw very little of her when she and the other children were young because for eight years he was constantly on the road, pursuing his career as a concert pianist, which helped to pay for their support and for their private education. Cosima's later relationship with Liszt was certainly not helped when she abandoned her first husband Hans von Bülow (her father's favourite pupil) and ran off with Richard Wagner (her father's best friend). Liszt broke off all connections with the pair for five years. There may be no way to prove that Cosima's neglect of Liszt during his last few days was influenced by any of this, but the background is compelling. 

You have reported that Lina Schmalhausen was infatuated with Liszt, and that members of Liszt's inner circle were suspicious of her, and disliked her. In light of her obvious prejudices, what makes you suppose that the Schmalhausen diary is true? 

The main details can be independently confirmed through the diaries and letters of other pupils who were present in Bayreuth at the time of Liszt 's death. The account left by Bernhard Schnappauf,Wagner's factotum and the local barber-surgeon, supports Lina's graphic descriptions and even adds detail to them. Arthur Friedheim and William Dayas, both Liszt pupils who were in Bayreuth at the time, left descriptions as well. 

You had completed two of the three volumes of your landmark Liszt biography when you were invited to write for the most recent edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. What elements did you feel were most important to update and add? Did you discover any new information as you prepared the 2001 updated entry on Liszt? 

Actually I had finished all three volumes, and when the invitation from Grove's came through, I wrote the 25,000-word entry very quickly—in the summer of 1996, I believe. 

One omission I wanted to remedy in this new entry on Liszt was to provide some commentary on his songs. You will not find a word about them in the earlier Grove's article on Liszt. Yet they are very important. I describe Liszt's songs as a "missing link" between Schumann and Mahler. Also, I expanded on Liszt's activities during his earlier, formative years.

A page from Lina Ramann’s biographical questionnaires, with Liszt’s responses.

You have indicated that more than 20,000 publications, in many languages, have appeared across the last century or so devoted to Franz Liszt—probably more than any composer in history—and many of them contradict one another. How could one composer exercise such strong allure? 

That number of 20,000 publications may be an understatement. Because of Liszt's fame as a touring pianist in his younger years, it was necessary to generate instant information about him in order to pacify the demands of the crowd. And much of it turned out to be false. During his lifetime a Niagara of ink was spilled in this way. The many publicity puffs, pamphlets, and short biographies, brought out in a hurry, went on repeating the same mistakes, and they have poisoned the chalice from which Liszt's modern biographers continue to drink.

Liszt was already in the twilight of his life but no one had published an official biography of him. Yet biographies of his great contemporaries Schumann and Chopin had already appeared. Why was there a delay in the case of Liszt? 

There is no ready answer to that question. It was Princess Carolyne, Liszt's partner, who perceived the injustice of it, and arranged for Lina Ramann to write her three-volume biography of him. Ramann was a piano teacher who ran a music school in Nuremberg. She had already written articles about Liszt's music, so Carolyne thought she was sufficiently qualified. Ramann's biography created many problems for Liszt and for future scholars. Her text is filled with confusion and error. Having said that, Carolyne was constantly meddling in the project, giving Ramann a difficult time. What makes this all the more astonishing is that Liszt responded to Ramann's questionnaires with remarkable honesty, even when his replies did not always put him in the best light, but she simply ignored many of his answers. Her handwritten questions, with spaces left beneath for Liszt's replies, are preserved in the Goethe-Schiller Archive in Weimar.

The Liszt Denkmal in Weimar’s Goethe Park, sculpted by Hermann Hahn and unveiled in 1902.

History acknowledges the irrefutable contributions of Liszt the performer, the composer, and the teacher. Why did his music lose ground with scholars? 

The Romantic movement itself lost ground with scholars. It was only after World War II that we experienced a vigorous revival of interest, with festivals, music magazines, and recordings devoted to the nineteenth century springing up all over the civilized world. We must not forget that the twentieth century was dominated by composers who had made their mark precisely by reacting against Romanticism. The music of Bartók, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Webern was very much the fashion, and their cerebral approach to composition appealed to academics. Until this music had been absorbed by history, had ceased to be 'contemporary,' it was difficult to see the Romantic period in proper perspective. 

But there was surely more to it than that.

There was. I think that the mantle of neglect that settled over Liszt after his death had much to do with the rise of musicology, and all the things that musicology brought in its train—especially its insistence on "historically informed" performances and the evangelical fervour with which it pressed the case for Urtexts. The critics came to regard the Urtext as a kind of musical bible, in which the Word was sacrosanct, in which every note was preserved, in which the "sonic surface" of the music was captured exactly as the composer himself had heard it. Imagine the harm that such views could do to a free-spirited musician like Liszt, the unchallenged master of the arrangement, the paraphrase, and the transcription! Music such as this came to be regarded as second-class. The arrangement, after all, is guilty on all counts. It changes notation with impunity; it does not reverence the sonic surface of the original; it flits about, chameleon-like, donning the most far-flung acoustical disguises, defying us to say where music's true identity is to be found. 

Of Liszt's vast catalogue of 1,400 compositions or so, nearly half are arrangements either of his own or of other composers' music. That alone was enough to marginalize him. 

Finally (and this has to be said), Liszt suffered at the hands of the musicologists precisely because he remained popular with the man on the street, along with Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and other Romantics. Widespread popularity generally arouses the suspicion of the experts, whose self-imposed role as the arbiters of taste deludes them into thinking that they know better than the public itself what is good for it.

Could the sheer technical prowess required to perform much of Liszt's music have contributed to his work being misunderstood and underappreciated for many years? 

I believe that is so. Because Liszt's music nearly always contains some technical challenge, it tends to attract players of the wrong type, those who feel that their work is accomplished only if they play Liszt fast and loud. Where have all the Swiss watchmakers gone? Where are all the pianists who know how to bring out the nuances of Liszt's keyboard music? We are today surrounded by fully paid-up members of the Woodchopper School of Piano Playing, whose chief purpose seems to be to drive the piano through the floorboards. And the fact is, Liszt's music is not performer- proof. There are some composers who can survive the worst playing. No matter how terrible the performance, the value of their music continues to shine through. But not with Liszt. He is very much at the mercy of the player. How often have we left a Chopin recital that has gone badly, and we say: "What a poor player!" And how often have we left a Liszt recital that has gone badly, and we say: "What a poor composer!" The sins of the player are visited on Liszt the composer in a way that makes him almost unique. And I think I know why. Liszt composed with the outlook of a player and he played with the insight of a composer. He was always the best interpreter of his own music. 

Editor's Note: Please join us in the next issue (November-December 2011) for Part II of our interview with Alan Walker. Dr. Walker addresses the following questions: How has Liszt's reception evolved since his death? If Liszt were living today, what aspects of teaching, performing, or composing might he address? What should modern day musicians learn from studying the life of Liszt? Which aspects of Liszt's music are especially valued in our time? 

1 Alan Walker (2011). A Biographer's Journey. The Hungarian Quarterly, No. 201, pp. 45-69, and No. 202, pp. 13-34.

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