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Did the piano kill Liszt?

An interview with Liszt's great-granddaughter Blandine Ollivier de Prévaux

Elyse Mach interviews Madame Blandine de Prévaux at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, October 1970. From left: Dean Randolph Hudson, Mme de Prévaux, Marnie Fournier, Elyse Mach. Seated in foreground is Dr. Richard Wenzlaff, Chair of the Music Department.
The children of Liszt and Marie d’Agoult. From left: Blandine, Daniel, and Cosima.

The following interview took place in 1970 and was originally published in Clavier. The valuable recollections and thoughts from a direct descendant of Liszt along with firsthand accounts from her father and grandfather make this a fascinating story—one worth reading forty years later. Clavier Companion is pleased to reprint this interview with revised and updated notes. 

"It was the piano that killed Liszt!" This was one of the first remarks made by Madame Blandine Ollivier de Prévaux upon our meeting at the American Liszt Festival in 1970. Seventy-six at the time, Madame Prévaux was the great-granddaughter of the famous composer Franz Liszt and the Countess Marie d'Agoult. 

After corresponding with Madame de Prévaux by telephone and through exchange of letters for nearly two years, I was, indeed, delighted to meet her in person. In the days which followed our initial meeting, we discussed many aspects of Liszt's life and works. Although it was of tremendous interest to hear stories about Liszt and other great musical figures, such as Richard Wagner, it was equally fascinating to learn of Madame de Prévaux's own experiences and accomplishments. For, with her gesticulating hands and vivacious smile, she seemed to transmit the same personal warmth and effervescent manner attributed to her great-grandfather. 

Madame de Prévaux, what is your relationship to Franz Liszt? 

My great-grandparents were Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and the Countess Marie d'Agoult (1805-1876). From this liason, three children were born: Blandine, Cosima, and Daniel. Blandine Liszt (1835-1862), the first born, was my grandmother. She in turn married Emile Ollivier (1825-1913), who was the prime minister to Napoleon III. They had a son, Daniel Ollivier (1862-1941), who was my father. 

What about your own family? 

My father, Daniel Ollivier, was a lawyer, and my mother, the former Cathérine du Bouchage, came from a family of bankers. I was married to a French naval officer who was in the Resistance Movement during World War II and was shot by the Germans in 1944.We had two daughters, Claude and Daniella, and now I have four grandchildren—all girls. I shall look forward to the day when I become a great-grandmother. 

This is your first visit to the United States, is it not? 

Yes, it is. You know that Liszt was once asked to visit the United States, but declined, saying that he was too old. He thought Anton Rubinstein should go in his place. Now I'm making my first visit at age seventy-six and am looking forward to returning again. 

What was your purpose in visiting the United States?

There were really several reasons for my visit to the United States. For one thing, I came to attend the American Liszt Festival (October, 1970). I also came to visit my good friends, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Waters (Professor Waters is with the Music Department of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.). My journey to Washington involved looking through and studying various Liszt manuscripts in the Library of Congress. And then, of course, I am here regarding the publication of various correspondences. 

What was your impression of the American Liszt Festival? 

I must say I was quite impressed, for the entire atmosphere of the festival was very beautiful. There was remarkable direction and organization of the festival, and the quality of the performances and lectures was excellent. 

The accent was put on religious works of Liszt and I had the feeling that Liszt would have been happy in this atmosphere. He had been a deeply religious man all his life. He really was a man without any prejudices in life and in art. In fact, he might be described as the real Weltburger of Goethe. 

You spoke of publishing some correspondence. Would you elaborate on this?

There is so much correspondence between Liszt and his friends, pupils, relatives, loves, and so forth, letters numbering in the thousands; for instance, the touching correspondence with Countess Marie d'Agoult from 1835 to 1848. These love letters are among the most beautiful of the French Romantic period. Another beautiful correspondence is the lifetime exchange between Wagner and Liszt.

Of especial interest are the letters written to his daughters, Blandine Ollivier and Cosima Wagner, and his only son, Daniel Liszt, the majority of which are still unpublished. In fact, the letters to Cosima and Daniel and most of those addressed to his own mother, Anna Liszt, in later years, are still unpublished. None of the Cosima letters has ever been published in its entirety.2

The Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.

Why was there such a tremendous amount of correspondence? 

Probably since people didn't see each other as much as they do now. You know people just do not have that type of personal communication today. 

It seems strange that so very many letters are still in existence, even those Liszt wrote at a young age. 

Ah, yes. The letters survived because Liszt was famous at a young age and his heirs knew that someday the letters would be of value and so they saved them.

Did your father and/or grandfather spend much time with Liszt? 

Oh, yes. My father visited Liszt at intervals either in Bayreuth, in Rome, or in Paris. And when he was a child, Liszt frequently visited him in St. Tropez. (St. Tropez, France, was the birthplace of Daniel Ollivier, and his mother's burial place.) My father never lived with him, though. As for my grandfather, Emile Ollivier, Liszt and he were always great friends. Even when my grandfather remarried (Blandine, Liszt's daughter, died in 1862 at the age of twenty-six), Liszt and he remained ardent friends. 

You know, people in those days didn't occupy themselves with their children's lives as much as they do now. The children were given a brilliant education by the best masters and governesses, and they came into their parents' lives when they were already brought up. Liszt was an exception in the lives of society in those times in that he personally supervised carefully the upbringing of the children. 

What recollections did your father and grandfather relate to you about Liszt? 

My father and grandfather both spoke of the numerous visits with Liszt. On those occasions, the entire day would be spent in amiable conversation. Liszt especially enjoyed discussing art and politics. 

From what my father related, Liszt was not very fond of taking walks or of the outdoors. He liked society life and was, of course, always surrounded by an army of people of all kinds. He was really quite social. 

My grandfather recalled that Liszt could not walk down the street without people gathering about him. He was mobbed wherever he went and really had no privacy whatsoever. 

His impact on people was so great that one might say he was the originator of the star system which in our present times rules over the world. At that time in history such a phenomenon was practically unknown. 

My grandfather told me a story of a time when Liszt was about to leave on a concert tour. There were so many well wishers at the railroad station that a piano was brought and placed on the station platform, whereupon Liszt sat down and gave an impromptu concert for the gathered crowd.

There are a number of stories about how rich everyone always thought Liszt was. When he was young he earned much money with his concert tours, but when he was older he became very poor. My father often talked about how surprised he was when he visited his famous grandfather and they traveled in third-class style and dined in the cheapest hotels. 

Liszt was a tremendously generous man. He gave away whatever he had. In fact, he taught for years and never accepted any payment whatsoever. And, Liszt didn't teach only piano—he taught organ, conducting, composition, and even the harp!

Did your father have any communication with the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein?3

Yes, my father told me about a visit he made to Princess Carolyne, who was his godmother, when he was about seventeen or eighteen. He was obliged, like all other visitors, to wait in an outer room until all the fresh air he might have brought into the house was consumed. In her study were fourteen busts of Liszt, and fourteen sanctuary lights, one next to each bust, commemorating the fourteen years of their mutual love. The busts and the lights were strewn all about the room, obscured by the cigars she smoked without end. He thought that the princess was a fine godmother, but considered her rather eccentric! 

The princess wrote some twenty-four volumes on Catholicism, did she not? 

Yes, she worked over twenty years on those volumes and during this time she had a private publishing firm working for her exclusively. She died several weeks after completing the final volume. 

And what has become of them? 

Absolutely nothing. We had one or two of the volumes in our family. During the war we asked the gardener to hide them along with other articles. He did, but later on couldn't remember where, so now they are lost.4 

How important a role do you think Princess Carolyne played in the life of Liszt?

If it were not for the princess, Liszt would not have written down much of his most beautiful music. She was the one who managed to make him sit down and put it all on paper. 

The princess was very effective in this way, but she was a terribly possessive and prejudiced woman. She attempted to keep Liszt isolated from many of his friends. For instance, she despised Wagner, and Wagner had little use for her. 

Liszt held Wagner in highest esteem and would never allow Princess Carolyne to interfere in their correspondence. The princess would sometimes handle other correspondences for him, though. For example, she wrote a number of chapters in his book, The Gypsy in Music. An edited version of those books really should be made. 

She did sacrifice a great deal to be with Liszt. Since the czar would not allow her to leave the country, it was necessary for her to flee from Russia to be with Liszt. The czar frowned upon the relationship of the princess with a mere Hungarian musician. Luckily, the princess was able to cross the border before the czar's orders to restrain her were received by the guards. With that move she gave up many of her estates in Russia. Did you know that she had over 30,000 serfs working on those estates? 

Now that we've discussed one of the most important women in the life of Liszt, what about the other, namely the Countess Marie d'Agoult?

From what my grandfather told me, she was a brilliant woman who had become a celebrated journalist, political writer, and one of the founders of the Republican Party of France. She had one of the great salons in Paris where she received the most brilliant artists, writers, and political men of the times. She wrote a number of books, her masterpiece being The French Revolution of 1848, which even today might be considered one of the best accounts on the subject. 

Marie's life was so involved in these activities that she actually did not raise the children born of the Liszt relationship. They were mostly cared for by Liszt's mother, Anna, and later by Princess Carolyne. 

It seems natural at this point of the conversation to ask if you have any comment on Liszt's love life. 

His love life was intense and continued to the end of his life, practically to the last day of his life. I think he was credited with more adventures than he probably really had, but of course he was a unique phenomenon in all features. 

What person, if any, did Liszt admire most? 

He worshipped Wagner, and so gave as much time and strength to him as possible. He lived for him and probably understood him better than anybody else. 

Of the Liszt family, who would you say has followed most closely in the footsteps of Liszt? 

His son, Daniel.5 If Daniel had lived, he would have achieved the fame of his father for he possessed all of the same talents. Daniel was exceptionally brilliant. At nineteen he had already won all kinds of honors. Not only was he an excellent pianist, but he excelled in all other areas, particularly mathematics. Although Daniel was Hungarian by birth, he was offered the French nationality because of his numerous achievements. 

We've been speaking primarily of events in Liszt's life up to now.What about your own life, Madame de Prévaux? 

One could say that I had the normal life of a child in France. I was an only child who grew up in a society of politicians and artists—in a cultivated, artistic family. 

You speak such fluent English.

That is because of the governess. We had an English governess and so learned the language from her at the age of two. (In addition to French and English, Madame de Prévaux speaks German and Italian fluently.) Our governess stayed with my children, and on with my grandchildren. She remained with us until her death several years ago. 

To continue, during my childhood I began to study piano—I believe it was at the age of four. At twelve, I studied with Alfred Cortot at the Paris Conservatory. I remember practicing like a professional, four to five hours daily, but my father discouraged me from pursuing a concert career since he said I would have too much of a legend to live up to. 

It is little known that all three of Liszt's children were exceptionally fine pianists, but he discouraged them from entering into such a life.

And what about the musical studies of your own children and grandchildren? 

They studied piano as any child studies piano.

What music of Liszt's did you enjoy playing the most?

I especially liked the L'enjeune, the Sonata in B Minor, Weineglugenen, and the Études d 'exécution transcendante d 'après Paganini. I also enjoyed playing the Années de pèlerinage, the Légendes, and the Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (a prelude after J.S. Bach). 

I understand that you have also engaged in some writing. 

Yes, I wrote some books on the youth movement in Italy during Mussolini's reign and on Liszt, along with translating some of Wagner's letters from German to English. 

During the thirties, I did some interviews for a newspaper in Paris, and interviewed Chamberlain, Hitler, Mussolini, and others. I met Hitler through the Wagner family. He was reported to have been very fond of Wagner's music, or perhaps it may have been the power that the music represented which impressed him so much. Hitler looked and spoke like such an ordinary man. It was difficult to believe he wielded so much authority, but then he emitted an entirely different impression to those who saw and heard him speak in formal settings.

What about your life at present? 

Today I enjoy living in my apartment, which is on the right bank of Paris, overlooking the Seine. Some months are also spent at my country home in St.Tropez, which is located in the south of France. 

I am hoping to return to Paris and continue efforts at setting Liszt's correspondence in order. 

You seem to have a tremendous amount of vitality. With the frantic pace of your busy schedule these past days how do you manage to do it all?

By having a great curiosity—for this is what keeps people young. The great performers age the best because of the discipline they have. 

And what about age? 

You must say your age when you are under thirty and over seventy— that way you enjoy it all the more! 

What are your hopes for music in the future?

I hope that the return to the eternal values of the Romantic Period will confirm itself. 

And your aspirations for the music of Liszt? 

That with the return of the spirit of the Romantic Period, many of his works, among the deepest and finest of those which have been ignored by the public, will become known. 

His religious music, principally, has been neglected. The work most performed in Europe is the Messe de Gran (1855), but those works so beautiful and so rarely performed include the Via Crucis (1878), the Cristus Oratorio (1866), and the numerous Psalms.6

As for the organ works, many have been totally neglected. I hope that they may become as popular as many of his piano works. 

Among the piano compositions, the Weinachtsbaum, or "Christmas Tree Suite" (1874), dedicated to Daniella von Bülow, Liszt's granddaughter and Cosima von Bülow's daughter, should have the same attention as the Schumann Kinderscenen since it has the same charm. 

As far as the Lieder are concerned, they contain as much beauty as the Schubert and Schumann Lieder. My favorite ones are Die Loreley, Du Bist wie eine Blume, Die drei Zigeuner, and Enfant, si j'etais roi.

And lastly, more of the twelve symphonic poems for orchestra should be performed. We only hear Les Préludes (1848). The Faust Symphony (1854) is not included in the list of twelve symphonic poems. This is Liszt's masterpiece, but unfortunately it is too rarely performed. 

Now tell me, Madame de Prévaux, what did you mean when you remarked that the piano killed Liszt? 

What I meant was that for so many years no one could admit that the greatest pianist of all time could also be a creator of music. He was killed by the piano because he was so overshadowed by the terrible prestige of being the greatest pianist in the world. No one would accept the fact that the greatest pianist could also rank as a great composer. 

Of course, Liszt always had foresight. Did not some of his music in the last period foreshadow techniques utilized by Debussy and Stravinsky? It is also in the last years of his life that he was known to remark, "I can wait." Perhaps with the return of the spirit of the Romantic Period, he need wait no longer! 

Our correspondence continued until a short time before Mme. de Prévaux's death in 1981. It was my privilege and certainly a pleasure to have known this elegant and charming lady. Fond memories remain, to be sure. 

Notes: 

1 The complete Liszt-d'Agoult correspondence has never been published in English. Only certain individual letters have appeared in that language. The Liszt-Wagner correspondence appeared in an English translation by Francis Hueffer as long ago as 1897. 

2 The correspondence of Liszt with his children and the children with one another has never been published in full, though a number of these letters have appeared in various publications. 

3 Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein was Liszt's mistress from 1848 to 1862. 

4 A complete set of Des causes intérieures de la faiblesse extérieure de l'Église is in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. They acquired it in 1965. It had originally belonged to the personal library of Cardinal Gustav von Hohenlohe. 

5 Daniel Liszt died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty. 

6 Via Crucis has received numerous performances in recent years. 

Original interview ©1971 The Instrumentalist Publishing Co. Used with permission.

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