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Génie Oblige: Franz Liszt and musical service

Génie Oblige: Franz Liszt and musical service

For Franz Liszt, music was a moral force. He would surely have agreed with Alfred Cortot who used to proclaim, "Music forces Mankind to confront its nobility."

Nobility! It brings us to the heart of the matter. Liszt was the first musician in history to articulate a great idea: namely, that music functions best when placed in the service of some humanitarian or ethical cause. He had a watchword: "Génie oblige!"—"Genius carries obligations!" If you are gifted by God, by Nature, or by Providence, you have a duty to give something back. The idea runs like a golden thread through Liszt's career and helps to provide its peculiar definition. During his lifetime a river of gold poured in, but a river of gold also poured out. Liszt used his celebrity to raise money for many charitable causes. His benefactions are almost too numerous to list, but he sent aid to the victims of the Danube floods, he paid for the erection of a monument to Beethoven in the composer's native city of Bonn, he made generous donations to the building fund of Cologne Cathedral, he provided money for the establishment of a Gymnasium at Dortmund, and he supported the construction of the Leopold Church in Pest. When he heard of the Great Fire of Hamburg, which raged for three weeks during May 1842 and devastated much of the city, Liszt gave concerts in aid of the thousands of homeless. Never before in the history of music had an artist given so liberally of his time and talent.

He also did much good by stealth, giving money anonymously to people who needed it but did not know him. One of the more touching scenes from his sunset years comes to us from his Hungarian pupil Janka Wohl. She recalls seeing him sitting at his desk putting bank notes into envelopes and addressing them to people in Budapest who had pleaded with him for financial help. Small wonder that as he approached old age, having divested himself of a fortune, Liszt faced a life of genteel poverty. And he did it willingly.

Above: Phillippe Pinel releasing lunatics from their chains, by Tony-Robert Fleury. This painting depicts the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in 1795.
Above: The Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, France.

Music, for Liszt, was a vocation, a calling, a term of which we hear hardly anything today. He argued that music must never be confused with a mere trade, although it frequently is. He made a distinction between Artists and mere Artisans. The former are chosen, the latter simply do a job of work. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker can all exchange places with one another; but not one of them can exchange places with a musician. After all, no one is called upon to become a candlestick-maker! Even in Liszt's time, there were candlestick-makers in the profession. And there are many more today, people for whom music is just a job of work, a way of making money. Liszt despised them. He even accused them of "Mammon worship." They not only lacked a sense of vocation, they lacked what he called "a sacred predestination"—that sense of destiny which marks the artist from birth. "It is not he who chooses his profession—it is his profession which chooses him," he observed. If we think this through, it would mean that one could no more determine to become a musician than one could determine the color of one's eyes. You may develop your talent, but you cannot develop what was never given to you in the first place. 

The Musician, then, was for Liszt somewhat like the Priest, a chosen intermediary between God and Man. We could almost call him a spiritual ambassador. Music was a divine fire that he brought down to earth from heaven, so that lesser mortals could warm their spirits and enrich their souls. In a memorable phrase, Liszt once defined the musician as "the Bearer of the Beautiful." And when he was asked how the artistic personality itself should be fostered, he gave a reply that cannot be bettered. "For the formation of the artist, the first prerequisite is the improvement of the human being."

Are these thoughts out of touch with the banal world in which we live today? Are they relevant to our every-day existence as musicians? We banish them to time and place at our peril. Music and musicians surely function best when placed in the service of a cause somewhat higher than self-interest. We need to constantly remind ourselves that if the art of music is to have a meaningful future, if it is to rise above the level of a mere trade, it must look to its past, and to those ideals that Franz Liszt was not only the first to articulate but also the first toput into practice.

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