Music historian, radio editor, professor, but above all, a Liszt-researcher. Alan Walker knows everything about Liszt Ferenc, and he has shared a good part of this knowledge with the world in his fascinating biographical books. Dániel Végh asked him about his experiences and about the Liszt Year.
DV. You have dedicated decades of your life to writing a biography of Franz Liszt. How and when did you discover Liszt, and what was the reason to become a Liszt researcher?
AW. 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. It was only when everything had been recorded, and I had to provide the scripts for the radio announcers to read at the microphone, that I realized that there was almost no information available about a lot of the repertoire. So I did the research, wrote the scripts myself, and suddenly found that I had become a biographer by default, so to speak. I had no idea at the time how far it would lead me.
DV. For Hungary Liszt was always a Hungarian composer, and you also highlighted in your biography many aspects of his Hungarian identity. But does the rest of the world really accept it?
AW. 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.”
DV. You were the first to document many obscure periods of Liszt’s life, even though the readers of your books may have the impression that there are many more details to be revealed - about his thwarted marriage and about his children, for example. Is that right?
AW. Of course it is right! Writing a life of Liszt is like shining a light into the darkness. Alas, the brighter the light, the greater the area of surrounding darkness it reveals. There is still much to be written about Liszt’s complex relationships with his children, and about his thwarted marriage to Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. I was fortunate to publish many unknown documents about these matters, but other biographers may interpret them differently.
DV. What are the worst researched periods of Liszt’s life? What would you suggest to an enthusiastic young music historian who would like to find something really new about Liszt?
AW. Let me give two examples. One purely musical topic that has always intrigued me is how to find the bridge between the late Liszt and the early Liszt. I am talking about the radical change of style. We have to go to Stravinsky to find another composer who changed his musical language so abruptly that it sounds as if it were written by two different composers. To compare a piece like Nuages gris with the Second Hungarian Rhapsody is to be presented with a real puzzle. Could these two pieces have come from the same pen? We know that they did, but how to trace the link? That is the question. The other example is biographical. Liszt’s father Adam has always been a mysterious figure for me. His influence over the young Liszt was total and it was profound. Adam died in Boulogne-sur-mer when Liszt was only fifteen years old. Liszt did not attend the funeral, nor did he ever visit the grave-site in later years, even though he passed through, or near, Boulogne several times. Why not? I would welcome a detailed biographical study of Adam Liszt.
DV. You tried to clear up the – often negative – legends about Liszt’s life in your books, and suggest a much more ‘sanitized’ image of the composer than before. Wouldn’t be more interesting for the 21st century the scandals and the extreme moments of Liszt’s life, or for example the Agnes Street-Klindworth story?
AW. Why should we have to choose? We go where the evidence leads us. If the documents tell us that Liszt was a deeply sincere cleric in the Roman Catholic Church, to whose name there were at the same time some notorious scandals attached, we cannot accept the first Liszt and reject the second one. Good biographers deal with documents. Bad biographers give the public what it wants to read, and ignore everything else.
DV. You state that many women around Liszt fictionalized their memories of him. Don’t you think that Liszt himself also „manipulated” the facts in his letters?
AW. It is not a question of what I think. It is simply a question of what actually happened. I have yet to discover a single example in his letters of Liszt creating fiction about his relationships with women – the number of which was far fewer than the popular biographies would have us believe. One of the things that impresses me about Liszt is his extreme objectivity towards himself. He was a truth-teller of the first order, even when the truth did not always place him in the best light.
DV. Liszt wrote and received many thousands of letters, which often exist in different versions in at least five different languages. Can there be and will there ever be a complete critical edition of his letters – to say nothing of his writings?
AW. Probably not in our lifetime. There is too much material. An internet data-base might be a possibility, however. But that would call for the sort of devoted cooperation among the world’s archives which is not at present forthcoming.
DV. Liszt’s piano music – basicly in his own performance - was extremely successful in his time, but his orchestral and religious works were often neglected. In our time it is pretty much the same: his piano compositions are played more than the rest of his oeuvre. What do you think is the reason of that?
AW. One reason is that Liszt wrote a vast amount of piano music, so from a purely statistical point of view we are likely to hear it more often than (say) his orchestral or choral works. But I am not sure that I agree with your basic point that Liszt’s piano music was extremely successful in his time. As a matter of fact, none of Liszt’s music was until recent times. The reason is not hard to find. It has to do with his phenomenal place in the history of piano playing, which obscured his genius as a composer. Saint-Saëns, a great admirer of Liszt put this point very well: “The world persisted to the end in calling him the greatest pianist in order to avoid the trouble of considering his claims as one of the most remarkable of composers.”
DV. During the Liszt Bicentennial Anniversary Year there are several festivals and celebrations all over the world, with performances of rarities like his youthful opera Don Sanche or the less played symphonic poems and choral works. Which are the most important highlights for you personally?
AW. The entire year is a highlight for me! Time was when it would have been unthinkable to envisage so much attention being directed towards Liszt and his music. But the anniversary year has made this possible. He has waited a long time for his important place in music history to be acknowledged. Let us enjoy it!