Franz Liszt was one of the more dramatic figures to swashbuckle his away across the 19th-century European landscape.  Born in 1811 to Hungarian parents, he was a brilliant pianist and breathtaking performer—a magnetic and almost mythic presence in the salons of Paris during the 1830s and 1840s. Some believe that he was the greatest pianist that ever lived.

We encounter him in the novel as the lover of Marie d’Agoult, a political and literary figure who attended the Sacred Heart school in Paris for a year and wrote about this experience in her memoirs.  While she was less than enthusiastic about the school, she loved Sophie Barat. The episode in “The Artist and his Muse” (Part 9), in which he and Marie (dressed as a man) sneak into Notre Dame at midnight so that he can play the organ for her, is recorded in Phyllis Stock-Morton’s biography of Marie.  A quintessentially romantic couple, they scandalized Paris when she left her husband and children, ran off with the young composer, and bore him three children. (One of them, Cosima, later married the composer Richard Wagner.)


Liszt was a complex figure.  Always interested in religion and philosophy, he eventually became a deacon and a Franciscan tertiary, and many referred to him as “Abbé Liszt” in his later years. During his time with Marie, he was a follower of the Saint-Simonian movement and an intimate of the controversial priest Félicité de Lammenais.

The painting below, by Josef Danhauser, captures the spirit of the period and the unharnessed passion that Marie clearly felt for Liszt. In it, Liszt–Marie virtually swooning at his feet–plays the piano in the presence of other notable artists and writers of the period.  Seated at far left is the novelist Alexandre Dumas, Sr.; next to him (in men’s clothes) is the writer George Sand, long-time lover of Frederic Chopin. The bust on the piano is that of Beethoven; the man standing just to the left of Liszt is Rossini, and to his left are the violinist and composer Paganini and the composer Hector Berlioz.

Further reading:  The Life of Marie d’Agoult (Phyllis Stock-Morton)

Further listening:  Die Lorelei (a song Liszt wrote in 1841 and dedicated to Marie d’Agoult). It recounts the story of a siren who lures fishermen to their death and is based on a poem by Heinrich Heine.

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