Art Gallery of the Romantic Mind

For romantic composers, paintings often fired their imagination. Michael Oliver looks at the art which brought masterpieces from Berlioz and Liszt.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in Mantua some time between 1600 and 1608! I would have known what Monteverdi said to Rubens and vice-versa. They must have known each other as both were employees of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga and were obliged to travel in his retinue. Did they feel a kinship? Did they like each other’s work? Did they influence one another in any way?

With later composers we know a little more. That Handel collected pictures, for example: among others at least one Rembrandt and two Canalettos. I don’t mean that I can now trace Rembrandt-esque or Canaletto-ish features in his music, but I think I know him a little better for knowing how he furnished his house in Brook Street, Mayfair and how he furnished his mind. How infuriating that we don’t know what books he owned: unlike his pictures they weren’t catalogued.

We don’t get a really detailed insight into the furnishing of composers’ minds until the nineteenth century. We know not only what Berlioz read, the plays that he went to, but that he admired the pictures of Claude, and that extraordinary Cecil B De Mille of a painter, John Martin (‘Mad Martin’, contemporaries called him). And whenever Berlioz describes his own music as ‘Babylonian, Ninevite!’ it’s Martin’s sensational images he’s thinking of. We know that Debussy loved Japanese art and the pre-Raphaelites and Turner, and perhaps we can hear them (see them?) in his music.

When walls come down
And with that archetypal romantic Franz Liszt, the boundaries between the arts really do begin to break down. Very many of his works are inspired either by nature or by a work of art. In literature he had good taste, and the advantage of being at home in at least three languages. His vocal works include settings of Goethe, Racine and St. Francis, Lamartine, Schiller and Petrarch – and his solitary setting of English was of Tennyson’s ‘Go not, happy day’. Almost as many of his non-vocal works were intended to evoke or ‘illustrate’ literary masterpieces by Byron and Victor Hugo, Dante and Shakespeare.

There are two other groups of compositions in which he tries to interpret an art-form or a visual impression in terms of his own art. Essentially that’s what he was doing in all those ‘paraphrases’, ‘reminiscences’ and ‘fantasies’ on other composers’ operas. Sometimes, of course, using tunes from a popular hit to make a virtuoso barnstormer; much more often, evoking the opera’s atmosphere with all the subtle effects that could be drawn from the piano by a poet of the keyboard. He does something rather similar in his nature pieces. Evoking the fountains of the Villa d’Este near Rome, he uses virtuosity to imitate the cascading jets of water-droplets, but much of the piece is contemplative, serene: looking at the fountains Liszt was reminded, and he says as much in an inscription on the score, of St. John’s words about the water of eternal life.

In other words, Liszt often goes beyond literal pictorialism, and to follow him you need to know a little about the furnishing of his mind. It was furnished, according to most Liszt scholars, with very bad pictures. His ‘St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves’ is based, we’re often told, on a particularly awful painting by the long-forgotten E J von Steinle. True, but the painting meant a great deal to Liszt in that it was a present from the woman he came closest to marrying, Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. It represented Liszt’s own patron saint and was a sort of image of himself, calm amidst a storm, guided by faith, hope and love: it stood on Liszt’s desk for over 30 years. Several other pieces were inspired by the – to a modern eye – revoltingly sentimental paintings of Ary Scheffer. But Scheffer was a personal friend, an immensely popular artist at the time, especially among people as religious as Liszt and Princess Carolyne.

Art for art’s sake (bad)
Liszt is criticized too for admiring the works of Moritz von Schwind, but how could he resist an artist who had not only painted a cycle of frescoes on the life of St. Elizabeth, the patron saint of Hungary (Liszt based an oratorio on them), but as a young man had been a close friend of Schubert, whom Liszt venerated? And Schwind, as it happens, wasn’t half a bad painter. Lisztian authorities are particularly scornful about a picture by Mihály Zichy upon which Liszt based his late tone poem From the Cradle to the Grave, though neither composer Humphrey Searle (‘apparently a very bad painting’) nor Michael Ayrton (‘a deplorable sketch’) seem ever to have seen it.

I have, and in its surviving form (amplified after Zichy heard the tone poem) it’s just the sort of thing that would have appealed to Liszt: a sequence of scenes showing music accompanying all the stages of life from birth to death. Zichy envisaged it as a fresco decoration for a circular concert hall: a very Lisztian, even Wagnerian idea.

Some authorities are at their sniffiest when Liszt approaches genuinely great art. Sacheverell Sitwell rather belittled ‘Il penseroso’ (after Michelangelo) and ‘Sposalizio’ (after Raphael) from Années de Pèlerinage as ‘but the devout or lofty impressions of a sensitive tourist’. ‘Il penseroso’, in fact, is a genuine attempt to find a pianistic equivalent of Michelangelo’s grandeur, and if the result recalls now Beethoven, now Wagner, how much closer to Michelangelo can you get in music? ‘Sposalizio’ is a keyboard poet’s reaction not only to Raphael but to Italy, and Italian light, and to a great religious image. A very high proportion of Liszt’s works, including many of those that are rarely heard, are religious. His childhood ambition was to be a priest, and after the virtuoso years and the love affairs he became one.

Very few people have found a kind word to say for the late ‘In the Sistine Chapel’ – Searle regarded it as a mere transcription, ‘of no great musical significance’. But as a self-portrait of Liszt in the years after his plans to marry the Princess had been sabotaged, now a priest in minor orders, wandering alone and probably lonely beneath Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, finding consolation in religion and in a friendly meeting with two of the chapel’s ghosts – Allegri and Mozart (Allegri’s Miserere and Mozart’s Ave Verum are quoted) – it’s a touching little piece, another glimpse of the furnishings of Liszt’s mind.

Classic CD magazine, 1995

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