Archive for June 19th, 2014

Romantics in Action

Paganini was in league with the devil; Liszt had women fainting in the front row. Michael Tanner goes to a concert of the 1800s to see what the fuss was about.

Romantic performers were wild, exhibitionist, extravagant in their attitude towards the written notes, and given to a flamboyant style of life, especially in its erotic dimension.

Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840) was a child prodigy, making his first European tour when he was 13, including works of his own composition – nothing previously written was difficult enough for him. With his saturnine appearance, he soon inspired stories that he had made a pact with the devil: the Faust legend was very much in the air. He developed techniques of double-stopping and pizzicato which few today could emulate. He even played woks with his violin upside down. He inspired Berlioz to write the Harold in Italy ‘symphony’ for him, but never played it. But cancer of the larynx attacked him early, and he faded from view at an early age.

Franz Liszt (1811-86) was altogether more complete a romantic image. Also a prodigy, he was feted from the age of nine, and he also soon began composing hair-raisingly hard pieces. But he was a very complex person, torn between a lust for the limelight and a desire to retreat from the world. He officially retired quite young, but whenever he heard that ‘a new Liszt’ had arrived on the scene he felt driven to emerge and show his sovereignty, in which he always effortlessly succeeded. Fixing a beautiful woman in the audience with his eye, he would seem to be dedicating his recital to her, and invariably scored a sexual triumph afterwards. He was mobbed, his clothes torn from him as souvenirs – even his cigar butts, one of which was secreted in a fashionable lady’s cleavage for years, accounting for the odd smell that emanated from her. He took holy orders, but that wasn’t enough to curb his insatiable sensuality, something which often emerges from his music. He had devoted pupils in Weimar, and was unstintingly generous to other composers, above all Wagner. They may not know it, but pop stars of today who perform to hysterical audiences, but want to be alone to create something enduring, are his descendants. He gives us our completest picture of the romantic artist, creator and interpreter.

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