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.

First impressions – what the audience thought
The mad pianist: Franz Liszt
Musical World 1841:
‘We walk through this world in the midst of so many wonders that our senses become indifferent to the most amazing things; light and life, the ocean, the forest, the voice and flight of the pigmy lark, are unheeded commonplaces; and it is only when some comet, some giant, some tiger-tamer… some winged being appears, that our obdurate fancies are roused into the consciousness that miracles do exist. Of the miracle genus is M Liszt… the Aurora Borealis (Northern lights) of musical effulgence, the Niagara of thundering harmonies!’
Anton Rubinstein: ‘Let us never put anybody on a parallel with Liszt either as pianist or musician, and least of all as man, for Liszt is more than all that – Liszt is an idea!’

The devil worshipper: Nicolò Paganini
Paganini on himself 1831:
‘I had played the Streghe Variations (Witch variations) when one individual affirmed that he saw nothing surprising in my performance, for he had distinctly seen, while I was playing, the devil at my elbow directing my arm and grinding my bow. My resemblance to him was proof of my origin. He was clothed in red – had horns on his head – and carried his tail between his legs.’
Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) on Paganini: ‘He is long faced and haggard, with strongly marked prominent features, wears long black hair flowing on his neck like an enthusiast and has a coat of ancient cut. He is like a great old boy, who has done nothing but play the violin all his life, and knows as much about that as little of conventional manners. His fervour was in his hands and bow. Towards the close of his performances, he waxed more enthusiastic in appearance, gave way to some uncouth bodily movements from side to side, and seemed to be getting into his violin. Occasionally put back his hair. When he makes his acknowledgement, he bows like a camel and grins like a goblin or mountain goat.

The people sit astounded, venting themselves in whispers of ‘Wonderful!’ – ‘Good God!’ and other unusual symptoms of English amazement; when the applause comes, some of them laugh out of pure inability to express their feelings otherwise.’

Classic CD magazine, 1995


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