Classical Haiku: Liszt

Rock star of your day,
you’ve known many pianos
and their mistresses.

If YouTube had been around in Franz Liszt’s day, he wouldn’t have made his own videos. He wouldn’t have had to. Fans would have clamored around him, taking video and snapping stills with their smart phones and slapping them up online. And Liszt’ publicists would have thought they had found a cash cow and a soft landing.

They would have been right. Liszt’s astonishing piano technique enabled him to perform superhuman feats at the keyboard in an age when virtuosity and virility were closely equated. No wonder, then, that for a period of some years Liszt was in the unusual position of having two mistresses. And with a performance schedule that had Liszt criss-crossing Europe all the time, could groupies from the piano-playing bourgeoisie have been far behind?

At the same time, Liszt was to some extent a family man, having produced three children with one of his mistresses, Marie d’Agoult. After he and d’Agoult split, Liszt didn’t see his children for nearly a decade. But he and his daughter Cosima, at least, would stay in fairly close contact: Cosima would marry one of Liszt’s artistic soul mates, the composer Richard Wagner.

One of my fondest musical geek-outs happened while touring Bayreuth’s Franz Liszt Museum. I happened upon a display case containing a two- or three-octave keyboard. The nearby placard told me it was one of the practice keyboards Liszt brought with him to keep his fingers limber while enduring long and possibly cold train rides on his concert tours. Had that keyboard had the gift of speech, what might it have told us about Liszt and his brilliant playing?

Whatever secrets the younger Liszt’s life may have held, the older Liszt had calmed down a bit. He got serious about his Catholic faith and took relatively minor holy orders. Today’s Classical Haiku honors the free artist’s spirit of virtuoso pianist, composer, Casanova and cleric Franz Liszt.

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