An Encounter with Liszt

The interior of St James's Hall, 1858.

The interior of St James’s Hall, 1858.

Snippets 63. Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald was a biographer and author, who contributed to Household Words, his friend Charles Dickens’s magazine, and wrote several books about theatre, opera and history. He was also a sculptor, and his bust of Dickens can be viewed in the Pump Room in Bath. In 1895 he wrote Memoirs of an Author, which contains some fascinating anecdotes of notable people of the 19th Century whom he met during his life. One account that stands out is his attendance of a performance by Franz Liszt in London. Fitzgerald refers to the great composer as “Abbé Liszt” (“the Abbot Liszt”), which he was commonly known as since he received the tonsure (traditional monk’s haircut) in 1865, and also received four minor orders in the Catholic Church the same year. The following extract from Fitzgerald’s book offers a lovely little snapshot of the composer at the height of his popularity.

It is generally admitted that one of the most striking personalities of his day was that remarkable man, composer, performer, virtuoso, etc., the late Abbé Liszt. At a distance, even when far away from this country, his wonderful ‘magnetic influence’ seemed to affect us here. His movements were followed with interest and curiosity; his marvellous playing reached even to our ears, and was understood though unheard. It was a public event, therefore, when it was announced that this wonderfully dramatic man was coming to London. Everyone was attracted, and it was said, I know not with what truth, that the very cabmen felt that someone strange and remarkable was among them, and would talk familiarly of the ‘Habby List,’ as they called him. I can only say for myself personally, that I felt irresistibly drawn to see and follow him, being, as it were, under some spell of attraction. The ordinary prosaic Philistine took it all merely as though one of the innumerable foreign visitors had come to us. But to others more refined, such things are real events of moment, such as might occur in a private family, and seriously affect our thoughts.

He was to attend a concert where one of his own ‘oratorios’ was to be performed. There was a small group of persons gathered at the door of St. James’s Hall, when a carriage drove up, and the ’eminent virtuoso,’ leaning on the arm of a friend, entered. And a most striking and remarkable figure he looked, arrayed as he was in a sort of ‘flowing’ ecclesiastical coat, with a strangely cut hat; but it was the face that riveted attention, from the massive features, full of expression, suggesting that of Frederick Lemaitre, the hair long and hanging on his neck. There was a wonderful finesse in the mouth, a sort of sarcastic smile in posse. There was a large mole or two on his cheeks. He passed on with a sort of modest air, and had, of course, ‘a reception’ in the hall.

It was to be a rehearsal of the piece, and for some odd reason the public were admitted. Mackenzie was the conductor, and Mr. Santley the chief singer. The master sat at one side, and it was interesting to note his general restlessness as the performance went on. To say the truth, it was done in a rather crude style, the performers groping rather in the dark, as it were; for, as may be imagined, little was known of the traditions, or of the fashion of performing such things; it was difficult enough to execute the rather involved and tortuous music. We could see the master listening uneasily, painfully even, and moving restlessly on his seat. At last he jumped up, rushed across to the orchestra, and, to the delight and applause of the company, held a long colloquy with the conductor, to whom he seemed to be explaining, with much dramatic force and vehement gesture, the style in which he wished some passages to be given. I don’t think there was much improvement, nor could any be reasonably expected under the circumstances.

However, after half an hour or so, he seemed to grow weary of the business, and, rising to go, received what is called ‘an ovation,’ which he acknowledged in a theatrical sort of fashion. During the rest of his stay he was occasionally to be seen flitting about, a figure which to the last always excited interest.

The conductor mentioned was Alexander Mackenzie who was the principal of the Royal Academy of Music from 1888 to 1924, and was also a successful composer in his own right. The events described above, although undated in the book, took place in 1886, when Liszt visited England for the final time. The oratorio being performed was Die Legende von der Heiligen Elisabeth (“The Legend of Saint Elizabeth”). If the quotation above suggests a lack of respect for the conductor, this was not the case, as the two were in fact good friends and Liszt even started working on a fantasia on the theme of The Troubadour, Mackenzie’s second (and not particularly successful) opera. The singer mentioned was Sir Charles Santley, arguably the most successful male opera singer of the 19th Century.


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This entry was posted in 19th Century, Autobiographies, Books, Britain, England, History, London, Memoirs, Music, Snippets and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An Encounter with Liszt

  1. I believe Liszt invented the concert tour as a way of earning money when he couldn’t get a patron. An intriguing composer.

    Liked by 1 person

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