Great composers have rarely cut much of a figure in the beau monde. Socially gauche (Beethoven), awkward around others (Mozart), or dull and suburban (Brahms), they have generally preferred to plough their own furrow and stick with their own kind: one certainly wouldn’t look to them for urbane glamour and sophisticated chic.
Except in the case of Franz Liszt. Soulfully beautiful, smoothly debonair, unstoppably priapic and all too preeningly aware of his own dazzling image, he shone as brightly in the salons as he did on the concert platform, always unctuously ready to kiss a courtly hand or yield to a princely whim. His rival as a piano virtuoso, Chopin, was chronically shy and his contemporaries Verdi, Wagner and Berlioz were growling bears, brusque and reclusive. Liszt, on the other hand, smiled at the spotlight and happily signed autographs.
Drawing freely on the deeper researches of Alan Walker, who published a massive three-volume study of Liszt in the 1980s and 1990s, Oliver Hilmes’s new biography doesn’t offer much ground-breaking material or fresh analysis of Liszt’s music. It has also been cursed with a dreadfully vulgar subtitle: ‘Musician, Celebrity, Superstar’.