Review: Following Franz Liszt’s Footsteps in Budapest, by Ágnes Watzatka
We are going to hear a lot about the composer, piano virtuoso and performer Franz Liszt this year. To mark the 200th anniversary of his birth 2011 has been designated a Year of Liszt, and celebrations, concerts and other events in his memory are taking place all over the world.
The ‘star’ is born
Ferenc Liszt, as he is known in his homeland, was born in a part of Hungary which since the 1920 Trianon Treaty has belonged to Austria. Although as a child prodigy he performed in the Hungarian capital, for many years he lived and became famous abroad, in Paris, Weimar, Rome and elsewhere. He was also constantly on the move, dazzling audiences across Europe with his superb mastery of the keyboard, accomplishing virtuoso feats which had previously been deemed impossible.
Justifiably he was regarded as the Paganini of the piano and his fans went wild. In his When the Music Stops critic Norman Lebrecht has argued that Liszt the piano maestro was one of the first performers to become a concert star, surrounded by genuine enthusiasm but also hype and whipped-up emotion.
Touched by disaster
The destruction caused by the great Pest flood of 1838 stirred Liszt’s conscience. “Through this innermost tumult and feeling”, he wrote to the Gazette Musicale, “I learned the meaning of the word ‘my fatherland’ … Oh my wild and distant country! Oh my unknown friends! Oh my great far-spreading family! Your cry of pain has brought me back to you. Touched to the depths, I bow my head, ashamed that I have forgotten you for so long…”
Following a series of benefit concerts he then was never far from Hungary, either in body or spirit. He would become, in the words of one historian, the most famous “Hungarian by choice”.
Despite his avowed love for his homeland and the reception he received during his frequent visits to Budapest (where he lived almost permanently in the last years of his life, being instrumental in setting up the Academy of Music), Liszt never fully learned Hungarian. In his book The Hungarians Paul Lendvai says Liszt had started to learn the language as early as 1829, but gave up after five lessons on encountering the word for unshakability – tántorithatatlanság. (Could anyone blame him?) Nevertheless, as he once wrote: “… notwithstanding my lamentable ignorance of the Hungarian language, I am and shall remain until my end a Magyar heart and soul.”
Walking with Liszt
As an early manifestation of the 2011 Year of Liszt, Helikon Publishers and the Liszt Academy of Music have jointly published a remarkably detailed and lavishly illustrated pocket guide to the Budapest of Liszt’s times, specifically to those places which had a direct association with the composer.
What did Liszt do in Pest and Buda? He played the piano, conducted, held piano courses, composed and attended concerts and evenings. His most significant relationships were with musicians, music societies, artists and students. Important, too, among his circle of friends were religious personages, travellers, educated politicians and the intellectual elite – lawyers, journalists, teachers and doctors.
In tracing the footsteps of Liszt, readers are introduced to the sights of old Budapest, its music institutes, famous places and history, as well as to the life of the composer-performer, from major musical events to intriguing aspects of his private existence. We learn, for example, that his favourite dish was fried frogs’ legs.
The book contains five easily-walked sightseeing routes, lingering over the spots associated with him. Many of the buildings are still standing and some will be familiar to anyone living in the city today. Others are no longer standing, but archive pictures make up for that and add to our understanding of what the urban environment was like in the second half of the 19th century.
This is an unusual, rather rare type of guidebook to Budapest. It embodies a tremendous amount of research dedicated to linking specific locations to aspects of Liszt’s everyday life in the Hungarian capital. For that the author must be congratulated.
Although rooted in the past, the book itself is clearly of our times. Each of the 103 identified locations is accompanied by its GPS coordinates.
Buy the book
Following Franz Liszt’s Footsteps in Budapest
By Ágnes Watzatka
Paperback, 248 pages, illustrated
Helikon Publishers/Liszt Academy of Music, 2011, HUF 3990