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Pic of the Week: Lisztomania Edition

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Detail of plate from Grossherzog Carl Alexander und Liszt, by Peter Raabe. Leipzig, Breitkopf & Hartel, 1918.

The following is a guest post from Senior Reference Specialist Kevin LaVine. Please note that tickets are still available for events in our Franz Liszt Bicentennial Project, with concerts in the Coolidge Auditorium from October 19-November 5. Please visit our Concert page for information on specific events.   For some events, tickets may be reserved  while supply lasts.  Limited seating will be available at the door on concert nights.

German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) coined the term “Lisztomania” in 1844 to describe the intense frenzy among audiences present at performances given by his acquaintance, Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Predating the advent of modern psychological theory, “Lisztomania” – which to our twenty-first century ears denotes a mental aberration – was regarded as a physical condition, a physiological reaction to the mere presence of Liszt.   In our day, excitement, even hysteria, among audiences in the presence of a superstar is not uncommon, and almost expected – perhaps even dulled somewhat by an omnipresent media presence. To nineteenth-century audiences, however, such a reaction was unprecedented. Female admirers were driven to steal his handkerchiefs, gloves, and even locks of his hair.  His used cigar butts and coffee dregs were stolen and preserved as relics.  Women were even said to have thrown their undergarments at Liszt as he performed, thus anticipating Tom Jones mania by more than a century.

The hysteria that Liszt engendered – which his flamboyant stage persona only enhanced – was regarded as a contagious medical condition; public officials feared for an epidemic. Although the perspective of over a century and a half has somewhat allayed our fears of catching “Liszt fever,” we here at the Library are nevertheless indulging in a bit of hero worship of our own in the form of the Franz Liszt Bicentenary Project, a month-long series of concerts and lectures of Liszt’s works (and/or of works influenced by him), in order to honor Liszt’s substantial contributions to the course of Western music history. Details about these events may be found on our concert page. The Performing Arts Encyclopedia features the new presentation Franz Liszt at the Library of Congress,   which brings together links to the Library’s rich and varied resources available for performing research related to Liszt.  These materials include selected holograph manuscripts; bibliographies; monographs; historic sound recordings  and published scores of his works; and documents of American composers Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein that reveal Liszt’s impact on the music of our time.

Despite the excesses of Lisztomania during the composer’s lifetime, Liszt’s music – paralleling that of the Romantic era in music to which he contributed so much to define – began to be marginalized after his death in favor of emerging musical trends such as impressionism and serialism. The passing of years has, however, provided sufficient clarity of perspective to allow an objective reevaluation of the extent of Liszt’s immense contributions to, and influence upon, Western music, both of his time and of ours. Consequently, Liszt’s creative legacy has once again found favor with new generations of performers, audiences and scholars alike. As Liszt biographer Alan Walker so succinctly phrased it, “[as] pianist, composer, teacher, conductor, writer and musical administrator,” Franz Liszt – whose 200th birthday we celebrate on October 22 – “enlarged everything that he touched.”

Addendum: View the program for the October 22, 2011 Franz Liszt Bicentenary concert with Martin Bruns, baritone and Cristoph Hammer, fortepiano, here (pdf).

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