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Virtuosity Domesticated: Portraits of Franz Liszt by Two Biedermeier Artists

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 April 2011

Alan Davison
University of Otago


The wide variety of nineteenth-century images of the great pianist—composer Franz Liszt (1811–1886) provides both art historians and musicologists with a rich resource through its sheer diversity and comprehensiveness. Of great potential value are the insights that Lisztian iconography may provide into the changing nature of Romanticism and music during much of the nineteenth century.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2005

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1 The term ‘Biedermeier’ was applied retrospectively to bourgeois middle-class German and Austrian art from 1815 to 1848, the name itself deriving from a fictional character from a journal of the period.

2 Images of Liszt have already received some attention in musicological or historical studies. Most significant is Ernst Burger's comprehensive study (originally published in German, then in English three years later), Franz Liszt: A Chronicle of His Life and Times in Pictures and Documents, trans. Spencer, Stewart (Princeton, NJ, 1989). Burger's study is an outstanding work in itself as well as being a valuable resource for iconographic study. Also of note are essays or articles by Richard Leppert, Elaine Brody, Alessandra Comini and a chapter on Lisztian iconography by Bertrand Ott. Some of these works will be discussed and cited later in the course of this articleGoogle Scholar.

3 Leppert, Richard, ‘Cultural Contradiction, Idolatry, and the Piano Virtuoso: Franz Liszt,’ in Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, ed. Parakilas, James (New Haven, 1999), 264–5.Google Scholar

4 Samson, Jim, Virtuosity and the Musical Work: The Transcendental Studies of Liszt (Cambridge, 2003), 75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 Samson, , Virtuosity and the Musical Work, 77.Google Scholar

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7 Biedermeier culture itself was not restricted to Vienna in the sense that a ‘Biedermeier phase’ of Romanticism can be identified as occurring throughout Europe after the initial heat of high Romanticism had cooled. This more reserved stage of Romanticism rejected the ‘visionary, all-integrating, titanic claims of high romanticism’ and partially returned to the attitudes of the eighteenth century. See Nemoianu, Virgil, The Taming of Romanticism: European Literature and the Age of Biedermeier (Cambridge, 1984), 6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Rotenberg, Robert, ‘Pseudonymous Travel Accounts as Texts: A Case from Nineteenth-Century Vienna’, Ethnohistory, 33 (1986): 151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 ‘“Gay Vienna” Myth and Reality’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 15 (1954): 106.Google Scholar

10 Some notable portraits of Liszt from the 1830s do indeed show Liszt as the ‘Romantic virtuoso’: portraits such as those by Ary Scheffer and Henri Lehmann. This distinctive iconography of Liszt has been discussed recently elsewhere, but it is worth noting that these portraits show Liszt in a typically Romantic manner, stressing his difference and isolation. For a discussion of the significance of this type of Lisztian portraiture in the developing imagery of the musician see Davison, Alan, ‘The Musician in Iconography from the 1830s and 1840s: The Formation of New Visual Types’, Music in Art, 28 (2003): 145–60Google Scholar.

11 This split is discussed by Weber, William in Music and the Middle Classes: The Social Structure of Concert Life in London, Paris and Vienna (New York, 1975; Aldershot, 2003)Google Scholar.

12 Himmelheber, Georg, Biedermeier 1815–1835: Architecture, Painting, Sculpture, Decorative Arts, Fashion (Munich, 1989), 34.Google Scholar

13 Comini, Alessandra, The Changing Image of Beethoven: A Study in Mythmaking (New York, 1987), 209.Google Scholar

14 Walker, Alan, Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848–1861 (Ithaca, 1996), 560.Google Scholar

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16 See Comini, , The Changing Image of BeethovenGoogle Scholar.

17 Liszt attempted to write a Byronic opera, making efforts towards a setting of Le Corsaire and then Sardanapale. Both attempts were aborted, although some music was sketched for the latter. See Hamilton's, KennethNot with a Bang but a Whimper: The Death of Liszt's “Sardanapale”’, Cambridge Opera Journal, 8 (1996): 4558CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Comini, , The Changing Image of Beethoven, 207.Google Scholar

19 Brody, Elaine, ‘Paris, 1840’, American Scholar, 53 (1983): 8390Google Scholar , and Leppert, , ‘Cultural Contradiction’, 252–81Google Scholar.

20 Comini, , The Changing Image of Beethoven, 202.Google Scholar

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23 See Good, Edwin M., Giraffes, Black Dragons, and other Pianos: A Technological History from Cristofori to the Modern Concert Grand, second edition (Stanford, 2001), 178–85.Google Scholar

24 Letter of 13 April 1839, in Liszt, Franz, Selected Letters, ed. and trans. Williams, Adrian (Oxford, 1998), 84. The piano was in fact generously offered to him by ThalbergGoogle Scholar.

25 Wythe, , Conrad Graf, 272.Google Scholar

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27 Wythe, , Conrad Graf, 17.Google Scholar

28 Wythe identifies this piano in Danhauser's Die Klavierspielerin and Die Bratschau.Google Scholar

29 Hanson, Alice M., Musical Life in Biedermeier Vienna (Cambridge, 1985), 109.Google Scholar

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32 See Piper, David, The Image of the Poet: British Poets and their Portraits (Oxford, 1982).Google Scholar

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36 Farwell, Beatrice, French Popular Lithographic Imagery, 1815–1870: Portraits and Types (Chicago, 1997), 1.Google Scholar

37 The following biographical information is based upon Krasa, Selma, Josef Kriehuber: Der Porträtist einer Epoche (Vienna, 1987)Google Scholar.

38 This distortion of physiognomy is significant in itself and should not be dismissed lightly as it usually reflects commonly held assumptions of the time regarding the physical qualities of musicians. See Davison, Alan, ‘High-Art Music and Low-Brow Types: Physiognomy and Nineteenth-Century Music Iconography’, Context, 17 (1999): 519Google Scholar.

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47 writing, Liszt to d'Agoult in January 1840, in Selected Letters, 127.Google Scholar

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49 Weber, William, ‘Mass Culture and the Reshaping of European Musical Taste, 1770-1870’, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, 25 (1994): 176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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51 See Ritterman, Janet, ‘Concert Life in Paris; 1808–1838: Influences on the Performance and Repertoire of Professional Pianists’, Ph.D. diss. (London, 1985), chapter 7Google Scholar.

52 Weber, , Music and the Middle Classes, 44–5.Google Scholar

53 Williams, , Portrait of Liszt, 106.Google Scholar

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55 Williams, , Portrait of Liszt, 106–7.Google Scholar

56 Botstein, Leon, ‘Vienna: 1806–1945’ in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, ed. Sadie, Stanley and Tyrrell, John (London, 2001), 26: 560.Google Scholar

57 Weber, , Music and the Middle Classes, 119.Google Scholar