Have you ever met what the Germans call a “Schöngeist”? The French equivalent is “un bel esprit” – I found no English term, but I had to think of Oscar Wilde. A person attracted by arts, preferring their superficial beauty over their deeper philosophical meaning, be it a poem, a song, a painting, a statue. Someone who cultivates his sense for aesthetics and surrounds himself with beautiful things. I imagine Franz Liszt being such a “Schöngeist”. He had an extremely developed sensitivity, a passion for superficial beauty and a distinctive penchant for gallant and glamorous people. His music mirrors this character trait.
In 1849 Liszt finished a cycle of six piano pieces he called “Consolations”, (S. 171a). At the time he occupied the post of Hofkapellmeister at the court of Weimar and had ample reasons to lament. Another high-ranking musician at the court, Franz von Dingelstedt, directing the grand-ducal theatre, was plotting against him – at least that’s what Liszt imagined. Furthermore Grand-Duke Carl Alexander had lost some of his enthusiasm to make Weimar the new centre of German music, a project he had shared with Liszt. Finally, part of the local nobility would not accept Liszt’s aesthetic ideas and openly revolted against Liszt musical programming.
However the background of “Consolations” probably have nothing to do with Liszt’s issues with Weimar’s upper class. The title has been inspired by a set of poems of the same name by the French Romantic writer Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve. The poems were published in 1830 and have a deeply melancholic tone. One theory says that the six pieces speak about earthly and heavenly love. In 1849/50 Liszt revised the earlier version of “Consolations”, the latter version with the catalogue number S. 172 is the more popular one. The “Consolations” show stylistic parallels to Chopin’s “Nocturnes”, that I have discussed in an earlier post. Thus the pieces may also be seen as a reverence to Frédéric Chopin who had died in 1849 and whose death deeply affected Liszt.
Brilliance and humour
The six piano pieces in the first version have been recorded by Leslie Howard and it is worthwhile to listen to these masterworks on a lonely, dull afternoon. The overall mood is somewhat depressed, but this type of sadness is not contagious, very much to the contrary. Their brilliance, their occasional humour and their emotional force make them thoroughly enjoyable pieces.
Let’s listen to a contemporary of Liszt to get an impression of the atmosphere in the composer’s house at the time when he played the “Consolations”. His student Carl Lachmund recalls that “he [Liszt] played each note of the melody as if it were a significant poetic word, which effect was heightened in that he used the thumb for each one of these notes, and dropping his hand in a languid manner as he did this. He would dwell slightly here or there on a note as if entranced and then resume the motion without leaving a feeling that the time had been disturbed. I do not recall the particular measures in which he did this; but even then I felt that he might do it in a different place each time he played the piece.”
The composer absorbed by his own piece, his own playing, a “Schöngeist” in trance, hovering over those black and white keys, a tear rolling from his eye perhaps – that’s how I imagine Liszt, trapped in his memories and his nostalgia. What a sight!
© Charles Thibo