The well-known African traveler, Gerhard Rohlfs, has left among his posthumous papers some interesting data concerning the great artist. In describing Liszt’s personality Rohlfs writes: “Liszt fascinated me completely. He was not really handsome, but there was something unusually attractive in his eye by means of which one was irresistibly drawn toward him. And later, as I grew to know him better, I could appreciate this attraction even more. Especially when he was seated at the piano, surrounded by a crowd of pupils and followers, if his eye happened to rest upon anyone, it would exercise a wonderful fascination. It was not I alone who experienced this, but all of us, young and old, men as well as women.”
One of the principal attractions of Weimar were the matinées which took place at Liszt’s apartments in the “Hofgärtnerei.” He was very discriminating as to his invitations,—citizens of Weimar were rarely to be seen there. The “Hofgärtnerei” was a small house at the entrance to the Belvedere Avenue—where the present Liszt Museum stands. At these matinees, which frequently took place in the presence of members of the family of the Grand Duke and other interesting personalities from out of town, Liszt’s pupils performed various modern and classical works. The program was generally arranged in advance, and was interpreted by only the best pupils,—finished artists. Liszt moved about here and there, frequently correcting, then again conversing, and frequently giving utterance to some sarcastic remarks. Sometimes he would seat himself at the grand piano, and would play alone or four-handed with a pupil. This was generally the signal for everyone to rise and approach the piano so as to be near the master. Liszt enjoyed being watched while playing.
A great treat was had the day Liszt and Rubinstein were heard together in a duet. Liszt and Rubinstein had not met in years on account of a slight misunderstanding’s existing between them. Madam Rohlfs, who had known Rubinstein in her younger days, received a letter from Rubinstein requesting her to ask Liszt whether he would object to a visit from Rubinstein. When Madam Rohlfs asked Liszt: “Dear Master, Rubinstein would like to know if he could visit you,” Liszt answered wearily: “Joseph? What does he want?” But when she answered: “No, Anton,” Liszt’s eyes lit up and he expressed undisguised joy, and made hasty preparations for a worthy reception in honor of his great colleague. The same evening his rooms were filled with a distinguished assemblage. A game of whist, which was arranged, did not last long, as Liszt played the game badly, whereas Rubinstein was accustomed to play it for high stakes.
By the term the “pupil of Liszt” was not to be understood a pupil in the ordinary sense of the word. Liszt never accepted remuneration for his lessons. They were given to artists or rising stars who desired the honor of playing before Liszt. Liszt could refuse no one, the consequence being that much chaff was found among the wheat. Bülow wanted to bring a change Liszt saying he did not have the heart to be harsh to anyone, Bülow replied: “Then leave it to me.” The same afternoon the pupils were received by Bülow, who informed them that Liszt was detained at court and had requested Bülow to take his place during the lesson. Report says that there was a “hot time,” and that Liszt missed several pupils at the next lesson. After Bülow’s departure from Weimar they reappeared again.
Among Liszt’s pupils were to be found Eugene d’Albert, who was then a boy of fifteen. Liszt took a great interest in him and said: “I do not care very much for prodigies, but this is a real one.” Another pupil—a lady—once played one of Liszt’s consolations. She made a mistake and excused herself by saying that the pedal worked too hard. Liszt requested her, in the most amiable fashion, to begin again, whereupon she broke down again. Bending down low to the pedals, Liszt murmured audibly: “Oh! Pedal, naughty Pedal.”
Liszt was generally the most genial of hosts. Only once was he seen to become excited and fume with rage. A young artist had contradicted him about some musical matter in reference to Beethoven. This was too much for Liszt. With flashing eyes and flushed cheeks, he cried again and again: “Stripling!” and every time he passed the young fellow he repeated the word. Of course, the consequence was that the unfortunate young man was ostracized by everyone and was compelled to leave Weimar.
Liszt was an omnivorous reader. He was a regular subscriber to the Scientific Review, and was very much interested in Darwin’s “Descent of Man” and Wallace’s “Natural Selection.” But for the beauties of Nature he had no appreciation whatsoever. If, during a walk or a drive his attention was called to something beautiful he paid no attention to it as though it never existed. For Liszt art was everything, and in art especially music.
At a dinner-party at which the Grand Duke was present and at which Liszt had arrived late and consequently in bad humor, the Grand Duke expressed his admiration for Sarasate, the violinist, who had played at court the day previous. “Sarasate is not a great artist,” Liszt said, “it is all puffery.”
“But, my dear master,” the Grand Duke replied, “permit me to say that he played beautifully, and that I enjoyed his playing immensely.”
Loud enough to be heard by everyone present, Liszt replied: “Your Royal Highness may know how to govern, but in musical matters I believe I understand more, and according to my opinion Sarasate is not a great artist.”
“You may be right, my dear master; but nevertheless I adhere to my opinion.”
In spite of this sally on the part of Liszt the relations between him and the Grand Duke remained cordial to the end.
A description of Liszt’s friend, the Princess Wittgenstein, is also given. The Princess received her guests in the centre of a large salon, “like a spider in her net.” The room was full of furniture, comprising also a Bechstein parlor grand, but was so stuffy that one was obliged to pick one’s way through in order to arrive at the Princess. The latter, owing to an illness of long standing, was riveted to her arm-chair; but despite this fact was still lively and interesting.
The last years of Liszt’s life were divided between Pesth, Rome, and Weimar. At one of the matinees given at Weimar, Liszt, to the surprise of everyone, played a Beethoven sonata so beautifully and in such an inspired manner, that everyone was moved. The Grand Duke, with tears in his eyes, said, after Liszt had concluded: “Now, my dear master, it is enough. We will not allow this moment to be desecrated by listening to anything else. We wish to take the recollection of this artistic treat home with us.” Upon this, the party broke up, everyone retiring in silence. It was, so to speak, the swan-song of the master.