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An Anecdote of Liszt.


The great pianist-composer had such a kind heart, was so generous and approachable, that he was not infrequently victimized by the designing and unscrupulous. An incident that tested his forbearance and gentle manners occurred, during my second summer in Weimar, at one of his Sunday mornings “at home,” and which might interest the readers of The Etude. There was a large, ruddy-faced English woman, who had been introduced by the Fräulein Stahr sisters and who had been present at several of the informal gatherings at Liszt’s house and elsewhere. She was rather coarse, the veins on her cheeks plainly showing the effects of much roast beef of old England with port wine, and while it was known that she was taking some lessons of Fräulein Stahr, it had not been suspected by any one that she cherished an artistic ambition, least of all in the direction of music. This lady was present upon the occasion I mention, and sat or stood close to the left of the piano. There were present Max Pinner, one of Liszt’s favorite pupils, William Sherwood, Louis Maas, Miss Amy Fay, Cecelia Gaul, and many other distinguished persons in art and literature, though fortunately for them the Grand Duke and Duchess were not present. We had listened to some delightful piano playing, and Pinner, always courteous and obliging, was still seated at the piano, having just played an accompaniment for one of Lassen’s new songs, sung by a member of the opera company in a charming manner, when to the astonishment of every one the stout, red-faced lady arose and placing some music in front of Pinner requested him to accompany her.

Poor Pinner glanced at Liszt in a helpless sort of way and looked about for some one else upon whom he might possibly unload this unwelcome task. But all had quickly fled from the immediate vicinity of the instrument, several escaping into an adjoining room, while the good-hearted host walked toward the furthest end of the room where I stood. As he came forward he spoke and said, “This is liberty hall; every one does as he pleases here.” With this he made an involuntary motion of his large hands as though he would wash them of the consequent proceedings.

If, however, we were astounded at the temerity of the woman in attempting to sing without being requested to do so, the astonishment increased when she commenced to sing one of Handel’s most ancient arias which, to those present, would have been tedious and unendurable had it been divinely sung by the greatest of living artists.

As the woman’s uncultivated and rasping voice proceeded, the amazement increased, and a feeling of disgust, mingled with sympathy for Pinner (who was biting his lips and trying to control his chagrin), possessed us all. The poor misguided woman insisted upon singing the whole thing, lasting fully twelve minutes, during which time I managed to quietly slip out of the room, and with Sherwood and others vent my feelings of shame and wonder at the audacity of the creature who was thus torturing our beloved Liszt. Wondering how the great man would greet the end (as, ordinarily any fair or good performance always received at his hands kindly encouragement), I stood in the doorway during the closing measures, the hideousness of which were enhanced by a grand climax of muscular effort, which made the singer’s red face still redder, and reached a series of ear-splitting shrieks that was indeed a triumph of the grotesque.

Poor Pinner, red with disgust and shame, not to mention anger, slid off the piano stool and escaped into the adjoining room, all the occupants of which were immediately attracted by tremendous hand-clapping in which Liszt conspicuously led. But the master stayed in his position at the further end of the room, mechanically flapping his great hands together, a queer sort of resigned look upon his face, with a humorous twinkle in his deep gray eyes, as though he considered the whole performance a good joke. Every one instantly took his cue from Liszt, and even those who had absented themselves returned to join in the hilarious applause.

No word was spoken at all; and thus the great man refrained from offending the person who had afflicted himself and friends, and at the same time turned into amusement (deftly concealed from the lady) what might otherwise have been an unpleasant affair. The aftermath, however, must have been equally surprising to the lady’s good British friends, who, no doubt, have since been regaled with a Falstaffian account of her great success, and the “spontaneous applause” in which the great master himself led.

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