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Lessons With Franz Liszt

An Absorbingly Interesting, Unbiased Description of the Most Famous of all Piano Classes by the Distinguished Virtuoso and Teacher Well Known to American Concert-goers
[Editor's Note.—The following is probably the sanest, best balanced article ever written upon the historical gatherings at Weimar. Sauer is one of the few virtuosos who have been endowed with the literary gift. At the same time he has not permitted his judgment to be disturbed. Admiring Liszt for all his fine qualities, he has not been blind to his shortcomings. This article has been translated from Sauer's Autobiography especially for The Etude by Mr. F. S. Law.]
It was the beginning of May when we entered the little Thuringian city. The spring was late; though tiny flower sprouts were already peeping above the earth's surface, though hedges and shrubs were showing their first tender green, we were greeted so inhospitably by a cold, drizzling rain that we quickly crept ino (sic) one of the two rickety carriages which with a couple of rattling omnibuses formed Weimars's only accommodation for the traveling public. As we drove through the empty streets the place seemed deserted. Evidently the fashionable season does not begin until Liszt is at home, thought I as I reached the hotel and made a hasty toilet. It was with beating heart that I hurried over the Theaterplatz and through the equally vacated Marienstrasse to the Hofgärtnerei. There I stopped for a time, irresolute. In the quiet little one- storied house before me there were no signs of life; the windows were closed, the curtains were drawn; everything seemed at rest. Finally I took heart and through the half-open garden gate struck into a narrow path that led along the side of the house to the rear. There I found a trim-looking, sunburned woman of middle age, who in her blue and white cotton gown looked like a kitchen divinity off duty, for she was plainly idling.
"Does Herr Doctor Liszt live here?? I asked in respectful tones.
"Yes, you are right," she responded, in a broad dialect and with a friendly smile. "But the master is not here; he has gone to Leipzig. If you want to see him you must go to Leipzig, or else make up your mind to stay here a while."
"So that is the reason everything is dead here," I grumbled as I strode my way back to the hotel, my mind intent on getting away from this dull place as soon as possible.
Accordingly the next morning we left by the earliest train for Leipzig, where we drove to the Hotel de Prusse and found by chance that Liszt was stopping there too. We sent our cards up to him and were soon shown into one of the two rooms in the second story which he occupied. My heart again beat loudly as I trod the threshold, but the powerful influence of our introduction was proved by the warmth of our reception.* Yes, there was the master before me as I had often pictured him by means of portrait and description, his two hands extended to grasp mine in true fatherly fashion. I felt the innate power of the man before he opened his mouth. He wore a loosely hanging frock coat of black cloth, trousers of the same material, an unstarched, badly ironed high collar, leathern morning shoes, in which he shuffled across the floor. His voice was smooth and full of melody: he spoke in short, broken phrases, interrupted from time to time by a characteristic "h'm," a sort of clearing the throat, apparently intended to strengthen the impression of what had been said.
* The Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein had previously written to Liszt in behalf of the young artist who was accompanied by his friend and patron, Mr. Brabazon, of London.
After a few general remarks he said, "My expectations have really been raised very high—h'm.—the Princess writes most enthusiastically about your playing—h'm—." He further expressed his regret that the program of the Tonkünstler concert was already over-full of novelties, so that it would be impossible to find room for my name upon it. He also gave us an invitation to attend the afternoon rehearsal of his "Christus," which was to have its performance on the day following. "To-morrow," he concluded, "we must improvise a little séance at Blüthner's, for I am really curious to hear you." In the meantime other visitors had been announced and we took our departure in an exalted frame of mind.
The next afternoon, however, my enthusiasm received its first chill. The salon was filled with people who plainly did not belong there; indeed, they could hardly have given a reason why they had come at all. What I saw then and in the days that followed was enough to show me that a great part of this assemblage was made up of creatures who came merely to scatter incense, and others destitute of talent, who were abusing Liszt's proverbial kindness of heart in order later to adopt the trade-mark "favorite pupil," when they had never even played a note for him. After the rehearsal and during the supper that followed in the evening I witnessed unpleasant scenes that I afterward saw repeated at Weimar in a still more drastic manner. Men of ability, of sincere devotion to Liszt, were obliged to stand in the background or were elbowed aside by flatterers and fawners who did not even allow the object of their adulation the time to enjoy his simple evening meal. And what pained me the most was the pleasure he seemed to take in the gross and exaggerated praises that met him on every side; "his lightest word, his simplest remark, was received with ecstatic gestures or meaningless laughter.
Two days later the little matinee at Blüthner's warerooms took place. There were but few present —Madame Jaëll, Martin Krause, Arthur Friedheim, Moritz Rosenthal, and several others. I played some pieces by Chopin and Grieg, Rubinstein's staccato study, and Liszt's Twelfth Rhapsody. Although on account of so much continuous travel I was not in practice and my technic was not so flawless as I could have wished, the master was tolerant enough to express his warm approbation, particularly at my playing of his rhapsody. At the end he signified his satisfaction by kissing me on the forehead and willingly granting my request to be allowed to join the circle of his pupils that summer. Friedheim, whom Liszt had christened by the pet name of "Friedheimus," then dashed off the fantaisie of "Lucrezia Borgia" with such stupendous spirit and ease of execution that I felt not a little dissatisfied with my performance and silently determined to devote myself during the coming period of study in Weimar to perfecting my technic, which I knew was not at its best estate. In the evening we all accompanied the master to the railroad station and the next day we followed him to Weimar.
 On our return the city wore an entirely different aspect. It took on a new life with Liszt's arrival. There was a coming and going that steadily increased until after the summer solstice, and came to an end only when he left to take up his abode in Pesth. It was not alone the influx of Liszt's pupils that disturbed the quiet of the peaceful little city; there was also a large concourse of strangers that speedily filled all the hotels: representatives of noble families who regarded the master as being one of their own, celebrated contemporaries and youths of a later generation who came to express their homage to him, rising composers and busy publishers, as well as the inevitable swarm of idlers and gapers who were attracted by nothing but pure curiosity.
As to the instruction, it must not be imagined that this took the form of regular lessons; it was more like a course of university lectures that may be attended or not, according to pleasure. It was always interesting, as everything that proceeds from an intellectual man must be; but no one who was not thoroughly prepared could learn from it any more than a university student who had not gone through his preliminary examinations could profit by lectures. For those who had not been trained to a high degree of technical facility it would have been far more advisable to supply what was wanting in this respect, either by private study or by the aid of a conservatory course. The master, however, was an outspoken enemy of conservatories, and I must confess that I agree with him in regard to many of these, but it cannot be denied that he went too far in his wholesale condemnation of such institutions. He had to thank many of the music schools that he ridiculed so unsparingly—even Leipzig, which was the particular target of his sarcastic attacks—for the material with which he produced such rich results. So it happened that ignorance and conceit found shelter with Liszt the free-thinker. Whoever had been dismissed by his former teacher on account of idleness or want of talent, or had spent any time to no advantage in a conservatory, sought protection for his ill-treated genius under the wings of the master. Such pupils greatly outnumbered the few who by reason of suitable preparation were ready and able to cope with the situation. These could be counted on the fingers— Friedheim, Rosenthal, Reisenauer, Stavenhagen, Siloti, Dayas, van de Sandt, S. Liebling, Göllerich, and several others, all of whom had previously studied with such masters as Rubinstein, Joseffy, Bruckner, Köhler, Kullack, Rudorff, etc., and were therefore prepared to receive the final polish. The rest simply did not belong there—and, what was worse, they often hindered the advancement of those who were really gifted. The race of idlers consisted of two groups: young women who instead of smooth scales brought pretty faces, and young men who deployed the most refined art of flattery in order to endear themselves to the old master.
But let us cast a glance in the holy halls where court is held from four to six. The historic rooms are crowded with representatives of both sexes. The master, attired in a black velvet jacket, slowly winds his way through a throng of languishing girls, moving to and fro in his usual dragging tread from his piano to his writing desk and back again. Every now and then he bends with an air of homage to one of the fair ones, vouchsafing a longer or a shorter interview according to her outward appearance. At the piano pounds a red-haired American; he has been introduced as a genius by the conservatory director P. The young man has everything against him: he is freckled and homely, ignorant and destitute of temperament—then he is not even playing a Liszt composition! That is too, too much by far. The master bears it for a time and accompanies the performance with various satirical side-remarks, but at length claps the music together before the young fellow's nose, exclaiming, "America, to-morrow you may disgrace yourself further … h'm …
The director grows pale, his protégé grows red. His place is taken by Fräulein S., who in addition to a rather pretty face brings an old Liszt arrangement which the composer himself has almost forgotten. This thoughtfulness, however, gives her the privilege of boring us almost to death for half an hour, while the master with a delighted smile, now and then letting his hand drop on her shoulder, helps her over false notes and rhythmic confusion and with an occasional "Good!" tranquilly allows her to murder his piece. Mademoiselle pounds worse than the American, but she has roguish dimples, and these disarm criticism. Next comes Fräulein M., a pupil of Sgambati, who plays really well; but she is homely and inexperienced in the school of artifice, hence she does not find her way to the piano so frequently as Fraulein P., who is a human thrashing machine and seemingly indispensable to the master.
Leaning against the wall, his roll of music clasped tightly in his hand, I see a talented young fellow who for the fourth time is trying to gain permission to play the Brahms concerto in B flat. He is a born virtuoso, but a poor politician, otherwise he would have discovered long ago that this masterpiece is by no means in favor with the master. Finally he succeeds in making his way to the front and in being noticed. "What have you there … h'm … aha … Brahms ? Well, h'm . ' … so far as I am concerned; fire away with your Brahms … h'm." A companion plays the orchestral part on the Ibach upright. Liszt has sat down and follows the performance with apparent interest, the open score in his hand. He is too great a genius not to recognize the artistic significance of this great work; even though his bearing and expression seem to denote the contrary, he cannot but be moved by the music, all the more that none knows better than he that it is depth of thought and not fioritura that decides the true worth of a composition. Now and then the player is rewarded with "good" or "well done," with valuable hints as to phrasing, fingering, use of the pedal, etc. I shall never forget the moment, however, when at a passage which was awkwardly put upon the piano the master threw up his head with an air of triumph and cried, "H'm … rather cheap stuff: h'm … we have done better than that!" His evident ill-humor was not dispelled until one of the players came forward with one of his own most brilliant and effective compositions. His countenance cleared again and the lesson ended as harmoniously as it had begun.
Naturally this description of actual occurrences as they come to my memory does not agree with all the lesson hours; some days were poor, but on others what was truly artistic came to the front and forced the inferior into the background. After all, Liszt was not to be deceived; talent united with ability was sure to be recognized and had no need of flattery or insincerity to win his approbation, even if its owner never succeeded in gaining the distinction of being a "favorite pupil." This at least was my experience, and I by no means fared the worst. I never allowed little annoyances or the inconvenience of being obliged to wait to keep me from choosing for study just what I most wanted to have his advice upon, whether my choice occasioned approval or disapproval. I made no concealment of my veneration for Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, and in spite of my openly expressed opinion that Rubinstein's works were more original and melodious and were more essentially musical in nature than Liszt's, my relations to him were never anything but of the most friendly character. The two summers that I spent in Weimar, 1884 and 1885, brought me unmistakable evidences of his good will toward me.
Only once did I have the pleasure of hearing Liszt play, and this—forgive my audacity—was but a moderate one. In one of the afternoon gatherings he was good-humored enough to sit down to the piano and play one of his own "Consolations," Chopin's nocturne in B flat minor, and Weber's "Perpetuum Mobile" for us. Notwithstanding my best will to the contrary, I could not but find what he gave us entirely too slight to warrant my joining in the rapture expressed by the faithful. I was prepared for the fact that flexibility and elasticity of touch could not be expected from a septuagenarian, but not for the surprise of finding that his musical performance produced no impression to speak of upon me. What was truly remarkable, however, was the silent play of the eye, of face and feature, the classic pose of the entire person. All this revealed not a pianistic but a dramatic talent of the highest order.
Notwithstanding Liszt's peculiarities they can in no wise diminish his incalculable services in the cause of art. There may be strong differences of opinion as to his creative ability, but it cannot be denied that in his piano concertos, in his symphonic poems, in his songs, we possess original art forms which serve as inspiration and models for the youthful generation and which rise far above the influence of party feeling. They form a boundary mark that every one who is not content to remain a backwoodsman all his life must pass, whether he is willing or not. No one in the last century has exercised such a reformatory influence—save Wagner, who could hardly have won his way to success without the aid given him by Liszt. To thousands of musicians who had the fortune of being brought into personal relation with him he was like a messenger from above, showering upon them the riches of his bounty with the utmost prodigality. Before him such generosity was unknown.

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