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Liszt at the Court of Napoleon III


ETUDE readers who may have missed the October issue will be pleased to know that the Princess Metternich’s “Memoirs of Richard Wagner” may be obtained in that issue or secured in book form in “The Days That Are No More” (E. P. Dutton Co.)
INTIMATE pictures of the great are always interesting. This fascinating silhouette of the magnetic Liszt is somewhat different from his conventional musical portraits, yet it has a direct interest for the musician and music lover.

I always had a great liking for Franz Liszt, not only as an artist, but as a man. Personally he was more sympathetic to me than Wagner. Liszt was indeed vain—what great artist is not?—but he was so infinitely kind-hearted, so magnanimous, so loyal in his friendships, that one readily overlooked his little vanities, when he came into closer contact with him and got to know him thoroughly. I like to recall his visits to Paris, where he was a frequent caller at our house. During one of these visits it so happened that Gounod had invited us to an evening party, and when he heard that Liszt was in Paris he begged us to ask the latter in his name to attend the soirée. Strange to say, Liszt and Gounod did not know each other, so that my husband and I were the means of bringing them together. Liszt accepted the invitation. On our arrival we were greeted most effusively, Liszt in particular because he was Liszt, and we because we had persuaded him to accept Gounod’s invitation. He already wore the priestly cassock, and in point of fact was no longer greatly inclined to enter artistic circles. We had assured him that he could not refuse without offending Gounod, and his kindness of heart prevailed over his scruple. He came, saw, and conquered.

How Gounod Sang
When the formalities of introduction were over, Gounod sat down at the piano and sang as he alone knew how to sing: in a weak and rather muffled voice it is true, I might almost say in a voice that would have sounded ugly to those who can only admire bell-like tones, but with such an incredible charm of delivery that all who heard him were in raptures. He sang various extracts from his own “Faust,” and took the parts of soprano, tenor, and baritone by turn with such consummate mastery, that even Liszt could not get over his astonishment. When Gounod at last stopped, Liszt told him that he would gladly play something from “Faust,” but must ask for a copy of the music, as he did not know the opera well enough to play from memory. Gounod declared that he only had the orchestral score, whereupon Liszt laughingly replied that it did not matter, and that with the composer to help him out he would be quite content with that. The score was placed on the music-rest, and he opened with Gretchen’s first meeting with Faust; then went on to the waltzes, in which, as in the rest, he introduced marvelous improvisations; and so on to the end. All present were fascinated and delighted. “That’s enough,” he suddenly said. “In honor of the Princess I’m going to play her favorite piece—Rossini’s ‘Caritá.’”  He played it exquisitely—as a matter of fact, I have
never heard it played by anyone but Liszt.

After the Gounod evening there were some musical evenings at the Embassy, at which Liszt was the center of attraction. Incredible though it may sound, I cannot resist mentioning the fact that Liszt once proposed to me that he and I should play a waltz of Strauss as a duet! The idea of refusing would never have entered my head, for on such an occasion, when the gathering was quite an intimate one, it would have been simply foolish to do so. “With the greatest pleasure,” I replied, and I fearlessly dashed into the fray with the waltz “Moths.” I had never played so well in my life, for of course one could only hear Liszt. My strumming was like the buzz of a gnat beside the roar of a lion. At one of these cheery musical evenings our friend Saint-Saëns appeared. Liszt suggested that they should play together on two pianos, an offer that was enthusiastically accepted. It was a memorable experience to hear such a pair. “There’s no doubt about it, we two play remarkably well together,” said Liszt, and laughed heartily over this self-praise. Then he turned to Saint-Saëns, and exclaimed: “It is possible to be as much of a musician as Saint-Saëns; it is impossible to be more of one!”

A Soirée at the Tuileries
The Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie had heard of the Liszt evenings at our house, and wanted to have the great pianist as their guest. We were ordered to take him to the Tuileries. The invitation went out to him and to us in the form of a little dinner-party. After dinner the Emperor asked Liszt to play to him. Once more he gave a rendering of my favorite “Caritá;“ then he played a charming waltz of Schubert’s, which he called “Backhändel,” but which, I believe, is not known under that title. He wound up with the Preghiera from Rossini’s “Moise.” At the end came a series of powerful tremolos, and when it was over, the Emperor said to him: “How well you imitate thunder !” This praise acted like an unexpected douche of ice-cold water. The chilling effect, however, was pleasantly counteracted the next day, when the Emperor conferred upon the artist, through my husband, the Legion of Honor. Finally Count Walewski the Minister of Fine Arts at the time, approached us with the request that we should persuade Liszt to let us take him to one of his receptions. This was not such an easy matter, and it needed all the arts of cajolery to induce the great man to accept the offer.

Liszt was, of course, at once assailed with entreaties to play, and I may proudly confess that, if I had not pressed him so hard, not a single note would have been heard from him that evening. He was not merely out of humor, but downright angry, and said to me: “You’re putting the bear through his paces !” Fortunately Mlle. Viardot-Garcia, the famous singer and incomparable artist—for grandeur and style in singing, there was no one but Lilli Lehmann who reminded me of her—was present (and in her gracious way she came to my rescue, by asking Liszt to accompany her for the “Erlkönig.” And so it was that I gained my point and heard the “Erlkönig” sung by the Viardot with accompaniment by Liszt. It would be scarcely possible to hear a finer, a more impressive, combination.
Memories of Chopin
Liszt left Paris, and we did not meet him again until years later in Venice, and that, too, in 1881. I was alone one evening, deep in a book, the door opened and “Herr Liszt” was announced. He came from Weimar where he had organized a musical and poetic memorial celebration on behalf of the unforgettable Marie Mouchanow (née Nesselrode and a niece of the celebrated Chancellor’s). In a Grand-ducal summer-house, which he had decorated with flowers and plants, and in the middle of which he had had a bust of the dear departed set up, he performed, for the benefit of her friends and admirers, the pieces which she had been wont to play with such rare skill, and ended with an “Elegy” dedicated to her as a farewell greeting. After speaking to me of Marie Kalergis, he added : “I know that you loved her. You ought to have taken part in our memorial celebration.” He went up to the piano, opened it, and on that evening, which I spent alone with him, he played more beautifully than I had ever heard him play before. He must have sat there for two hours, pouring forth the music of the spheres. In some strange way he seemed to have assimilated all that was characteristic in the playing of our dearly beloved friend, for from time to’ time he would say, half to himself: “That’s how she used to play Chopin; that’s how she used to render that phrase.”

When he took his leave, tears stood in his eyes, and he said : “Marie Mouchanow in passing away has left a void that no one and nothing can ever fill for me. I was deeply attached to her. Life has lost much of
its savour for me now that she has gone.” Then he held out both hands to me, said good-bye, and added:
“I shan’t play any more—you have heard me for the last time.” And, indeed, I never heard him play again.
From Paris he once sent me a beautifully bound copy of the arrangement of “Lohengrin” for the pianoforte. On the front page are inscribed the following words, written by his own hand: “Copy belonging to Madame la Princess de Metternich, as does her very humble servant, F. Liszt.” Naturally I am not a little proud of this twofold possession.

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