Franz Liszt: Years with Marie d’Agoult and Compositions at Weimar

  July 15, 2021   Read time 4 min
Franz Liszt: Years with Marie d’Agoult and Compositions at Weimar
In 1834 Liszt emerged as a mature composer with the solo piano piece Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, based on a collection of poems by Lamartine, and the set of three Apparitions.

The lyrical style of these works is in marked contrast to his youthful compositions, which reflected the style of his teacher Czerny. In the same year, he met the novelist George Sand and also Marie de Flavigny, countess d’Agoult, with whom he began an affair. In 1835 she left her husband and family to join Liszt in Switzerland; their first daughter, Blandine, was born in Geneva on December 18. Liszt and Madame d’Agoult lived together for four years, mainly in Switzerland and Italy, though Liszt made occasional visits to Paris. He also taught at the newly founded Geneva Conservatory and published a series of essays, On the Position of Artists, in which he endeavoured to raise the status of the artist in society.

Liszt commemorated his years with Madame d’Agoult in the first two books of solo piano pieces collectively named Années de pèlerinage (1837–54; Years of Pilgrimage), which are poetical evocations of Swiss and Italian scenes. He also wrote the first mature version of the Transcendental Études (1838, 1851); these are works for solo piano based on his youthful Étude en 48 exercices, but here transformed into pieces of terrifying virtuosity. He transcribed for the piano six of Paganini’s pieces—five studies and La mpanella—and also three Beethoven symphonies, some songs by Franz Schubert, and further works of Berlioz.

His second daughter, Cosima, was born in 1837 and his son, Daniel, in 1839, but toward the end of that year his relations with Madame d’Agoult became strained and she returned to Paris with the children. Liszt then returned to his career as a virtuoso. For the next eight years Liszt traveled all over Europe, giving concerts in countries as far apart as Ireland, Portugal, Turkey, and Russia. He continued to spend his summer holidays with Madame d’Agoult and the children until 1844; then they finally parted, and Liszt took the children to Paris. Liszt’s brilliance and success were at their peak during these years as a virtuoso, and he continued to compose, writing songs as well as piano works.

His visit to Hungary in 1839–40, the first since his boyhood, was an important event. His renewed interest in the music of the Gypsies laid the foundations for his Hungarian Rhapsodies and other piano pieces composed in the Hungarian style. He also wrote a cantata for the Beethoven Festival of 1845 and composed some smaller choral works.

In February 1847 Liszt met the princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein at Kiev and later spent some time at her estate in Poland. She quickly persuaded him to give up his career as a virtuoso and to concentrate on composition. He gave his final concert at Yelizavetgrad (Kirovograd) in September of that year. Having been director of music extraordinary to the Weimar court in Germany since 1843, and having conducted concerts there since 1844, Liszt decided to settle there permanently in 1848. He was later joined by the princess, who had unsuccessfully tried to obtain a divorce from her husband. They resided together in Weimar, and this was the period of his greatest production: the first 12 symphonic poems, A Faust Symphony (1854; rev. 1857–61), A Symphony to Dante’s Divina Commedia (1855–56), the Piano Sonata in B Minor (1852–53), the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major (1849; rev. 1853 and 1856), and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major (1839; rev. 1849– 61). (A third piano concerto, in E-flat, composed in 1839, was not discovered until 1988.) During the period in Weimar Liszt also composed the Totentanz for piano and orchestra and revised the Transcendental and Paganini Études and the first two books of the Années de pèlerinage.

The grand duke who originally appointed Liszt in Weimar died in 1853, and his successor took little interest in music. Liszt resigned five years later, and, though he remained in Weimar until 1861, his position there became more and more difficult. His son, Daniel, had died in 1859 at the age of 20. Liszt was deeply distressed and wrote the oration for orchestra Les Morts in his son’s memory. In May 1860 the princess had left Weimar for Rome in the hope of having her divorce sanctioned by the pope. He left Weimar in August of the following year, and, after traveling to Berlin and Paris, he arrived in Rome. He and the princess hoped to be married on his 50th birthday. At the last moment, however, the pope revoked his sanction of the princess’s divorce; they both remained in Rome in separate establishments.