The diary of Liszt’s pupil Lina Schmalhausen

Posted by Susan Tomes on 29 June 2022 under Books, Musings  •  1 Comment

I have just been reading an astonishing little book which a friend lent me  –  The Death of Franz Liszt, based on the unpublished diary of his pupil Lina Schmalhausen (Cornell University Press, 2002).

The distinguished Liszt biographer Alan Walker came across Lina’s unpublished diary in a Weimar archive when researching the first volume of his much-praised life of Liszt. It took Walker years to be allowed to inspect, translate and eventually publish Lina’s diary.

Lina Schmalhausen was a young piano student of Liszt, though not one of the most gifted ones. Like many of his female pupils, she became besotted with him. In her early twenties she became an assistant, a close companion and eventually a kind of carer to the elderly Liszt. She was at his side during the final ten days of his life.

Liszt died in Bayreuth, the centre of a Wagner cult. Wagner was in fact Liszt’s son-in-law, his daughter Cosima having left her first husband in order to set up home with Wagner. Liszt and his daughter had fallen out about this, and feelings between them remained strained, even after Wagner died in 1883. Three years later, Cosima asked her father to come to Bayreuth to lend his support to the Wagner Festival. He did, but for some reason was not invited to stay at Wahnfried, the Wagners’ splendid villa. Liszt lived in rented rooms across the street. And it was there that he fell ill and died.

Lina Schmalhausen was regarded by her fellow piano students with suspicion. Cosima Wagner also disliked her and did not like to find her in Liszt’s rented rooms. Liszt’s manservant resented Lina too. She therefore found herself alone in her efforts to look after Liszt in his final illness, when she felt no-one else was paying proper attention. She often managed to slip in to his rooms when Cosima was at the theatre, but there were times when Cosima banned her from visiting Liszt. During those times, Lina found ways to hide in the garden or crouch on the steps outside his bedroom window in order to peer in and keep an eye on him, sometimes all night long. She witnessed many of the strange things that went on during those final days of Liszt’s life.

It is from Lina that we learn of the local barber being summoned to have a go (unsuccessfully) at embalming Liszt’s body after he died. Lina tells us how Liszt’s landlady then requested the Wagners to move his body, to spare the feelings of her other guests. As a result, Cosima and a manservant had to manhandle Liszt’s body into a coffin and trundle it across the road to Wahnfried on a busy morning when the streets of Bayreuth were full of visitors.

Lina’s diary leaves off shortly after Liszt died, and Alan Walker supplies a fascinating epilogue telling us what happened at the funeral and afterwards, when there were long arguments about where Liszt should ultimately rest.

Because of Lina’s outspoken criticism of the Wagners, her diary was kept hidden away in the archives. But we can read it now. It is a revealing first-hand account of events which were later sanitised and passed down to music history as if they had been handled in a dignified way, when in fact this was far from being the case.

My books pop up in recent commentary

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 June 2022 under Books, Reviews  •  2 Comments

Readers of my books might like to see a couple of mentions which have popped up recently in the US.

The first is in the New York publication The Browser, whose mission is to send its subscribers a daily selection of good writing from around the world. Editor Robert Cottrell writes an extensive thinkpiece each week, and at the end of May his chosen subject was books written by pianists. A short excerpt:

‘There seems to be something about pianists which makes them good writers. When I try to think of musicians whose writing I admire, I think first of Alfred Brendel, whose essays and lectures have been collected as Music, Sense And Nonsense; the late Charles Rosen, author of Piano Notes: The Hidden World Of The Pianist (and, like Brendel, a regular contributor to the New York Review Of Books under Robert Silvers’s editorship); Susan Tomes, author of The Piano: A History In 100 Pieces; Stephen Hough, author of Rough Ideas; and, of course, Andras Schiff, whose conversations, memories and writings are collected in that most beautiful and melancholy of memoirs, Music Comes Out Of Silence.

It cannot be mere manual dexterity, the easy transition from one keyboard to another, that makes pianists such good writers (oddly enough, pianists do not score particularly well on clinical dexterity tests). Perhaps it has something to do with the declarative nature of the piano. A piano dominates a room or a stage whether it is being played or not. When it does speak, it commands attention. It will not go quietly into any backpack. I wonder if the piano, like the writing of books, exerts a natural attraction on those who feel they have something to say.’ (30 May 2022)

Meanwhile, on No Dead Guys, American pianist Rhonda Rizzo’s excellent blog about new music, she writes about five favourite memoirs by classical musicians. Her five authors are Jeremy Denk, Stephen Hough, Steve Reich, Andras Schiff, and me (note: four of the five are pianists!) In each case she summarises what she likes about the book and gives a favourite quote from it. About my book she writes:

Beyond the Notes: Journeys with Chamber Music

by Susan Tomes

About the book

Published nearly 20 years ago, Beyond the Notes continues to be a favorite memoir because of the beauty of Tomes’ writing, and the truthfulness of her experiences gleaned from a lifetime of rehearsals, concerts and recordings. This consummate chamber musician—a founder member and the pianist of both Domus and the Florestan Trio—writes of the challenges and the joys of working with others, life on the road, and the passion to share great music with audiences in conventional (and unconventional) settings.

Favorite quote

“Physicists now tell us that the universe, as well as being full of the matter we can see, is full of dark matter that we can’t see, but which is vital in some mysterious way. The dark matter is observable because of its gravitational effect. In music, notation is the matter we can see. The spirit which lies beyond it is the dark matter. It can’t be defined, but without it, there is no music.”

The Van Cliburn competition 2022

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 June 2022 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  3 Comments

I have been following – online – the Van Cliburn piano competition which takes place every four years in Fort Worth, Texas. As well as being one of the world’s most prestigious it must be the most generous, with an array of prizes and offers of management, concert bookings, recording opportunities, media training, financial training, tax advice, logistics support and all the things most of us feel we never got enough of.

I followed the competition with a feeling of amazement and gratitude that classical piano is still considered so important.

This year the Gold Medal was won by Yunchan Lim, an astonishing 18-year-old pianist from South Korea. One of his bold decisions was to devote the whole of his semi-final recital to Liszt’s Twelve Transcendental Studies. Passing up the opportunity to ‘show his range’, he put all his eggs in one basket. And with sensational results, as you can hear if you seek out his semi-final recital on YouTube. It was hard to imagine how such a young person could have developed the technique, the command, the memory skills and the confidence to perform such a feat in front of a huge audience and a jury of celebrity pianists.

There’s a saying about how ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’. I think about all the people who must have been involved in the making of a young master. To be so expert at the age of 18 implies a very young start and a phalanx of people who – years ago – could see his potential and were prepared to devote themselves to supporting him. Parents, music teachers, school teachers, mentors, siblings, fellow piano students, non-musician friends – all must have had a role to play.

I think about the countless hours of practice, the things that other people had to do (or give up) to make it possible. Has this been going on since he was three years old? I wonder who encouraged him to keep plugged in to the task through the storm of adolescence. Knowing how many teenagers, even talented ones, turn away from the piano when other passions hit them, there may have been times when people around him had to steady their nerves and figure out when to keep quiet and when to put the pressure on.

When I watch a supremely talented young pianist, I don’t only see flashing hands and hear effortless torrents of notes; I see a hinterland of support, belief, empathy and probably tears and sleepless nights experienced by those who worked towards this goal. They are the untold story behind the headlines.

Tempo and how we judge it

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 June 2022 under Musings  •  5 Comments

I have been listening to various recordings of Mozart’s K488 piano concerto made by pianists in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In all of them, as if by some strange consensus, the slow movement is taken very slowly. It seems to have been a fashion back then to treat Mozart Adagios as very slow.

As I listen, I don’t just think, ‘this is slow’. I think, ‘this is *too* slow’. It’s as if some delicate balance has been upset. I feel as if someone has their foot on the brakes all the time instead of driving happily along.

What determines one’s feeling about tempo? Is it to do with one’s physique – how lightly or heavily one’s hand lies on the piano keys, how easily one moves around the instrument? Physical weight or stiffness could certainly make one feel that a speed is too fast, or too slow.

But my judgement about tempo seems to be independent of whether I’m playing or not. My sense of the right tempo is determined by something else – by some kind of relationship between the musical material and the speed it’s being played at.

I remember György Sebök saying that if the tempo is too slow for the musical content, the music will feel like a piece of chewing gum being stretched too thinly and losing its ideal texture.

If the tempo is too fast for the content, it can feel as if notes are being stuffed into your mouth like handfuls of peanuts you don’t have time to chew.  (That’s my analogy, not Sebök’s.)

Yet although people have strong personal reactions to tempo, reactions vary from person to person. You probably won’t get everyone in the audience agreeing that something was too fast or slow.

All of which reminds me that the Italian word tempo is also the word for the weather.

Whatever the weather, some will feel comfortable while others long for it to be warmer – or cooler. So perhaps one’s response to tempo (or weather) is to do with one’s heartbeat, temperature and breathing patterns.

Mozart K488 on the turntable

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 May 2022 under Musings  •  1 Comment

I’m currently practising Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K488 for a performance with the New Edinburgh Orchestra on June 25 (please come along if you live nearby!)

Mozart’s glorious A major concerto is still probably my favourite (apart from all my other favourite Mozart concertos). It was the first concerto I ever learned, and when I was ten or eleven I played it in a concert organised by my piano teacher Miss Mary Moore. Somehow she hired a hall and an orchestra to showcase several of her piano students playing concertos. For us youngsters it was a memorable event and even featured in the newspaper with photos.

At Miss Moore’s suggestion, I prepared for the concert by playing along to an LP record of the piece on which the pianist was Eric Heidsieck. The record cover had a beautiful photo of the castle in Salzburg, which I loved. Unfortunately the LP played at a slightly higher pitch than the pitch of my piano at home. Playing along with it was a painful experience for the ear.

After I complained about it enough times, my father had the idea of lowering the pitch of the record by slowing down the LP as it was spinning round. Only a very light touch was needed, but it had to be a steady touch if the pitch was not to wobble. Dad discovered that by sitting on the floor near the turntable he could rest a finger lightly on the edge of the record and bring the pitch down to precisely that of our piano. This was not easy as the piece lasted for half an hour and required considerable patience from the pitch-adjuster.

On school days I used to practise early in the mornings, before breakfast. I can still visualise my dad sitting on the floor in his pyjamas, applying delicate brakes to Eric Heidsieck’s recording so that I could play along with it at the same pitch. A salute to long-suffering parents of musical children!