I have just been reading an astonishing little book which a friend lent me – The Death of Franz Liszt, based on the unpublished diary of his pupil Lina Schmalhausen (Cornell University Press, 2002).
The distinguished Liszt biographer Alan Walker came across Lina’s unpublished diary in a Weimar archive when researching the first volume of his much-praised life of Liszt.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.