These are the first two things we learn about Franz Liszt:
- He was one of the most influential musicians of the nineteenth century.
- He was a babe magnet.
Historians (the vast majority of them male) revel in describing Liszt’s fangirls, marveling at every detail of their insanity. These women were hysterical, petty, irrational. They fought over his handkerchiefs, fashioned piano strings into bracelets, and even tucked his discarded cigar butts between their boobs. Their intense reaction to his performances even inspired a new noun – Lisztomania – coined by Heinrich Heine in the 1840s. Heine asked “a physician, whose speciality is female diseases” to explain why Liszt held audiences so spellbound. Predictably, the physician declared the phenomenon to be pathological, offering as explanation self-assured mumbo-jumbo about magnetism, electricity, and even musical cantharidin, I sh*t you not.
But let’s be real: Liszt’s female fans weren’t brainless bimbos. Contrary to the stereotype, many brilliant women fell into Liszt’s orbit for intellectual, emotional, or even spiritual reasons. We’ve read about a few of his protégés already, including virtuosas Amy Fay, Adele aus der Ohe, and Sophie Menter. But one of the most important Liszt fangirls was not a professional musician at all. She was a self-taught writer and historian who made important contributions to the nascent field of musicology, and her groundbreaking work still raises timely questions even today. Her name was Marie Lipsius, pseudonym La Mara.
Ida Marie Lipsius was born in Leipzig on December 30, 1837. Her maternal grandfather was director of the fabled Thomasschule, and before his own early death, her father also ascended to the same lofty position. (Bach himself was Thomaskantor there at the end of his life.) The Thomasschule is one of the oldest and most prestigious in Europe, having been founded in 1212. Marie had three older brothers, all of whom enjoyed sparkling educations and eventually careers: Adelbert, a theologian; Constantin, an architect; and Hermann, a philologist (who, predictably, ultimately ascended to the same position his grandfather and father had held). Marie was the youngest child and the only girl, and her mother died when she was five, so she grew up in a very male, very intellectual environment. Her education may not have been as complete as her brothers’, but it was impressive nonetheless, especially for a girl, and it included stints in boarding school, as well as tuition in languages and music.
At boarding school, Marie met a girl named Laura Pohl, who later became her best friend and eventually her sister-in-law. The connection was a fortuitous one. Laura’s brother Richard was a music critic (he was friends with Schumann), and he held passionate opinions about the state of modern music. Pohl viewed himself as a literal foot soldier in the so-called War of the Romantics, signing inflammatory articles with the pseudonym Hoplit, an allusion to the Greek hoplites, “the citizen-soldiers of Ancient Greek city-states who were primarily armed with spears and shields.” In this war of musical aesthetics, Pohl came down firmly on the side of the futurists; namely, Berlioz, Wagner, and Liszt, who championed the rule-breaking and programmatic “Music of the Future.” One wonders if this was a hard sell for Laura and Marie; the more musically conservative Mendelssohn loomed large in the cultural heritage of Leipzigers. But Marie had the intellectual curiosity – and ability – to engage in all sorts of musical experimentation. After attending dazzling salon events, engaging one-on-one with the great artists, and playing lots of four-hand piano, learning old and new works from the inside out, she eventually came down on Richard Pohl’s – and Liszt’s – side. Nonetheless, she retained a lifelong ability to appreciate the genius of every composer-combatant, no matter their aesthetic allegiance.
In 1854 Richard Pohl moved to Weimar and became editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the journal that Schumann had co-founded in 1834 and left in 1843. Pohl quickly gained entry to the legendary salon culture of mid-century Weimar, and even became friends with Liszt and his mistress Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Fatefully, Richard extended an invitation to Marie. She later wrote, “This visit, to the extent that it conveyed to me, in my first youth, the acquaintance with Liszt and the introduction to the Weimar artists’ circle, was decisive for the direction of my life.” Marie found herself drawn not only to Liszt, but also to Carolyne, a brilliant and strong-willed woman who was desperately trying to get an annulment of the marriage she was forced into as a teenager. (She never succeeded.) As Marie put it, “For the first time I saw myself across from this extraordinary woman who was admired as one of the most important phenomena of the nineteenth century and whose romantic covenant of love with Liszt occupied the attention of the world.”
In 1861, when she was twenty-three, Marie’s father died. She realized that she had entered a new era in her life. She wanted to create “goals” for herself, and, more pressingly, contribute in some way to supporting her stepmother’s household.
Obviously, most women did this by marrying. But Marie could find no suitable (male) mate. In her autobiography, she reflected:
Love, the most powerful of earthy forces, has not passed me by, either. But it arrived as is sung in the folksong: ‘They could not come together – the water was really too deep.’ Many years later, he gave someone else his name. Many tragic things resulted from this connection. God granted me another joy: he allowed me to recognise my innermost calling in the talent for writing about music with which he had entrusted me, and which had until now lain dormant within me. Without any selfish goals, I devote myself to it as to a sanctuary. And Liszt, the one who spurred me on in my life, was its ‘discoverer.’
Motivated by the newly urgent desire to pull her own weight, and maybe also to get over that mysterious lost love, she began to take writing seriously. One of her brother Adelbert’s friends had a temporary job as an editor. Adelbert, who always encouraged his sister’s studies, connected them, and she provided a piece. Her name didn’t appear on it, but she was paid two marks. The way forward was now obvious.
Her creative output began growing. One important early article described her encounter with Liszt. This project seems to have sparked a passion for writing about music and its makers. Her first three big profiles were on Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt. Unsure of their worth, she asked Laura and Richard Pohl if she should publish them. They both said yes, even Richard, the professional critic. Her father hadn’t wanted her to become a published author, and so partly out of respect for his wishes, and partly to escape the rampant prejudice against serious female writers, she coined the genderless pen name La Mara by merging “Marie” and “Laura.” For a while, those who knew the secret behind the pseudonym thought the two women were co-writers.
In October 1867, Marie published a profile of Liszt. Canny as ever about self-promotion, Liszt was vocal in his praise and vigorous in promoting his new protégé’s work. (Carolyne likely had something to do with his enthusiasm; she loved Marie’s writing, especially her insights into her subjects’ psychology, insights that the princess found to be uniquely feminine. A few years later she’d write to Marie: “Please allow me to add to all these so well-deserved accolades that your activity as a writer fills me with pride in my capacity as a woman.“) The quality of Marie’s work, combined with the promotion of Liszt, proved to be a potent combination. Within a few weeks, Weimar-based publisher Hermann Weißbach asked Marie if she’d write a whole book of composer essays. She agreed, provided that she could choose the subject matter. This book was published in 1868, and included previously published profiles on Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner, as well as new ones on Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Weber.
This article on Marie by Martina Bick describes a typical La Mara sketch. (Unfortunately, I had trouble finding English translations, especially modern ones, so am relying on the descriptions of German speakers.) These biographical portraits typically clocked in at around fifty pages. They wove biography and psychology into a discussion of the composer’s works. And they were written for a broad middle-class public (including female readers), not the (exclusively male) specialists in the newly emerging academic field of musicology.
This evocative genre of writing was, in many ways, a uniquely female one. Brilliant women writers who hadn’t enjoyed the formal education of their male peers often focused their talents, of necessity, on “the musical short story, musical travelogue, or biography, which they appropriated for musicological work but with a different voice,” as James Deaville writes. They also tended to gravitate toward profiling living or recently deceased musicians, as these were the figures whose histories were most easily accessible to them. Figurative walls had been built up around the lives of long-dead men: it was thought that a male education was required to interpret their work with any authority. Plus, the increasing fetishization of the past led to (again, male) historians placing a potentially outsized importance on historical figures, claiming a scholarly domain that well-trained men were loath to share with ill-trained women. However. A living legend like Liszt could be corresponded with, his friends and colleagues contacted via letter. Letter-writing: a uniquely domestic method of research, perfectly suited for genteel stay-at-home ladies. And letter-write La Mara did. She sent out hundreds, if not thousands, of meticulously written letters and questionnaires over the course of her career, aiming to gather as much information as possible about her subjects. She supplemented this method with trips to libraries, archives, and private collections. She was one of the first musical historians to treat her living subjects in such a serious and systematic manner.
She continued writing books of biographical essays on musicians throughout the 1860s and 1870s, and they proved to be quite popular. Interestingly, the more confident she grew as a writer and as a researcher, the further back into history she reached, encroaching on male historians’ turf more and more. By 1881, she wrote a book containing profiles of Bach, Gluck, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, all of whom had died before she was born, and she spent years researching the identity of Beethoven’s nameless Immortal Beloved. (Marie ended her career thinking Josephine Brunsvik the most likely candidate.)
In 1882 she published a unique and groundbreaking project: Women in Present-Day Musical Life. This was, as the title suggests, a series of essays about contemporary musical women. Many were singers, but pianists and violinist Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda were also included, as well as various female composers. The book is a rare example of a nineteenth-century woman writing about female musicians, and as thrilling as it is to have, it also opens a veritable Pandora’s box of interpretive quandaries. In this project, information was being interpreted at two separate and crucial points: first when the profiled women answered the letters and questionnaires sent to them, and secondly when Marie herself assembled their answers into narratives. James Deaville suggests that Marie’s supposedly “objective” coverage of her subjects actually had a very specific unstated purpose: to elevate the stature of female musicians so that men would take them more seriously. In the process, the subjects may have been idealized, or important facts about their careers and their characters whitewashed. Were these kinds of liberties justified? I don’t know, but the fact that the book exists to force us to confront the question is gratifying.
But Marie’s greatest professional accomplishment was yet to come. After 1882, she began turning her attention to gathering and editing composers’ letters, and especially Liszt’s. The Liszt project took on a bittersweet quality after Liszt and Carolyne’s deaths in the 1880s. Between 1893 and 1905, she published twelve volumes and four thousand of Liszt’s letters: a project whose size and import is absolutely mind-numbing.
She also not-so-secretly harbored a dream of writing the first definitive Liszt biography…but she was actually beaten to the punch by another woman. In 1877, Liszt asked Marie if she’d collaborate with him on such a project. He apparently made the request because author and historian Lina Ramann was working on a biography, at Carolyne’s request, and Liszt was leery of her approach. Lina ultimately reached the finish line first, publishing a massive three volume Liszt biography between 1880 and 1894. Marie didn’t know Lina, and she didn’t want to impede on her project, or on the wishes of Carolyne, so she gave the idea up.
But she still longed to pay tribute to the man who had inspired her to make a life in music. She ended up taking a novel approach. To honor the master’s hundredth birthday in 1911, she profiled the women in his life in a book called Liszt und die Frauen. George Sand, Marie d’Agoult, Pauline Viardot-García, Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, Sophie Menter, and a number of women (including many princesses) all got entries of their very own, starring as Liszt’s muses, love interests, patronesses, and more. At first glance, spotlighting the stories of these frequently neglected women seems to be a smart and admirable thing to do, and it is. But there’s a potentially dark side to this approach. In the words of Martina Bick:
Her chronological arrangement corresponding to her encounters with Liszt led, on the one hand, to a dazzling biographical description of Liszt enriched by new viewpoints, in which the influences of the women on the composer are taken seriously and upgraded. On the other hand, this layout once again points out the heroic-historical world view of the author and of artists’ biographies during this period – with the male genius always standing at the centre.
How to wrestle with all that? How to portray the history of women in music? The question is an open one, and more relevant today than ever.
One last remarkable relationship that Marie enjoyed was with a woman named Similde Gerhard. Similde Gerhard was also a writer, authoring a guide to the ideal of German womanliness. This book proved extremely popular and went through multiple printings. Similde also worked to improve Kindergartens and the lot of the war-wounded, which suggests a passion for promoting social welfare. Marie and Similde lived together for years, and were viewed as a couple by Franz Liszt himself. After Similde’s death in 1903, Marie wrote:
She requested of me, ‘when I die, don’t be too sad. Our separation will not last long. We remain united in God, who brought us together.’ Our happy ‘pairing,’ as Liszt called it, was gone after twenty-one years. The caption ‘Alone’ stood over the chapters of my life that were yet to follow.
Despite that loneliness, she forged ahead in her career. In 1917, she wrote a two-volume, 800-page autobiography, Durch Musik und Leben im Dienste des Ideals (Through Music and Life in the Service of the Ideal). At the end of that year, on her eightieth birthday, she was awarded the title of Royal Saxon Professor at the University of Leipzig…bringing her genetic predisposition to education full-circle.
Marie Lipsius died at the age of eighty-nine in the spring of 1927. Her last book, On the Threshold of the Hereafter: Last Recollections of the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, Liszt’s Friend, had been published a mere two years before.
Clearly there’s a lot of thought left to be put not only into Marie Lipsius’s life, but into the lives of all the women who surrounded Franz Liszt. Granted, some of his fans no doubt embodied the shrill and shrieky stereotype. But, as is always the case when you look more closely at the truth of female experience, the real story evolves into something much more complicated…and fascinating.
In conclusion, how the f*ck did I not know this woman?
I’m not sure who’ll be next fortnight’s entry in the series. (I love the word “fortnight.”) I’m tempted to spend more time with Lina Ramann, but pianist/composer Marie Jaëll (one of La Mara’s biographical subjects) is also uber-appealing. As always, the next entry, whoever it ends up being about, drops in two weeks on November 1st!
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