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The Cinematic Liszt

Just as Liszt captured the imagination of audiences for live music in the 19th century, the Hungarian composer and pianist captured the imagination of film audiences in the 20th century. In this excerpt from his essay "Liszt in the Twentieth Century", included in The Cambridge Companion to Liszt, author James Deaville examines Liszt's role in the movies.

Liszt's life and career were so colourful, so fascinating, the subject of so many popular legends, that he ranks among the most 'filmed' composers. [John] Tibbets identifies nine films since 1943 in which Liszt plays an important role, more than just a cameo appearance—it is quite likely the more filmic representations of Liszt exist, for he limited his observations to Hollywood films, from the biopic era and later. As might be expected, there are as many 'Liszts' as there are films depending on the director's and actor's vision. For example, in A Song to Remember (1943), we find a generous and supportive Liszt vis-à-vis the struggling Chopin, whereas the Liszt of Song of Love (1947), about Clara Schumann, is supercilious. Song Without End (1960) is a traditional biopic about Liszt himself, who is played rather blandly by Dirk Bogarde (this portrayal of a Liszt pure and unblemished).

At this point it is important to remember that except for documentaries the genre of film is not about biographical accuracy but rather telling a story—or not telling a story, in the case of Lisztomania (1975). That brilliant satire by Ken Russell was roundly criticised by Liszt enthusiasts in the American and British Liszt Societies, yet the heterogeneous mélange of scenes actually reveals a deep understanding of Liszt's personal conflicts, and by portraying the virtuoso through Roger Daltrey, the former lead singer of The Who, Russell draws a fascinating bridge between nineteenth- and twentieth-century society. The farcical Impromptu (1990) also takes great liberties with 'historical truth' in its portrayal of Liszt, but it well captures the conviviality, superficiality and emotional parasitism that reigned in the salon culture of the early 19th century.

Needless to say, these films about Liszt utilise his music in their soundtracks. However, over seventy movies from the twentieth century have soundtracks that quote from Liszt, including The Black Cat (1937), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), All About Eve (1950), Interlude (1957), Karl May (1970), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Shine (1996), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Hamlet (2000). Even before sound films, it is quite likely that theatre musicians who have played appropriate and known excerpts from Liszt, such as the Hungarian Rhapsody, No. 2 or Les Préludes or Liebestraum No. 3. Through his presence in film, Liszt arguably reached a larger audience in the twentieth century than he did through concert performances.

Excerpt from The Cambridge Companion to Liszt, Kenneth Hamilton, Editor, used with permission from Cambridge University Press

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