Franz Liszt: Fantastic Irish Tour

Considered the greatest performer of his time, the bicentenary of the birth of Hungarian composer and pianist, Franz Liszt (1811-86), has been celebrated with major musical and other events in 2011. As a composer he invented the symphonic poem and made use of advanced harmonies and original forms. He gave his first public concert in Vienna in 1821. His works include much piano music, the Faust Symphony (1854-57) and Dante Symphony (1854-57), and the symphonic poem Les Préludes (1854). His biography and bibliography is extensive as composer, pianist, conductor and teacher.
He is associated with two Irish women, Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907), a renowned astronomer, who was born in Skibbereen, Co. Cork. She became an accomplished writer, linguist and pianist who once played for Franz Liszt. Lola Montez (1818-61), stage name Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert. Her date and place of birth have been disputed, both for Limerick (1818) and Grange, Co. Sligo (1821).
She was the daughter of an army officer who died young. Educated in Scotland and England, in 1843 she first appeared as a professional dancer in London under the name ‘Lola Montez, Spanish dancer’ without success. As Femme de scandale and one of the most famous women in the world, she became celebrated for her erotic ‘Tarantula’ dance. Renowned for her love affairs, one of her lovers was Franz Liszt. At barely forty years old she died in New York of pneumonia in 1861.
Franz Liszt (Ferencz L.)
A book by Dr. David Ian Allsobrook (1991) titled My Travelling Circus Life: Music in Georgian and Victorian Society (pp 215), with Select bibliography, gives a fascinating account of Liszt’s encounters with the English provinces, Scotland and Ireland during the long tours he made in 1840 and 1841. Using extracts and line drawings from the diaries of John Parry, and from Liszt’s letters home, the book is set in a rich social context.
Born on 22 October, 1811 on the estates of the noble Esterhazy family, at Raiding in the Sorpon region of Hungary, his musical and well connected father Adam, a bailiff and book-keeper, was well read and gave the boy his first instruction on the piano and in the rudiments of a general education. From early childhood he was interested in folk music and it was quickly discovered that he possessed considerable musical talent. He gave concerts locally and attracted the interest of wealthy patrons enabling him to go to Vienna for piano teaching by Carl Czerny and composition lessons with Antonio Salieri. He was praised for his brilliance, strength and precision.
He learned French and became French in all essentials. It was the first in a number of personal transformations during his busy wandering life. He visited London three times in the mid 1820s as well as touring very profitably under his father’s management in Germany, the Low Countries and provincial France. His father died in 1827 that was to mark a profound change in his religious feelings and political awareness.
Liszt’s Second Tour (1840 and 1841) included nineteen places in England, Ireland (Dublin, Cork, Clonmel, Limerick, Dublin and Belfast) and Scotland (Edinburgh and Glasgow). In London he played for Royalty and for the high society in their great houses.
Fantastic Irish Tour
A lecture-recital titled Liszt Fantastic Irish Tour was given by musicologist and broadcaster Ian Fox at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) Dublin, on 8 November 2011. It recalled highlights of the 1840 tour of Ireland when on 17 December a concert party organised by a 23 year old London impresario, Louis Lavenu, disembarked at the pier of the port of Kingstown, or Dun Laoghaire, as it is now known. The star of the group was the great pianist Franz Liszt who arrived with renowned music artists and instrumentalists to perform on a tour of Ireland.
They brought their own carriage which had been strapped to the deck of the paddle steamer “Prince”, one of five vessels belonging to the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company which plied between Liverpool and Kingstown. After a twelve hour sea crossing, three of the party travelled in the carriage to Dublin while Liszt and others took the new train into the city. Within an hour they were checking into the leading hotel of Morrison’s.
Rehearsals were soon to begin for his first concert with “a very fair band” according to John Orlando Parry, Welsh singer of comic songs and member of the group, who kept a detailed diary of the tour, source of David Ian Allsobrook’s book and also the RDS lecture-recital by Ian Fox, with many anecdotes about Liszt’s Fantastic Irish Tour.
Using their carriage for busy travel and performance schedules they found time to wine, dine and make merry with some of the high society, and also drank a great deal. There were ladies whom they visited, and Liszt wrote to Countess Marie d’Agoult, his mistress in Paris, about becoming friends with Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Morpeth … “he is the second most important person in Dublin and invited me to a great banquet and in the evening there were a score of women and music … if I return to Dublin later I shall visit him”.
On the Irish Tour, some of the performances were a flop principally due to bad planning or poor attendance while others proved highly successful playing to packed houses and great reviews receiving wildly delirious reception with standing ovations … nothing short of those given to pop stars today. In one concert, Liszt’s transcription of Rossini’s William Tell Overture brought the house down and was encored which became a feature of the tour.
Over Christmas and New Year the party settled in for the festivities. They went shopping and Liszt bought some Irish poplins, writing to his mistress to ask if she would like them. On Christmas Eve, he was invited to dine with the Chief Secretary in the Phoenix Park, now the American Embassy, and then joined the others at Piggott’s where quintets were being played and great conviviality took place. Christmas dinner at Morrison’s Hotel led to some quarreling with John Parry but ended happily in great hilarity.
St. Stephen’s Day brought news of a local disaster – at the 7 o’clock mass in Dublin’s Frances Street Church there was an ominous cracking sound in the gallery. Thinking the building which had only been rebuilt in 1829 was falling, there was a stampede and nine people were trampled to death.
The Tour proceeded with carriage travel to and from different places and overnight stays with the party meeting huge numbers of beggars and experiencing a mix of adventure, excitement and disappointment. On New Year’s Eve the party was taken to the new Cork Lunatic Asylum with a detailed account by John Parry of what they experienced there as truly Dickensian.
The Tour had been a financial disaster but Liszt wrote “For my part I leave with all the honours of warfare”. He may not have made money from his Irish visit but certainly he and the concert party had had a great adventure, quite a lot of fun, a great deal of drink and a memorable month long trip. Franz Liszt died in Beyrouth on 31 July 1886 officially as a result of pneumonia.
Ita Marguet, November 2011
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in this text. It follows a visit to Dublin and provision of lecture notes on Liszts’s Fantastic Irish Tour by Ian Fox at RDS, 8 November 2011.