The Virtuoso in the Villa
(VIDEO) Following Liszt through the magnificent Villa d'Este here in Tivoli, Italy...
“In the last few days I have been to Tivoli and I have seen one of the first wonders of nature. The waterfalls, the ruins and the overall landscape belong to those objects, the knowledge of which enriches our most inner souls.”
~ J.W. Goethe
“Beauty in this privileged country appears to me in its purest and most sublime forms. Art shows itself to my eyes in all its splendor; it reveals itself to me in its universality and unity.”
~ Franz Liszt in a letter to Hector Berlioz
“But the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into eternal life.”
~ From the Gospel of John, 4:14, referenced in Liszt’s Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este, (The Fountains of the Villa d'Este)
Joel Bowman, admiring timeless works of genius from Tivoli, Italy...
How glorious it was to discover, while immersed in the magnificent Villa d’Este here in Tivoli on Sunday, Mother’s Day, the Romantic virtuoso and composer extraordinaire, Franz Liszt, still in residence.
It is true, of course, that the man himself has not been on the premises (how should we say?) bodily... materially... corporeally... in over a century, having deserted from the army of the upright back in 1886. But such trifles should hardly concern us. We are talking about Liszt, immortal Liszt... not some poor earthbound sod, ensnared by the viscous inconvenience of space and time.
A casual audio journey through even the first few bars of his “Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este” (The Fountains of the Villa d'Este) ought to be sufficient evidence in the case for the artist’s transcendence...
(The jewel in Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, the piece is said to have inspired both Ravel, and Debussy, who saw him perform it in Rome.)
Thanks to his friendship with the Bavarian cardinal, Gustav Adolf von Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, who obtained a special leasehold on the Tiburtine property, the Hungarian pianist enjoyed extended stays in the Villa d’Este over two decades, from 1864 to 1885, the year before his death.
It was here, in the quietude of his first floor apartment, named the Rose Room after its elegant wall papering, that the master breathed life into such inspired pieces as Aux Cyprès de la Villa d’Este, Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este, his Variations on a Theme of Bach and the two Légendes.
But despite the opulence of his surroundings, the tonsured maestro appreciated above all the peace of solitary toil. As he wrote to a friend in 1874, during the middle of his residence here in Tivoli:
“I only aspire to one luxury: the peace of working in my room. Orare et laborare.” (Translated as “prayer and work,” after the Benedictine adage.)
Liszt traveled widely during his lifetime, roaming the continent in search of nature’s inspiration, with which he would imbue his vast array of musical works.
“Having recently traveled to many new countries, through different settings and places consecrated by history and poetry; having felt that the phenomena of nature and their attendant sights did not pass before my eyes as pointless images but stirred deep emotions in my soul, and that between us a vague but immediate relationship had established itself, an undefined but real rapport, an inexplicable but undeniable communication, I have tried to portray in music a few of my strongest sensations and most lively impressions.”
~ Franz Liszt, from the introduction to his Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage), borrowed from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous novel of self-realization Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meisters Journeyman Years)
For much of Liszt’s life, he was suspended between paradoxes. “A god for pianists” according to Berlioz, while another contemporary pegged him as “Mephistopheles disguised as a priest.” Mendelssohn, too, remarked of his career as a “constant oscillation between scandal and apotheosis.”
But for all the vicissitudes of his extraordinary life, it was here at Tivoli, in the peace and solemnity offered by the Villa and its labyrinthine gardens, where Liszt drew deepest from his prodigious wellspring of creativity. One imagines him alone in the Rose Room, seated at his piano, notating by candlelight into the early hours. We think of the younger Liszt who, after witnessing the violin virtuoso, Niccolò Paganini, wrote furiously to his friend in Pierre Wolff, Jr. …
“Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Byron, Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber are all around me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them with fury; besides this, I practice four to five hours a day of exercises (thirds, sixths, octaves, tremolos, repetition of notes, cadenzas, etc.). Ah! provided I don't go mad you will find me an artist!”
~ Franz Liszt in correspondence to Pierre Wolff, J. (1832)
Traipsing the grand halls of the renaissance villa this past weekend, we heard unmistakably the man’s distant footsteps as they echoed under the high vaulted ceilings, fittingly frescoed in mythological proportions. Forever a Zeno’s stride behind him, we followed his lieder past Noah’s ark, ran aground on Mount Ararat, as the bearded prophet made his covenant with God. In the Hall of Hercules, we pondered his labors while the gods welcomed Zeus’s half-son to Mount Olympus.
On and on we sought him, through the Tiburtine tales, where Queen Ida was turned into a seer, through the Hall of Nobility, when came Plato and Pythagoras, Diogenes and Socrates and the Graces and Virtues in turns. At last Vulcan and Venus, Apollo and Diana, Jupiter and Juno too, all crowded to hear Liszt’s symphonic poems as they raptured mere mortals to the heavens above.
Through the Hall of the Hunt we pursued the man, “Half Gypsy, half Franciscan monk,” as he described himself. Then, in a triumphant crescendo, his billowing abbé’s robe flew over the threshold, out onto the Vialone terrace, astride the Hundred Fountains, before it was lost to the great gardens beyond...
Following Liszt past the Fountains of Neptune, Diana and the Pegasus, past Jupiter and Persephone and Apollo in the Water Castle, we come at last to the Rotonda in the lower garden, where once stood sixteen umbrageous cypress trees.
These mighty Tuscan conifers inspired much painting and poetry and, of course, the mind of the Villa’s eternal resident. Today, only two from the original grove stand tall... but the master’s music, written in the wind, shall last forever.
Until next time...
May 19, 2023 ~ Tivoli, Italy
Joel Bowman ~ Directly is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Excellent work, a delight to read.
Absolutely splendid depiction of the source of Liszt’s 🎶 inspiration!
Imagine, if there were a composition that Liszt and Paganini could have played together, how virtuosic and poetic that would have been…
Merci beaucoup for this uplift from today’s uninspiring economic realities!