© Robert W. Eshbach, 2014

JJ Initials

“A Very Agitated Evening” [1]

On June 9, 1848, Liszt arrived unexpectedly at the Schumanns’ home in Dresden. As they had not seen one another in nearly seven years, [2] Liszt was received with delight, though with no little consternation when he expressed his wish to hear some of Schumann’s chamber music later that evening. While Robert took Liszt to visit Wagner, Clara had but a few hours to gather the musicians and guests [3] for the evening’s festivities. “It was difficult to get four other artists to come at such short notice,” she later told Edward Speyer, “but I took a cab and drove about until I was fortunate enough to succeed in my mission.” [4] Liszt, for his part, made other plans for the early part of the evening, writing to Georg von Seydlitz: “Unfortunately I will only be able to spend a few moments with you, since I have asked Schumann to show me his new trio. [5] The Schumanns seem to me to be people who go to bed early, and so I will be obliged to arrive at your place at 8:00 o’clock.” [6]

The party started badly, with the guest of honor nowhere to be seen. After more than an hour of waiting, the disappointed guests began to make music without him. As they reached the last page of Beethoven’s D Major trio (“Ghost”), Liszt “stormed in the door,” two hours late. He seemed to enjoy the ensuing performance of Schumann’s trio, but his host’s quintet he belittled as too “Leipzigerisch.” “No, no, my dear Schumann, this is not the real thing,” he is reported to have said. “It is only Kapellmeister music.” [7] After dinner, Liszt sat down to play, in Clara’s words, “so disgracefully badly […] that I was really ashamed to have to stand there and listen, and not to be able to leave the room immediately, as Bendemann did.” [8] When he finished playing, Liszt gave an after-dinner speech, declaring that new trails were being blazed for music everywhere, and even that which a few years before had evoked the admiration of the world was already Rococo. [9] He tactlessly praised the music of Meyerbeer at the recently-deceased Mendelssohn’s expense, heedless of Schumann’s well-known aversion to Meyerbeer’s music and his esteem for his departed friend. Schumann flew into a rage, seizing Liszt by the shoulder and shouting: “And Mendelssohn? Is he also Rococo? Meyerbeer is a runt compared to Mendelssohn, who was an artist who made an effect, not only in Leipzig, but throughout the entire world, and Liszt should hold his tongue.”  [10] After more similar abuse, Schumann retreated to his bedroom. Liszt made an attempt to downplay the event, but eventually gave up and left the party, saying to Clara as he departed “Tell your husband that there is only one man from whom I would so calmly accept words such has he has just said to me.” [11] Liszt drove home with Wagner in a state of “amused embarrassment.” Wagner wrote: “I have seldom seen Liszt so boisterously cheerful as on this night, in which, clothed only in a thin tailcoat against the severe cold, he alternately accompanied me and concertmaster Schubert home.” [12] Later, Liszt admitted to Lina Ramann that they had “suffered through a very agitated evening together — which was my fault.” [13] “It wounded Robert too deeply for him ever to be able to forget it,” Clara wrote afterward, saying of Liszt: “I have broken with him for all eternity.” [14]

Schumann eventually re-established relations with Liszt, though the former cordiality never returned. A year later, in May of 1849, Schumann was still smarting from Liszt’s assessment of his music. Liszt, trying the door that had been slammed in his face, inquired through Carl Reineke whether he might perform Schumann’s Faust at Weimar’s upcoming Goethe celebration. Schumann replied: “But, dear friend, wouldn’t the composition perhaps be too Leipzigerisch for you? Or do you indeed hold Leipzig to be a miniature Paris, [15] in which one can also accomplish something?” He then went on to defend himself and Leipzig against Liszt’s criticisms that Leipzigers were concerned only with perpetuating dead forms, and that their music consequently sounded too much alike. “Seriously — I might have expected something different from you, who knows so many of my compositions, than to lump them all together, [16] expressing such a judgment of a whole life in art. […] And, truly, those who were together in Leipzig weren’t so bad after all, — Mendelssohn, Hiller, Bennet, et al. — we could hold our own with the Parisians, Viennese, and Berliners. […] So much for your comment, which was unjust and insulting. For the rest, let us forget the evening — a word is not an arrow — and the main thing is to strive forward.” [17] Liszt replied: “Highly honored friend, above all, allow me to repeat to you what, after a long time, you should actually know best beside me: that no one admires and respects you more sincerely than my humble self. Certainly, we can find a time to have a friendly discussion about the meaning of a work, a man, or indeed a city […]” [18]

Despite Schumann’s stated wish, the memory of their “agitated evening” was still green in his mind in early February, 1851, when he found himself seated next to the pianist Marfa Sabinina following a concert in Düsseldorf. “He also told me about Liszt,” Sabinina later wrote, “and in particular about a quarrel with him concerning Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. During the course of the conversation, Schumann reiterated that he could not stand the music of Meyerbeer. […] Then, Frau Schumann joined our conversation; she spoke intensely against Liszt, particularly as a composer. It is clear that two such dissimilar natures as Clara Schumann and Liszt could not agree. […] Robert Schumann did not share his wife’s opinion, though; he felt that Liszt ‘was a intelligent pianist and person.’ This fair-minded opinion notwithstanding, Schumann, influenced by his wife, distanced himself from Liszt, or — more precisely — he kept to the Leipzig music world in which he had grown up, and had not a few friends.” [19]

[1] This account is pieced together from numerous narratives, diary entries, reports of conversations, etc. While precise words vary, the gist and tenor of the story is consistent from source to source.

[2] In Leipzig, December, 1841.

[3] Liszt later told Lina Ramann that Wagner had been among the evening’s guests. [Franz Liszt and his World, ed. by Christopher Gibbs and Dana Gooley, Princeton 2006, p. 406 n. 17.] See also: Wagner, My Life.

[4] Speyer/LIFE, p. 82. Speyer, who heard this story directly from Clara Schumann, nevertheless mistakenly places it in Leipzig instead of Dresden.

[5] Opus 63.

[6] Quoted in Seibold/BEZIEHUNGEN, p. 193.

[7] ibid.

[8] “[…] so schändlich schlecht […] daß ich mich ordentlich schämte, dabeistehen zu müssen und nicht sogleich das Zimmer verlassen zu können, was Bendemann tat.” Litzmann/SCHUMANN, vol. 2, p. 121.

[9] Richter/GLANZZEIT, p. 74.

[10] “Und Mendelssohn? Der also ist auch Rokoko? Meyerbeer sei ein Wicht gegen Mendelssohn, letzterer ein Künstler, der nicht nur in Leipzig sondern für die ganze Welt gewirkt hätte, und Liszt solle doch lieber schweigen.” Richter/GLANZZEIT, p. 74.

[11] “Sagen Sie Ihrem Manne, nur von einem in der Welt nähme ich solche Worte so ruhig hin, wie er sie mir eben geboten.” Litzmann/SCHUMANN, vol. 2, p. 122. Speyer quotes Clara Schumann that Liszt said: “I am deeply sorry to have been the cause of such an unleasant incident. I feel I am in the wrong place here; pray accept my humble excuses and allow me to depart.” Speyer/LIFE, p. 82]

[12] “Ich habe selten Liszt so ausgelassen aufgeräumt gesehen als in dieser Nacht, wo er mich und den Konzertmeister Schubert bei empfindlicher Kälte nur im dünnen Frack gekleidet, abwechselnd von einem zum andern nach Hause begleitete.” (Wagner 1963: 435f.) (quoted in Seibold/BEZIEHUNGEN, 194-195). Dresden concertmaster Franz Schubert (1808-1878).

[13] Gibbs and Gooley/LISZT, p. 406, n. 17.

[14] “Robert hatte das zu tief verletzt, als daß er es jemals vergessen könnte. Ich habe für ewige Zeit mit ihm abgeschlossen.” Litzmann/SCHUMANN, vol. 2, p. 122.

[15] A reference to the Auerbachs Keller scene of Goethe’s Faust, in which the character Frosch says: “Mein Leipzig lob’ ich mir! Es ist ein klein Paris und bildet seine Leute.” (“I praise my Leipzig! It is a little Paris and educates its people.”)

[16] His expresion was “Im Bausch und Bogen.” Goethe: “Nehmt nur mein Leben hin / in Bausch
 und Bogen, wie ich´s führe;
 / Andre verschlafen ihren Rausch,
 / meiner steht auf dem Papiere.”

[17] “Aber lieber Freund, würde Ihnen die Komposition nicht vielleicht zu Leipzigerisch sein? Oder halten Sie Leipzig doch für ein Miniaturparis, in dem man auch etwas zustande bringen könne? Und wahrlich, sie waren doch nicht so übel, die in Leipzig beisammen waren — Mendelssohn, Hiller, Bennett u. a. — mit den Parisern, Wienern und Berlinern konnten wir es ebenfalls auch aufnehmen. […] So viel über Ihre Äußerung, die eine ungerechte und beleidigende war. Im übrigen vergessen wir des Abends — ein Wort ist kein Pfeil — und das Vorwärtsstreben die Hauptsache.” Litzmann/SCHUMANN, vol. 2, pp. 122-123.

[18] “Hochverehrter Freund, Vor allem erlauben Sie mir Ihnen zu wiederholen, was Sie eigentlich nach mir am Besten seit langer Zeit wissen sollten, nämlich, dass Sie niemand aufrichtiger verehrt und bewundert als meine Wenigkeit. Gelegentlich können wir allerdings über die Bedeutung eines Werkes, eines Mannes, ja sogar einer Stadt, freundschaftlich discutiren […].” Franz Liszt’s Briefe, ed. by La Mara (Marie Lipsius), vol. 1, Leipzig 1893, p. 78.

[19] “Er erzählte mir auch von Liszt, und zwar von einem Streit mit ihm über Mendelssohn und Meyerbeer. Dabei äußerte Schumann erneut, er könne die Musik von Meyerbeer nicht ertragen. […] Nun schloß sich Frau Schumann unserem Gespräch an; heftig redete sie gegen Liszt, insbesondere als Komponisten. Es ist klar, daß zwei so verschiedene Wesen wie Clara Schumann und Liszt sich nicht finden konnten. […] Robert Schumann teilte aber die Meinung seiner Frau nicht, er fand, Liszt ‘sei ein geistreicher Klavierspieler und Mensch.’ Dieser gerechten Meinung ungeachtet, hielt sich Schumann, von seiner Frau beeinflußt, Liszt fern oder — besser gesagt — er hielt sich an die Leipziger Musikwelt, in der er aufgewachsen war und nicht wenige Freunde hat.” Schumann Studien, ed. by Gerd Nauhaus, Sinzig: Studio Verlag, 1997, vol. 6, p. 212.