A century before Beatlemania there was Lisztomania. The symptoms were similar: fans driven to near delirium by their proximity to their musical idols, this mass hysteria finding involuntary physical release during performances. The Beatles may have been mobbed during their 1964 American tour, but Liszt left Berlin in March 1842 ‘not like a king, but as a king’, as one contemporary put it: in a carriage drawn by six white horses, surrounded by adoring crowds. Ken Russell tapped into the similarities between Liszt and contemporary rock idols in his marvellously extravagant film Lisztomania (1975), featuring The Who’s Roger Daltrey in glam rock outfits as Liszt (and with a brief cameo from Ringo Starr as the pope). Even with all its wilful anachronisms, this film conveys something of the mesmerising effect Liszt had on audiences throughout Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Oliver Hilmes is the latest biographer to try to capture in more sober prose the extravagance and variety of Liszt’s life. The subtitle of the English translation – Musician, Celebrity, Superstar – suggests a focus on the glamorous external aspects of his subject’s life, and Hilmes certainly has an eye for the sensational. Liszt’s more scandalous amours are covered in detail: among them Agnes Street-Klindworth, whom Hilmes describes as ‘the spy in lace petticoats’; and the ‘Cossack countess’ Olga Janina, who was neither of those things, but who did brandish a revolver at Liszt and pretend to take poison in his presence.