Tuesday, 13 December 2016


Heinrich Heine, poet, critic, ne'er-do-well.
The controversial poet, librettist and music/literary critic Heinrich Heine, born this 13th day of December at Düsseldorf in 1797 is perhaps best known in the English speaking world as the famous German poet whose work was once set on fire by the Nazis during the second world war due to their author and his political perspectives being a designated “degenerate” and made a nominee for the so-called forsaken sect of “Jewish cultural intelligentsia” - a group targeted by the Third Reich for anti-Semitic protest.

Heine is also known in the East as the famous German poet who is reviled by some modern-day Israeli critics for having been a Christian convert.

The classical music sphere knows him best as the famous German poet whose lyrics live on in the works of an impressive number of it’s most illustrious masters: Schubert adopted six of his poems for his wildly successful Schwanengesang ("Swan song"); both Schumanns honored him with music based on his verses - most notably Robert’s Liederkreis (Op. 24) - Beethoven and Grieg, too, set Heine’s poems to music, a trend followed by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, Carl Orff, César Cui, Pietro Mascagni and Richard Wagner – and that’s just to mention a few.

But what few know is the fact that Heine once selfishly tried to derail the highly glamorized career of famed Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt by attempting to blackmail him out of what Heine referred to as “appreciation money.” Liszt wasn’t Heine’s only victim. In 1855, German romantic composer Giacomo Meyerbeer fell victim to a scathing – and very public – attack by Heine after the composer refused to top off the poet with an additional loan (Meyerbeer had already lent Heinrich a sizable sum, and was presently being propositioned for another 500 francs – which a still-un-reimbursed Meyerbeer refused). Heine then blasted the composer in a subsequent poetic work he had published, “Die Menge tut es” in which he referred to Meyerbeer as a “music corrupter.”

A Hungarian Heartthrob: Franz Liszt famously
made the ladies swoon.
As of late April 1844, it would be the world’s first documented “superstar” Franz Liszt who would be carefully positioned within Heine’s crosshairs. On this occasion, Heine would attack first - and attempt to procure payment after. His method of attack: a strategically organized arsenal of threats, blackmail and humiliation.

Liszt, who was appearing at Paris’ Théâtre-Italien for a whirlwind two-part concert series on April 16th and 25th of that year, was currently the toast of the town. The musical phenomenon from Hungary was on the lips of every upper-crust Parisian. It would be on this visit to the French capital that Heine - after witnessing Liszt’s famously frenzied following of female fanatics (the 19th century equivalent of the modern day rock-star groupie) - that the poet first coined the term “Lisztomania.”

He meant it as a pejorative.

Writing to the man of the hour, Franz Liszt himself, Heine warned the composer of a potentially imminent portent, should he fail to provide a handout to the poet – who was then moonlighting as a (rather notable) music critic. His letter, penned April 24 at Paris, on the evening prior to Liszt’s second concert in the French capital, Heine issued the following thinly veiled threat:

“I would like you, my dear, to visit me tomorrow between 2 and 3 o’clock. I have already written a first article that I would like to send off before your second concert, and there might be something in it that may not please you; for this reason it is quite appropriate that I first talk with you.

Your friend H. Heine.”

Liszt's adoring female fans throw flowers at their beloved idol. Note the
unconscious female being held up by her male companion located in the
center of this contemporary illustration. Spontaneous bouts of syncope were
a common occurrence at any concert in which Liszt appeared.
The general consensus is that Heine was attempting to blackmail the wildly successful pianist by threatening to publish a scathing attack on Liszt’s music, his celebrity, even the musician himself before the second concert even took place. Heine's threat was clear: either pay up, or face a very public humiliation.

Liszt received the letter in a hasteful fashion, and, just as Meyerbeer would ten years later when he too was threatened - promptly dismissed both the letter and it’s author and left Heine without a reply – and without largesse.

Heine was incensed. The poet-turned-music-critic issued his attack in his periodical column (known as Feuilleton) lambasting the pianist, making mockery of his horde of fans – even going so far as to accuse Liszt of hyping up his own celebrity status by secretly purchasing his own bouquets and hiring flummoxed females to throw them on stage when he performed! 

Heine roundly finished off his vicious attack by predicting a spectacular fall from grace for Liszt - at one point, comparing what he viewed as the pianists' inevitable downfall to the expelled gas from the anus of a camel.

Yes. You read that correctly. 

A brutal excerpt of Heine’s March 1844 Feuilletons (published in the popular French periodical "Musikalische Berichte aus Paris") reads:

“When formerly I heard of the fainting spells which broke out in Germany and specially in Berlin, when Liszt showed himself there, I shrugged my shoulders pityingly and thought: quiet sabbatarian Germany does not wish to lose the opportunity of getting the little necessary exercise permitted it... In their case, thought I, it is a matter of the spectacle for the spectacle's sake...Thus I explained this Lisztomania… indeed, we must not examine too closely the homage which the famous virtuosos garner. After all, their day of vain celebrity is a very short one, and the hour soon strikes when the titan of tonal art may, perhaps, crumple into a town musician of very dwarfish stature, who, in the coffee-house which he frequents, tells the regular guests, on his word of honor, how bouquets of the most beautiful camelias were formerly flung at his feet, and how, once, two Hungarian countesses, in order to secure possession of his handkerchief, had cast themselves on the ground and fought until the blood ran. The day-long reputation of a virtuoso evaporates and dies away, empty, without a trace, like a camel's wind in the desert…"

Heine concluded his critique with a dose of cruel pessimism:

"The electrical action of a demoniac nature on a closely-crowded multitude, the infectious power of ecstasy, and, perhaps, the magnetism of music itself, this spiritual illness of the times, which vibrates in nearly all of us — these phenomena have never yet presented themselves to me in so clear and intimidating a manner as in Liszt's concert.”


Read Heine's full "pre-"view at archive.org: (from page 456)

The music played at Liszt’s April concerts in Paris are now lost to the annals of anecdotal music history. Considering it was a solo recital for the pianist, Liszt may have performed his standard repertoire performed during his 1839-1847 series of concert tours. They included the maestro’s settings for piano the works of fellow composers, interspersed with some of Liszt’s own original compositions. Regular staples of this repertoire included (but were not limited to) the following transcriptions:
Chopin’s Etude; Rossini’s Guillame Tell Overture, Schubert’s Mélodies Hongroises;

original compositions usually included Liszt’s “rousing” encore favorite, his Grand Galop Chromatique in E-flat major, S.219 (performed below by the late Hungarian virtuoso pianist György Cziffra), his Fantasie on Robert le Diable (Meyerbeer); and his Réminiscences sur la Norma, a 1 one movement piano piece based on Bellini’s Norma.

Discover more about the life and exploits of Heinrich Heine (external link): 


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