Liszt Manuscripts: A Bicentenary Presentation

Franz Liszt:

Letter to Blandine and Cosima Liszt (September 14, 1855)


Letter to Pierre Érard

Letter to Blandine and

Cosima (1855)

Contin. (2-4)

Contin. (5-6)

Tre sonetti di Petrarca

Sonetto 47

Sonetto 123
Editorial & References


pages 4-1


pages 2-3


pages 8-5


pages 6-7


page 9


pages 10-11

Commentary and translation: Lodewijk Muns

The letter presented here contains an extraordinarily dramatic outburst. It shows a great man behaving with great weakness, acting aggressively to those most vulnerable to him, his own children. What the original manuscript shows (and a printed text cannot convey) is the direct graphic trace of Liszt’s emotion. The form too is curious: it contains the transcription of another letter (from his former mistress Marie d’Agoult), with a point by point commentary added. This gives it the appearance of a judicial document – Liszt speaks of “appearing in some way before the tribunal of my own children”. He acts as his own advocate, pleading with aggressive sarcasm and a kind of self-propulsive rhetoric.

The content of this letter has been known since 1933 (in a censored edition), and it has been published several times since.[1] What previous editors have not realized however, is that two authentic versions of this letter exist. A fair copy is now in the Library of Congress in Washington; the manuscript in the NMI Liszt Collection which is shown here is a full draft.[2] The fact that these two versions exist is significant: it shows that Liszt did not merely act on first impulse. Differences between the draft and the fair copy are small. Most notable is the fact that the draft is addressed to both daughters (“Chers enfans”), while the fair copy is addressed only to the elder, according to the published texts (“Cher enfant”, viz. Blandine). Other differences show no moderation of his temper or afterthoughts; sometimes they involve a strengthening of the rhetoric. Most surprising maybe is the fact that Liszt took the trouble to copy out twice the letter by Marie d’Agoult. The reason will become clear later on.

Because of the complicated structure of the manuscript, the transcribed text is offered in three different forms: (1) transcription only, in the form of the manuscript; (2) with translation, in the order in which it is meant to be read; (3) only the passages by Marie d’Agoult.


1. Countess versus Princess

It seems consistent with Liszt’s character that he never married. The two women with whom he has been involved in long lasting relations were both married when he met them; neither of them eventually divorced; and each had one daughter from her husband (Marie d’Agoult had two daughters; the first-born died in 1834, six years of age). Both women were also obsessive scribblers who lent their pen to Liszt. There has been a tradition among Liszt biographers to take parts, to praise the one and malign the other. Of course, there is no point in making a ‘choice’ for any of the parties involved, including the great man himself.

Of these two mistresses the first has no doubt attracted a greater share of public admiration. Marie Cathérine Sophie de Flavigny, comtesse d'Agoult (1805-1876), six years older than Liszt, was before their elopement a glamorous and wealthy high society lady. After the end of their liaison she regained a more independent position in society, receiving in her salon some of the most prominent artists and politicians. Under the pen name Daniel Stern she published essays, short stories, two historical works, a notorious novel (Nélida), and a few less successful theatre plays.

None of her qualities has however been so insistently highlighted as the fact that she was blond.[3] In part this may be simply a reflection of sexist prejudice; it also signaled a kind of romantic alienness, enhanced by her tall and slender stature and marked profile (that with age appeared increasingly ‘masculine’). She was born in Frankfort, the granddaughter of a wealthy banker on her mother’s side; her father was a French aristocratic émigré officer. Her German looks corresponded to her own feeling of spiritual identity, which was oriented toward German Idealism (in which the pantheism of Spinoza had been absorbed):


Marie d'Agoult, photograph by Adam-Salomon (1861)

I was familiar with the language of Kant, Schelling, Fichte and Hegel. The profundities of metaphysics, far from inspiring fear, attracted me. Spinoza, once I took courage to assail him, illuminated my understanding with a wonderful light; and from the lips of this atheist, this reprobate of Rome, I collected all I could ever understand and worship of the essence and nobility of God. The emptiness which the withdrawal of the Catholic faith had left in my soul was instantly filled [...].[4]
Her opponent, the second mistress, was Carolyne von Sayn Wittgenstein (1819-1887). She is easily caricatured: the super-rich Polish Princess (owner of over 30.000 serfs) who evolved into the cigar smoking recluse of Rome; whose religious obsession gave birth to a lengthy tractate on “the outward weakness of the Church” – which at least had the merit of making it onto the papal blacklist.

Both hated each other at a distance. Though the Princess, close to Liszt’s heart, had the obvious advantage, the three children Marie had born her lover weighed heavily on her mind. Then there was the very notoriety of the Liszt-d’Agoult affair; and also the Countess’s famous good looks, besides a physical as well as spiritual affinity between the lovers which had been, in the years of their romance, obvious to all. There may be a hint of narcissism in the Countess’s description of their appearance together, during their romantic escapade in the Alps:


Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein

Nobody knew our names in these houses, in these hamlets were we preferred to stay. Nearly everywhere they mistook us, since we looked so similar in stature, by the colour of our eyes and hair, by our skin and the sound of our voices, for brother and sister; we were delighted. Does such a mistake not testify better than everything else to the secret affinities which had so strongly attracted each of us to the other? Was this not definitive proof that we were born for each other, and that, had we wanted, it would not have been possible for us not to love each other?[5]

Since her love for Liszt never ended, the Countess’s feelings for the Princess were bitter. At a point where her fragmentary memoirs break off she writes:

One is not allowed to choose a mother for one’s children. This mother that was chosen for them was a woman of the Jewish race, who wears out a life in the corridors of the Vatican.[6]

The Princess from her side took revenge upon her imaginary rival by doctoring a false and malicious representation of the Liszt-D’Agoult liaison in the first major Liszt biography, written under her supervision by Lina Ramann.[7] Being at Liszt’s side during the Weimar years, between 1849 and 1861, she was even in the position to exert her influence over the three children born of this liaison.

Continued »

[1] Ollivier, Correspondance de Liszt, p. 136-140. Uncensored draft (with grammatical corrections) in Bory, Liszt et ses enfants, p. 102-110; after Bory in Liszt, Lettres à Cosima et à Daniela, p. 196; also published in Franz Liszt: Correspondance, ed. P.-A. Huré and C. Knepper. s.l., J.C. Lattès 1987, p. 322-327; after the Library of Congress fair copy in Short, Liszt letters, p. 114-117 and 305-307. Fragments in Walker, vol. 2 p. 452-454.
[2] For provenance, see the  inventory.
[3] Curiously, the famous portrait in profile by Henri Lehmann (1843) shows her with dark hair.
[4] D’Agoult, Mémoires, p. 391; this author’s transl.
[5] ib., p. 360; this author’s transl. Speaking of her early years, Dupêchez writes in his biography (p. 22): “Si elle a une nature contemplative et solitaire, elle a aussi une imagination sterile. Et il est probable que l'exploration de sa propre image l'absorbe très tot.”
[6] D’Agoult, Mémoires, p. 411; this author’s transl. The Princess, by the way, was not Jewish, and notoriously anti-Semitic. The Countess’s own antisemitic phantasy was shared by later biographers. Cf. Klára Hamburger in Liszt, Lettres à Cosima et à Daniela, p. 12.
[7] The insinuating opening says enough:  “Sie war schön diese Frau, sehr schön, ausgestattet mit den seltensten geistigen und körperlichen Reizen. Sie hatte ein Recht dazu, sich in ihren »Souvenirs« eine Lorelei-Erscheinung zu nennen; sie hatte gewiß Recht – in jedem Sinn.” (Ramann, p. 318).