Franz Liszt at the piano: the cult of Beethoven

Franz Liszt at the piano: the cult of Beethoven

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Title: Franz Liszt at the piano.

Author : DANHAUSER Josef (1805 - 1845)

Creation date : 1840

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 119 - Width 167

Technique and other indications: Oil on wood

Storage location: Nationalgalerie website

Contact copyright: © BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - Jürgen Liepesite web

Picture reference: 04-500015 / F.V.42

© BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - Jürgen Liepe

Publication date: April 2012

CNRS Researcher Center for Research on Arts and Language

Historical context

Danhauser and Liszt in 1838

In 1840, the Austrian painter Josef Danhauser (1805-1845) received a commission from the great Viennese piano maker Conrad Graf: to paint a portrait of the pianist and composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) whom Graf met in Vienna in 1838 and to whom he provided several instruments. At that time, Liszt was an international star: a child prodigy, he lived in Paris from 1823 to 1835, before leaving France with his lover the Countess Marie d´Agoult to reach Switzerland and Italy. However, he interrupted his travels to give recitals in Paris in 1837 and in Vienna in 1838, where he aroused the enthusiasm of listeners.

Marked, like most of his contemporaries, by the powerful and virtuoso playing of Liszt during his Viennese concerts, Danhauser imagines to represent not only the pianist in front of his instrument, but an ideal society bringing together musicians and writers in an intellectual communion and spiritual created by the music of Beethoven, which Liszt interprets with reverence. Danhauser's painting is thus full of symbols and allusions, all aimed at delivering an idealized image of romantic artists, united by the most romantic of all the arts: music.

Image Analysis

The communion of artists in music

The scene, which may never have happened in real life, presumably takes place in Liszt's Paris apartment. Like any romantic salon, that of the composer is characterized by an accumulation of heterogeneous objects testifying to his taste for the East (the hookah in the left corner of the painting), for the Middle Ages (statue of Joan of Arc on the left on the fireplace), for the poetry of Lord Byron (portrait in the background above Rossini)… Note also the disorder of the partitions, casually placed on the piano, in a confused heap that can evoke a form of exaltation .
In the center of the painting is the pianist: he is the "magus" who arouses the contemplation of the audience in front of Beethoven. The score placed on the piano stand (a Graf instrument) is marked "" Marcia funebre sulla morte d'un Eroe "by Beethoven", or the piece (third movement of the Piano Sonata n ° 12 opus 26) played at his funeral in 1827. The piece is obviously chosen for its symbolic content: the dead hero celebrated by this funeral march is Beethoven himself, whose bust dominates Liszt and his listeners. An exchange is established between the pianist and the sculpture, Liszt not looking at the score but looking into the empty eyes of the illustrious composer. Liszt pays tribute to Beethoven, whom he deeply admired and of whom he was one of the greatest performers: from 1835 he had notably organized concerts of works by Beethoven throughout Europe. Finally, let us note that the painter, to suggest Beethoven's filiation with the young romantic artists, placed the bust of the composer in front of an open window which reveals a stormy sky (allusion to the Pastoral symphony ?) and an aurora, symbol of the new music that Liszt, after Beethoven, strives to promote in his recitals and his own compositions.
The audience fully experiences this ideal dialogue made possible by the music: the two women, George Sand and Marie d´Agoult, by their languid poses, express the delight in which the art of Franz Liszt plunges them. George Sand, from the front, whose clothes resemble those of Liszt, seems particularly touched by the music. Marie d´Agoult, from behind, looking at the pianist, languidly resting her head on the instrument, visibly communicates with him in intense fervor. Danhauser thus evokes the profound effect that Liszt's play had on women: the intense and warm colors associated with them (Sand's red coat, Marie d´Agoult's brown shawl) are like pictorial equivalents of their emotion.

The male characters also seem sensitive to the music, but to a lesser extent: seated to the right of George Sand - who seems to have made him close the book he has on his knees - the novelist Alexandre Dumas is plunged into a semi-darkness contrasting with the light that hits the face of its neighbor. On the other hand, Victor Hugo, poet, novelist, playwright, is better informed, as if to underline his superiority. It leans on the backs of Sand and Dumas's armchairs: the creator of the romantic drama towers over the other two writers of his high stature; the red of his scarf is perhaps an allusion to the dazzling color of the waistcoat that Théophile Gautier wore at the premiere ofHernani in 1830, a performance followed by a battle between supporters of a dramatic renovation and the Conservatives.
Finally, to Hugo's left are the two most famous Italian musicians of the time: the opera composer Rossini and the virtuoso violinist Paganini. Rossini, ruddy, holds his compatriot, a starving and disturbing figure by the shoulder who, like Liszt, was considered a prodigy of devilish skill. Paganini is represented because he had also deeply impressed Liszt, who had heard him in 1832 in a Parisian concert: he had decided to compete with the violinist by inventing a new pianistic technique, "transcendent".

Behind Rossini is a portrait of Lord Byron, a highly regarded English romantic poet.


An ideal vision of romantic art

The painting by Josef Danhauser illustrates several essential themes of Romanticism. First of all, Danhauser suggests the European dimension of this current: Byron, Hugo, Beethoven, Paganini, Liszt, are of different nationalities, but they all fade in the cult of music. Liszt, in particular, is the most representative of these artists open to other European cultures: from Budapest to Paris, from Weimar to Rome, his existence is a succession of creative periods linked to various places. On the other hand, Danhauser's work evokes the synthesis of all the arts, a theme dear to 19th century artists.e century: through painting, he shows that music and literature come together in the cult of the romantic genius par excellence, Beethoven. It is he who appears here as the true inspirer of romantic art: Liszt, Berlioz, Wagner, Schumann, Hugo himself, will not cease to proclaim it.

  • Beethoven (Ludwig van)
  • Liszt (Franz)
  • romanticism
  • concert
  • music
  • Dumas (Alexandre)
  • Hugo (Victor)
  • Byron (Lord)


STRICKER Remy, Liszt. From darkness to glory, Gallimard, 1992 BUCH Esteban, Beethoven's 9th Symphony: A political history, Gallimard, 1999.

To cite this article

Christophe CORBIER, "Franz Liszt at the piano: the cult of Beethoven"

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