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The ballet performance that sparked a riot

By Elana Estrin

Nicholas Roerich, Russian, 1874–1947.  Hat and robe from the original production of "Le Sacre du printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"), 1913
Nicholas Roerich, Russian, 1874–1947. Hat and robe from the original production of "Le Sacre du printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"), 1913

It is 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and the audience is screaming, cat-calling, and fist-fighting. It’s the most famous riot in classical music history at the premiere of the ballet The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, and premiered by the Ballets Russes.

Accustomed to more “palatable” ballets such as Swan Lake, the audience at the premiere of The Rite of Spring was shocked by the dissonant and jarring music, the violent and unnatural choreography, and the depiction of a Russian pagan tribe celebrating the arrival of spring by choosing a sacrificial virgin to dance herself to death. Upon hearing the opening bassoon solo played in an unrecognizably high register, French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens is said to have fumed: “if that is a bassoon then I am a baboon!” He then stormed out of the theater.

The Ransom Center holds one of the costumes that no doubt helped to spark the legendary riot. The costumes were designed by archeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich.

The University of Texas Symphony Orchestra joins the world famous Joffrey Ballet for a performance of The Rite of Spring tomorrow and Wednesday, March 6, to celebrate the centennial of the work’s world premiere in Paris in 1913. The Joffrey Ballet’s Rite of Spring explores Stravinsky’s revolutionary score and Nijinsky’s radical choreography with a reconstruction of the 1913 production with original costumes, choreography, and design.

This blog text was adapted from an earlier version of this post from 2009.

Hyde Park host provided home away from home for scholars

By Elana Estrin

Cultural Compass: Can you tell us about some of your most memorable guests?

Martha Campbell: Oh, heavens!

Martha Campbell, 73, is not your typical B&B owner. During the time she hosted Ransom Center scholars at her home between 1995 and 2010, Campbell helped one renter woo her future husband, competed with a guest in a bake-off, hosted a frequent renter’s book launch, and became a close friend and confidante to many of the scholars who stayed with her.

“When I first started doing this, I thought: ‘How would I feel if I were a stranger in a strange place? How would I want to be treated?’ That’s guided me through the years,” Campbell said.

Campbell quickly became a legend among the Ransom Center scholars, in part for her breakfasts. Vanessa Guignery, past guest and former Ransom Center fellow, reports that Campbell served fruit, juice, muffins, and either waffles, pancakes, or french toast every morning.

“Other scholars stayed with other people who were very nice, but there was no breakfast. So each time I arrived at the Ransom Center and said, ‘Mmm I had waffles for breakfast!’ the other scholars would say, ‘Stop it!’ Everybody wanted to stay with Martha,” Guignery says.

Campbell’s hospitality didn’t stop at breakfast. She invited her guests to dinner parties with her friends and to Austin’s famed live-music concerts. (“I got a kick out of introducing them to Texas music.”)

“It wasn’t just coming back, closing the door, and that’s it. She didn’t make you feel as though you were actually paying to be there. It truly felt like home,” Guignery says.

Campbell’s guests have formed a network, and many of them became close friends and colleagues. During one of Guignery’s stays, Campbell invited two Norman Mailer scholars staying elsewhere, Michael and Donna Lennon, over for a wine and cheese party. Guignery told Michael Lennon about her work on British writer Julian Barnes, whose archive Guignery was researching at the Ransom Center. He suggested that she publish a collection of interviews with Barnes, put her in touch with an editor, and three years later Guignery published Conversations with Julian Barnes. The book now sits on Campbell’s table.

Campbell made her own contributions to her guests’ work. She introduced a few scholars studying spiritualist writers like W. B. Yeats and Arthur Conan Doyle to a spiritualist church down the street. During one of his stays with Campbell, Michael Lennon was invited to read at the Ransom Center’s monthly Poetry on the Plaza event. He asked Campbell if she happened to have any beat poetry around, and he ended up reading from her copy of A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which she bought at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1960.

Built in 1910, exactly 100 years before Campbell hosted her last guest, the home is a registered historical landmark in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Campbell started housing renters in 1994, soon after her husband passed away.

“I had never had a job. I always thought I couldn’t do anything since I always had my husband,” Campbell says. “Every time I did something like change a light bulb or carry something heavy or fix a toilet, I kept getting more and more self-confidence to live by myself. So I grew as a person along with the house. It really made me a different person. The house is kind of the third big chapter of my life.”

Before hosting Ransom Center scholars, Campbell housed mathematicians and scientists visiting The University of Texas at Austin. Her very first renter was a Japanese man who spoke little English.

“When he left, he looked really forlorn, so I gave him a hug. Then I thought, ‘Am I supposed to do that?’ When I cleaned his room, I found five or six beautiful origami cranes placed around the room. I found out later that was a compliment. He came back once to say hello, so I figured I must’ve done a pretty good job,” Campbell said.

Though she stopped renting in 2010, Campbell periodically hosts informal gatherings for current Ransom Center scholars and staff.

“Somebody said I fall in love with all my guests. I think it’s true. I have a charming man who has breakfast with me, talks to me like what I have to say is important, he stays for a month, then another one comes and takes his place,” Campbell laughs.

 

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Author T. C. Boyle’s archive acquired

By Elana Estrin

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of novelist and short-story writer Tom Coraghessan “T. C.” Boyle, author of such acclaimed works as The Tortilla Curtain (1995) and World’s End (1987). Spanning more than 30 years from the 1970s through the present, the archive covers the breadth of Boyle’s prolific career.

“I am very pleased and honored to have my papers safely ensconced at the Ransom Center so that they may be preserved and made available to scholars,” said Boyle. “With such an archive, there is always the danger of damage or even destruction, especially when the papers are stored in filing cabinets and cardboard boxes in the basement of a very old house. I am vastly relieved to know that they are now safe.”

Boyle is the author of 22 books of fiction, and his short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and The New Yorker. He was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Prize for best novel of the year in 1988 for World’s End and the PEN/Malamud Prize in 1999 for T. C. Boyle Stories (1998). Boyle is currently a professor of English at the University of Southern California.

The collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, professional files, and teaching material. Nearly every published title is represented by a binder of manuscript notes, research material, drafts, and proofs. Also included are about 140 short-story files.

If you’re in Austin, don’t miss the chance to see Boyle at BookPeople on March 19.

 

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Book chronicles “Postcards From America” road trip with Magnum photographers

By Elana Estrin

In May 2011, five Magnum photographers and one writer hopped on an R.V. at the Harry Ransom Center and launched a two-week road trip from Texas to California.

1,750 miles and thousands of photographs later, the result of the “Postcards from America” road trip is a limited-edition book that was released this week. The book is actually a collection of 18 items enclosed in a box signed by the itinerant photographers—Paolo Pellegrin, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky—and writer Ginger Strand: a book, five bumper stickers, a newspaper, two fold-outs, three cards, a poster, and five zines. According to the “Postcards From America” Tumblr, these items “combine to represent the idiosyncratically American character that defines this project.”

More information and pictures from the book are available on the “Postcards From America” website.

A selection of prints from the road trip will be added to the Magnum Photos collection, housed at the Center. The Ransom Center is pleased to participate in this documentary event, an outgrowth of the Center’s relationship with the Magnum Photos collective. In 2010 the Ransom Center joined in partnership with Magnum Photos and MSD Capital, LP to house 200,000 original press prints from Magnum’s New York bureau. The Ransom Center has since created a preliminary inventory and opened the collection for research to students, faculty, and the general public. The Ransom Center continues to work with Magnum, including the Magnum Foundation, to add further research value to the collection.

“The Ransom Center was the perfect place for us to start this trip,” photographer Susan Meiselas, President of the Magnum Cultural Foundation, told Cultural Compass. “Our picture distribution system, represented by the New York press print library that’s now housed at the Center, was part of the glue that historically held us together as a collective. In a post-analog age, we’re exploring new ways of being together collectively, and this trip was one of those experiments. We really saw how the Ransom Center could be a bridge between the old and the new. I hope we’ll keep doing more new projects together because I really believe in the importance of linking the archival materials to a living body of new production carried out with the same relentlessly curious spirit.”

Watch photographer Alec Soth lead a video introduction to the box set.

In the coming weeks, stay tuned for a follow-up blog post featuring a selection of prints from the road trip that will be added to the Magnum Photos collection at the Ransom Center.

Scholar discovers missing bassoon line in Ravel manuscript

By Elana Estrin

While studying the 1911 manuscript of Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose” ballet suite, housed at the Ransom Center, scholar Arbie Orenstein discovered the largest error in all of Ravel’s scores: a bassoon line that’s been missing from the published edition for the last century.

Orenstein’s discovery comes just in time for the centennial of “Mother Goose,” which premiered in Paris 100 years ago this Saturday.

“The first time I looked at that bassoon part, I thought, ‘What on earth is this instrument doing here?’” Orenstein told Cultural Compass. “But it’s perfectly written, complete with dynamics and phrasing, and it makes absolute sense according to all the rules of orchestration. I said, ‘Wow, this is really something.’”

The “Mother Goose” manuscript is housed in the Ransom Center’s Carlton Lake collection, which also includes manuscripts by Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Igor Stravinsky.

In addition to the bassoon line, Orenstein, Professor of Music at Queens College, found other discrepancies between the 1911 manuscript and the widely used 1912 published score. Orenstein plans to publish a new edition this year presenting all of the differences between the manuscript and the published score. Philadelphia Orchestra librarian Clinton F. Nieweg will help communicate the changes to orchestras around the world.

While preparing the new edition, Orenstein consulted with musicians from the New York Philharmonic, and the Philharmonic became the first orchestra to incorporate Orenstein’s changes in a concert on December 28, 2011.

“It was quite exciting to hear that bassoon part for the first time in 100 years (not that I’m 100 years old!),” Orenstein wrote in an e-mail after the performance.

Though the “Mother Goose” manuscript contains more errors than any other manuscript he’s ever worked with, Orenstein says he doesn’t criticize Ravel. Ravel had his mind on the new ballet he’d already begun composing, “Daphnis et Chloë,” the manuscript of which is also housed at the Ransom Center. On top of that, Stravinsky was composing what would become his seminal ballet “The Rite of Spring” and playing it for Ravel.

“All of these exciting things are happening. He just may not have given his fullest attention to ‘Mother Goose,’” Orenstein said. “It’s a battle for perfection which you can never win. Ravel said the same thing: ‘My goal is technical perfection. I can strive unceasingly, but I know I’ll never be able to achieve it.’”

Nevertheless, Orenstein is doing what he can to help Ravel achieve perfection posthumously.

“The greatest battle of any composer is that of wrong notes. That’s why these new editions based on the manuscripts are so important. If you’re going to interpret the music, you have to do what Mahler said: read between the notes. But you have to have all the right notes.”

Working with music publisher Ernst Eulenburg Ltd., Orenstein plans to continue publishing new editions of Ravel’s major orchestral works, some of which are housed at the Ransom Center.

“The point of departure is the Harry Ransom Center. Without that, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” Orenstein said. “There’s a tremendous amount that needs to be looked at, sorted out, and new editions made. There will be plenty more coming out of Texas, I can tell you that.”

Learn more about Orenstein’s discovery in a Wall Street Journal article by reporter Anne S. Lewis.

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Gobsmacked: Professor Recounts Class’s Tour of the Ransom Center

By Elana Estrin

Jacket worn by Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver' from the Paul Schrader collection.
Jacket worn by Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver' from the Paul Schrader collection.

In October, University of Texas at Austin Psychology Professor Marc Lewis brought his freshman Plan II Honors class on a trip to the Ransom Center. Professor Lewis has won numerous teaching awards, including the Regents’ Outstanding
Teaching
Award and the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award. Below, Professor Lewis writes about his class’s private tour of the Ransom Center, led by Director Thomas F. Staley.
 

Page from the Shakespeare First Folio.
Page from the Shakespeare First Folio.

Over 30 years of teaching, I can remember many occasions where students were excited and interested, but my Plan II Honors Signature class’s visit to the Ransom Center on October 4 marks the first time that I have heard audible gasps of astonishment. The class arrived with high expectations, knowing that even among the “gems of the university,” the Ransom Center is unique. They had ordered an eclectic collection of treasures to view: the original manuscript of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” a Shakespeare first folio, Robert De Niro’s jacket from Taxi Driver, Volume 1 of the 1609 Douay Old Testament, original notes from a Woodward and Bernstein interview with Deep Throat, Abraham Ortelius’s 500-year-old map of the New World, a set of original architectural drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright, and various other rare items. The students came expecting that those exhibits would be the highlight of the day; what they did not expect was that the real magic would be a talk by Director Tom Staley followed by a personal tour of the closed, nonpublic sections of the building.

These freshmen students knew what they experiencing. As one student wrote afterwards: “Walking through rooms filled with original movie posters, books filled with presidential autographs, and other priceless historical artifacts spread casually along shelves was incredible in and of itself, but the places and people Dr. Staley took us to were even more remarkable. Seemingly without ever planning to do so, he showed us the full scope of the Ransom Center’s activities and their significance, everything from the meticulous preservation of the cover from a first edition of The Great Gatsby to colorful sketches of Macy’s parade floats from 40 or 50 years ago.”

Another student was as struck by the excitement of the Center as fully as he was by the items: “Having a backstage pass with Director Tom Staley as guide was a spectacular experience. Simply observing his reactions to the artifacts we saw being restored revealed to me the passion that goes into maintaining this Center.”

Conservator Ken Grant works in the paper lab, consolidating the paint layer on designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 drawing for floats and participants in Macy’s parade. The drawing will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Bel Geddes, with support generously provided by an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Conservator Ken Grant works in the paper lab, consolidating the paint layer on designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 drawing for floats and participants in Macy’s parade. The drawing will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Bel Geddes, with support generously provided by an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.

And: “Around a corner, we encountered an original poster for the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird—you just don’t find this sort of thing anywhere else. Sometime later in the trip, we were taken to a room where an ancient map a dozen-and-a-half feet long was undergoing a preservation process. You see this sort of artifact on the Discovery Channel and think, ‘Oh, that’s neat!’ but it is only when you see it first-hand that you get a true appreciation for the talent, dedication, and effort that goes into it all.”

Other students commented on the way that the Ransom Center’s collections connect the dots to show artistic flows of thought: “The Ransom Center’s pursuit of an understanding of the creative process and the artistic mind made me completely rethink the process of bringing together collections of art and writing.”

These students had never seen anything like the Ransom Center, and I am pleased that they were wise enough to understand how rare an opportunity they were given. I understood that opportunity as well, and I am not embarrassed to admit that my own jaw dropped more than once during the visit. What an astounding afternoon.

Storytellers from The Moth tour Spalding Gray archive

By Elana Estrin

Helen Adair shows Maggie Cino and Faye Lane a notebook from Spalding Gray's archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Helen Adair shows Maggie Cino and Faye Lane a notebook from Spalding Gray's archive. Photo by Pete Smith.

Last Thursday at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, monologist Mike Daisey told the audience he had a confession to make.

Before coming to Austin, Daisey said, he asked his Facebook friends where he should eat in town. He received an onslaught of barbeque suggestions from Austinites passionately defending their favorites. “People were un-friending each other about where I should eat barbeque,” Daisey reported.

Mike arrived in Austin too starving to search for any of the barbeque suggestions. He did, however, find himself in front of a McDonalds, considering a McRib.

“I know!” Daisey said, acknowledging the audience’s gasp of horror. “How can someone come to Austin and eat a McRib?”

So he re-evaluated and concluded, “I am a sinner, but I will not eat a McRib on this day.” The audience sighed in relief, but too soon. “I will have a cheeseburger instead.”

This was just one of the many stories spun at the Paramount, where Daisey hosted an evening of storytelling with five raconteurs from The Moth, a non-profit based in New York dedicated to the art of storytelling.

The Moth comes out of the storytelling tradition led by monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004), whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. In November, The Moth held a tribute to Gray in New York hosted by Garrison Keillor and they presented the 2011 Moth Award, “celebrating the art of the raconteur,” to Gray’s family.

The day after The Moth’s Austin appearance, Ransom Center Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Baer shared highlights from Gray’s collection with Moth touring coordinator Maggie Cino, who directed the Austin performance, and performer Faye Lane.

“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Lane said upon arrival at the Ransom Center. Lane said she watched Gray’s film Swimming to Cambodia, a performance film of one of Gray’s best-known monologues, three or four times when it was released.

“I just sat there with my mouth open and thought, you can do this? It was so exactly what I wanted to do and I’d never seen anybody do it before,” Lane said. “I started journaling furiously. I realized these stories are important.”

Baer showed Cino and Lane two photographs of Gray which the Ransom Center recently acquired from photographer Ann Rhoney; the Ronald McDonald notebook which appears at the beginning of Swimming to Cambodia (“Oh my gosh, I remember that part: ping pong, coke bottle, banana,” Lane said); one of Gray’s journals (“That looks exactly like my journal!” Lane said); and a psychoanalytic questionnaire (“I’m suddenly fixated on this. I’m like: must read it till the end,” Cino said).

Baer explained that Gray devised the questionnaire, asking himself questions a therapist might ask.

“For him, even the most personal becomes a performance,” Baer said.

Cino and Lane read every word of the questionnaire, occasionally reading passages aloud.

“I was offered a free apartment. I turned it down with the excuse that I had to get back to work. When I got back home, I couldn’t work because I was so upset with the choice I made.”

“Puberty. Lost all confidence. Weak, ugly, and dumb. Too strange for anyone to like or love.”

“I’ve often felt like a kept woman, a housewife.”

Near the end of the tour, Cino explained how Gray’s simple aesthetic influences The Moth. As technology has evolved in the past two decades, Cino said, people are hungrier than ever for simplicity.

“You get into this question of how little do you need to communicate,” Cino said. “Spalding Gray is such a force in having made it seem possible that you can do it in a very straightforward way without a lot of bells and whistles. I think he started a whole world of possibility that people are continuing to explore.”

Screenwriter Paul Schrader’s papers open for research

By Elana Estrin

In the late 1970s, screenwriter Paul Schrader began writing a script titled Born in the U.S.A., and he asked Bruce Springsteen to write a song for the film. The script sat on Springsteen’s table until one day, while working on a song called “Vietnam,” he noticed Schrader’s script, sang the title, and “Born in the U.S.A.” became the hit title song of one of Springsteen’s best-selling albums. Springsteen eventually wrote a new song for the script, which Schrader renamed Light of Day (1987).

Drafts of Schrader’s Born in the U.S.A. and Light of Day scripts and correspondence between Schrader and Springsteen are just a few of the many highlights found in Schrader’s archive, which opens for research today at the Ransom Center.

From drafts of the Taxi Driver (1976) screenplay to Schrader’s baby book, from an outline for Raging Bull (1980) to letters from Schrader’s parents, the archive encompasses Schrader’s career and personal life.

Photographs abound in the archive. Of particular note are film stills, on-set photos, and publicity shots for Taxi Driver, the film that launched Schrader’s career. One photo shows Schrader and a young Jodie Foster at the Cannes Film Festival, and another shows Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro laughing on set. Invoking De Niro’s Taxi Driver character Travis Bickle, Scorsese inscribed a photo of him with Schrader: “From one Travis to another.” In an e-mail, Schrader wrote that he felt like a Travis Bickle “at one time.”

Immediately following Jaws’s blockbuster success, Steven Spielberg asked Schrader to write a screenplay for what would become Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spielberg read Schrader’s script, but they didn’t agree on how the story should progress. Spielberg ended up writing the script himself, but drafts and notes for Schrader’s version are included in his archive.

In the mid-1980s, Bob Dylan asked Schrader to direct a music video shot in Japan for his song “Tight Connection to My Heart.” Unhappy with the result, Schrader later called the video “a source of embarrassment.” In addition to scripts, photographs, and film documenting the video production, Schrader’s archive includes a 2002 letter to an executive at Sony in which Schrader looks back on the project 16 years later:

“It was a disaster. Bob had asked me to do it but I really didn’t ‘get’ the new music video language. He didn’t want to do it and by the middle of the shoot I didn’t want to do it. I remember saying to him at one point, ‘Bob, if you ever hear I’m making another music video, just take me out in the back yard and hose me down.’”

When asked how he felt about his archive opening to the public, Schrader responded, “I hope to be too busy to even give it a thought.”

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In the Galleries: Ogden Nash’s padlocked collection of poetry

By Elana Estrin

One of Ogden Nash's copies of  'Hard Lines' with padlock and chain. Photo by Pete Smith.
One of Ogden Nash's copies of 'Hard Lines' with padlock and chain. Photo by Pete Smith.

“All of these books are worse than opium… I would rather have a child of mine use opium than read these books,” declared Senator Reed Smoot of Utah in March 1930, speaking from behind a desk towering with “smutty” books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Robert Burns’s poetry.

In 1929, Senator Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley of Oregon introduced a tariff bill to Congress that included a section restricting the importation of obscene materials, which inspired the widely repeated news headline “Smoot Smites Smut.” Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico led a protest against the proposed ban on obscene literature, and the House approved an amendment that removed books from the list of obscene materials.

But the battle wasn’t over. When the full bill reached the Senate in March 1930, Smoot brought book censorship back into the spotlight. After much debate, the Senate returned books to the list of obscene materials with the exception of “classics” and works of “established literary and scientific merit.” The Smoot-Hawley Tariff became law on June 17, 1930.

In response to the controversy, poet Ogden Nash penned “Invocation” and submitted it to The New Yorker, his first published contribution to the magazine, in January 1930.

The first verse reads:

Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)
Is planning a ban on smut.
Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut.
And his reverend occiput.
Smite, Smoot, smite for Ut.,
Grit your molars and do your dut.,
Gird up your l__ns,
Smite h_p and th_gh,
We’ll all be Kansas
By and by.

“Invocation” appeared in Nash’s collection Hard Lines. As a publicity stunt, Simon and Schuster sent out advance copies with a chain, padlock, and key attached.

One of Nash’s copies of Hard Lines appears in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored, on display through January 22. Nash intended to send this copy to book critic Alexander Woollcott. The inside front cover of the book includes the beginning of an inscription to Woollcott, but Nash misspelled Woollcott’s name (he forgot the second “l”) and inscribed the book to himself instead:

“For Ogden Nash with the very best wishes of the author. This is one of several advance copies equipped with lock and chain for attention-catching which were sent to current celebrities in hope of eliciting favorable comment. I started to mis-spell Alexander Woollcott’s name in this one, so kept it for myself. Woollcott didn’t like the one he got, even though I spelled his name right.*

*It sold nearly 40,000 copies in spite of him.”

"Lisztomania" hits Austin

By Elana Estrin

Print of Franz Liszt, 1841.
Print of Franz Liszt, 1841.

Long before Beatlemania, mid-nineteenth-century European audiences went wild for Franz Liszt, the Hungarian pianist/composer with shoulder-length hair. Women fought over his broken piano strings and collected his coffee dregs in glass vials. One woman retrieved Liszt’s discarded cigar stump from a gutter and encased it in a diamond-studded locket monogrammed “F.L.” To describe this phenomenon, German poet Heinrich Heine coined the term “Lisztomania.”

Liszt took the classical music world by storm. Considered the best pianist of all time by his contemporaries, Liszt essentially created the piano recital. He was the first pianist to emerge onstage from the wings, he introduced the custom of performing in profile because he didn’t want the piano to block his face, and his unmatched technique and virtuosic piano compositions pushed the boundaries of what the piano could do.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth and the 100th anniversary of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. On November 18 and 19, the Austin Symphony celebrates both birthdays when Anton Nel performs Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S. 125 with the Austin Symphony.

Signed photo of Franz Liszt, not dated.
Signed photo of Franz Liszt, not dated.

Liszt is well represented in the Ransom Center’s collections. The musicians collection contains photos of Liszt, one of which Liszt autographed; two collections hold notebooks, manuscripts, and other materials for two Liszt biographies; and the Carlton Lake collection includes a signed manuscript of Liszt’s Gaudeamus igitur and 150 letters between Liszt and his daughters, Blandine and Cosima.

In these letters, spanning from 1850 to 1862, Liszt comes across as a caring but demanding father. It is clear that his daughters’ musical education is a priority. In an 1854 letter addressed to both daughters, Liszt tells Blandine and Cosima to make the most of the approaching winter, when the only teacher around will be their piano teacher:

“How goes it with your piano strumming? Do you practice? Is M. Seghers giving you regular lessons?… Music being the universal language, and even to a certain extent able to dispense with ideas, it is by no means my intention to end your studies with M. Seghers. But try to learn yourselves what even the best teachers cannot convey through lessons; and, until the day when I try to shape your talents to my liking, I kiss you most tenderly.”

Liszt also discusses the difficulty of navigating his relationships with other composers. In an 1858 letter to Blandine, Liszt writes about German composer and conductor Richard Wagner, who later married Cosima and with whom Liszt had a notoriously tumultuous relationship:

“With his immense genius which becomes more and more indisputable through all the foolish disputes he has to embark on, he unfortunately can’t manage to rid himself of the most trying domestic vexations, not to mention all the disappointments of his fantastic expectations. In this way he resembles those lofty mountains, radiant at their peaks, but shrouded in fog up to their shoulders…Tell me something of him in your next letter, for I love him with all my heart and admire him as Germany’s finest génie-artiste.”

While living in Rome in 1862, Liszt tells Blandine that he’s a little annoyed with French composer Charles Gounod:

“You know what sincere esteem and liking I have always had for the talent of Gounod, and how affectionate our personal relations were. Well! Can you believe that he spent more than six weeks in Rome without taking the trouble to come and see me, and that we didn’t once see one another?”

Through these letters, we catch a glimpse of Liszt’s life as a rock-star pianist, at its height in the 1840s. But Liszt’s letters from the 1850s reveal that he cherished solitude and was tiring of public life. On May 4, 1858, Liszt wrote to Blandine about his visit with Cosima in Berlin:

“The wholly public life (less and less to my taste) that I had been obliged to lead these last two months made me feel all the more, by contrast, the charm and intimacy of her affection.”

On July 19, 1862, Liszt sent his last letter to Blandine, who died two months later at the age of 26 following childbirth: “The fact is, I am comfortable only in my own company and in that of the very small number of those I love with whom I feel at one in thought and feeling.”

Selected items related to Liszt will be on display in the Ransom Center lobby from Tuesday, November 15 through Sunday, November 27.