When the popularity of the British rock band The Beatles started to grow big and fans all over the world gathered around them, a new term was invented to describe this frenzy: Beatlemania. What is more interesting is that the use of the term “mania” to describe the popularity of an artist wasn’t invented in the 1960s, but in fact appeared hundred years earlier.
It was during the first half of the 19th century that Franz Liszt’s prodigious virtuosic skill as a pianist lifted him to stardom and helped him cement his place in the annals of music history as one of the most talented composers and pianists to have ever existed. Soon, his virtuosity started to attract huge crowds in the concert venues where he performed, which further strengthened his reputation as an excellent performer.
Starting from 1839, Liszt began nearly a decade-long tour across Europe, receiving numerous honors and awards thanks to his amazing talent. These nine years of his life brought him big success and it was during this period of his life that people started to notice how intensely crowds reacted to his performances and the term “Lisztomania” was coined.
Most contemporary sources agree that the charismatic Franz Liszt was adored by women and there are several accounts about the frenzies evoked by his concerts. His concert performances amazed crowds and had the power to make women go a little weak at the knees. Additionally, obsessive Liszt devotees, who were mainly female, allegedly threw their underwear at Liszt and occasionally fainted. Sounds familiar? No, we are not talking about Beatlemania. This time it is all about “Lisztomania,” a phenomenon that occurred over a century before the Beatles became famous. As reported, it was the year of 1841 and the place was Berlin where “Lisztomania” happened for the first time. This mania was accompanied by high levels of hysteria, similar to the one that fans of modern-day celebrities display, but not imaginable for musicians of that era.
Before Liszt arrived in Berlin for a concert around Christmas in 1841, news about his arrival started to circulate. The night he arrived a group of around 30 students gathered and serenaded him with his song “Rheinweinlied.” On December 27, 1841, Liszt played his first concert in Berlin in front of a crowd that went crazy. From this moment on, Lisztomania spread all over Europe.
Wherever he played, Liszt attracted huge crowds and put the audience in a state of ecstasy. Whenever admirers saw him, they would gather around him and struggle to take his handkerchief or one of his gloves. They even wore brooches and cameos with his portrait. Women devised plans to obtain locks of his hair, and if he broke a piano string, everybody would try to get it and make a bracelet out of it. Some women also used to carry glass phials with Liszt’s coffee dregs.
The level of devotion people had towards Liszt so great that, as written in Alan Walker’s Franz Liszt: The virtuoso years, 1811-1847, “Liszt once threw away an old cigar stump in the street under the watchful eyes of an infatuated lady-in-waiting, who reverently picked the offensive weed out of the gutter, had it encased in a locket and surrounded with the monogram “F.L.” in diamonds, and went about her courtly duties unaware of the sickly odor it gave forth.”
It has been officially accepted that the term “Lisztomania” was coined by the German critic Heinrich Heine, who described the effect Liszt had on his audience. Heine wanted to discuss and describe the music of his time, so he began writing series of musical feuilletons that lasted for several years. His review of the 1844 Parisian concert season is the first account where the term and phenomenon of “Lisztomania” is used and described for the first time.
“Thus I explained this Lisztomania and looked on it as a sign of the politically unfree conditions existing beyond the Rhine. Yet I was mistaken, after all, and I did not notice it until last week, at the Italian Opera House, where Liszt gave his first concert.”
From the above, we can conclude that the amazing Franz Liszt was a genuine music celebrity in his days and one that can compete with, and maybe even overshadow, today’s celebrities.
(Having this in mind, take a moment and listen to some of Liszt’s compositions, such as Liebestraum(Love Dream) or La Campanella, and check if he can get you to a state of ecstasy.)