Published on Franz Liszt Group, on August 1, 2021. If you want to know how the Story Behind series started, I give details in “Story Behind” Series #1″.
Original post (posted by me):
Yesterday (July 31) was the 135th birthday of Franz Liszt’s death. I wanted to mark the occasion with a new “story behind” post. At the beginning of June, I posted the story of the very first picture taken of Liszt, in 1843. Let me tell you the story of the very last picture taken, on July 19, 1886.
Thanks to Jim Penning and his very complete articles about Liszt’s last stay in Luxembourg, we know many details about these days and the last public concert given by Liszt. This is only a summary, but I thought a “story behind” about this picture was appropriate.
First of all, I wanted to clarify what picture of Liszt was actually the last one taken before he died. The last professional series of pictures were taken by Paul Nadar in his studio in Paris, in May 1886. It includes a very touching and quiet portrait of Liszt smiling. Earlier the same month, Wilhelm Benque, another photographer based in Paris, also took a series of pictures but the last series was Nadar’s.
We often forget that another picture was taken after Nadar’s but this one was not a portrait, it was a group picture taken by Louis Held, a frequent photographer in Liszt’s house in 1884 and 1885. The group picture was taken on June 6th, 1886, when Liszt attended the Tonkünstler-Versammlung (Musicians Congress) in Sondershausen. The picture shows Liszt in the front row, surrounded by a large assembly of colleagues and pupils.
Now, it is not very well known that there were two other pictures made of Liszt before he died, in Luxembourg. These were taken on July 19, 1886, by an amateur photographer called Maisy Wolff, at Coplach Castle, the domain of his friends Mihály and Cécile Munkácsy. There are a few particularities about these pictures. First, it is the only series of pictures where we can see Liszt wearing a cylinder hat. Second, they were not taken in a studio but during an outside photo shooting, meaning that Maisy Wolff took the time to set the camera and prepare herself, probably aware of the importance of the opportunity to photograph the Master. Third, it is often believed that there was only one picture, as there is usually only one that is shared: it represents Liszt holding the arm of Cécile Munkácsy, walking down the steps in front of the castle, on their way to the Luxembourg Casino concert, where he performed for the last time in front of an audience (see the account of Liszt’s last journey in Luxembourg in Jim Penning’s articles).
This is where the story behind this series of pictures gets interesting. In reality, there were two pictures, and the one I post here is the very last one to be taken of Liszt. It represents him, still at the arm of Cécile Munkácsy, surrounded by a group of people. Remember the amount of time it was taking to set a camera and prepare for the perfect shot. This was a difficult exercise and one needed to be quick to complete the task. It was mentioned in an earlier “story behind” that it took Louis Held close to one minute just to capture the picture of Liszt at his writing desk in Weimar. I imagine Mrs Wolff running from the bottom of the stairs to further in the alley, setting her camera, and waiting for Liszt to walk in front of her. Anyway, she did it, and this is the picture. Interestingly, it is rarely presented in its entirety. A version zoomed only on Liszt and Cécile Munkácsy can be found, but it is not frequently posted as the zoomed version is blurry.
I was unable to identify with certainty the four people walking behind Liszt. Of course, it is almost impossible to identify the two ladies on the right, one being hidden behind Liszt’s back, and the other looking down. I assume the young man is Bernhard Stavenhagen, who was accompanying the Master and acting as secretary during his trip to Luxembourg. I don’t know who the young woman is. Here is an excerpt of Liszt’s letter to Olga von Meyendorff on Monday July 12, 1886: “We are usually about ten at table: the father and mother of Mme Munkácsy, Viscount de Suse and his wife, and two agreeable young ladies, pleasant friends of the lady of the house.” The picture was taken 7 days later so we can imagine that the Viscount de Suse and his wife were visiting but not necessarily present a week later, but maybe the two ladies are surrounding Stavenhagen, and maybe the person behind Liszt, who seems to have white hair, is Cécile Munkácsy’s mother. These are only assumptions of course. They probably travelled all together to the concert, so if anyone knows more about the group who attended the concert with Liszt, apart from Stavenhagen and the Munkácsy couple, tell us 🙂