by Lindsey Eager
When Franz Liszt held his first public concert in Vienna in 1822, the audience’s reaction was equal parts delight and suspicion. At the crowd’s insistence, the piano was turned around, so everyone could see that Liszt was, in fact, playing the difficult pieces all on his own. “A miracle!” someone in the seats shouted. He was eleven years old.
As a musician, Liszt is matched by little. He was a virtuoso, famously able to play pieces by ear after hearing them only once—he performed this trick in front of Mendelssohn once, figuring out Mendelssohn’s new piano concerto without ever seeing the sheet music.
He was a brilliant teacher, filling his schedule with students who reported Lizst’s love for artistic individuality as well as his impatience for technical instruction (“wash your dirty linen at home,” he advised them regarding scales and exercises).
He was a stunning composer, creating some of the most difficult and breathtaking scores in history. Perhaps his best-known work is his Hungarian Rhapsodies, a series of nineteen pieces written for piano, based on Hungarian folklore and culture. Pianists know Liszt’s work as infuriating to play, requiring massive hand strength, dexterity with large moving chords, and the nimbleness to soar through his runs lightly, smoothly, and expressively.
But when he was alive, he was also known for his chiseled features, his brooding air, and his long, dark hair.
The term “Lisztomania” was coined by critic Heinrich Heine after witnessing the crowds at Liszt’s performances during the musical season of 1844. “Last week, at the Italian Opera House, where Liszt gave his first concert… this was truly no sentimental, sentimentalizing audience before which Liszt played quite alone, or, rather, accompanied solely by his genius. And yet, how convulsively his mere appearance affected them! How boisterous was the applause which rang to meet him! A veritable insanity, one unheard of in the annals of furore!”
We have a tendency, collectively, to think of the periods of the past as stiff, formal. Historical figures are depicted as one-dimensional, humorless, sexless. We might imagine a mid nineteenth-century classical piano concert as a quiet affair, with everyone seated reverently, hands folded in laps—the most excitement they could possibly have in their tiny lives.
Lisztomania shakes up all of those assumptions. The women in these audiences were anything but formal—they stood in their seats, they cried and swooned, they reached their gloved arms out, straining to reach the stage. They hiked up their gowns and rent their hair from their updos and showcased a lusty appetite that was rarely, if ever, seen in public.
In other words, these women would seem entirely at home in the audience of a Harry Styles show, circa now.
The craze starts in 1839, during Liszt’s first tour of Europe. Liszt was a rising star at this point, making a name for himself as a pianist in Paris. It was a period of technical flourishing for pianists, who sought to elevate themselves to stardom by ostentatious compositions. Liszt was master of something called the “three-handed effect,” which was exactly what it says on the tin—playing songs on the piano that sounded like you had a third hand helping you out.
He made friends with other musicians, including Polish composer Frederic Chopin; he made rivals out of other, less talented keyboardists. He had an affair with the Countess Marie d’Agolt and became a father.
He had an explosive creative period and, fueled by confidence and the momentum of his blossoming career, he set off for his major tour, which would last for eight years and prove to establish Liszt as a cornerstone of the romantic era of classical music.
We’ve seen other musical artists with their own legions of fans. Like Liszt’s admirers, these fans are usually young women, they are usually given their own name by the larger culture or the media, and they are usually spoken about with some manner of shock, derision, outrage, or all of the above.
Frank Sinatra had his Bobby Soxers in the 1940s, passionate teenagers who swarmed old Blue Eyes in New York City. Papers reported the Bobby Soxers’ outlandish behavior, which New York City’s infrastructure was absolutely not prepared for—windows were smashed, police blocked off streets, and many of these fans went for up to eight hours without food or water, refusing to give up their spots in line until attendants physically removed them.
Elvis Presley’s fans, the King’s Angels, in the 1950s screamed so loudly during his shows, many concert-goers suffered permanent hearing damage for the rest of their lives. Girls clambered over one another backstage in Jacksonville and tore the clothes right off the King’s body.
And of course, we can’t skip over the Beatles. Their arrival in America in 1964 set off a torrent of “deity-like worship” which, according to hundreds of articles, reports, and documentaries, bordered on a religious obsession. “Beatlemania” produced all the stereotypical responses—screaming in crowds, waiting in line for hours or days to catch a glimpse of the musicians in person, fits of emotion upon seeing the Beatles perform live.
“Fangirls,” as we’ve come to call these supercharged supporters, are not always girls. Liszt had his fair share of men who were overtaken by both his music and his looks; same goes with Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, and every other musician that can boast an army of admirers. But it is undoubtedly the girls who get the lion’s share of attention. Every dollar they spend on tickets and memorabilia is scrutinized. Every emotion they display is magnified and mocked. And in the 1840s, when Liszt-lusting women filled up concert halls and performance venues, their devotion was cast as a medical ailment.
This is the era of hysteria. As a refresher, hysteria was a diagnosable “illness” for women in the 19th century, characterized by… well, basically by anything that doctors, husbands, fathers, or politicians deemed a symptom. Anxiety, hyperactivity, insomnia, pain, weakness or fainting—and a scourge of women going bonkers for Liszt, his three-handed piano pieces, and his hair.
At his performances, Liszt’s fans draped themselves over the balconies of the concert halls and threw flowers, letters, and undergarments onto the stage. They listened to him play with devoted ardor and shouted themselves raw as they applauded.
But their enthusiasm was not just for the recitals. Women wore brooches and necklaces painted with Liszt’s image. They hung around the places where he dined, hoping to snag the dregs of his coffee or the napkin with which he wiped his face. More than one woman followed him and stole his cigar butt after he discarded it, pressing it into a diamond-encrusted locket. And of course they tried to get at his hair.
And Liszt himself seemed to relish it. He played up his mysterious charms at parties and sent locks of hair to the women who wrote him letters. The hair was not clipped from his own head, but from the body of his beloved pet dog. Perhaps he recognized that this clamor of passionate fans, however vulgar, was nevertheless a boon to his popularity. Or maybe to Liszt, a fan was a fan was a fan, no matter how boisterous, no matter how unhinged, no matter the gender.
It’s tempting to reduce this mania to Liszt’s dramatic good looks and his darkly flirtatious mood, but for the majority of the women in Liszt’s audience, it was about the music. It started with the music—they came to witness the immense talent that they’d heard about, and found the music stirring beyond belief.
Liszt’s stardom happened during a moment in the nineteenth century when classical pianists were exploding with new technique and individual style. The women who were seemingly “diagnosable” with Lisztomania were discerning. They’d been exposed to the best musicians Europe had to offer at the time, and the most mediocre. And yet these women were infected by the dashing, brooding, handsome pianist who also happened to be head and shoulders (and hair) above the rest.
Of all of Liszt’s works, it’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 that embodies the brilliance of his musical creativity. You should listen to it while you finish this piece—notice the rhythms, how they tempt the hips to move. Notice the wide range of technical skill required to play it—there are thick, fat chords, striking the piano with force and volume, and there are light, nimble runs dashing up and down the keys like birdsong. Notice the way it winds in and out of those minor chords—you’re never quite sure if it’s meant to be melancholy or passionate or sexy or some combination of the three.
After a whirlwind career in which he played nearly two hundred shows a year, Liszt stepped back from his performances and took orders in the Catholic church. He still composed and was a generous teacher in his final years, as well as a philanthropist. When he died in 1886, he was still heralded as one of the great pianists of his era, someone who expanded the possibilities on the keyboard.
But alas, the poor man could not get any rest, even in death—his grave was disturbed a number of times by women seeking to dig up a lock of his beloved hair. Lisztomania, a chronic condition.
Any musician would be lucky to have such devoted fans as that.
Next time you are heading out to a concert, make sure you grab EARPEACE music earplugs. Our hearing protection is perfect for fan girls of any age or gender.
Lindsay Eagar is the author of several novels for children and adults, including HOUR OF THE BEES and most recently THE PATRON THIEF OF BREAD. She lives in the mountains of Utah with her husband and their two daughters.