On Searching for Franz Liszt in Budapest and Not Finding Him

At the Liszt Museum, in the music academy, they don’t have anything I want. Well, anything except the pianos, which sit in the middle of finely-wallpapered rooms, silent and with their keys covered.

Even like this, they radiate magic, all warm grainy wood and faintly yellow keys. There’s one, tiny and in the corner and sized for a child, with hammers that strike lengths of glass instead of strings, so it makes a kind of sparkling noise, fit for a winter ballet. Another is bigger than my bed and made by an American craftsman in Boston. Liszt played it late in life and it still works, but I can hear it only on the audio guide, a solo so beautiful that it stops my slow transverse around the room. I stare out a window, watch people bustle on the street below, toward Oktogon, toward the House of Terror. I listen to the whole song.

They put a whole song, a sonata, on an audioguide. That’s the kind of museum this is.

There are portraits, and he was handsome, so I appreciate this, too. The ones of him as a young man show him to be ravishing and long-nosed, his hair grown long and shaggy as befits a rockstar of any generation. But he was first. Women fought over locks of his hair and flew into hysterics when he played. There’s one story of a girl at the stage door who picked up the discarded stump of his cigar and wore it in a locket.

There is none of this in the room. Nothing about the affairs. With George Sand and the married Comtesse, with whom he had three illegitimate children. There is a whole corner dedicated what this museum declares as his actual primary devotion — Catholicism. There are prayer books, his small alter, an embroidered bleeding heart that he wore inside his coat. That the latter thing, smaller than my palm and made with great care, was given to him by a female admirer is mentioned only in passing.

For romance, to find the romantic inside this actual king of the romantics, I will retreat elsewhere. To recordings. To Google searches. To somewhere other than a second-floor apartment on Budapest’s main street, an apartment inside an academy. The heart of Franz Liszt, it seems, cannot be contained by that.

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