Franz Lizst – a racy odyssey of love

"Clara" featuring Joanna David, Lucy Parham and Martin Jarvis at The University of Sheffield  new autumn season, of concerts
"Clara" featuring Joanna David, Lucy Parham and Martin Jarvis at The University of Sheffield new autumn season, of concerts

A FAMILIAR face and voice as an actor, Martin Jarvis is also a writer, director and producer who works across the board in film. TV, radio, commercials and audio recording.

The world of classical music will occupy him next week as he joins fellow actor Joanna David and pianist Lucy Parham to present Franz Liszt: Odyssey of Love, a portrait of the composer in words and music.

The piece, coming to Sheffield in a collaboration between the University of Sheffield music department and the Off the Shelf literary festival, is primarily the creation of Parham and, although various actors have on occasions performed the dialogue based on letters between Liszt and his lovers, Marie d’Agoult and Princess Carolyn von Sayn Wittgenstein, Jarvis was the first to take it on three years ago.

“People have got a general idea of who Liszt was and what he did but this is a much more in depth look at his personality,” says the actor. “He was a great musician and composer and a master of the piano. Lucy has been able to find her own way of playing to show that.

“We also learn something about him from the words, all the letters and accounts of what he did and the music informs that and you see where it came from.

“There’s a turnaround in the second half which gives it a thriller element when things change for him.

“We’re going to change the title from Odyssey of Love which has a number of connotations and sounds a bit holy, to Lizst and His Women.”

The text comes from Lucy Parham’s research which Jarvis helped to hone while giving five performances in Los Angeles. “I was able to bring my experience as a producer and knowledge of American audiences,” he says.

In fact he and his wife, actress Rosalind Ayres (the grandmother in Outnumbered) divide their time between London and LA where they have a second home. Jarvis has directed plays out there for the BBC and for National Public Radio to be broadcast across America, including Hamlet with an all-American cast and most recently an adaptation of England, Their England, AG Macdonell’s comic novel with its famous village cricket match, roping in a host of expat actors in Hollywood such as Alfred Molina, Iuan Gruffudd and Rufus Sewell.

He has also been on a bit of a run as a movie actor filming in Los Angeles a role in the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher, and a stint in New York opposite Al Pacino and Helen Mirren in David Mamet’s “as yet Untitled Phil Spector film, playing Nigel, a man from the BBC and the only Brit part in it.”

It’s a busy life which requires efficient planning. “I am fortunate, I don’t recall being out of work for a day. I am always doing something and it’s all things I enjoy.”

Franz Liszt: Odyssey of Love is at the Upper Chapel on Tuesday.

l Franz Liszt’s philosophy, ‘genius has obligations’, can be interpreted in one of two ways - his unstinting efforts to raise money through his concerts for all sorts of worthy causes or satisfying the hoards of women who clamoured for his attention.

“He was an extraordinary man, a strange mixture: exceptionally benevolent, he never charged for his lessons, yet incredibly egotistical,” says Lucy Parham.

The performance of her Odyssey of Love at Upper Chapel, Norfolk Street on Tuesday is almost 200 years to the day, October 22 1811, of the birth of the hugely prolific composer and greatest piano virtuoso of his day, an innovator par excellence whose playing whipped up a frenzy, especially among women, wherever he went on his long concert tours.

Lucy, who reckons he gave more than 3,000 of them, says: “I think the attraction was the talent, the genius and the extraordinary charisma.

“He was very handsome and like a pop star. The term ‘mania’ (Lisztomania) originated with him!

“Women would faint at his concerts and he used to drop his handkerchief on stage and they would clamour to pick it up, tear into strips and wear round their wrists like a bracelet.

“My favourite story is of him dropping cigar butts on the floor which, once retrieved, would be worn in a locket in their cleavage!

“He would have made the equivalent today of many millions of pounds and was fantastically famous just by word of mouth which, apart from a newspaper, could have been the only way to know about him.”

Odyssey of Love, the second of the celebrated pianist’s three highly successful words-and-music composer portraits to date, revolves around the two most important women in Liszt’s life, Marie, Comtesse d‘Agoult and Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, both prolific writers.

Marie was in a loveless marriage with two children when she met Liszt in 1833 and their relationship lasted until 1844.

She had three children by Liszt, the second being the famous Cosima who went on to marry Hans von Bulow before Wagner prised her away from him and made her Cosima Wagner.

Liszt, by then a Franciscan abbé, had problems with this but came to terms with it, says Lucy, adding: “I don’t go into that at all in Odyssey of Love. Liszt lived into his seventies and there are huge parts of his story we can’t tell because there just isn’t time.”

Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein came into Liszt’s life in 1847 when she met him in Russia on one of his concert tours.

Estranged from her husband, she cohabited with the composer in Weimar from 1848.

“They were going to get married in Rome in 1861 but the Vatican banned it (after intercession by the Tsar of Russia) and she just walked away from it. She’d had enough.”

The relationship with Liszt became purely platonic after he became an abbé in 1865. “Liszt was one of her very few visitors and used to visit her every day when he was Rome. She’d given everything up for him”.

His death in 1886 so devastated her that she died a few months later.”

Lucy explains the thinking behind her choice of texts and letters. “Because you haven’t got very much choice in the correspondence and you’re wanting to tell a story through the letters, they are chosen to give it an arc with a beginning and an end.

“The music’s been chosen to match the mood of the letter, really, and a lot of it is chronological.”