Siren with a heart of ice

Liszt took care in dedicating his compositions to lovers, friends, aristocracy and other benefactors. He also carefully aligned his compositions with the contents of the underlying literary or operatic work, trying to give an impression of the source where feasible. Examples are his works based on Autran, Dante, Goethe, Lamartine, and Sainte-Beuve.

By dedicating his Faribolo Pastour arrangement of the song Siren with a heart of ice by Jasmin to Caroline, Liszt has given us new clues on their romance.

If Caroline had really possessed the angelic and exalted character that Liszt’s romantic biographers attributed to her, why would he then dedicate a song to her about a flirtatious girl who could not choose between lovers? Furthermore, why did Caroline, presumably the only suitable wife for Liszt if we may believe his biographers, only end up with two quick compositions based on a couple of improvisations? Compare this dedication with the seventy-odd works that Liszt devoted to other women[1].

The most realistic answer to these questions is that this song described a side of Caroline that was overlooked by Liszt’s biographers and that, although she was one of the people who introduced him to a world outside piano music, she played an insignificant role in his later life.

The young Liszt and his pupil Caroline may have devoted their discussions to religion, literature, and music, but this doesn’t mean that other relationships of Caroline had been platonic. She was pretty, well-educated, rich and member of the aristocracy. Besides Liszt, she had a host of other tutors at home and, unlike with Liszt, the topics discussed may very well have drifted into more worldly directions. As a Minister’s only daughter she was present at many social events, ranging from theatre visits to salons and royal parties. Her beauty must have made heads of potential marriage candidates turn. Like the shepherd girl Franconnette she may have indulged in some flirtation and dancing with other men.

In the spring of 1828, the inexperienced and introvert young Liszt, struggling to cope with his father’s absence and trying to give a new direction to his life, only saw chastity and virtue in the child Caroline. He did not consider a passionate relationship with her, even though this possibility may have presented itself during his lessons. We know he more than made up for this oversight in later life.

In 1844, the experienced and extrovert musician/composer Liszt met the mature woman Caroline, wife of a key local magistrate, who enjoyed and organized her social life in Pau. For Liszt, she merely represented a memory from an adolescent past long gone.

In hindsight, Liszt worded his situation very well when he stated to Marie d’Agoult in one of his early letters[2] to her: “I’ve been nothing else but a child, nearly a fool, about Caroline.”

Unlike the girl with a heart of ice in the Franconnette poem who eventually fell for the poor blacksmith, Caroline obeyed her father and did not give up her aristocratic life for the poor Liszt, but went along with the marriage that she was destined for. For Liszt, Caroline’s heart stayed cold as ice.

Her life with Bertrand Dartigaux in Pau was neither boring nor secluded. During the first years of her marriage she was active in organizing social events at the Salon Dartigaux, ranging from concerts to dressing-up parties and playing the popular game of whist. Her fluency in English was particularly advantageous in this town where, during winter, a significant part of the population consisted of English expats. It was only in the 1850’s that her life became darkened by her own illnesses and the many ailments of her adolescent daughter Berthe. On the other hand, the many months of treatment at the thermal springs near Pau for her daughter and herself could also be regarded as fashionable social events, attended by many upper-class French and foreign guests (e.g. Lady Sarah Fitzgerald’s family[3]).

From their letters I conclude that Liszt’s memory of his adolescent relationship with Caroline was more important than to stay in touch with her. He valued the role Caroline had played in his youth but had no desire to meet her again. The Pau encounter was pure coincidence. After their meeting at Pau, their love did not flare up for a second time. Liszt’s mind was occupied by other women such as the Princess Belgiojoso and Lamartine’s pretty niece Valentine, rather than by Caroline.

Without his ill-fated love affair with Countess Caroline de Saint-Cricq, Franz Liszt might not have become the creative and visionary musical genius that we now know and admire. This does not mean that we should elevate the clever and multifaceted Caroline to the angelic position that she presently holds. From her later life we know that she lacked both the worldly and social qualities of Countess Marie d’Agoult and the artistic qualities and intelligence of Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein.

A marriage between Liszt and Caroline would certainly not have lasted long and if it had, we might now have ranked Liszt as a mediocre composer from the 19th century.

Other Liszt Info


[1][↑]     Liszt’s dedications started with his Twelve etudes (first version) to Lydie Garella, a hunchback girl from Marseille that he used to play duets with in 1826 and sometimes referred to as his first love. About Lydie Garella he stated to Lina Ramann in Aug. 1877: “I did not know what a female was” (op. cit. 3, p. 119). Some further examples: Liszt dedicated Reminiscences des Huguenots and Die Lorelei, quite appropriately, to his blonde love Marie d’Agoult; twelve symphonic poems and Cantique d’Amour to Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, the Réminiscences des Puritains de Bellini to his Italian love Cristine di Belgiojoso, his Rondo Fantastique to George Sand, twelve Paganini etudes to Clara Schumann, and his second Elegy dedicated to his biographer Lina Ramann, which last two women were certainly not his lovers. Last but not least he dedicated the little musical gem Sancta Dorothea to his mother (posthumously).

[2][↑]     Franz Liszt – Marie d’Agoult, Correspondance, Serge Gut et Jacqueline Bellas, Paris, Fayard, 2001, L. 75, p. 145.

[3][↑]     Mémorial des Pyrénées, 29e année, n°109, 4 August 1843, p. 3.