The Life of Carl Tausig (1841-1871)

From Left to Right: Carl Tausig and Franz Liszt
From Left to Right: Carl Tausig and Franz Liszt

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One morning, Franz Liszt, known as the greatest pianist of all time, received at his Weimar home a distinguished Polish musician, who asked if his 13-year-old son could perform to him, who – according to his father – was a child prodigy. Liszt, despite having been a prodigy himself, did not like hearing the term, as he knew that these talented young children were often manipulated by their families for both profit and fame. Moreover, Liszt considered prodigies less able to express at the piano feelings unknown to them at their tender age. Liszt apologized and refused to hear the child play. Regardless the child went to the piano and began playing the Heroic Polonaise (Opus 53) of Chopin. Upon hearing how well the young boy played, Liszt was immediately astonished and enchanted by the little pianist, who played the difficult piece with such technical and emotional control that it could have been his friend Chopin himself, whom Liszt had often heard playing this same work.

The child prodigy was Carl Tausig, born in Warsaw on November 4, 1841, and this first meeting with Franz Liszt occurred on July 21, 1855. On that same day, Liszt commented that it was better for Carl to leave himself free to find his own way, since he considered having nothing to teach the boy. However, with the insistence of the father and son, Liszt did agree to give lessons to the young Tausig, installing him in his house as a family member, while Carl’s father Aloys returned to Warsaw. Aloys Tausig was a composer and pianist well-known in Polish musical circles, and had been responsible for the musical education of his son until that day. He was a student of the composer and pianist Sigismond Thalberg, a virtuoso famous for having been a rival of Liszt in the previous decades; and thanks to studies with Thalberg, Aloys knew very well about educating his son Carl in the art of piano.

Upon his arrival in Weimar, the young Carl had not only an interesting repertoire but also a small number of compositions, and these early works already showed a seriousness and technique not usually associated with someone so young. The works of this period are: an Impromptu (op.1), a Tarantella (Op.2), a Nocturne “L’Esperance” (Op.3), a Serenade (Op.4, considered lost), a little fantasy ‘Reverie’ (Op.5) and an Étude, “Le Ruisseau” (Op.6), all for solo piano. This choice of mentor for the young Carl was significant, since Liszt represented the pinnacle of pianistic virtuosity, and was an avant-garde composer who “threw darts into the future.” Many of his later works were too complex for the standards of the time, and among his contributions was the creation of new musical forms. Inevitably, this contact encouraged the musical ideas of Tausig to take new directions, and his compositional style developed at a remarkable rate. After one year, Tausig had already transcribed some of Liszt’s symphonic works and played them, along with original works for piano, at soirées in the homes of Liszt’s friends. The works included some of the “Transcendental Etudes” and Tausig’s transcriptions of his beloved master’s symphonic poems. He was undoubtedly Liszt’s favorite pupil.

Curiously, during this Weimar period, according Alexander Wilhelm Gottschalg (1827-1908), Tausig committed some petty crimes that could have had serious consequences. Once, under the guise of needing money, he sold all of his scores as well as a manuscript of Liszt’s, who, not knowing what had happened, desperately sought the manuscript of his recently completed Faust Symphony, of which he had no copies. Fortunately, Gottschalg, was aware of the situation and bought back the score before it was too late. Liszt did forgive Tausig and said nothing more, later being accused of being too lenient with Tausig, having also paid a number of debts incurred by the boy.

In May 1858, Tausig moved to Zurich, where, on Liszt’s recommendation, he was assisted by the composer Richard Wagner. That the young Carl was of Jewish origin did not seem to affect his relationship with Wagner, who, in a letter to Liszt, commented: “… as a musician he is enormously talented, and his furious piano playing makes me tremble… of course the youth pleases me immensely in other ways, and although he acts like a naughty boy, he talks like an old man with a pronounced character.” Tausig’s contact with the music of Wagner was important, as was the influence of two great friends from his early days at Liszt’s house, Hans von Bülow and Peter Cornelius, who had introduced the young virtuoso to Wagner’s music. But Tausig was more interested in making Wagner listen to Liszt’s music, since Liszt’s music was his favorite.

The so-called New German School was developing at that time and Tausig joined the movement; his next compositions were clearly influenced by his contact with Liszt, Wagner and other composers in this group. In this new phase of Tausig’s musical life, some of his most interesting compositions appeared: “The Ghost Ship, Symphonic Ballad based on a põem by Strachwitz” – which Tausig again numbered “Opus 1,” having dismissed his old compositions and resolved to purchase and destroy all the copies of his early works; “Reminiscences of Halka” (also known as “Concert Fantasy on Themes from the opera Halka by Moniusko”) Op.2; and “Hernani Gallop” Op.3, considered lost since the beginning of the last century. In these works, Tausig composed at a level of virtuosity that only Liszt had reached in his most demanding paraphrases of the operas “Don Giovanni” and “Norma.” Critics have called this moment of Tausig’s life “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress) for his mystical, wild and spontaneous playing and writing, clearly inspired by the German literary movement spearheaded by Goethe and Schiller. Examples include the “Fantasia on Themes from the Opera Halka,” one of the grandest extravaganzas ever created by a piano virtuoso. It is also interesting to note the extent of Tausig’s influence on the people who knew him, and, based on the way in which piano technique was used in his famous “Mephisto Waltz,” Liszt himself was clearly influenced by Tausig’s “Ghost Ship.” Liszt dedicated “Mephisto” to Tausig almost two years after the completion of “Ghost Ship,” in recognition of his importance to him.

After a brief period, Tausig gave several concerts in German cities and made Dresden his home base. Until that time, some critics remained less enthusiastic about the young man, as they considered him too violent and virtuosic, but that he would become a pianist of perfection as soon as he passed through those “stormy and impetuous” days. Such criticism pushed Tausig to move to Vienna in 1862, and like his friend Hans von Bülow, he dedicated himself to conducting his own new orchestral works and the works of the New German School. His compositions from this period includes an orchestral version of “Ghost Ship,” some symphonic poems, including one entitled “Manfred”, one with chorus on text by Schiller, and a Fantasy in polonaise style for piano and orchestra. Finding it impossible to edit these works, and losing considerable funds from unprofitable orchestral concerts, Tausig health got so bad, he decided to suspend his career for some years. From this period dates the first publication of his five “Valses Caprices on Themes of Johann Strauss Jr.,” dedicated to Liszt, who especially favored the melody of the first Valse; Liszt even improvised on the piece when playing piano duet with his daughter Cosima at one of his many soirées.

In that same year, 1862, a friendship between Tausig and the German composer Johannes Brahms was forged. If on the one hand Wagner represented the future of music and the abandonment of the past, on the other, Brahms was the personification of conservatism, believing that it was necessary to study the past thoroughly in order to create music of quality. In fact, these two geniuses were two sides of the same coin – and Brahms was clearly the more open one of the two, since he would often speak with Tausig about Wagner’s music. Tausig was the only one known to have befriended these two pillars of German Romantic music at the same time, and was responsible for the only meeting between them; consequently however, and not surprisingly, he was also the cause of their alienation, which became known as the “Tannhäuser scandal”: Tausig had succeeded in acquiring from Wagner one of his Tannhäuser manuscripts originating in Paris; some years later when he met Brahms, knowing that he too collected manuscripts, including some original Mozart Symphonies, Tausig decided to give Wagner’s manuscript as a gift to his new friend. When Wagner discovered this, he was quite offended and asked Peter Cornelius to contact Brahms and ask him to return the score, saying that Tausig had made a mistake in assuming that the document belonged to him. Despite several attempts, Brahms never answered Cornelius, and almost 10 years after this event, Wagner wrote a personal letter to Brahms asking for the manuscript back; it was then that Brahms responded by sending him the score, and, as thanks, Wagner sent him another of his manuscripts, which Brahms reciprocated with another rare manuscript from his collection. This would be their final contact.

Tausig’s contact with Brahms was mutually very productive: Brahms gave him sketches of his “Variations on a Theme of Paganini Op.35,” which Tausig undertook to give a more virtuosic “flavor”. And among these studies, analyses and conversations, there are two works by both composers using double notes in the right hand (sixths & thirds): with the same basic notes of the Chopin Étude, Op.25 No.2, they created two difficult and very interesting ways to see a Chopin work in a new light – as Leopold Godowsky would achieve with the Chopin’s Études 40 years later. Tausig also directed his energies toward transcribing works by Johann Sebastian Bach, including the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor and a set of Chorale Preludes, which he dedicated to Brahms. In 1864, Tausig married a Hungarian pianist, Seraphine von Vrabely, a student of a wellknown pianist and composer of that period, Alexander Dreyschock. Tausig dedicated his “Fantasia on Hungarian-Gypsy Themes” to his wife, but they divorced shortly afterwards and very little is known about this marriage. In this Fantasia, Tausig used themes that appear also in Liszt’s works (S.241 Ungarisch Romanzero, for example); such themes were relatively familiar to connoisseurs of gypsy folk music (often confused with Hungarian folk music of the time, as reflected in the title of the work). The way in which he treats the entire composition, a Lisztian rhapsody structure, makes it clear that he had abandoned his period of “Strum und Drang.”

The following year, he moved to Berlin and resumed his career as a pianist, and this time the critics received him as a genius – his interpretations of Chopin were especially acclaimed as among the best ever heard. Tausig was considered comparable to Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, the two most important names in piano virtuosity.

In 1866, together with the musicians Adolph Jensen, Louis Ehlert and C.F.Weitzmann, Tausig opened the Virtuosenakademie (Schule des höheren Klavierspiels), a school for virtuoso pianists. As a teacher, Tausig was strict and not very patient, an account of which is presented in the book “Music Study in Germany,” by the American pianist Amy Fay. Some of Tausig’s students are worth noting: Rafael Joseffy, Alexander Michalowski, Adolph Andrey Schulz-Evler, Sophie Menter, Vera Timanoff, Amy Fay and Gustav V. Lewinsky. Gradually Tausig’s busy schedule of recitals and concerts were taking more and more of his energy and he spent little time at the Virtuosenakademie; in October 1870, the school closed its doors permanently. In the winter of that year, Tausig was invited by Liszt to participate as soloist in a concert of the festival “Tokünstler-Versammlung”; though Tausig declined the offer, Liszt’s repeated insistence won him over, and that was the final meeting between these two musical geniuses.

Despite his fame, Tausig was now in the depths of depression, making some trips without any purpose, traveling across Europe and taking the first train back. This was his last compositional period, during which he wrote two Concert Études – once again called “Opus 1,” as he disregarded everything he had done until then. In these Études, Tausig used a new language, ripe in its style, without the excesses of exaggerated virtuosity, though the works are still difficult to play, intended for musicians of exceptional ability. His concert schedule was maintained until June 1871 – but in early July, Tausig contracted typhoid fever and died on the 17th in Leipzig. At the end, he was cared for by his longtime friend, Marie von Mouchanoff-Kalergis, who as a youth had been pupil of Frederic Chopin. Kullak, who had seen him just days before the onset of fever, observed that there were no signs of ill-health up to that time. The impact of Tausig’s death was even greater on Liszt, who was unable to attend the funeral of his beloved friend. Marie Mouchanoff, as ill as she was at the time, journeyed to Weimar to tell the full story to Liszt; in the company of Emile Genast, they spent an entire night remembering Tausig. At one point, Liszt quietly went to the piano and played “The Life Beyond” – the only song played that night.

Carl Tausig left a significant number of transcriptions and compositions for solo piano, which contribute in a unique way to the evolution of piano technique and the history of music, as well as a set of technical studies, which greatly assist students aspiring to a professional level of pianism.


See our published arrangements and compositions for Solo Piano