Saturday, September 24, 2011

Eine gute Zigarre: Franz Liszt and Cigars

"Eine gute Zigarre," wrote the composer Franz Liszt, "aus Übersee verschließt die Tür vor den Niederungen des Lebens." We may translate this saying as follows: "A good cigar from overseas closes the door to the vulgarities of the world." (It is inaccurately translated on the internet as referring to Cuban cigars; however, it appears that Liszt preferred cigars from the New World generally, and in particular, those from Virginia.) Liszt should know about cigars, as he was quite a cigar aficionado, smoking a cigar a day, until an embarrassing confrontation with an Italian customs official which caused him to resolve to give them up, a resolution which he seemingly violated, the siren call of cigars being too much for his resolve.

His biographer James Huneker informs us that in Weimar, "Liszt walked and talked, smoked strong cigars, played, prayed--for he never missed early mass--and composed."* This, one might observe, is not a bad rule of life: walk, talk, smoke strong cigars, play, pray, never miss early Mass, and compose. Alas, most of us have to put work somewhere in there, and work elbows the other goods out.

A Vitola or Zigarrenbauchbinde of Franz Liszt,
famous composer, notorious cigar-smoker


There is an anecdote regarding Liszt which quite affected his daily habit of smoking a cigar. His preference was a cigar made from exclusive Virginia tobaccos, of which he had as many as his stipends and funds would allow him. As a composer and performer, he had an itinerant life, traveling frequently and for long periods of time. Prior to any journey, he would count out one cigar per day, and these cigars would be carefully packed by his servant. One on such trip, Liszt went on a tour in Italy. Arriving at the border town of Chiasso, the customs officer asked the famous composer if he had any goods to declare. A distracted Liszt stated he had nothing to declare. (Blaming Liszt's false statement on distraction, which the historical sources do, of course, assumes he was not intentionally deceiving the officer. It is not outside the realm of probability that a cigar smoker might be tempted to protect his cigars with his life, and perhaps even a "white" lie or mental reservation.) After the search of his luggage turned up the cigars, however, the carefully-numbered cigars were confiscated. In addition, Liszt had to pay a 500 lire fine (then about $100, a tidy sum). Furious, and not a little embarrassed, but without means to do anything about it, Liszt traveled to Milan sans cigars. He wrote:
I, a known artist, nearly a priest,** to be treated like a vulgar smuggler. I don't care about the 500 lires. In some hours I'll get more when I play, but what will one say of me?
When he got to Milan he related the occurrence to his editor and publisher, Giulio Ricordi, who promised to to see what he could do. Ricordi pulled some strings and Liszt received the box of cigars, his 500 lires,and a letter from the customs official asking for a portrait and his autograph.

That should have sufficed. All's well that ends well. But Liszt, mortified by his experience of being held up as a criminal or smuggler, and apparently thinking that he had perhaps become too attached to cigar smoking, swore never to smoke again.

But the resolution was apparently short-lived. Ernest Reyer, the French opera composer and music critic, related that he later visited Liszt in his later years at the Vatican when he lived in the apartment of Msgr. de Hohenlohe. "Liszt smoked," Reyer wrote, "he offered me a cigar."***

One of his more popular compositions is the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.



Liszt's love for cigars has made him a favorite of cigar manufacturers, and one can see his portrait on a number of cigar boxes, including the one below:


Well, all I can say is lizst smoke some zigarren!


A.M.G.
___________________________________
*James Huneker, Franz Liszt (New York: Scribner & Sons, 1911), p.327.
**Liszt received minor orders and became an honorary Abbé (abbot). However, he was never in fact ordained a priest.
***"Facts, Rumors and Remarks," The New Music Review and Church Music Review (Volume 12, Nos. 133-144, Dec. 1912-Nov. 1913), 173.

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