Saint or sinner, Liszt is still Budapest's favourite composer

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Everywhere you look in Hungary's capital this summer, you'll catch sight of Liszt. Adrian Mourby finds out why this city has so taken him to its heart

In Budapest this summer, you just can't move for Franz Liszt. Coming out of the Parisian-style Muvesz Coffee House on Andrassy, I see the old boy seated in a niche to the right of the opera house.

Though Liszt never wrote an opera, there's a statue of him reclining on one side of the main entrance, balanced by another statue to Franz Erkel (who actually did write Hungarian operas) on the opposite side.

As I turn into Franz Liszt Square, one of the liveliest in Budapest these hot summer evenings, I pass the Liszt Ferenc Music Shop with Liszt's face stencilled on the glass and the words "Liszt Ev 2011" in running text all the way round the window. The square is dominated by a modern statue of Liszt, life-size, bronze hair flying , hands outstretched down an imaginary keyboard. Meanwhile, at the far end of the square stands the monumental Historicist façade of the Franz Liszt Music Academy, with a seated statue of the great man above the doorway, looking like the wisest old grandpa ever.

Across the city there are Liszt music events in churches and concert halls to celebrate the bicentenary of his birth – it's an apt congruence given that Abbé Liszt divided his life pretty much equally between the self-abnegating devotions of Catholicism and the ego trip of the concert grand. Finally, on 22 October, at the end of Budapest's long summer of Liszt-loving, the celebration concludes with World Liszt Day and a performance of his massive and rarely performed oratorio Cristus in St Stephen's Basilica. This will be matched by simultaneous performances in Beijing, Paris, Bayreuth and Seoul.

Not a bad showing for a man who was not born in Budapest (his birthplace, Raiding, is now in Austria) and who spent very little time in the city that adopted him. Indeed, Franz Ritter von Liszt didn't even speak Hungarian.(He was brought up in German and French.) No matter, Chopin wasn't born in Warsaw and left Poland at the age of 20 never to return, but that didn't stop the Polish capital from throwing him a big party in 2010 for the bicentenary of his birth. Besides, Liszt fits our image of what a Hungarian artist should be: handsomely flamboyant , extravagant, irresistible to the ladies yet deeply haunted by Catholicism. You can bet the country won't make the same fuss for Bela Bartok's 150th in 2031. Bartok was a fine composer, but what nation wants to be represented by someone resembling a balding bank manager with psycho eyes?

Liszt spent more time in Paris, Weimar and Rome than Hungary, but fortunately there are certain privileges in being a national capital and Budapest chose to exercise them, even during his lifetime. In 1875, to try to keep its greatest export from over-exporting himself, the city created a music academy with Erkel as its first director and Guess Who as life president. As the second city of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Budapest needed a music academy, but this was also an incentive to root the great showman in Hungary. Liszt, then aged 64, declared that he already made more than enough money from performing, so in lieu of salary he accepted an apartment in the academy building, which was to become his base during winter and spring until his death 11 years later. For Budapest, this was a PR dream.

The apartment is still there, although what we see now is a re-creation carried out in the last days of communism. By the time of his death Liszt had achieved a near Gandhi-like status, playing for those who wanted to hear him, visiting those who wanted to see him, and giving away all his property to friends and relations. Soon afterwards, the academy moved to its new premises on Franz Liszt Square and Liszt's apartment, with its direct access to the old concert hall platform, was taken over by the academy's administration. In 1986, when it was decided to re-create the historic apartment where Via Crucis and the Second Mephisto Waltz were composed, there was virtually nothing to put in it. The front-door plaque with which Abbé Liszt indicated that he was always home to visitors between three and four o'clock on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays was refixed to the apartment's entrance, but much of the rest had to be recovered from the beneficiaries of Liszt's exasperating generosity.

When I visit, I pay my 900 forints (£2.90) to two very serious ladies who see the Franz Liszt Memorial Museum and Research Centre as an extension of academic studies rather than a part of the tourist industry. The apartment is clearly not as Liszt left it. There are pianos everywhere, including two of his Chickering concert grands – Liszt called Chickering "the Coliseum of Pianos" – as well as a Bösendorfer piano, Liszt's favourite instrument in his old age. There is also a dummy keyboard, which he carried everywhere on his travels so he could practise in hotel rooms without disturbing anyone.

I'm also shown a composing desk made for Liszt by Ludwig Bösendorfe in 1877 out of walnut. Its middle drawer features a small pull-out piano with a three-octave keyboard so that Liszt did not have to go to the piano while writing his music. Grand pianos are not small so very little space is left in the apartment even for the reproduction of Liszt's modest single bed.

The three rooms were originally a study-bedroom, dining room and drawing room. They have been re-created from written accounts and even watercolours that visitors made. Yet what is inauthentic about the apartment – apart from the profusion of musical instruments – is the way it is dominated, like Budapest itself, with images of Liszt the man. Although he exploited his phenomenal good looks, both as a youth and in early middle age, there is no way even he would have had so many portraits on show. Still, one does not grow tired of that dramatic profile: imagine a young Meryl Streep playing principal boy.

Beyond the apartment, I find Budapest is full churches where Liszt prayed or concert halls where he played. On the Pest side of the Danube stands the Vigado, a splendid concert hall in the Hungarian Romantic style where, in March 1875, Liszt and his son-in-law Richard Wagner conducted their own works. Vigado means Place of Merriment. When it opened in 1864 concert-goers could arrive by boat. (A major road now separates the Vigado's steps from the river.) In those days, many balls, receptions and galas were held on the first floor, but the main function of the Vigado was music. Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Debussy and Liszt all premiered works here. Badly damaged in the Second World War, like so much of Budapest, the hall reopened in 1980 and is a superb tribute to the ability of Hungarian craftsmen. When I peer into the foyer, it's clear that fresh paint is being applied. Pillars in red, green, yellow and gold will make the Vigado a gaudy delight when it reopens.

Nearby, on Vaciutca, I find a plaque in the entrance to the Pest Theatre commemorating where Liszt played his first Budapest concert in May 1823, at the age of 12. This was then a sizeable inn. Now it's a comedy theatre. Traditional Thai massages are available next door. I wonder what the old man would have thought of that.

My Liszt tour also takes in some churches. Pest's Franciscan Chapel was where Liszt prayed every day. As he got older the composer became more concerned with religion, eventually taking minor orders in the Catholic church, and earning the title Abbé. The chapel is medieval in origin but was redecorated in the Baroque period. Its inside is delicate and theatrical, a mix of light blue and gilt. A brass plaque on the front right-hand pew reads "Here Ferenc Liszt lifted his soul up to the Almighty in his daily prayer".

In his devotions Liszt also frequented Budapest's 13th-century Inner City Parish Church, the oldest in Pest. It's a sturdy twin-towered building right up against the modern Elisabeth Bridge, but the exterior has lost all trace of its medieval origins under yet another Baroque makeover. In June this year, Liszt's Coronation Mass, written in a hurry for the coronation of the Emperor Franz Joseph, was performed here for the first time.

There are plenty of Liszt exhibitions across the city, too. At the Museum of Music History Liszt and the Arts runs until August 2012. But I find my biggest surprise at the Budapest Nyugati train station, where you may catch sight of the Liszt Engine, a modern locomotive decorated with the composer's face and signature. It plays his Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 as it trundles along.

Franz Liszt himself would have made light of all this fuss. From a wild youth and an irresponsible middle age (he didn't visit his children for nine years), he settled into an ascetic, almost saintly, old age. "Life is only a long and bitter suicide," he once remarked. "Faith alone can transform this suicide into a sacrifice."

Yet, when this summer of Lisztomania is over there will still be plenty for music lovers to go back for. Gustav Mahler lived in Terez korut for three years while conductor of the National Opera. Zoltan Kodaly's grave is in Farkasreti Cemetery, as is the grave of Bartok (who died in New York but was reburied here in 1988). Of course, Liszt himself is buried in Bayreuth, where he died while attending his son-in-law's operas. Budapest has tried, on more than one occasion, to have him reburied on Hungarian soil but always failed. Well, you can't have everything.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Rail Europe (0844 848 5 848; rail europe.co.uk) has standard class returns to Budapest from £374. Adrian Mourby stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, Budapest (00 36 1 268 6000; fourseasons.com/budapest ), which has rooms from £296 per night with breakfast.

Further information

Find out more about Liszt events in Budapest this summer at hungarofest.hu.

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