There are various accounts of Liszt’s encounter with Beethoven in Vienna in 1823, and it’s hard to get at the truth. Least likely is Ludwig Nohl’s version of the encounter, which describes Beethoven going up to Liszt after the boy performed in the small Redoutensaal on April 13, 1823, and planting a kiss on the child’s forehead, often referred to as the Weihekuss. We know from Beethoven’s conversation books that Beethoven did not attend the concert, according to his nephew Karl. The lithograph above, published in 1873 to mark the 50th anniversary of Liszt’s Viennese debut, has a lot to answer for in terms of perpetuating the myth.
The conversation books do record the actual meeting though; Liszt’s father took him to Beethoven’s apartment a few days before the concert. Present at the encounter was Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary, and in use were the notebooks in which visitors wrote comments or posed questions for the deaf Beethoven to read before he replied verbally. So this notated conversation, although one-sided, seems a more likely source.
Quoting from Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, which also erroneously mentions the Nohl version of the Weihekuss, the exchange commences with an entry purported to be written by Liszt’s father :
I have often expressed the wish to Herr von Schindler to make your high acquaintance and am rejoiced to be able now to do so. As I shall give a concert on Sunday the 13th I must humbly beg you to give me your high presence.
The day before the concert, Schindler writes: Little Liszt has urgently requested me humbly to beg you for a theme on which he wishes to improvise at his concert tomorrow…
He will not break the seal till the time comes …
The little fellow’s free improvisations cannot yet, striclty speaking, be interpreted as such. The lad is a true pianist, but as far as improvisation is concerned, the day is still far off when one can say that he improvises.
Carl Czerny is his teacher.
Just eleven years.
It is unfortunate that the lad is in Czerny’s hands …
Won’t you make up for the rather unfriendly reception of the other day by coming tomorrow to little Liszt’s concert?
It will encourage the boy. Will you promise me to come?
Do come, it will certainly amuse Karl to hear how the little fellow plays.
But even this source presents doubts, as Schindler was found to have made additions to Beethoven’s notebooks; dissatisfaction with Schindler’s biography of Beethoven led Thayer to undertake his own research.
So what really happened?