Franz Liszt

A new blue plaque was unveiled by Exeter Civic Society on Saturday 1 June 2013, commemorating Franz Liszt and his association with Exeter. 

The plaque is on the front of the Royal Clarence Hotel, Exeter, an ABode Hotel, in the Cathedral Yard, EX1 1HD. The inscription reads:

Franz Liszt, 1811–1886, Hungarian pianist and composer, gave two recitals here on successive days in 1840

The plaque also carries the name and website address of Exeter Civic Society and the Society’s Wyvern emblem.

The plaque records a singular event in Exeter’s cultural history. FRANZ LISZT was one of the most brilliant piano virtuosos and composers of the 19th century and he gave two recitals in the Royal Clarence Hotel on the 28 and 29 August 1840. This was part of a grand tour of the British Isles by the young Hungarian born pianist organised by the musical impresario Lewis Lavenu. In the South West alone Liszt had a punishing schedule: within about a week he gave a series of recitals in Lyme Regis, Exeter, Exmouth, Teignmouth and Plymouth. This tour would have relied entirely on transportation by horse and carriage, as the railway did not get to Exeter until 1844.

The following advertisement, in language typical of the period, appeared in successive issues of Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post in August 1840:

“Royal Clarence Hotel. M. Liszt. Tickets and programmes at Mr Pilbrow, Pianoforte and Harp Warehouse at 144 High St. Family tickets 21 /-, single 6 /-. Friday 28th p.m., Saturday 29th a.m. Mr Lavenu has the honour to inform the nobility and gentry that he has succeeded in engaging M. Liszt who will on this occasion perform his Marche Hongroise and Grand Galop Chromatique and Morceaux Choisis (Selected Pieces) from his celebrated recitals.”

The tickets were expensive. Although a shilling is 5p in today’s currency, at that time a domestic servant was lucky to earn £20 a year.

Among Liszt’s compositions for piano that year is a short piece called Exeter Preludio, presumably written while in Exeter. Although it lasts only 20 seconds, the opening bars are recognizable as the introduction to a popular piece, the Petite valse favorite.

However, Exeter seems to have been unimpressed by the presence of the celebrated pianist, whose flowing locks, slim figure and mesmeric personality were to make him the equivalent of rock star of the period—ladies were known to swoon at his concerts! According to a brief account in the Western Times, “Lavenu’s concert on Friday and Saturday last was indifferently attended notwithstanding the wonderful performance of M. Liszt the pianist. At Plymouth the same ill luck followed the party.”

Lavenu lost around £1000 on the whole tour and although Liszt returned on one later occasion to Britain, he did not venture again into these parts. As to the location of the concert, it would have been in what is now the Clarence Room on the first floor of the hotel, which was originally Exeter’s first Assembly Rooms. JW