Emil von Sauer: Liszt’s Forgotten Protégé by Anita Crocus (Luminare Press, 2022)

October 19, 2023

Emil von SauerEmil von Sauer: Liszt’s Forgotten Protégé. Anita Crocus. Eugene, OR: Luminare Press, 2022.

409 pp. 27 black and white images. ISBN: 978-1643889641. $19.95.

Anita Crocus’s biography of one of Liszt’s most successful pupils reveals Emil von Sauer as a musician whose keen influence permeates the lives of nearly every living pianist. From his editions of the works of notable composers to his recordings, compositions, and pedagogical career, Emil von Sauer left an indelible mark on the world of pianists, as Crocus demonstrates. Most importantly, this biography paints a lucid, engaging picture of Sauer’s journey through life.

With the voice of a storyteller, Crocus recounts Sauer’s evolution from student to prominent figurehead beginning with his early studies under Ludwig Deppe, an encounter with the great Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein, and studies with his brother Nicholas Rubinstein in Moscow. Crocus’s account of Sauer’s time in Weimar and of his studies with Liszt may prove surprising to many readers in its assertion that Sauer was not one of Liszt’s most prized students, and that Sauer felt that he did not learn much from the aging pianist (52).

One chapter of particular interest clearly establishes Sauer’s historical context as a man in the twilight of a “Golden Age,” transitioning to another era and building connections with luminaries such as pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, composer Johannes Brahms, and critic Eduard Hanslick. This leads to discussions of Sauer’s tours in the United States and his work with Mahler and Strauss, culminating with the death of his mother in 1910. The latter half of the biography takes care to reveal the extent of Sauer’s work beyond that of a concertizing artist, highlighting his teaching, editing, and composing. Crocus also delves into the sociopolitical impacts of the late 1930s on Sauer’s family and explores other aspects of his personal life.

Crocus’s work is novel and intriguing in that, until now, there was little easily accessible information available about Sauer, despite his having been a pianist of wide acclaim. In fact, few biographies exist, in general, about the great pianists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were not also composers. Consequently, this book not only brings to the forefront a figure who is relatively unknown in the twenty-first century, it highlights a gap in the literature that would benefit from more attention.

A biography of this nature would ostensibly be targeted toward an academic audience. For obvious reasons, it is relevant to any pianist who studies classical music and anyone seeking to learn more about the legacies of Anton and Nicholas Rubinstein and Franz Liszt. Piano teachers may find particularly interesting the chapters on Sauer’s teaching career, and there is a noteworthy chapter on Sauer as a composer, in which Crocus includes a complete list of his compositions. Other scholars may take interest in Sauer’s interactions with prominent musical figures of the time, as well his in his editorial work, particularly on works of Liszt and Brahms.

However, the narrative tone and structure of the book suggest a more casual readership as the target demographic, rather than those seeking a more scholarly approach. In spite of this, Crocus employs a great many primary sources that provide first-hand accounts of Sauer’s activities, including his autobiography, concert programs, and contemporaneous articles, as well as modern scholarly papers and other internet-based sources.

While Crocus provides interested readers with a compelling narrative, this biography is not without a few faults, chief of which is the manner in which bibliographic notes are implemented. While the lack of in-text citations of any kind creates a story-like reading experience, it makes it difficult to discern which elements are verifiable through sources and which statements are anecdotal. A lengthy appendix of “notes” organized by chapter and page number provides citations for quotations and other statements, but the lack of numeration makes it difficult to locate the relevant places quickly and precisely in the text. Additionally, these notes do not always account for anecdotal statements regarding behaviors, cultural practices, and appearances at the time. For example, Crocus alludes to contemporaneous Russian women and their penchant for hysteria (19), postulates about English painter Hercules Brabazon’s clothing at his first encounter with Sauer (27), and makes unsupported claims concerning the character of Sauer’s student, and later wife, Angelica Morales (260). More verifiable discussion surrounding the relationship between Sauer and Morales (fifty years his younger) would be especially beneficial in establishing greater context for the beginnings of their romantic relationship and marriage.

Despite what this biography may lack in terms of scholarly fastidiousness, it certainly strives to make up for with enthusiasm, vision, and a fierce dedication to illuminating the breadth of Emil von Sauer’s life and contributions. I recommend it especially to pianists and music enthusiasts seeking to learn more about Sauer and to those who are intrigued by the legacies of both Anton and Nicholas Rubinstein and Franz Liszt. However, I offer the caveat that this account of Sauer’s life is likely not aimed at a scholarly audience, and readers should take care to delineate between Crocus’s anecdotal statements and those supported by evidence.

271 Last modified on May 20, 2024