In the Spring of 18—the composer Franz Lizt and the conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte had a conversation in a vineyard outside Paris. What follows is an excerpt as the full transcript was lost in Elba when the termites took over.
Napoleon: Let’s not stand on ceremony, my dear M. Lizt. Do take a seat.
Lizt: It’s not out of deference that I am on my feet, Sire. I’ve been at the piano for six hours this morning and my butt hurts.
Napoleon: And my neck is getting cramped. Do spare me the trouble of looking up to you.
Lizt: In that case, I shall sit. Comfort yields to vanity.
Napoleon: As Art does to Power.
Lizt: As virtue to vice.
Napoleon: As prudence to valor. Come, come, let’s not fence but converse. Call me Bonaparte and I shall call you Lizt. Or would prefer Maitre?
Lizt: Lizt, it is then, Bonaparte. Maitre is for hoteliers.
Napoleon: Very well. Have a glass of my favorite Chambertin?
Lizt: Tokay, if you please.
Napoleon: Tokay it is, but French, not Hungarian, if you don’t mind.
Lizt: When in Rome, or shall I say Paris, etcetera. In all sincerity Bonaparte, how does it fell to be master of the world?
Napoleon: Not quite, my dear fellow. There’s England, there’s Russia, I am not yet, strictly speaking, master of the world, as you call it.
Lizt: Ah, a conqueror’s work is never done.
Napoleon: Tell me, is a musician’s work ever done?
Napoleon: But enough of me? Let’s hear about you. How can you spend your life entertaining people?
Lizt: How can you spend your life killing people?
Napoleon: It’s a test of character. In any case, killing is not the point but conquest.
Lizt: Neither is music mere entertainment. Beethoven’s Eroica was dedicated to you—or was it inspired by you? I find it rather odd.
Napoleon: Only if you find glory odd.
Lizt: Glory is but one letter more than gory.
Napoleon: In any case, the Eroica could just as easily be a storm, a herd of stampeding elephants, or a fox hunt.
Lizt: Quite, Bonaparte. Music can be ambiguous, killing is not.
Napoleon: I do not want to think you’re being offensive, Lizt.
Lizt: Oh, No, I assure you.
Napoleon: For your sake, I’ll take your word for it. But to get to the point. Can you play the piano without an audience?
Lizt: I do that most of the time.
Napoleon: For whose pleasure?
Lizt: Mine . . . Now, don’t tell me—
Napoleon: I can just as well do without war. I want to conquer because I want to unite Europe.
Lizt: Europe unites for me! Music is the universal language.
Napoleon: Well said. It’s because great art has no enemies. But great Ideas are something else.
Lizt: Music brings one closer to God.
Napoleon: That’s unworthy of a Magyar. In any case, victory gives one a god-like feeling.
Lizt: The difference is that you’re only human, after all.
Napoleon: A monster, the English say. But, as you know, there are many grades of humans. Come, come, don’t you agree that we both appeal to something in our fellow men?
Lizt: I have never given that a thought. I only knew that they are well-dressed and well-behaved in my concerts. And they pay good money.
Napoleon: Bosh. That’s the least of our concerns. Your audience gather to participate in a victory, just like any army.
Lizt: There are no casualties in my concerts.
Napoleon: And what about the legions of musicians and composers, all worthy men, who have not achieved and will never achieve your eminence? Every time you display your virtuosity, every time you manifest your genius, legions fall into oblivion!
Lizt: I am a creative artist, Bonaparte. You are intellectualizing our differences.
Napoleon: The great have no important differences. Halt! Don’t remark on my egotism. That would be common and unlike you. I also create. I create great moments.
Lizt: With the blood of God’s own.
Napoleon: The making of history requires it, unfortunately. But I put it to you. Good and excellent men have died for art too.
Lizt: Sacrificial deaths.
Napoleon: As you wish. But deaths just the same. I too have had to sacrifice my, ah, common humanity. I could have just been another corporal. Destiny had a different idea.
Lizt: You had a different idea.
Napoleon: What’s the difference?
Lizt: You are proud of your . . . sacrifice?
Napoleon: You are right about yourself. You are not a great intellect. Still, tell me, why do you make music?
Lizt: I just make music. A gift from God, I think.
Napoleon: Let’s leave the Almighty out of the matter, for the time being. You just have to make music. That’s Destiny, whatever else you may call it. I have mine . . . And don’t tell me it’s a compulsion to kill.
Lizt: The force of a great idea, as you call it?
Napoleon: Never mind what I call it. It is what it is. Anyway, let’s not put on airs. We both need our fellow men. Where would we be without them?
Lizt: I must confess I am confused.
Napoleon: Confusion is an occupational hazard for creative geniuses. The trouble is you think you are superior to—ah—butchers like me—because you delight and inspire your audience while I simply cause destruction and grief. Not true. In the first place, what are epics made of? You forget that your concert halls, museums, palaces—your culture—have been purchased by conquest, by armies marching on the streets of strange and exotic lands. My dear Lizt, you cannot separate glory from gory, which, as you put it, has only a single letter that separates them.
Lizt: I didn’t mean it quite that way . . . That’s quite a speech, all the same, Bonaparte. You have history on your side, as you say. Why do you have to justify yourself to me?
Napoleon: As a tribute that reality pays to illusion, my dear Lizt. In any case, it helped pass the time.