Accomplished as he was with the violin, cello, piano and guitar, Adam Liszt was a natural musician, a personal friend of Joseph Haydn and Ludwig von Beethoven. It was natural that Adam’s young son Franz would take to music, like a duck to water. That he did, beginning at the age of seven. Franz Liszt would come to be known as one of the greatest pianists of all time, but there was more. In an age of staid reserve not known for mass hysteria, the man’s mere appearance was capable of exciting paroxysms of adulation among his fans, heretofore rarely seen outside the realm of religious rapture.
Fans wore the man’s likeness in brooches and pendants. At concerts, women would literally fight to get at his gloves or his hat or even a broken piano string from which to fashion a bracelet. Female admirers would carry glass vials, in which to hold the dregs of his coffee. One infatuated lady-in-waiting once saw him toss a cigar butt, to the curb. Heedless of the stink of that malodorous object she picked the thing up and wore it in a locket bearing the diamond encrusted initials, F.L.
The German poet Heinrich Heine coined the phrase “Lisztomania” but this wasn’t the hysterical adulation directed at four lads from Liverpool, of a later age. Heine referred to a literal medical condition communicable to the public and requiring immunization measures, to control.
Frenzied adulation amounting to mass hysteria was unusual in the time of Franz Liszt, but not unheard of. The delirium of an earlier age would so thoroughly sweep through Great Britain that not even the Royal family, was exempt.
It all began in 1802 when William Henry West Betty attended a theater with his father in Belfast, at age 11. The boy was enthralled by what he had seen declaring to his father “I shall certainly die if I may not be a player.”
Anyone who’s raised a pre-teen can well imagine the badgering, that followed. At last relenting the father brought young “Master Betty” to the theater manager who must have seen some natural talent. There followed several weeks of training and that first performance, met with rave reviews.
Shakespearian acting is famously difficult in the world of thespians but Betty was a natural, even memorizing the famously wordy role of Hamlet, in three hours.
Hamlet. Romeo. Macbeth. The Boy Wonder trod the boards from Dublin to Glasgow to Edinburgh becoming a sensation across all Ireland, and Scotland.
Paintings were made in his likeness. One cartoon depicted the young artist bestriding the bodies of older players, of the age. A medal was struck with the lad’s image and the inscription, “Not yet mature but matchless”.
The kid was earning a hundred pounds a night at a time when the average working man was lucky to receive one, in a week.
All across England, the kid was a sensation. He was “the Young Roscius”, a reference to the slave-turned-actor of Roman antiquity who inspired Quintus Lutatius Catulus to proclaim, “I stood by chance to greet the uprising Aurora, when suddenly, on the left, Roscius rose up. Please, o heavenly gods, give me leave to say that a mortal seemed to me more handsome than a god“.
At last, Master Betty was ready for London. Hopeful theater goers stood in line for hours just to get tickets in December, 1804. The Covent Garden theater hired policemen to control the crowd waiting outside to catch a glimpse, of the Boy Wonder. One reporter wrote: “Shrieks and screams of choking, trampled people were terrible. Fights for places grew; constables were beaten back, the boxes were invaded. The heat was so fearful that men, all but lifeless, were lifted and dragged through the boxes into the lobbies which had windows.”
Betty was celebrated by London society, invited to dine with none other than King George III and his wife, the Queen Consort Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The House of Commons was adjourned on March 14, 1805 so MPs could trek across London to see Betty play Hamlet.
In his short but meteoric career, Master Betty inspired a rash of child prodigies. For the Boy Wonder, the flame was destined to burn out. The novelty was gone, he couldn’t draw large enough crowds, to pay for the venue.
In 1806, a failed performance of Richard III caused him to be hissed, off the stage. Critics panned an attempted comeback in 1812 and another in 1819. There was a failed suicide attempt at the age of 30.
On September 6, 1997, Elton John performed “A Candle in the Wind” at the funeral for Princess Diana, a song about the meteoric rise and the tragic death, of Marilyn Monroe. For William Betty the candle blew out in 1824. Like so many child prodigies, this one retired to a life of lonely obscurity where he devoted his time and still-considerable fortune, to charitable causes. He died with barely a notice on August 24, 1874, at the age of 83.