We've seen sixties fangirls scream and claw their faces over The Beatles but we always get the impression that before the swinging sixties, everybody behaved much more sensibly. Everybody stayed calm and expressed enthusiasm in a civilized fashion. Not so. The "mania" suffix wasn't original to The Beatles — or even to the twentieth century. It started in the 1800s.
The Sixties were the time of sexual revolution. Experimental music was in, and while both sexes responded to it, there seemed to be an extreme change in women's behavior, in particular. While earlier generations had played hard to get or at least showed sedate appreciation of music, women were going crazy for both the music and the music makers. They screamed, clawed their faces and hair, seemed to fall into a religious ecstasy, and boldly threw themselves at the musicians. Some people said it was a psychological phenomenon. Some people said it was a sociological one. Some said that it was both, and the world was just changing.
And the world was changing. Yet again. The changing music, and the mass insanity that seemed to grow from it, had all happened before, in one of the more famously buttoned-up time periods in the world. In the year 1842, five years into the proper Victorian Era, and that's when Lisztomania swept the land. Liszt was 31 years old the year he landed in Berlin. He'd established a new mode of performance — the solo piano recital — and new kinds of non-narrative music that people compared to musical poetry. He also developed a violent playing style that broke strings and sometimes brought down entire pianos. The Berliners were enchanted. At his concerts, they worked themselves up to screaming, fainting ecstasies. Women followed Liszt down the street and picked up his old cigarette stubs, made bracelets from his broken piano strings — and tried to rush him en masse, and pull out or cut locks of his hair. The craze spread outward from there, getting Britons and Italians as Liszt moved around.
What seemed truly strange to Heinrich Heine, a journalist and critic who coined the term, was that this madness was catching. It didn't just spread with Liszt's performances across Europe, it spread by one person telling another person how much they should revere Liszt. One young woman's ardor inspired another's. When one man fainted at one performance, five fainted at the next. It was a socially spread psychosis. For Heine, it wasn't just a pop culture fad. It was real, widespread insanity that he was trying to understand. Theories were put forward, some arguing it was a spontaneous burst of energy caused by a repressive society, some saying it was about young people feeling free to express themselves in new ways. When people would sneak into Liszt's room so they could collect his coffee grounds, though, everyone thought it was going a bit far.
Whatever it was, it needed Liszt both at full strength and staying elusive enough to be held as an ideal. As Liszt was banged around by life, he lost his taste for raucous concerts and turned his hand to conducting and composing rather than performance. When he stayed in Weimar to compose, Europe still adored him, but the locals weren't as appreciative, and the people abroad didn't have the chance to warm up their ardor at occasional concerts. Lisztomania eventually passed on, and the world readied itself for the next music mania to come along and surprise everybody. Yet again.