CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS once reported attending a concert "composed entirely of the orchestral works of Franz Liszt, whom the world calls a great pianist in order to avoid acknowledging him as one of the greatest composers of our time." Saint-Saens was one of the dozens of younger colleagues befriended and encouraged by Liszt --and one of the relatively few major musical figures, even in his time, to insist on Liszt's importance as a composer.

Well into our own time, of course, the image has persisted of Liszt as a barnstorming virtuoso, an unabashed musical stuntman who concocted display pieces for his own use but left little or nothing of "high artistic value" among his hundreds of compositions--and of course a notorious womanizer using his platform glamour for his libidinous ends. Thirty years ago a respected critic, soured by a tasteless new recording of a Beethoven sonata, could write "Let the showmaker stick to his Liszt," and everyone knew exactly what he meant--though, ironically, it was Liszt who did more than any other musician to establish the Beethoven sonatas in the repertory and command respect for them.

There was no musical figure in the 19th century whose life and work were more misunderstood, in his own time as well as ours, than Liszt's--perhaps none from any period. Biographies began to appear when he was only 23; in some cases he was given opportunities to make corrections before publication, but in many more he simply threw up his hands and accepted the inaccuracies and distortions as the price of fame. No one's life has been less in need of fictionalizing to make it interesting: Liszt was simply one of the most fascinating individuals in any field of human activity, and fascinating not in terms of perversity or surface glitter, but rather on the most exemplary levels of artistic dedication and personal nobility. The more his music is understood, the more we come to value it; the same may be said of the wise, generous, prophetic, compassionate man himself, and Alan Walker's three-volume biography promises to be the most thoroughgoing and revelatory corrective from any source so far.

Walker, a respected British musical scholar now on the faculty of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario (the first institution in North America, incidentally, to offer a degree program in music criticism), has published two earlier books on Liszt. He approached his exhaustive biographical study from the outset as a three-part project, dividing it into "The Virtuoso Years, 1811-1847," "The Weimar Years, 1848-1861," and "The Final Years, 1861- 1886." Volume One, just published, quite sensibly ends with Liszt's retirement from the recital circuit, at the end of his 36th year, the same time he began his long relationship with Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein.

The list of sources at the end of Walker's first volume runs 14 pages and includes virtually everything written by Liszt himself and his contemporaries in the form of correspondence, articles, authorized and unauthorized biographies, etc., as well as the latest scholarly research. Eleanor Perenyi's truculent but readable 1974 Liszt biography is not in this list. Walker's earlier books are not listed in Perenyi's more modest bibliography, either, but his name does occur in her index and he is mentioned in her text no fewer than five times, mostly in the way of chiding him for questionable deductions or demonstrable inaccuracies. Almost every statement in his new book, though, is supported by a citation of one or more of the formidable sources in that huge list.

To be sure, there are some nits to pick here, some editorial and stylistic lapses that may prove distracting to fastidious readers. On page 180, for example, Walker refers to the premiere of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique as having occurred in 1832, while the correct date--December 5, 1830--is given two pages earlier. One might also cite some clumsy phrases such as "they sought out him," "always a perpetual delight," "including at Drury Lane," "today in the possession of his ancestors," and "Cyclical Works" to refer to sets or "cycles" such as the Ann,ees de pMelerinage rather than works in which musical material is used "cyclically"; but what is far more important is that Walker's research into Liszt's life has gone beyond that of any of this composer's previous biographers. He has straightened out, disentangled, clarified and corrected virtually every apocryphal tale, and made clear exactly who did or said what to whom, and when and where.

There is little left unreported or unexplained about any of the people who figured at all significantly in Liszt's life. Walker provides comprehensive background sketches of Lammenais, Berlioz, Paganini, Alkan, George Sand, Saint-Simon, Princess Belgiojoso, Sigismund Thalberg, Puzzi Cohen, the women with whom Liszt was linked romantically, his numerous biographers, etc.

Moreover, because Walker, unlike Perenyi and some of the biographers of Liszt's own time, is a musician, he is able to relate events to art most tellingly, and to support his points with musical examples. Most of these occur in the chapters dealing specifically with the peak of Liszt's activity as touring virtuoso, and illustrate not only Liszt's originality as a composer but such matters as the expressive marks he devised to guide performers. While what Walker has written is primarily a biography rather than a musical study, these references are most helpful--if not downright indispensable--in illuminating his remarkable subject, who is identified as the "inventor" of the solo recital as well as the symphonic poem, and as perhaps the very first "music therapist" in his work with inmates of mental institutions. We are reminded of his limitless generosity in providing these and other humanitarian services not only without fee but often accompanied by his own cash contributions; all his pupils at Weimar were accepted without fee, too.

While Liszt did not grow up in a Hungarian atmosphere, and did not speak the language, his national pride was unfeigned. He was without question the most celebrated Hungarian of his time, and he became a national hero, a personification of the Hungarian striving for independence in those tense years preceding the 1848 revolution. Probably no one else in Europe, and surely no other musician, received either so many honors or such grand ones as Liszt received in his twenties and thirties. He liked to distinguish between those conferred by "the public" and those conferred by "a nation," and he observed in a letter, regarding the Legion of Honor or some such honor which a fellow musician was moving heaven and earth to obtain for himself: "It has always seemed to me that distinctions of this sort could only be accepted, but never 'asked for.' "

Countess d'Agoult, the mother of Liszt's three children, tended to deride his touring and his acceptance of national honors, and when he demanded she surrender the children to him she described him as a monster, yet later, when she had become the writer "Daniel Stern," she declared: "It is to him that I owe everything. He aroused in me a great love, he turned me away from trivialities; cruelly but for my own good he thrust me from himself. If he made me suffer, let him have no regrets, feel no remorse. If he had been what he should have been, I would have remained with him. My name would never have emerged from obscurity."

By the time Liszt turned 30 "Lisztomania" was at its peak. Women did swoon and tear at his clothes, and these displays brought censure upon Liszt himself. But that, Walker notes, "is rather like asking if Niagara Falls is to blame for so many suicides. Liszt was a natural phenomenon, and people were swept away by him." His attitude towere oard Marie d'Agoult, and toward the other women in his life, was anything but casual or superficial. His grandfather had for a time been a monk in the Franciscan order, and Liszt himself (who was on that account named Franz) remained close to the Franciscans all his life. His genuine religious feelings eventually led to his taking holy orders--and yet he retained his active membership as a Freemason, which order he had joined in 1841. His audacious remarks to Czar Nicholas I and to Princess Metternich, so often quoted, represented more than cheek: Liszt, attracted to Saint- Simonism in large part by that tenet calling for nothing less than a reorganization of society "in order that one's work, not one's birth, would determine one's place in the social hierarchy," established the artist, for the first time, as the new aristocracy.

Walker's painstaking and illuminating clarifications must make one wonder why anyone would have bothered to invent stories about Liszt when the real story was so much more fascinating than any fictions about him. At the same time, his book makes it clear that such fictions were inevitable: he was indeed "a natural phenomenon," and he passed into folklore before he was out of his teens.

In addition to the aforementioned bibliography there are two genealogical charts, maps, a concordance of city names that have changed since Liszt's time, and his own catalogue of his performing repertory for the incredible decade 1838-1848. This brilliantly researched chronicle should prove absorbing to anyone interested in music, the Romantic movement, or the extraordinary interplay of ideas and personalities in operation during the life of the extraordinary man who was Franz Liszt. Volumes II and III should find an eager audience when they appear.