As much a superstar in his time as Michael Jackson was in ours, he revolutionized the art of piano playing. As a composer he remains most famous for his tuneful and brilliant Hungarian Rhapsodies.
Born: October 22, 1811 in Raiding (Doborján), Hungary (now in Austria).
Died: July 31, 1886 in Bayreuth, Germany.
Performed as: Pianist, conductor.
During the composer’s lifetime: The rapid expansion of railroads and steamboat/ship travel, along with general political stability in Europe enables widespread travel for those who, like Liszt, could afford it.
- Child Prodigy: Liszt’s father, Adam, a fine, amateur musician and clerk on the estates of the Esterházy family (Haydn’s patrons) discovers his son’s talent at age six. Within three years, Liszt is giving public concerts. His talent so impresses the famous pedagogue Carl Czerny in Vienna, that he gives Liszt lessons each evening free of charge.
- Early tours, 1823-27: Adam decides to take his son on a concert tour to Paris. From there Liszt goes to London in 1824. Further English tours in 1825 and 1827 also showcase Liszt as a composer. In 1825 in Paris, his comic opera, Don Sanche is performed four times.
- In mourning, 1827-30: On holiday with his son, Adam dies of typhoid fever. Liszt is traumatized and, as the only child, must support his mother by giving lessons to the aristocracy in Paris. Suffering a breakdown, Liszt withdraws from the stage, experiences a bout of religious mania, and is obsessed with thoughts of death.
- Wake-up call, 1830-35: The “July Revolution” in Paris brings Liszt back to life. He dips into various radical philosophies, most notably that of the Abbé Lammenais, a Catholic priest turned democratic activist. At Paris’ salons he meets the leaders of French Romanticism, as well as composers Frédéric Chopin and, especially, Hector Berlioz, who becomes a good friend. Hearing mega-virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini in concert provides a model for Liszt’s renovation of his piano technique, as shown in his fiendishly difficult Etudes after Paganini (1838-1840).
- Pilgrimage Years 1835-39: Liszt falls in love with the countess Marie d’Agoult, married, with two daughters, and six years his senior. They elope to Switzerland and have three children, including Cosima, future wife of the composer Richard Wagner. The couple travel through Switzerland and Italy, providing the inspiration for many of Liszt’s piano masterpieces, later revised and collected in the three books titled Years of Pilgrimage. The relationship with D’Agoult fractures in 1839, and the pair separate for good in 1844.
- Superstar, 1837-47: In 1837, Liszt returns to Paris for a piano “duel” with virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg, which ends in an honorable draw. Hearing reports of massive flooding in Hungary, Liszt gives 10 enormously successful relief concerts, which mark his return to the concert platform. He also concertizes to raise money for a Beethoven statue, which still stands in Bonn, Germany. For 10 years, Liszt crisscrosses Europe from England to Russia, giving over 1000 concerts, receiving unprecedented accolades and rewards, and the adulation of audiences. He also has a well-publicized affair with the dancer Lola Montez.
- To Weimar, with love 1848-61: Liszt accepts an offer from the Grand Duke of Weimar to become Kapellmeister-in-Extraordinary in order to create, in the composer’s words, an “Athens of the North.” With him is his new love, the married (but separated) Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. Liszt reorganizes the city’s musical institutions and places them in service of challenging, “new music” composers, especially Berlioz and Wagner. He concentrates on composing, teaching, and conducting, and produces 12 of his 13 symphonic poems.
- Roman Retreat, 1861-68: In 1860, Carolyne heads to Rome, to conclude a 13-year legal battle to have her marriage annulled. Disenchanted with Weimar, Liszt follows a year later. A Vatican council grants Carolyn’s petition, but moments before her wedding to Liszt is to be celebrated, the decree is revoked, a result of appeals by her in-laws. Following the deaths of two of his children, Liszt makes a two-year retreat to a monastery outside of Rome. There he completes one oratorio, The Legend of St. Elisabeth, and composes most of another, Christus. He is visited by the Pope, who becomes a friend. Fulfilling a lifelong interest, he takes the minor orders of the Catholic Church. After his return to Rome, Liszt rejoins Carolyne and takes up teaching again.
- Last Years: From 1869 Liszt lives what he calls his “three-fold life” shuttling from Rome to Weimar, where the Grand Duke convinces him to transfer his teaching, to Budapest, where he helps found the Royal Hungarian Musical Academy (now the Liszt Academy) in 1875 and serves as its first president. He also takes occasional trips to music festivals and to Bayreuth, where he is reconciled with his daughter and Wagner. He travels an estimated 4000 miles a year, greatly straining his finances. Cajoled by Cosima to attend the financially endangered Bayreuth Festival, he succumbs to pneumonia a week after the festival.
- Hungarian heart, but not tongue: Although he became an ardent Hungarian nationalist, Liszt grew up speaking German and was unable to speak much Hungarian. Liszt adopted French as his eventual language of preference.
- Lisztomania was the term coined by the poet Heinrich Heine to describe the tremendous reception Liszt received in Berlin in 1841-42. Women were particularly susceptible to his performance mannerisms, and would fight for discarded souvenirs such as gloves or handkerchiefs touched by the Master.
- Medalmania: Liszt was showered with gifts and medals from the nobility, and offended some critics by wearing several of them on occasion while performing. One reward he undoubtedly kept well out of reach: a pair of performing bears from Tsar Nicholas I.
- Edison of the Keyboard: Lizst invented the term “recital” for his one-man, piano-only concerts. He took the piano out of the salon and into the concert hall, sometimes playing before 3000 people. He was the first pianist to memorize his entire program, the first to play an extensive repertory of compositions from the whole history of keyboard music from Bach to his own contemporaries, and the first to set the piano in profile on the stage so that the sound reflected into the auditorium.
- Factory-direct: On Liszt’s first trip to Paris in 1823, the coach deposited him outside the piano factory of Sebastien Erard. The boy wowed the instrument-maker and Erard became a friend of the family. Erard’s pianos, with their “double escapement” action, allowed for fast repeated notes, which Liszt soon took advantage of. Later in life, Liszt was presented with an award-winning piano direct from the Paris Exhibition, so he was always on top of developments in instrument-building.
- Teacher, teacher!: Liszt was a famous teacher, though he never taught technique, only interpretation. (His technical innovations and refinements became known through his published music.) He invented the masterclass, refused to take money for lessons, and taught virtually anyone who showed up at his door. Naturally, this practice allowed for a few hangers-on. His instruction has been recorded in the diaries of several of his pupils. Among his students were some of the greatest pianists of the next two generations: Hans von Bülow, Karl Klindworth, Carl Tausig, Hans von Bronsart, Alexander Siloti, Moriz Rosenthal, Eugen d’Albert, and Sophie Menter (one of Liszt’s favorites, who successfully played his First Piano Concerto in Vienna in 1869, 12 years after it had failed with the composer as soloist.)
- Conductor: In his ten years of regular conducting at Weimar, Liszt, along with Berlioz and Wagner, invented the modern art of interpretive conducting, originating many of the body gestures that are used by today’s conductors and championing the use of modified tempo, called tempo rubato, that he also used in his playing. His ideas were taken up by Hans von Bülow (who got his start in conducting from Liszt), Hans Richter, and Felix Weingartner among others.
- Alan Walker, Franz Liszt, 3 vols. (Cornell,1988-97 in paperback). This extended, scholarly treatment of Liszt’s life is also entertaining reading. Walker has also edited a volume of reminiscences about Liszt and a diary chronicling the musician’s last days at Bayreuth. This biography is the definitive work on Liszt.
- Derek Watson, Liszt. The Master Musicians. (Oxford, 2001). Not nearly as good as Walker, but in one volume and only 400 pages, for those in a hurry.
Explore the Music
Liszt is most famous for his solo piano pieces, one of the most marvelous and challenging bodies of work for the instrument. Although uneven and infrequently played, several of the symphonic poems are worthwhile, and the two oratorios are full of beautiful, original music.
- Greatest hits: At least three of Liszt’s piano pieces are so famous that even people who don’t care for classical music recognize the tunes: the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, the Liebestraum (Love’s Dream) No. 2, and La Campanella (Little Bell)- which is actually a piano transcription of a violin piece by Paganini.
- Transcriptions: Liszt was a master at adapting large, orchestral works for piano. In the age before recording, this was an important way of getting music to the public. Liszt’s transcription of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, for example, was published in 1834, 11 years before the full, orchestral score. Sometimes Liszt would create an original piano work using themes from an opera. An example of this “paraphrase” form is the Reminiscences of Don Juan, based on Mozart’s opera.