Franz Liszt

The Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886), known primarily as one of the first virtuoso performers on the modern piano, also inaugurated the symphonic poem and was an innovator in style and harmony.

The influence of Franz Liszt as a composer and conductor has received increasing recognition. Superlatives are essential in describing this artist, whose prolific output alone would make him unique among the great 19th-century musicians. As a child, he achieved fame as a prodigy; as an adult, he became the first pianist able to support himself on his earnings as a performer. In a solo recital he could fill a hall to capacity, without the benefit of an orchestra. His pyrotechnics and digital facility are legendary. He was probably the most remarkable sight reader of all times; yet his prodigious memory is mentioned by all who knew him. One regrets that he died just a few years before the advent of recordings.

In his compositions Liszt experimented with formal changes, being among the first to unify a work by means of thematic transformation, reusing material from the first movement in successive movements but treating the material differently. His B-Minor Piano Sonata as well as both piano concertos and all of his symphonic poems are multisectional rather than multimovement works, each played without pauses between sections. Liszt grew to favor this kind of amalgamation—instead of a division into separate movements.

Born on Oct. 22, 1811, at Raiding, the son of Adam Liszt, an official in the service of Prince Nicholas Esterhàzy, Franz Liszt received his first instruction from his father. At the age of 9 he played in public for the first time. Shortly thereafter he moved with his family to Vienna, where he began his studies in piano with Carl Czerny and in composition with Antonio Salieri.


First Period

In 1823 Liszt left for Paris. He gave his first concert there the following year. When Luigi Cherubini refused him admission to the conservatory because he was a foreigner, Liszt began to study composition with Ferdinando Paër, the Italian opera composer, and counterpoint with Anton Reicha, the Czech composer. Paris was Liszt's home for 2 decades. Here he participated in the cultural life of the city, becoming friendly with Frédéric Chopin, Felix Mendelssohn, A. M. L. de Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine, and eventually Richard Wagner. After hearing Niccolò Paganini in 1831, Liszt determined to transfer the violinist's style of virtuosity to the keyboard.

Through Chopin's friend George Sand, Liszt met the Comtesse d'Agoult, who in 1835 left her husband and family to live with him. Three children were born of this liaison: Blandine, Cosima, and Daniel. Between 1835 and 1843 Liszt concertized extensively in Vienna, Leipzig, Prague, and Dresden, and he also continued to compose. Except for several fine songs, however, most of these works were transcriptions and arrangements of compositions by others. In 1843, already separated from the countess, Liszt accepted an appointment at Weimar as Grand Ducal Director of Music Extraordinary.


Middle Period

In 1846 Liszt returned to Hungary, where he became interested in gypsy music and eventually incorporated some of their melodies in his Hungarian Rhapsodies. On a concert tour in Russia, he met the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who eventually left her husband to marry him. Unable to obtain a divorce in Russia, the princess moved with Liszt to the Villa Altenberg, a home they bought in Weimar in 1848. Here Liszt settled down to compose, teach, and conduct. He wrote the two piano concertos, the Todtentanz for piano and orchestra, and the symphonic poems Tasso, Les Préludes, Mazeppa, and Hunnenschlacht at Weimar; and he conducted the first performances of numerous works, including Wagner's Lohengrin (1850). Liszt's daughter Cosima married the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow in 1857; she later left him for Wagner, with whom she had three children before marrying him.

In 1861 Liszt went to Rome to make arrangements for his wedding to the princess, but when she was unsuccessful in obtaining a divorce through the Vatican, they separated. In 1863 Liszt, who had often shown an interest in becoming a member of the Church, joined the Oratory of the Madonna del Rosario. Many of his sacred works, such as the Legend of St. Elizabeth and Christus, derive from this decade.


Final Period

While Liszt's daughter Cosima was living with Wagner, relations between Wagner and Liszt were somewhat strained. After Cosima and Wagner were married in 1870, however, the two composers were reconciled and occasionally performed on the same program. In 1871 Liszt was appointed Royal Hungarian Counselor and began the three-cornered journey to Rome, Weimar, and Budapest that became the pattern for the rest of his life. In 1873 the fiftieth anniversary of his career was celebrated at Budapest as a national occasion. In 1877 he participated in a concert in Vienna for the fiftieth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven's death, just as he had contributed to the activities celebrating the centennials of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1856 and of Beethoven in 1870. Liszt was actively engaged in conducting and performing until his death.

In 1881 Liszt's seventieth birthday was celebrated in Rome with a concert of his own music. On May 22, 1883, Liszt gave a memorial concert for Wagner, who had died in February. Liszt gave his last concert on July 19, 1886, just 12 days before he died in Bayreuth. The extent of his tours and the number of his concerts defy the imagination. Almost 100 years before anyone else, he had maintained a jet-age performance schedule.


Liszt as Pianist, Conductor, and Teacher

Except for his study with Czerny, as a pianist Liszt was self-taught. Perhaps as a consequence, he was able to expand the traditional technique, devising a variety of new pianistic figurations and combining these with a highly advanced concept of tonality. Indeed, his later piano works bear an uncanny resemblance to the piano pieces of Béla Bartók. Liszt's writing for the piano is, like Chopin's, exceedingly idiomatic, and he ranks among the most significant composers of works for the piano. Although his Hungarian Rhapsodies are best known to the lay public, in these pieces posterity is honoring him for his least remarkable achievement.

Liszt gave the first performances of several of the most significant pieces, operatic and symphonic, of his day. In addition, he made piano transcriptions of dozens of songs by Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, the nine symphonies of Beethoven, the operas of Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, and the Symphonie fantastique of Hector Berlioz. Liszt's arrangements enabled other performers to play these works and thus to bring them before a wider public at a time when phonograph records were nonexistent.

Liszt was a great teacher, often offering his services free to those who were unable to pay him. His pupils were legion, and he developed a school of piano playing that included Von Bülow, William Mason, Carl Tausig, Rafael Joseffy, and, later, Arthur Friedheim, Alexander Siloti, Eugen d'Albert, and Moritz Rosenthal. Through his students, in particular Theodor Leschetizsky, Liszt must be acknowledged for his role in developing the pianistic skill of many outstanding pianists of the first four decades of the 20th century as well.

In 1836 Sir Charles Hallé described Liszt as follows (quoted in Harold Schonberg, 1963): "He is tall and very thin, his face very small and pale, his forehead remarkably high and beautiful; he wears his perfectly lank hair so long that it spreads over his shoulders, which looks very odd, for when he gets a bit excited and gesticulates, it falls right over his face and one sees nothing of his nose. He is very negligent in his attire, his coat looks as if it had just been thrown on, he wears no cravat, only a narrow white collar. This curious figure is in perpetual motion: now he stamps with his feet, now waves his arms in the air, now he does this, now that."


Further Reading on Franz Liszt

The definitive work on Liszt is in German. An especially valuable view of Liszt as seen by one of his students is in Amy Fay, Music-study in Germany (1880; repr. 1965). Sacheverell Sitwell's interesting monograph Liszt (1934; rev. ed. 1955) and Humphrey Searle, The Music of Liszt (1954; 2d rev. ed. 1966), are both available in paperback. For a dazzling report on Liszt the virtuoso see Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists (1963).