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Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt

(1811 - 1886)

Franz Liszt (October 22, 1811 - July 31, 1886) was a major figure in 19th-century music, an innovator in the way he combined a fierce and unquenchable creative fire with a fully developed connoisseur's appreciation of both the music of contemporary composers and of giant figures from the past.

The only child of Adam and Anna Liszt, Franz was born in Raiding, Hungary. The small town came under the administrative aegis of the Esterházy family who employed Adam as a steward. Franz showed musical promise early, beginning lessons with his father before he was six; by the age of seven he was writing music. Three years later the boy was ready to make his concert debut in the nearby town of Sopron. This was followed by two more concerts performed before the cream of Austrian society. As a direct result, young Franz was given an annual stipend for six years to enable him to concentrate solely on a musical career. His father secured Karl Czerny, an ex-pupil of Ludwig van Beethoven, as Franz's piano teacher, while Antonio Salieri taught him theory. As both Czerny and Salieri lived in Vienna, the family moved there in 1821.

During his time in Vienna Liszt had the good fortune to meet Beethoven, who although profoundly deaf, attended one of his concerts and bestowed his blessing on the boy. Franz's reputation spread quickly, and before the end of 1821 he had been chosen as one of 50 composers (others included Beethoven, Czerny and Salieri) to write a set of variations to a waltz written by the composer/publisher Diabelli. By the autumn of 1823 Franz's father decided it was time to widen his son's audience and moved the family to Paris. Liszt took the Parisians by storm. He also completed his musical education by taking private lessons from Anton Reicha and Ferdinando Paer.

A visit to London in 1824 was a triumph, crowned by a private concert before George IV. By late 1825 Franz had even composed a one-act opera, Don Sanche, which was premiered in Paris to a mixed reaction. The next two years brought constant travel through much of Europe, financial rewards and the premieres of a stream of juvenile works, few of which have survived in their original form. By the summer of 1827 Franz, still only 16, was exhausted and took to his bed in Paris. Doctors recommended a cure at the baths in Boulogne, to which both father and son repaired. Shortly after their arrival, Franz's father, aged 51, died from typhoid.

The death of his father forced Liszt to re-evaluate his career choices. Already deeply disaffected with the life of a touring virtuoso, he found the prospect of prolonging it repugnant. For him, music was a noble calling; being "a musician in the employ of the rich, who patronized me and paid me like an itinerant entertainer" he felt to be degrading. Arranging for his mother to join him in Paris, he earned a living by teaching piano to the children of the rich and influential, falling deeply in love with the 16-year-old daughter of a cabinet minister. Though his feelings were reciprocated, her father objected and the girt was quickly married off to a socially acceptable suitor. Liszt never forgot her, even making provision for her in his will. For several years he withdrew from the world, and even considered entering a seminary. He had lost the way forward. It took the 1830 revolution in France to present him with a solution.

For a young man with a passionate commitment to social equality and democracy, the overthrow of an autocratic monarch was profoundly inspiring: he immediately planned a Revolutionary symphony to express his sentiments, and although he never progressed very far with the idea, it had the effect of bringing him out into the world again. A series of musical events in 1830-31 cemented his renewed ties with humanity and confirmed the form his artistic voice would take. Attending the first performance of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Liszt was overwhelmed by the vivid expression of such turbulent ideas and emotions. He applauded wildly according to Berlioz, dragging him off "for dinner at his house and overwhelming me with his enthusiasm". The two became friends, Liszt learning a great deal from Berlioz about scoring for an orchestra. Three months later he was in the audience at Niccolò Paganini's Paris début. Once again he was overwhelmed, this time by the sheer demonic pitch of Paganini's virtuosity, and his charismatic presence. Soon after the concert, he began work on the first Étude d'exécution transcendante d'après Paganini, works long regarded as a set of impossibly difficult piano pieces.

At the end of 1831 Frédéric Chopin (then aged 21) arrived in Paris and held his first concert. Liszt was again present and, true to his open nature, immediately declared his belief in Chopin's genius, a belief that was never shaken. All these composers helped define the approach Liszt took towards his own compositional wizardry and helped him to mould his talents until his audiences became as possessed by his music as himself. But it required one more event to put all these encounters into perspective: in 1833 Liszt, still only 22, fell in love with Countess Marie d'Agoult, a married woman of 28. The impact was mutual. Marie recorded her feelings for him: "With passion he uttered thoughts and opinions totally strange to ears like mine, accustomed as they were to hearing only banal, conventional views". Although deeply moved, Marie delayed for over a year. They finally eloped to Switzerland, where for the next four years they lived together, Marie producing two daughters (Blandine and Cosima) and one son (Daniel), and Franz composing and enlarging his intellectual horizons. He also gave the occasional concert. By 1838 Liszt was traveling more widely; his ardor for Marie had cooled. By the end of 1839 they were living apart, Marie in Paris while Liszt continued to develop his concert career. Liszt's mother took over the education of the children-against Marie's wishes.

For the next ten years Liszt continued to build his already towering reputation and by the late 1840s he was unchallenged as the greatest virtuoso of his day. It was his pre-eminence that ushered in the solo "recital" whereby a single artist would mostly perform for an entire program. In Liszt's case, the recital's music usually consisted of his own compositions. These recitals were given throughout Europe, including Britain, Turkey and Russia. The money that these tours generated forced Liszt to take on a personal manager, thus freeing him to conduct his personal life as he saw fit. This inevitably meant affairs – many of them notorious – with leading female personalities of the day. In his travels he also met many musicians and composers, from the Clara and Robert Schumann in Leipzig to Mikhail Glinka in Moscow and Richard Wagner (then penniless and virtually unknown) in Weimar. The connection with Weimar was to grow in significance; in 1842 he was given a largely honorary conducting position by Grand Duke Carl Alexander (holding his first concert in Weimar in 1844), and over the next few years he became increasingly involved in the planning of the city's cultural development. This would inevitably involve Liszt in Wagner's rise to fame.

The event that finally precipated the move to Weimar was his meeting while on tour in Kiev with Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, an immensely rich Polish aristocrat already separated from her German husband, a member of the Tsar's military elite. Their decision to marry entailed Carolyne, a devout Catholic, obtaining a divorce that required special permission from the Tsar. The Princess's belief in the spiritual nature of Liszt's artistic calling helped him decide to abandon his largely frustrating (although very lucrative) concert career. By the spring of 1848 they were settling into life in Weimar. This was harder for the Princess than for Liszt; living openly with him, she was snubbed by Weimar society and her estate in the Ukraine sequestered by the Russian state as part of the eventual secular divorce settlement in 1852.

Despite these obstacles, their rented house in Weimar became a major centre for artists, musicians and writers. During this settled period Liszt began composing his first orchestral works, initiating the series of tone poems that would remain one of his most distinctive compositional legacies – Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo and Les Préludes for example – and planning his Weimar musical seasons. Looming large in his plans was a production of Wagner's Lohengrin. (Wagner attended the rehearsals while on the run from the authorities in Dresden for his part in the 1848-49 uprisings all over Europe.) Liszt personally arranged for Wagner's flight to Switzerland. Wagner was not the only beneficiary of Liszt's generosity in Weimar: in the years before his 1859 resignation, Liszt mounted no fewer than 11 new productions of contemporary operas, including three from Wagner, Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, Giacomo Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, Giuseppe Verdi's Ernani, Schumann's Genoveva and Franz Schubert's neglected Alfonso und Estrella.

Virtually everyone made the pilgrimage to Weimar, some remaining close to Liszt (von Bolow marrying Cosima Liszt in 1857), others, like Johannes Brahms, only fleetingly held in awe by the great man's talent. Even good friends like the Schumanns found Liszt's compositions too much, as Clara commented after a visit from the pianist in the early 1850s: "Oh! What terrible composition! If a youngster were to write such stuff, one might forgive him, but what can one say when a full-grown man is so deluded?". The critic Eduard Hanslick called his challenging B minor sonata of 1853 "a brazen concatenation of utterly disparate elements…anybody who has heard this thing and liked it is beyond hope".

The 1860s brought a series of disasters, presaged by the death in 1859 of Liszt's gifted only son, Daniel, from consumption; in 1861 the Pope refused to spiritually sanction the Princess' legal annulment; in 1862 his beloved daughter, Blandine, died; in 1863 his second daughter, Cosima, abandoned her husband Hans von Bolow, and eloped with none other than Richard Wagner, to Liszt's chagrin. The breach between father and daughter was never healed. Tired of the strife in Weimar; Liszt joined the Princess who was already in Rome on a pilgrimage, and devoted himself exclusively to religious music, even taking the four minor orders, which allowed him to assume the title of Abbé. The death in 1861 of the Princess's husband had left the way clear for a new attempt to marry, but neither had the will for it any longer. After 1864 they were not to meet again.

By the end of the decade Liszt had written a series of devotional works, including The Legend of Saint Elizabeth, and had permanently adopted the wearing of a cassock. He was also invited back to Weimar to give a series of master-class demonstrations; these were to continue for the rest of his life, Liszt spending part of each year in Weimar. He also developed his relationship with Budapest, nurturing his love for his homeland, and in 1870 was appointed President of Budapest's music academy. He now divided each year between Weimar, Budapest and Rome. In 1872 he came to a reconciliation of sorts with Cosima and Richard Wagner; now married and well advanced with their dream of building the Bayreuth theatre. Liszt's last great oratorio, Christus, was premiered at Weimar in 1873, with Wagner and Cosima present.

Liszt remained a focal point for the best young talents of the day, and as his attachment to Rome receded, his involvement in their developing careers increased. In 1876 his old lover, Countess Marie d'Agoult, died in France, but he was left unmoved. Later that year, the Bayreuth premiere of Wagner's Ring cycle gave him more to be moved by, as did the acclamation he received at the 1878 Universal Exhibition in Paris, when his old enemy Eduard Hanslick proposed that he should be made honorary president of the Exhibition's musical jury.

Yet the pattern of his life – Weimar-Budapest-Rome, with the occasional sortie to Bayreuth – did little to relieve his weariness. His rootlessness and the gradual deterioration of his health led to the diminution of his powers, while a series of piano works written in his last decade, most of them filled with a deep melancholy, leaving the impression of a troubled soul. In particular; four pieces written close to the time of Wagner's death in 1883 have an existential angst that is deeply disturbing.

By his last years Liszt and the Princess had drifted apart entirely; she refused to leave Rome and he was increasingly loath to go there. His health was giving out and he tended to remain within reach of the Wagners, and was deeply touched by Wagner's dedication of Parsifal to him. Yet with Wagner's death, Cosima pushed him away. His chief pleasure now was teaching the piano to his young pupils. With his eyesight considerably impaired and his energy gone, he rarely played in public. By the summer of 1886 he was virtually blind, his body invaded by dropsy. He returned, ailing, to Weimar where he had a devoted young companion, Lina Schmallhausen, to comfort him. He died from pneumonia in July, and was buried in Bayreuth during the festival.

Central to Liszt's achievement was his prodigious keyboard virtuosity, his inventiveness and his ability to devise new techniques that revolutionized the approach to the instrument. Thus it may be held that his copious solo piano output is the most crucial part of his legacy, including the B minor Piano Sonata, his Années de Pèlerinage and the etudes. But his orchestral tone poems – the so-called programme music – are in a real sense his most permanent imaginative achievement. The Dante and Faust symphonies are both major testaments to a concern with literal and philosophical truths expressed in music, and as such are central to the 19th-century Romantic tradition. They are also clear examples of the sometimes demoniacal energies to be found in his music. Liszt has also often been cited as important in these works in his coining and development of the idea of theme transformation, rather than the more traditional ideas of Classical development. This approach perhaps reached its apotheosis in Wagner.

Liszt's signature

Recommended Recordings

Années de Pèlerinage (1st, 2nd & 3rd Years)

"Années de Pèlerinage" First, Second and Third Year (Complete)/Vox Music Group CD3X3004
Jerome Rose (piano)
"Années de Pèlerinage" First Year: Switzerland, S. 160/Deutsche Grammophon 415670-2
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
"Années de Pèlerinage" Second Year: Italy "Sonetto #47, 104 & 123 del Petrarca", S. 161/Delos D/CD3022
John Browning (piano)
"Années de Pèlerinage" Third Year, S. 163/Philips 420174-2
Zoltán Kocsis (piano)
"Années de Pèlerinage" (Selections)/London 425689-2
Jorges Bolet (piano)

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Concertos for Piano (Core Repertoire - Start Here!1, 2)

Piano Concertos #1, S. 124 and #2, S. 125/Mercury Living Presence 412006-2
Byron Janis (piano), Kirill Kondrashin & Gennady Rozhdestvensky/Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra & Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra
Piano Concertos #1, S. 124 and #2, S. 125/Deutsche Grammophon 423571-2
Krystian Zimerman (piano), Seiji Ozawa/Boston Symphony Orchestra
Piano Concertos #1, S. 124 and #2, S. 125/Philips 412006-2
Sviatoslav Richter (piano), Kirill Kondrashin/London Symphony Orchestra

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Hungarian Rhapsodies

19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, S. 244 (Complete)/Deutsche Grammophon 423925-2
Roberto Szidon (piano)
19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, S. 244 (Complete)/Philips 416463-2
Misha Dichter (piano)
6 Rhapsodies "Hungarian" (Orchestrations of #2, 5, 6, 9, 12 & 14), S. 359/ Mercury Living Presence 432015-2
Antál Doráti/London Symphony Orchestra
6 Rhapsodies "Hungarian" (Orchestrations of #2, 5, 6, 9, 12 & 14), S. 359/EMI CDM7690112
Willi Boskovsky/Philharmonia Hungarica

Mephisto Waltz

Mephisto Waltz #1, S. 514/Reference Recordings RR-25CD
Minoru Nojima (piano)
Mephisto Waltz #1, S. 514/Denon 32C37-7574
Ranki (piano)

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Les Préludes

Symphonic Poem #3 "Les Préludes", S. 97/Deutsche Grammophon 427222-2 or 415967-2
Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphonic Poem #3 "Les Préludes", S. 97/Chesky CD53
Adrian Boult/New Symphony Orchestra of London
Symphonic Poem #3 "Les Préludes", S. 97/Sony SMK47572
Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Sonata in B minor for Piano

Sonata in B minor, S. 178/Philips 410040-2
Alfred Brendel (piano)
Sonata in B minor, S. 178/Delos D/CD3022
John Browning (piano)
Sonata in B minor, S. 178/Reference Recordings RR-25CD
Minoru Nojima (piano)


"Totentanz", S. 126/London 414079-2 or 430736-2
Jorges Bolet (piano), Iván Fischer/London Symphony Orchestra
"Totentanz", S. 126/Deutsche Grammophon 423571-2
Krystian Zimerman (piano), Seiji Ozawa/Boston Symphony Orchestra

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Transcendental Études

12 Transcendental Études, S. 139/MCA MCAD-25890
Janice Weber (piano)
12 Transcendental Études, S. 139/Philips 432305-2 or 416458-2
Claudio Arrau (piano)
12 Transcendental Études, S. 139/London 414601-2
Jorges Bolet (piano)