Franz Liszt

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Franz Liszt
Portrait by Henri Lehmann, 1839
Portrait by Henri Lehmann, 1839
Background information
Born October 22, 1811
Flag of Hungary Doborján, Kingdom of Hungary
Died July 31, 1886 (age 74) Bayreuth, German Empire
Genre(s) Romantic
Occupation(s) Composer, conductor, pedagogue, pianist
Instrument(s) Piano
Years active 1822 - 1886

Franz Liszt (Hungarian: Liszt Ferenc) (October 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886) was a Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer of the Romantic period. He was a renowned performer throughout Europe during the nineteenth century, noted especially for his showmanship and great skill with the keyboard. Today, he is generally considered to be the greatest pianist in history, despite the fact that no recordings of his playing exist. Indeed, Liszt is frequently credited with re-defining piano playing itself, and his influence is still visible today. He also contributed greatly towards the Romantic idiom in general, and he is credited with the invention of the symphonic poem.

Introductory background

Liszt studied and played at Vienna and Paris and for most of his early adulthood toured throughout Europe giving concerts. He is credited with inventing the modern piano recital, where his virtuosity won him approval by composers and performers alike. His great generosity with both time and money benefited many people: victims of disasters, orphans and the many students he taught for free. He also contributed to the Beethoven memorial fund.

Many of his piano compositions have entered the standard repertoire, including the Hungarian Rhapsodies, his Annees de Pelerinage, his Piano Sonata in B minor, and two piano concertos. He also made many piano transcriptions of operas, famous symphonies, Paganini Caprices (some of the most demanding works of the violin repertoire), and Schubert Lieder. Many of his piano compositions are among the most technically challenging in the repertoire. Liszt was himself a composer of lieder and choral music, of symphonic poems and other orchestral works. His compositions for organ are lauded and well-established in the organ repertoire.

Religious influence

From his earliest years, Liszt expressed a deep devotion to the Almighty and desired to enter the priesthood rather than pursue a career in music. He once wrote his mother, "You know, dearest mother, how during the years of my youth, I dreamed myself incessantly into the world of the saints. Nothing seemed to me so self-evident as heaven, nothing so true and so rich in blessedness as the goodness and compassion of God."

Though his lifestyle often belied his religious convictions, he nonetheless continued to espouse religious ideals in the most profound manner, especially as they pertained to music. Once writing to a friend, he stated, "I have taken a serious stand as a religious, Catholic composer. Among the composers I know, none has a more intense and deeper feeling for religious music than your humble servant." He possessed a fervent belief that as a musician he was in the position to connect others to God through his art, once stating, "The church composer is also a preacher and priest and where words cannot suffice to convey the feeling, music gives them wings and transfigures them." This is not unlike Martin Luther's assertion that, "Music is a gift and largesse of God…. Praise through the word and music is a sermon in sound."

Early Life

A statue of the young Liszt

Liszt was born in the village of Doborján, near Sopron, Hungary, now Austria). His baptism record, written in Latin, gives his first name as Franciscus. He always used the German version Franz, never the Hungarian language version Ferenc.

Franz was a weak and sickly child, and was surrounded from his early childhood with music. His father, who worked at the court of Count Esterházy, was himself a pianist and cellist (he used to play in Esterházy's summer orchestra in Eisenstadt); he organized chamber music evenings with amateur musicians from the surrounding villages, in which his old friends from Eisenstadt occasionally took part.

His father gave him his first music lessons when he was six years old. Franz quickly displayed incredible talent, easily sight-reading the most difficult music he could find, often even reading multiple staves at once. Local aristocrats noticed his talent and enabled him to travel to Vienna and later to Paris with his family.

In Vienna, he was taught by Beethoven's student Carl Czerny, who proved to be the only professional piano teacher Liszt ever had. His father had first taken him to be taught by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, but Hummel's fees were too high. Antonio Salieri taught him the technique of composition and fostered the young Liszt's musical taste.

He formed an early friendship with Frédéric Chopin, but later fierce competition turned the men into rivals. He was a lifelong friend of Camille Saint-Saëns, and the latter dedicated his Symphony #3 in C Minor to Liszt.

Although he always considered himself a Hungarian, Liszt never became fluent in the Hungarian language; his later letters and diaries show that he came to regret this deeply. One letter to his mother begins in faltering Hungarian, and after an apology continues in French language, his preferred language. On April 13, 1823, Liszt gave a concert. An account of the episode can be found in the separate article "Beethoven and his contemporaries (Beethoven and Franz Liszt)."

Years of pilgrimage

Four ages of Franz Liszt

Liszt left Vienna in 1823 to travel. In Paris, he studied composition with Ferdinando Paer and Anton Reicha. On April 22, 1832, he attended a concert by the virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini and became motivated to become the greatest pianist of his day. He often took to seclusion in his room, and was heard practising for over 10 hours a day. In 1832 he wrote the Grande Fantaisie de Bravoure sur La Clochette de Paganini ("Grand Bravura Fantasy on Paganini's La Campanella"). A shorter piece using the same thematic content was included in the 1838 Etudes d'Execution Transcendante d'apres Paganini (Studies of Transcendental Execution inspired by Paganini). Also composed in this period were the 12 Grandes Etudes (Liszt later rewrote these into the 12 Transcendental Etudes in 1851).

Musical Colleagues

He fraternized with such noted composers of his time as Frédéric Chopin, Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, and Richard Wagner, who later married Liszt's daughter Cosima Wagner. He was very widely read in philosophy, art and literature and was on friendly terms with the painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and the authors Heinrich Heine, Hughes Felicite, Robert de Lamennais, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Baudelaire, who addressed his prose poem "Le thyrse" to Liszt.

In 1840-1841, Liszt took part in two tours of the British Isles arranged by the young musician and conductor Lewis Henry Lavenu, accompanied by Lavenu's half brother Frank Mori, two female singers and John Orlando Parry, an all round musician, singer and entertainer (who vividly recorded the tour in his diary). Between August 17 and September 26, they gave 50 concerts around England which were generally unsuccessful, having an average attendance of 140. The second tour which encompassed Liverpool, Ireland and Scotland from November, 1840 – January, 1841 was mildly more successful, with audiences of more than 1,200 in Dublin. The tour was however a financial failure, and Liszt waived his promised fee of 500 guineas a month.

After 1842, when "Lisztomania" swept across the European continent, Liszt's recitals were in an overwhelming demand. His admirers praised and courted him, and ladies fought over his handkerchiefs and green silk gloves as souvenirs, which they often ripped to pieces in their struggle. Some of Liszt's contemporaries saw this kind of worship as vulgar and inappropriate, and eventually came to despise Liszt because of it.

During the years in which he appeared regularly in public, he was almost universally acknowledged (even by musical conservatives who disliked his compositions) as the foremost piano performer. His main rival in public esteem as a virtuoso was Sigismond Thalberg, who specialized in 'salon music', especially operatic fantasies. Thalberg's reputation has faded, and in current opinion, only Chopin is comparably significant among romantic pianists.

Liszt in Weimar

Franz Liszt's music room in Weimar, 1884

In 1847, Liszt gave up public performances on the piano and in the following year finally took up the invitation of Maria Pavlovna of Russia to settle in Weimar, Germany, where he had been appointed Kapellmeister Extraordinaire in 1842, remaining there until 1861. During this period he acted as conductor at court concerts and on special occasions at the theater, gave lessons to a number of pianists, including the great virtuoso Hans von Bülow, who married Liszt's daughter, Cosima Wagner in 1857 (before she was married. He also wrote articles championing Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner, and produced those orchestral and choral pieces upon which his reputation as a composer mainly rests. His efforts on behalf of Wagner, who was then an exile in Switzerland, culminated in the first performance of the opera Lohengrin in 1850.

The compositions belonging to the period of his residence at Weimar comprise two piano concertos, in E flat and in A, the Totentanz, the Concerto pathetique for two pianos, the Piano Sonata in B minor, sundry Etudes, fifteen Rhapsodies Hongroises, twelve orchestral Poemes symphoniques, Eine Faust Symphonie, and Eine Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia, the 13th Psalm for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra, the choruses to Johann Gottfried Herder's dramatic scenes Prometheus, and the Graner Fest Messe. Much of Liszt's organ music comes from this period, including the Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H (later arranged for solo piano).

Also in 1847, Liszt met Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. The Princess was an author, whose major work was published in 16 volumes, each containing over 1,600 pages. Her long-winded writing style had some effect on Liszt himself. His biography of Frédéric Chopin and his chronology and analysis of Roma (Gypsy) music (which later inspired Béla Bartók) were both written in the Princess's loquacious style. The couple had intended to marry in 1860, but since the Princess had been previously married and her husband was still alive, the Roman Catholic authorities would not approve the marriage, eventually intervening in dramatic fashion only moments before the couple were to take their vows. Although Liszt and Princess Carolyne remained friends, the stress of trying to persuade the Church authorities to let them marry, only to have their efforts eventually be in vain, proved an emotional blow from which neither completely recovered.

In 1851 he published a revised version of his 1838 Twelve Studies now titled Etudes d'Execution Transcendante, and later same year the Grandes Etudes de Paganini (Grand etudes after Paganini), the most famous of which is La Campanella (The Bell), a study in octaves, trills and leaps.

In retirement

Photograph of Franz Liszt, 1870

Liszt moved to Rome in 1861, in anticipation of his marriage to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein. In 1865, he received the tonsure and four Minor Orders of the Catholic Church (namely, Porter, Lector, Exorcist and Acolyte). From 1869 onwards, Abbé Liszt divided his time between Rome, Weimar and Budapest where during the summer months he continued to receive pupils gratis, including Alexander Siloti. During this time, his relationship with Wagner grew more strained. His daughter Cosima (see previous section) left Bülow for Wagner in 1869. Devout Catholic that he was, he was deeply hurt by his daughter's conversion to Protestantism upon her marriage to Wagner, and for a number of years, Liszt did not correspond with either, even while championing the music of his new son-in-law. Eventually, they were reconciled and Liszt subsequently attended the Bayreuth Festival.

From 1876 until his death he also taught for several months every year at the Hungarian Conservatoire at Budapest. He died in Bayreuth on July 31, 1886 as a result of pneumonia which he contracted during the Bayreuth Festival hosted by his daughter Cosima. At first, he was surrounded by some of his more adoring pupils, including Arthur Friedheim, Siloti and Bernhard Stavenhagen, but they were denied access to his room by Cosima shortly before his death at 11:30pm. He is buried in the Bayreuth Friedhof.

Musical style and influence

The majority of Liszt's piano compositions reflect his advanced virtuosity; however he was a prolific composer, and wrote works at several levels of difficulty, some being accessible to intermediate-(and even beginner-) level pianists. Abschied (Farewell) and Nuages Gris are examples of this less virtuosic style, as are at least some of the six Consolations.

In his most popular and advanced works, he is the archetypal Romantic composer. Liszt pioneered the technique of thematic transformation, a method of development which was related to both the existing variation technique and to the new use of the leitmotif by Richard Wagner. He also largely invented the symphonic poem, or tone poem, in a series of single-movement orchestral works composed in the 1840s and 1850s. His poems all came from classical literature, including "Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne," based on a Victor Hugo poem of the same title, and "Les preludes" from Lamartine. Liszt's "First Mephisto Waltz" was based on Lenau's Faust, and he composed a second waltz from the poem in 1881.

Liszt at piano, from Century Magazine, 1886. Engraving based on an old photograph.

Other pieces are based on works by Lord Byron, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Dante Alighieri. Liszt's symphonic poems, although successes, were criticized because they were not "Absolute music." His transcriptions met with less criticism. As a transcriber of even the most unlikely and complicated orchestral works, he created piano arrangements which stood on their own merits; many other pianist-composers followed his example.

While his Hungarian Rhapsodies are widely recognized, his understanding of form, expression and use of virtuosity for musical effect are more apparent elsewhere.

Later works of the composer such as "Bagatelle sans tonalité" ("Bagatelle without Tonality") foreshadow composers who would further explore the modern concept of atonality. His thoroughly revised masterwork, Années de Pèlerinage ("Years of Pilgrimage"), arguably includes his most provocative and stirring pieces. This set of three suites ranges from the pure virtuosity of the Suisse Orage (Storm) to the subtle and imaginative visualizations of artworks by Michaelangelo and Raphael in the second set. Années contains some pieces which are loose transcriptions of Liszt's own earlier compositions; the first "year" recreates his early pieces of Album d'un voyageur, while the second book includes a resetting of his own song transcriptions once separately published as [[Tre sonetti del Petrarca ("Three sonnets of Petrarch"). The relative obscurity of the vast majority of his works may be explained by the immense number of pieces he composed.

Liszt helped found the Liszt School of Music Weimar [1] as well as the Franz Liszt Academy of Music (Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music) in Budapest.

His piano works have always been well represented in concert programs and recordings by pianists throughout the world. Many of his works have been recorded a multitude of times. However the only pianist who has recorded his entire pianistic oeuvre is the Australian Leslie Howard (Australian pianist) Leslie Howard. This massive undertaking included a number of premiere recordings, including some pieces which had not been played by anyone since Liszt himself. Currently there are over 1,500 listings of Liszt CDs in the online Arkiv Music website.

Liszt's virtuosity and technical reforms

Liszt's playing was described as theatrical and showy, and all those who saw him perform were stunned at his unrivaled mastery over the keyboard. Perhaps the best indication of Liszt's piano-playing abilities comes from his Transcendental Etudes and Grandes Etudes de Paganini, written in 1838-39, and described by Robert Schumann as "playable at the most, by ten or twelve players in the world." To play these pieces, a pianist must connect with the piano as an extension of his own body (Walker, 1987).

Liszt claimed to have spent ten or twelve hours each day practicing scales, arpeggios, trills and repeated notes to improve his technique and endurance. All of these piano techniques were frequently applied in his compositions, often resulting in music of extreme technical difficulty (his Transcendental Etude No. 5 "Feux follets" is an example). He would challenge himself and his immaculate fingering by presenting random problems to his playing.

During the 1830s and 1840s—the years of Liszt's "transcendental execution"—he revolutionized piano technique in almost every sector. Figures like Anton Rubinstein, Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Sergei Rachmaninoff turned to Liszt's music to discover the laws which govern the keyboard.

While revolutionary and famously spectacular, Liszt's playing was not only flash and acrobatics. He also was reported to have played with a depth and nobility of feeling that would move sturdy men to tears.

Piano recital

The term "recital" was first used by Liszt at his concert in London of June 9, 1840, although the term had been suggested to him by the publisher Frederick Beale, and his career model is still followed by performing artists to this day.

Liszt's recitals traversed the European continent from the Urals to Ireland. He would often play before as many as three thousand people. He was the first solo pianist to play entire programmes from memory, and the first to play with the piano at right angles to the platform, with its lid open, reflecting sound across the auditorium.

Noted works

  • (1822) Variation on a Theme by Diabelli]] (S/G147, R26)
  • (1826) Etude in Twelve Exercises]], including No. 10 in F Minor
  • (1832) Grande Fantasie de Bravoure sur La Clochette, variations (S/G420, R321)
  • (1833) Arrangement of "March to the Scaffold" from Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (S/G470, R136)
  • (1833) Divertissement on the Cavatina "I tuoi frequenti palpiti" from Pacini's La Niobe (S/G419, R230)
  • (1841) Feuilles d'album ('Album Leaves'), (S/G165)
  • (1841) Réminiscences de Don Juan, (S/G418)
  • (1845-48) Ballade No. 1 in D flat : Ballade No. 1 in Des-dur
  • (1848) Three Concert Etudes (French): Trois Études de Concert); No. 3, Un Sospiro ("A sigh"), Etude No. 39 (piano solo) (S/G144, R5)
  • (1848-53) Années de Pèlerinage: Première Année—Suisse; Deuxième Année—Italie - Venezia e Napoli; Troisième Année
  • (1848-61) Twelve Symphonic Poems
    • Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne (also known as Berg-Symphonie), (1848-9) (after Victor Hugo)
    • Tasso: lamento e trionfo, (1849) (after George Gordon, Lord Byron)
    • Les préludes, after Lamartine (1848, rev. before 1854)
    • Orpheus, (1853-4)
    • Prometheus, (1850)
    • Mazeppa, (1851)
    • Festklänge, (1853)
    • Héroïde funèbre, (1849-50)
    • Hungaria, (1854)
    • Hamlet, (1858)
    • Hunnenschlacht, (1857)
    • Die Ideale (1857), after Friedrich Schiller
  • (1849) Piano Concerto no. 1 in E-flat Major (S/G124)
  • (1849) Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major (S/G125) (revised 1861)
  • (1849) Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, (S/G173) a collection of solo piano pieces, including the often-performed No. 7, Funérailles
  • (1849) Totentanz ('Dance of death') (S/G126ii), for piano and orchestra. (revised 1853-1859)
  • (1850) Liebesträume No. 3 ("Dreams of Love") in A-flat Major (piano solo) (S/G541, R211)
  • (1851) Grandes Etudes de Paganini, including No. 3, "La Campanella"; and No. 5, "La Chasse" (Composed 1838, revised 1851)
  • (1851) Transcendental Etudes (Prelude, Molto Vivace, Paysage, Mazeppa, Feux Follets, Vision, Eroica, Wilde Jagd, Ricordanza, Allegro Agitato Molto, Harmonies du soir, and Chasse-niege. Known well for being technically difficult, notedly Mazeppa and Feux Follets) (S/G139, R2B), Composed 1837 (based on the 1826 studies), revised 1851)
  • (1851) Nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies (S/G244, R106) - Rhapsody No. 2 became famous in the modern day as a popular piece for accompaniment of animated cartoons, during the golden age of animation; Rhapsody No. 19 in D Minor (1885) is also of note.
  • (1851) Polonaise No. 1 in C minor
  • (1852) Valse-Impromptu, (S/G213)
  • (1853) Piano Sonata in B minor (S/G178, R21)
  • (1853) Ballade No. 2 in B minor:Ballade No. 2 in H-Moll
  • (1854) Faust Symphony
  • (1855) Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H for organ, rev. 1870
  • (1857) Dante Symphony
  • (1860) Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (piano solo) (S/G514, R181)
  • (1863) Slavimo Slavno Slaveni! for organ (S503, R196)
  • (1866) Christus (S/G3)
  • (1877) Dem Andenken Petőfis
  • (1881) Nuages Gris ('Grey clouds') (S/G199, R78)
  • (1885) Bagatelle sans tonalité (S216a)

Note: Although Liszt provided opus numbers for his works during his lifetime, these are rarely used today. Instead, his works are usually identified using one of two different cataloging schemes:

  • More commonly used in English speaking countries are the "S" or "G" numbers, derived from the catalogue compiled by Humphrey Searle during the 1960s and found in pages 155-195 of the 1966 edition of his The Music of Liszt.
  • Less commonly used is the "R" number, which derives from Peter Raabe's 1931 catalogue Franz Liszt: Leben und Schaffen.

Literary Works

He wrote about many subjects, such as: a necrology of Niccolò Paganini; the position of music in Italy; Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann; Frédéric Chopin; Robert Franz; Ludwig van Beethoven's "Fidelio"; Felix Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Foundation at Weimar; Richard Wagner's Lohengrin and Tannhäuser; the music of the Hungarian gypsies; John Field's nocturnes; Berlioz's "Harold in Italy"; and much more. His letters and musical essays are published in 6 volumes.

Some literary works that appeared under his name were written with the aid of Marie d'Agoult and Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein; one or two revisions were left to Caroline von Sayn-Wittgenstein in Liszt's last years. However, a work only he could have written himself is a "Manual of Pianoforte Technique" for the Geneva Conservatoire. This has never seen the light of day, but there is no reason to believe it never existed. In fact, it was probably a technical manual for use of student pianists. It was mentioned in a letter to his mother probably dating from November, 1835 and the history of the work has been detailed by Robert Bory. It is now considered a lost work. It would provide an invaluable insight into the playing style of one of the greatest pianists who ever lived.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Kavanaugh, Patrick. Spiritual Lifes of the Great Composers. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992, ISBN 0310208068
  • Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt, The Virtuoso Years, revised ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987. ISBN 0801494214.
  • Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt, The Weimar Years. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989. ISBN 0801497213.

Further reading

  • Gollerich, August; Wilhelm Jerger, ed.; Richard Louis Zimdars, transl. The Piano Master Classes of Franz Liszt 1884-1886: Diary Notes of August Gollerich. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996. ISBN 0253332230
  • Schmalhausen, Lina. The Death of Franz Liszt: Based on the Unpublished Diary of His Pupil Lina Schmalhausen. (annotated and edited by Alan Walker), NY: Cornell University Press, 2002. ISBN 0801440769
  • Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt: The Final Years (1861-1886). NY: Cornell University Press, 1997. ISBN 0801484537

External links

All links retrieved April 11, 2024.


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