Franz Liszt | Biography


Franz Liszt was a charismatic showman with a deeply spiritual personality. He was a spellbinding virtuoso who harboured serious musical ambitions. And he was a kind and generous man whose air of urbanity caused many to distrust him. His musical output ranged from dazzling showpieces to experimental works that continue to challenge audiences. Few other musicians have led such complex lives, earned such spectacular and contradictory reputations, or left such an influential body of work. Liszt showed early promise and made his concerto debut at the age of nine. A year later he moved to Vienna and studied feverishly for 14 months under the composer, pianist and former Beethoven pupil, Carl Czerny. Liszt gained a thorough grounding in piano technique, memorisation and sight-reading, skills for which he would later become legendary. Stories soon circulated about the special aura that he had when performing. When Liszt was not quite 12, he and his father moved to Paris. He was refused entry to the Conservatoire but continued to give concerts and to tour. His father’s sudden death when Liszt was still only 15 affected him deeply. He had already contemplated a religious life, and thoughts of death now brought these ideas into focus. Nevertheless, he needed to give piano lessons to survive. One of his pupils was Caroline de Saint-Cricq, the first of many women with whom he fell in love. By his early 20s Liszt was surrounded by the leading lights of Romanticism. He was personally acquainted with Hector Berlioz, Frédéric Chopin, Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Delacroix and many others. The most decisive influence, however, came from the violinist Nicolò Paganini, who conveyed cathartic expression through his extraordinary technical skills and magnetic stage manner. Paganini’s example inspired Liszt to push piano technique through previously unimagined difficulties and intricacies to attain new brilliance and sonorities. His quest was aided by the improved capabilities of the Érard pianos that he now played. In 1835 Liszt left Paris for Switzerland with the Countess Marie d’Agoult, by whom he fathered three children. These so-called ‘Years of Pilgrimage’ allowed him to see Europe, to secure his leading reputation as a pianist and to spend more time composing. By 1839 the relationship had soured, and Liszt began travelling alone on a performing tour that would eventually last eight years. He was the first to offer piano ‘recitals’, that is, concerts in a large hall featuring only solo piano. His performances were based, in part, on dazzling showmanship and stunning displays of technical prowess. Nevertheless, Liszt made his greatest impression by invoking an expressive world, encompassing everything from agony to ecstasy. His physical movements and facial expressions were crucial to this effect. Schumann waspishly observed that to hear Liszt play from behind a screen would have only half the impact. Some of Liszt’s most important compositions up to this time were his Études. Sets such as the Paganini Études and Transcendental Études extended piano technique beyond what had previously been thought possible. The Hungarian Rhapsodies were another important part of his early repertoire. These are arguably misnamed, as most are based on Gypsy themes rather than Hungarian folk music. Liszt was known for popularising the music of other composers through his piano arrangements. He transcribed Schubert songs, Beethoven symphonies and even Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. He also concocted paraphrases that link or combine various themes from operas and larger works. Réminiscences de Don Juan, based on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, is the quintessential example of this genre. These works served Liszt the virtuoso, but also testified to his strengths as a composer. In 1848 Liszt became Kapellmeister at Weimar, where he moved with the last great love of his life, Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. He championed the music of Berlioz and Wagner, fellow members of the so-called ‘New German School’ that favoured programme music over traditional, abstract forms. He also had the means for the first time to compose and perform orchestral music. Most of his symphonic poems were written during this time and premiered under his baton. The Weimar years were also the period in which he taught his most important piano students. These included Hans von Bülow, later to become a famous conductor, and Carl Tausig, one of the greatest piano virtuosos of the late−19th century. After leaving Weimar in 1861, Liszt became an Abbot in the Roman Catholic Church. He spent the last decades of his life moving between Rome, Budapest and Weimar, composing and teaching extensively. Liszt’s music is among the most flamboyant of the 19th century. Many of his works exist in multiple versions, demonstrating his rhapsodic approach both to performance and composition. His piano works, such as the Études, the Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Mephisto Waltzes are brilliant showpieces, requiring both technical skill and expressivity. But Liszt is not all glamour and glitz. Many of his works in Années de Pèlerinage and Harmonies poétiques et religieuses are primarily reflective. His late piano works remain challenging and enigmatic listening experiences. Their melodies are fragmentary, their textures spare and their harmonies ambiguous. The Sonata in B minor (1853) is generally acknowledged to be Liszt’s masterpiece. Its form ingeniously superimposes a number of independent schemes. On the one hand, its uninterrupted half-hour duration contains four ‘movements’ within a single movement in sonata form. (The piano concertos have a similar structure.) On the other, the piece is a model of Liszt’s technique of thematic transformation, which is also prominent in the symphonic poems. Three brief themes or motifs are introduced at the beginning of the work. They then mingle and develop until they culminate in a fourth theme, introduced as the work’s first climax. From this point on the four themes interact and metamorphose. Their wondrously inventive journey explores a vast range of powerful emotions before ending in exalted, peaceful transfiguration. This remarkable work both demonstrates and ennobles every important musical tendency in Liszt’s prolific compositional output.