Liszt, Franz

Musical genius and brilliant pianist

” Franz Liszt was many people in one. He was spiritual and he was earthy, idealistic and insincere, egocentric and humble. He was a musician who could function on the highest levels of his art. Few served music with such generosity, self-effacement, tolerance and courage as Liszt did….”  –  Milton Cross

Ferenc Liszt, more commonly known by the German version of his name, Franz, was born on 22 October 1811, in Raiding, Hungary. His father, a member of the lesser aristocracy, worked as an accountant, at the court of Count Esterhàzy. Litszt’s father was also an excellent musician, and could play the paino, violin, guitar, and the flute, and was qualified to give his son, Franz, his first lessons. From thereon, Franz was raised as a child prodigy, and trained to please his audience. At the tender age of nine, young Franz gave his first public concert at the Esterhàzy palace. The aristocratic audience were so impressed with his talent, that they established a bursary for Franz to further his studies in Vienna.

His father, ever so ambitious for his son, resigned his post at Esterhàzy, and together with his wife, Anna, left Hungary for Vienna. While studying in Vienna, Franz received piano lessons from Czerny, and Salieri taught him the rudiments of composition. Czerny was so amazed by the talent and potential of the boy, that he even refused to accept any fee for his tuition. Czerny, however, set out to give the boy what he thought lacked, control and discipline, but Liszt’s style of  ‘flying fingers’  remained a hallmark of his playing. An anecdote of this period in Liszt’s life, is that Czerny, who was a pupil of Beethoven, invited his old master to a concert of his protége, and after the performance, it is said, that Beethoven kissed the young Liszt on his forehead.

When Liszt turned twelve, Czerny declared that there was no more that he could teach him, and recommended that he should continue his studies at the Paris Conservatoire. Unfortunately, Cherubini, the director of the Conservatoire at that time, upheld the regulation that foreigners were not to be admitted to this institution. When the piano manufacturer, Sébastian Erard, heard of this, he gave him an instrument of the latest design that also had the ablility to allow for the rapid repetition of one note. This feature of the piano, helped Liszt to take the music lovers of Paris by storm. Then, at the tender age of thirteen, Liszt made his London début. At the end of this exhausting concert tour, Liszt gave a command performance before George IV at Windsor.

By the time Liszt turned sixteen, he had already been in the limelight for seven years, and the strain was beginning to take a toll on him. It was decided that his father and him would take a sea cure at Bologne to recuperate. Sadly, his father fell ill with typhoid and died. It is reported that his father’s last words to his son were “I’m afraid for you and women”. After the funeral, a devastated Liszt returned to his mother in Paris. For emotional strength he turned to religion, as he was to do repeatedly in the future.

After his father’s death, Liszt was also disillusioned by stardom. He and his mother lived a quiet life in Paris, where he earned his keep through teaching. There he fell in love with one of his pupils, called Caroline de Saint-Cricq. Her aristocratic parents, however, put an end to this affair, which led to Liszt suffering an emotional and religious crisis, that lasted at least two years.

In 1830, revolution broke out in Paris, and with gunfire all around, it was as if Liszt awoke from his lethargy. It was also during that year, that he befriended three men who were to have an eduring influence on his music. These three men were Niccolo Paganini, Hector Berlioz and Frederic Chopin. Paganini’s amazing virtuosity on the violin, fascinated the young pianist (many of Liszt’s piano pieces were made up of transcriptions of works by other composers for eg. La Campanella is an adaptation of one of Paganini’a caprices). Liszt found a soulmate in Berlioz, who could share his tormented Romantic approach to music. Liszt was also deeply impressed and influenced by Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Lastly, Chopin, whom not only had a calming effect on Liszt’s nerves, but also introduced him to sensitive and poetic music. Liszt later transcribed six of Chopin’s Polish Songs as piano solos.

During an impromptu party at Chopin’s home, Liszt met Marie d’Agoult, a married mother of three, with whom he had his first great affair, which lasted ten years. This  affair was difficult and scandalous, and caused them both a great deal of anguish. In 1835 they broke with convention and settled in Geneve, Switzerland. They travelled extensively which resulted in the first book of his composition of the Années de pèlerinage (lyrical impressions of the landscapes). Marie taught Liszt the airs and graces of the fashionable world, and also introduced him to the literary works of Heine, Goethe and Schiller, which then inspired his compositions. Liszt and Marie’s life together became more settled, and out of their relationship three children, Blandine, Cosima, and Daniël were born.

Liszt, however, grew restless of this life, and yearned to be back amongst the society, bearing in mind that at this stage, 1837, he was only 26 years old. After Cosima’s birth, he found the perfect excuse to escape from the claustrophobic situation of domesticity, namely floods in the Danube. He went back to Vienna where he gave ten concerts to raise money for the victims of the floods in Hungary. After the quiet period he experienced in Switzerland, without any big concerts, the adulation Liszt received from his audiences went straight to his head. He set off on a glittering series of tours that took him all over Europe. He always travelled with his silent keyboard,  practicing during the long journeys to keep his fingers supple, in order to comply with the technical demands of his performances. During this period he raised money for different charities, for example the flood victims in Hungary, a monument to honour Beethoven in Bonn, and a Music Conservatoire in Budapest.

Liszt was now considered a superstar, and the mass hysteria that surrounded this magnificent, virtuoso performer was described as “Lisztomania”, and gave the oppertunity for a series of clandestine affairs. This did not bear well for his relationship with Marie d’Agoult, and in 1847, after the birth of their third child, Daniël, she ended their relationship. She later wrote under the pseudonym of Daniël Stern, a bitter novel,  Nelida, in which she portrayed Liszt in a very unflattering light.

During this period, Liszt revisited Hungary, where he was fascinated by the music of the gypsies, which resulted in a series of Hungarian Rhapsodies. The most popular of Liszt’s rhapsodies is undoubtedly the Hungarian Rhapsody No 2. This very recognisable piece of music certainly doesn’t need a schooled ear to be appreciated, and its universal appeal is only rivalled by the romantic, sentimental idyll  Liebestraum, that has melted many a heart.

After Marie, Liszt had a series of  love affairs, until another authorative woman, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was also estranged from her husband, became his next partner. She inspired him to read Dante, with her persuasion, he made the major decision to renounce his life as a travelling musician, and resolved to devote himself to composition. With this ideal in mind, he went in 1848 to Weimar, where he held the position of music director since 1843. There he was joined by Carolyne, who just managed to cross the Russian border before it was closed by the Tsar. For the next twelve years they lived in a villa on the edge of Weimar. Whilst under her influence, he composed his best piano pieces, including his piano concertos. This was the period of his musical maturity in which he developed the new genre of the symphonic poem, which had a profound effect on music for the rest of that century.

The symphonic poem can be described as a large scale orchestral work, usually in one movement, that is based on a non-musical subject. Structurally it is often similar to the sonata form, found in the the first movement of a symphony. The symphonic poem can take its inspiration from a wide variety of literary and artistic sources, or from the natural world. These stimuli never dictated to the music, they only inspired it. It is composed to conjure up the idea of a person, place, image, or some other object, and can also be seen as a guide for the listener to the true meaning of the piece. Les Préludes were the most popular of the symphonic poems with concert audiences. The inspiration for this piece came from Lamartine’s Méditations poétiques. Tasso and Mazeppa are the only other symphonic poems by Liszt that enjoy regular perfomances. The “lament and triumph” of Tasso were the inspiration of works by both Goethe and Byron. Mazeppa is the musical interpretation of Victor Hugo’s famous poem.

Something else that can be attributed to Liszt, is the current position of the piano on stage, where you see the pianist in profile. Previously, the piano soloist sat facing the orchestra, with his back to the audience.

Within months of his arrival in Weimar, Liszt was conducting the works of major composers, as well as works of his old friend Berlioz, and of other upcoming composers like Richard Wagner. The first performance of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, was conducted by Liszt in Weimar. During his period as music director, it was his task to revive the fame that the capital enjoyed under Goethe. Liszt gathered a circle of young avant-gard disciples, like Joseph Joachim. He served Liszt as concertmaster/leader of the orchestra for several years, before dissociating himself from the musical ideals of the “New German School” and Liszt.

Liszt’s enthusiasm for the “New German School” was, however, not appreciated by the Weimar townsfolk. They also disapproved of his unusual lifestyle, like the constant smoking of cigars by the couple, his fondness of brandy, and his living in sin with Carolyne. The fact that the couple were Roman Catholics in the mainly Protestant town, further overrode their regard for him as ‘Kapellmeister’.

In 1860 Carolyne got her divorce decree, and the couple planned to marry in Rome on Liszt’s 50th birthday, but at the last moment objections was raised and the marriage never took place. The death of his son, Daniel, in 1859, and the fact that he couldn’t marry Carolyne, came as heavy blows to Liszt, who all at once lost his son, lover, orchestra, and much of his reputation. He and Carolyne went their seperate ways, although they remained close friends, but no longer lovers.

In 1862 his eldest daughter, Blandine died during childbirth. This turned his thoughts once again back to religion. In 1865 he solemnized this life-long commitment by taking four minor orders of the Catholic church. He submitted to the tonsure, assumed the cassock of an abbé in the Third Order of St Francis of Assissi, but never became a full priest that’s able to hear confession and celebrate Mass, as it was refused due to his earlier lifestyle.

His second daughter by Marie d’ Agoult, Cosima, initially married his favourite pupil, Hans von Bülow, in 1857.  Later, however, she allowed herself to be seduced by Wagner. In 1864 she married Wagner, by whom she had two children. Liszt could not forgive Wagner, but still acknowledged Wagner’s music. Reconciliation only took place in 1872, enabling Liszt to participate in the laying of the cornerstone of the Bayreuth theater, where he was a frequent visitor. The sudden death of  Wagner was a terrible blow to Liszt, and Cosima made it even harder for him by banning him from the funeral, and then refusing to see her father for the next three years in order to punish him for not accepting their affair right from the beginning.

Towards the end of his life, Liszt began what is known as his ‘three cornered existence’. Dividing his year between Rome, Weima, and Budapest.  Abbé in Rome, and music teacher in Weimar and Budapest. The Conservatoire in Budapest honoured him as teacher on the 100th year of its existance. Later on Liszt retired from worldly affairs, and his last composition was the Requiem.

A final consolation came to him in 1886, when numerous ceremonies were organised to celebrate his 75th birth year. He was asked to conduct the symphonic poem St Elizabeth in Paris, as well as the Gran Mass in London. He was also invited to give a piano recital for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, and attended a public performanc of his oratorio, St Elizabeth. The tremendous homage payed to him had a profound effect on him.

From England, he once again travelled to Bayreuth. On the way he became ill, and in defiance of his doctor’s orders to stay in bed, he attended the performance of Parsifal. His condition worsend, that turned to pneumonia. Liszt died in Bayreuth on 31 July 1886, at the age of  75.

Liszt is currently honoured by different piano competitions in quite a few countries, namely The International Piano Competition in Utrecht, Holland; The Liszt Competition for Young Pianists in Weimar; The Liszt Memorial Competition in Budapest; and two Liszt Competitions in the U.S.A., one in Los Angeles and one in Baltimore, Maryland.

In Budapest there are several monuments to honour Liszt. Among them are monument to him, where students are trained even today. There is a statue of Liszt with his hands in the air as if he was playing on the piano on Liszt Square, and a statue at the front facade of the Hungarian State Opera House.

To conclude, I quote The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music: “The significance of Liszt’s achievements as a composer has sometimes been underated. However, his talents as pianist and his importance in the history of piano technique have never been questioned. His own phenomenal talent made him the greatest pianist of his, possibly any, generation, but more important was the influence which his teaching and the practice of his pupils had on the development of the technique of the instrument.”


The Classical Collection. 1992. no 18, 61, 94. London:Orbis

Cross, M & D. Ewen. 1962.  Milton Cross’ Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and their Music. Vol I. New York:Doubleday & Co.

The Great Composers and their  music. 1990. Part 12. London:Marshall Cavendish

Hindley, G (ed). 1994. The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music. London:Hamlyn

Scholes, Percy A. 1960. The Oxford Companion to Music. London:Oxford University Press

Stanley, John (ed) 2005. Classical Music. London:Octopus


©  Marna de Klerk. 2012