Franz Liszt

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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

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). □

Liszt, Franz

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Romanticist musician whose artistic achievements substantially influenced music history, b. Raiding (Doborján), Hungary, Oct. 22, 1811; d. Bayreuth, Germany; July 31, 1886. His father, Adam, administrator of an Esterházy estate and a skilled music amateur, was presumably of Hungarian descent; his mother, Anna (Laager) Liszt, was of Austrian-German background. Although physically frail, the boy genius was playing in public at nine. His first and most important teachers were Carl Czerny (piano) and Antonio Salieri (theory) in Vienna; later he studied composition and counterpoint with F. Paër and A. Reicha in Paris. His prodigious talent and winning manners made him society's darling, and his father exploited him, though not excessively, in England and on the Continent. Franz produced an opera, Don Sanche, in Paris in 1825; it was not successful and he never wrote another, although he figured factorially in operatic history, particularly vis-à-vis Richard wagner, as conductor, producer, and promoter. In 1827, upon the death of his father, he began teaching piano in Paris. In 1830 he met berlioz, whom he championed, and in 1831 he heard the violinist Paganini, whose virtuosity changed his whole concept of pianism. In 1832 he met chopin and was strongly influenced by his musical style. From 1839 to 1847 he toured all Europe in concert, acknowledged the greatest of all pianists (albeit something of a showman).

As a youth Liszt had at times desired to enter the priesthood but had been dissuaded by his father. In the 1830s he fell in love with Countess Marie d'Agoult (the writer "Daniel Stern") and became the father of three children: Blandine; Cosima, later Wagner's wife and widow; and Daniel. In 1848 he settled with the Polish princess Carolyne Von Sayn-Wittgenstein in Weimar, where for 12 years he served the court as Kapellmeister and produced his major orchestral works. He had hoped to marry the princess in Rome on his 50th birthday, but the union was forbidden by the Church when her existing marriage could not be dissolved. In 1865 he took minor orders from Cardinal Hohenlohe at the Vatican and was thenceforth known as the "Abbé" Liszt. In 1875 he became president of the New Academy of Music in Budapest and thereafter divided his time among Budapest, Rome, and Weimar, as elder statesman in the world of art.

Liszt was one of the great creators and innovators of 19th-century music. He expanded its expressiveness, organized new forms, justified new sources of inspiration, illumined the value of nationalism, and set the pattern of present-day concert life. He wrote a vast amount of original music, some utilizing Hungarian elements and, in later years, dissonance and atonality pointing to 20th-century idioms. His keyboard pieces are daringly emotional and chromatic, if sometimes overly sentimental. He originated the "symphonic poem" and made opulent transcriptions of songs and opera airs. Less familiar is his sacred music; yet he wrote an impressive amount, nonliturgical but of an uncommonly high quality and consonant with his fundamental piety. Two massive oratorios (Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth and Christus ) head the list, which includes several Masses, psalms, part-songs, and other religious settings.

His essay "On the Church Music of the Future" (1834), with its thesis of "humanistic religious music," inspired Wagner's later interest in church music, and its exemplification in Liszt's own music led to Wagner's Parsifal as well as to a Lisztian type of instrumental church composition. Moreover, he took a lively interest in the reform objectives of the caecilian movement and corresponded with its leader, F. X. Witt, over the creation of the Kirchenmusikschule in Regensburg. His many books (some of them probably the work of Marie d'Agoult and Princess Carolyne) reflect his broad interest in literature, philosophy, and social reform. During the early 20th century Liszt's music fell into critical disfavor along with the whole corpus of romanticist expression. The current reappraisal of romanticism has, however, returned his work to the honorable place among the scholars that it had never lost in the popular reckoning.

Bibliography: Gesammelte Schriften, ed. l. ramann, 6 v. in 7 (Leipzig 188199); Briefe, ed. la mara (i. m. lipsius), 8 v. (Leipzig 18931905); "Vierzehn Original Briefe Liszts an Witt," Musica Sacra 46 (1913) 289295. e. newman, The Man Liszt (New York 1935). r. hill, Liszt (New York 1949). h. searle, The Music of Liszt (London 1954). w. beckett, Liszt (New York 1956). s. sitwell, Liszt (rev. ed. New York 1956). h. engel, Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed. f. blume (Kassel-Basel 1949) 8:964988. k. g. fellerer, The History of Catholic Church Music, tr. f. a. brunner (Baltimore 1961). r. woodward, The Large Sacred Choral Works of Franz Liszt (Doctoral diss. microfilm; U. of Illinois 1964). w. widmann, "Witt und Liszt-Wagner," Caecilienvereinsorgan 65 (1934) 192195. j. m. baker, "The Limits of Tonality in the Late Music of Franz Liszt," Journal of Music Theory 34 (1990) 145173. s. gut, "Le profane et le religieux dans les différentes versions de l'Ave Maria de Franz Liszt," Revue de Musicologie 76 (1990) 95102. j. kanski, "Problem formy w sonacie h-moll F. Liszta: Przemiany formy sonatowej w okresie romantyzmu," Studia Muzykologiczne (1955) 276294. g. kennel, "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen: Franz Liszts Variationenein musikalischer Trauerprozeß," Musik und Kirche 69 (1999) 316325. w. kirsch, "Franz Liszts Requiem für Männerstimmen, " Kirchenmusikalisches Jahrbuch 71 (1987) 93108. v. micznik, "The Absolute Limitations of Programme Music: The Case of Liszt's Die Ideale," Music and Letters 80 (1999) 207240. r. satyendra, "Conceptualising Expressive Chromaticism in Liszt's Music," Music Analysis 16 (1997) 219252. d. schmidt, "Liszt und die Gegenwart: Versuch einer theoretischen Schlußfolgerung aus der Lektüre dreier Analysen zum Klavierstück Unstern!, " Musiktheorie 11 (1996) 241252. l. r. todd, "The 'Unwelcome Guest' Regaled: Franz Liszt and the Augmented Triad," 19th Century Music 12 (1988) 93115.

[e. n. waters]

Liszt, Franz

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LISZT, FRANZ (1811–1886), virtuoso pianist, composer, conductor, and musical producer.

Franz Liszt created an image that still endures in musical performance in Western culture. He was the first to place a grand piano lengthwise, alone, on the stage for a piano concert, and invented the form of the piano recital, which young musicians still contend with today. Liszt emulated Niccoló Paganini (1782–1840), the Italian violinist whose virtuosity was so prodigious that he was reputed to be possessed by the devil. But what, in Paganini's case, was a deviation—the solo performer defying the laws of nature in his ability to perform—became a hallmark of modernity, a perfected business, in the case of Liszt. He was one of the first musicians to tour internationally on a regular basis, and was received with an excessive enthusiasm that foreshadowed the orgiastic reactions to 1960s rock bands. What Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) called "Lisztomania" was a new and distinctly Romantic phenomenon, and Liszt was felt to be a true representative of his time. He lived a flamboyant life and had many liaisons, but never married. Opinion was split about Liszt: Was he truly a brilliant performer, or a mere showman with astonishing but empty technical abilities? Was he inspired, or did he know how to manipulate his audience through advertising, charisma, and vain effects?

Liszt was born in 1811 in Raiding, Hungary, to bourgeois parents. His life spanned the nineteenth century; he died in Bayreuth in 1886. At eight, he went to Vienna and studied with Carl Czerny. Liszt's life is enveloped in fictions. Some accounts claim, for example, that at his farewell concert in Vienna at the age of eleven, Liszt received a "kiss of benediction" from Ludwig van Beethoven himself, though evidence shows that Beethoven was not even present. In 1823 Liszt moved to Paris, where he was refused entry to the Conservatory, since foreigners were not allowed to study there. This contributed to Liszt's status as an outsider, a cause of resentment throughout his career. Determined to gain fame and glory to make up for his marginal social status—both foreigner and bourgeois—he devoted himself to performances of the musical canon and of his own compositions and adaptations of others' compositions, Paganini's, for example. Despite his prodigious popularity, many criticized Liszt's performances as mere display of technical ability. He was ridiculed, too, for his social climbing. He was awarded, for example, a bejeweled "Sword of Honor" by a group of Hungarian noblemen when he performed there in 1840. Satirists often pictured Liszt with this saber riding on his piano to the strains of his own "Grand Galop Chromatique." Liszt was a constant defender of Romantic music and moved in circles with artists and writers including Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849), Hector Berlioz (1803–1869), George Sand (Aman-dine Dudevant; 1804–1876), Alphonse-Marie-Louis Lamartine (1790–1869), and Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863).

Liszt retired from performance at the age of thirty-five in 1847, thus ending the period of his life most vivid in cultural memory. Taking a position as Kapellmeister at Weimar, Liszt devoted his efforts to composition. During this time, Liszt composed new versions of his famous piano composition: the six Etudes d'Après Paganini, and the twelve Grands Ètudes d'Execution Transcendantes, which Charles Rosen considers a masterpiece of keyboard composition. Liszt's originality as a piano composer lies in his interest in color and the musical importance of performance techniques. The technique of thematic transformation offered variations of style rather than thematic development. This technique is highlighted in the Sonata in B Minor (1852), often thought to be Liszt's greatest work. Even in composition, Liszt never lost sight of the constitutive role of musical realization. Liszt also invented the symphonic poem, of which he composed twelve during his years at Weimar, as well as the Faust and Dante symphonies. The symphonic poem is a one-movement composition that draws its inspiration from a source in literature or painting. Liszt based his symphonic poems on readings of Victor Hugo (1802–1885) and Lamartine, for example.

As Kappellmeister in Weimar, Liszt strongly promoted the "new music" of others, in particular of Richard Wagner (who married Liszt's daughter Cosima). Liszt produced The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser with great success. He wrote important introductory texts to Wagner's operas, which served as program notes in Germany and France. Liszt continued his role as musical disseminator that had begun so spectacularly on the virtuoso stage.

Liszt had a long career as a writer, which is also shrouded in controversy, especially since there are no remaining manuscripts in his own hand. As an adult, Liszt no longer spoke Hungarian and had no real first language, though he did speak French and German. Perhaps because of his problematic relationship to language, his writing is usually read through his two major relationships: Countess Marie d'Agoult (Cosima Wagner's mother) and Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. Both women are believed to have been ghost writers of Liszt texts. Among Liszt's writings are a biography of Chopin, the program notes for Wagner's operas, and a strange book. In this book, Liszt tries to find the origin of virtuosity in Magyar folk culture, as well as justify his own "Hungarian Rhapsodies," first conceived during a trip to Hungary. Although his methodology would not satisfy any scientific standards today, Liszt deserves credit for his pioneering efforts to connect popular ethnic music and high art music. The book is also the context for Liszt's late identification with Hungary. Though he had virtually no relationship to Hungary and was most strongly influenced by the French and German musical traditions, he always claimed to be Hungarian. This confusion about origin and identity is typical of the growing problems surrounding nationality in the nineteenth century.

In 1861 Liszt moved to Rome, where he took lay orders and stayed until 1868. He then traveled between Rome, Weimar, and Hungary, continuing to teach and compose until his death. At home everywhere and nowhere, a speaker of many tongues but no mother tongue, Liszt—brilliant virtuoso and manipulative showman, composer, and author—was truly a virtuoso of the nineteenth century.

See alsoChopin, Frédéric; Music; Paganini, Niccoló; Wagner, Richard.


Bernstein, Susan. Virtuosity of the Nineteenth Century: Performing Music and Language in Heine, Liszt, and Baudelaire. Stanford, Calif., 1998.

Rosen, Charles. The Romantic Tradition. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt. 3 vols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1983–1996.

Watson, Derek. Liszt. New York, 1989.

Susan Bernstein

Liszt, Franz

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Liszt, Franz (1811–86) Hungarian composer and pianist, father-in-law of Richard Wagner. He was the greatest pianist of his generation. Liszt's challenging compositions for piano include Transcendental Studies (1851). He invented the symphonic poem. Although his output was predominantly piano pieces, Liszt also wrote orchestral works, such as the Faust Symphony (1857), Hungarian rhapsodies, and choral music. He was patron to Frédéric Chopin and Edvard Grieg.