BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – The quintessential Romantic musician and artist, Hungarian-born Franz Liszt was arguably the most brilliant piano virtuoso of his time and among the most celebrated composers of the 19th century. But who is the man lying behind this powerful and enigmatic figure, whose own musical legacy has been a matter of debate and controversy long after his death?
Franz Liszt, the child prodigy
Franz Liszt was born Liszt Ferenc to parents Adam and Anna Liszt in 1811 in Doborjan (modern-day Raiding, in Austria), at the time located in the Kingdom of Hungary and part of the Austrian Empire.
Young Liszt started playing the piano at an early age, influenced and trained by his own father, an amateur musician and cello player working at the service of Prince Nicolas Eszterhazy.
“When he was six, he heard me play Ries’s Concerto in C-sharp minor at the piano. Franz, bending over the piano, listened, completely absorbed. In the evening […] he sang the theme of the concerto. […] That was the first indication of his genius”, his father later wrote. Their father-son relationship has often been compared to the one between Leopold Mozart and a certain Wolfgang Amadeus, half a century before, and Adam Liszt quickly became something of an impresario for his own son, whom he saw destined to become one of the greatest artists of his time.
A very religious child, Liszt was fond of and simultaneously attracted by sacred music and gypsy folk tunes, two contradicting influences that stayed with him his entire life. A true child prodigy, he started composing at the age of 8, gave his first public recital at 9 and created his first opera, Don Sanche, at the age of 13. Legend has it – although most historians have dismissed the episode as pure fiction – that Beethoven himself attended one of his recitals when Liszt was 11 and, at the end, gave him a kiss to bestow his benediction on the young prodigy.
As soon as Liszt started giving public piano recitals, he made such an impression on the local Hungarian magnates that – as was his father’s ploy – they agreed to pay for his scholarship for him to pursue his musical education and training. Franz Liszt went on, with his family, to study in Vienna, receiving piano lessons from Carl Czerny, a former pupil of Beethoven himself, and Antonio Salieri.
“Saved by the guns”
From that point forward, Liszt’s career skyrocketed. The young prodigy continued his education and started performing all over Europe, including in Germany and Paris, where he settled with his family. Although he was rejected from the Paris Conservatoire, which didn’t accept foreign students at the time, he quickly took the French capital by storm: in the mid-1820s, his debut in Paris, the cultural capital of Europe, if not the world, was a major turning point.
He became a celebrity almost overnight. Celebrated by the entire Parisian high-society, Liszt started touring across Europe, including in France, Switzerland and England, where he played for George IV at Windsor Castle.
But a storm was brewing on the horizon. Still convinced of his religious calling, he had entered the Paris Seminary in the early 1820s, although his parents eventually convinced him to focus on his musical career. His religious aspirations, nonetheless, only grew stronger in the next few years.
The death of his father in 1827 was a terrible blow for the young Liszt, whose mental state quickly deteriorated. Depressed, ill from nervous exhaustion, the sensational 16-year-old pianist went through a deep personal and spiritual crisis: tired of being displayed and flaunted like a trophy-child all across Europe, Liszt seriously considered abandoning music altogether to become a priest. In the late 1820s, he stopped touring, only giving piano lessons while spending most of his time at church and reading religious books. The state of depression he was in was so profound that a French newspaper even ran his obituary, believing he was dead.
As his mother would later famously say, he was then “saved by the guns”: when the 1830 revolution broke out in Paris, the young pianist came out of his solitude to take part, head-on, in the historic events unfolding in the French capital. That’s when he composed the Symphonie Révolutionnaire (which has remained unfinished) and came in contact with all the leading and most prominent intellectual and artistic figures of his time in Paris: Victor Hugo, Balzac, Delacroix, Heinrich Heine or Lamartine (Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses are based on a collection of his poems).
Some of these encounters had a major influence on the young pianist, including his meeting with another piano prodigy from Central Europe, a certain Frédéric Chopin; but also Hector Berlioz, whose Symphonie fantastique Liszt would later transcribe for piano; and, most importantly, Paganini, whose diabolical skills at the violin Liszt set out to emulate at the piano.
Most biographers agree that Liszt started emerging as a mature composer in the early 1830s. His personal life also took a different turn. Through poet Alfred de Musset and novelist George Sand, he met Marie de Flavigny, countess d’Agoult, with whom he started an affair. The countess later broke off from her husband and would become the first great love of his life.
Living several years together, they spent most of their time in Switzerland and in Italy, with a first daughter, Blandine, born in 1835. It’s during those stays abroad that Liszt worked on and started composing the incredibly lyrical Années de pélerinage, and the first version of the monumental Transcendental Etudes. As he will do throughout most of his life, Liszt was also eager to make some works of his friends, mentors and major artistic influences more accessible to the wider public, transcribing for the piano works of Berlioz and Paganini, as well as Beethoven symphonies or Schubert songs.
A second daughter, Cosima, and a son Daniel were born in the late 1930’s, when his relationship with Madame d’Agoult started going from bad to worse. The two lovers eventually parted in 1844 and a revengeful Madame would later publish under a pseudonym Nélida, a novel telling the love story between a young aristocratic girl and a failed artist who bears great resemblance to the Hungarian-born virtuoso.
After separating from Madame d’Agoult, Liszt came back to Paris with his children and resumed his work as a touring pianist. The “Lisztomania”, as it was later called, took Paris by storm and the virtuoso became nothing less than an icon – an authentic 19th century “rock star”: Liszt was showered with adulation by huge crowds wherever he went, making headlines in all the newspapers for his entrancing musical performances as well as his romantic entanglements that filled the gossip columns. His aura of mystery and mesmerizing prowess at the keyboard were on everyone’s lips.
Reports from that period show that police needed, in some cases, to be deployed when he appeared in public to contain scenes of collective hysteria, and that crowds were driven utterly wild during his concerts, famous for the charismatic, enigmatic and entranced performances of a virtuosity unmatched at the time. From Portugal to Turkey, Russia or Ukraine, Liszt was a sensation, not only in Paris but all across Europe.
His intense travelling eventually brought him back to his native Hungary in 1839-1840, the first time since he had left as a child. His return to his native roots heralded the famous Hungarian Rhapsodies, where the influence of gypsy music is evident, as well as other, lesser-known works echoing Hungarian folk tunes.
The Weimar years
The late 1840s mark a turning point in his life: taking everyone by surprise, Liszt gave up his career as a piano virtuoso to focus on composition. He settled in Weimar, Germany, a city he already knew well and where he lived with the second great love of his life: the princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, also married, whom he had met in Kiev.
Leaving the exhausting and helter-skelter lifestyle of a touring celebrity, Liszt could focus entirely on composing. The Weimar years are, for that matter, one of the most prolific ones in his life: from his German retreat emerged, among other works, 12 symphonic poems and numerous choral works, the Faust Symphony, Piano Concert 1, Piano Concerto 2, Piano Sonata in B Minor, the Totentanz, a revised version of the Paganini Etudes and Transcendental Etudes, as well as the first two books of Années de Pélerinage.
But once again, fate started taking a turn for the worse. Liszt’s role in helping Wagner flee Germany due to his political activism was not well received at the Weimar court, nor was his relationship with the married princess Sayn-Wittgenstein. While Liszt had been the director of music extraordinary to the Weimar court since 1843, he faced growing attacks from all sides. He eventually resigned from his post in 1858. His son died the following year at the age of 20 and Liszt, depressed and in an increasingly unbearable position, left Weimar in the early 1860s.
The last years
Franz Liszt traveled to Italy and reunited with the princess, who had come to Rome to ask the Pope to sanction her divorce from her husband. A last-minute revocation of the pope’s decision, however, shattered the lovers’ hopes of being allowed to lawfully live together.
They nonetheless stayed in Rome for the following eight years. Once again, Liszt’s religious calling came back to the fore: not only did he compose mostly religious and sacred music (Die Legende von der Heiligen, Elisabeth, Christus), as well as the Hungarian Coronation Mass for the coronation of Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria as King of Hungary, but he even received the minor orders, proof that his desire to become a priest had never truly left him.
Liszt’s personal woes only increased following the death of his daughter Blandine in 1862. His only remaining daughter, Cosima, married to one of Liszt’s former pupils Hans von Bülow, for her part started an affair with Wagner – a relationship Liszt saw as a personal betrayal and refused to acknowledge for several years.
During the last years of his life, Liszt divided his time between Budapest, Rome and Weimar, and continued to compose, to hold concerts and teach in master-classes. During this time, his compositions slowly lost the brilliance and Romantic spark of his youth. All his life he had been torn between the mundane and worldly career of an extravagant virtuoso, and the yearning for a more quiet and isolated life dedicated to religion and spiritual betterment. Reinforced by the feeling, which he repeatedly expressed in his correspondence, of having spent most of his life as a mere “circus attraction”, Liszt chose the latter as his life entered its twilight. Even in his testament, Liszt was still pondering over whether he should not have chosen to lead his life as a priest.
Increasingly introverted, austere and experimental, his music evolved into something completely different than what had come before: his later compositions darkened (like Nuages Gris), while others went so far as to herald the works of composers like Bela Bartok or Arnold Schoenberg.
Mid-July 1886, Franz Liszt gave what would be his last concert in Luxembourg. A few days later, he traveled to Bayreuth to attend the world-famous festival of which he was a regular attendee and participant. Although he was already ill, he went there at the request of his daughter Cosima, in charge of the festival’s organization: despite knowing his health was deteriorating, she had asked her illustrious father to come to Bayreuth to “save” the festival, whose reputation had been on a downward trend for some time. He died there a few days later on July 31, 1886, at the age of 74.
The legacy of Franz Liszt
Decades after his death, experts and historians were still crossing swords on the significance and nature of Franz Liszt’s legacy. One thing, however, is certain: Liszt was one of the most talented pianists and virtuoso of his time. But in the eyes of many, Liszt was only a virtuoso who “tried his hand” at composing. His compositions were indeed criticized for a long time for being shallow and superficial, too brilliant and extravagant – slightly “show-off”, so to speak – works which only reflected the pianist’s virtuosity and skills but lacked the maturity and achievement of “true composers”. For many, Liszt epitomized empty and extravagant music from the Romantic era, which might have been enough to please impressionable audiences but didn’t make him a full-fledged composer.
It was only later that the originality of his work, the uniqueness of his approach, visionary in many ways, along with the incredible diversity of his personal compositions were truly recognized. It’s also worth noting that Liszt is widely credited for inventing the solo piano recital form, very common today but extremely rare at this time.
Franz Liszt was therefore a highly controversial figure, both in his lifetime and long after he was gone. Today, he’s not only viewed as one of the most prominent and influential figures of the Romantic movement in classical music, but also as a full-fledged composer in his own right, inventor of the symphonic poem for orchestra, for instance, and pioneer in the “transformation of themes” method which Wagner will take on as his own with his famous opera “leitmotifs”.
Hungarian by birth but, above all, a deeply European and cosmopolitan figure, Liszt was an avant-guarde and visionary artist, as well as an educator who made the complex works of other composers accessible to the wider public. Biographers believe that roughly half of his 700 compositions are transcriptions to piano of the works of others, including Beethoven, Wagner, Schubert, Berlioz or Paganini. His impact on musicology is, evidently, even more direct, as Liszt taught, advised or helped in one way or another dozens of younger pianists and composers throughout his career – including the likes of Richard Wagner, Frédéric Chopin, Edvard Grieg, Robert Schumann, Aleksandr Borodin or Claude Debussy.