Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt (Hungarian: Liszt Ferenc) (October 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886) was a Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer. He was a renowned performer throughout Europe during the 19th century, noted especially for his showmanship and complete sovereignty over the keyboard. Today, he is generally considered to be one of the greatest pianists who ever lived.

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 earned him approbation by composers and performers alike. His great generosity with both time and money benefited the lives of many people: victims of disasters, orphans and the many students he taught for free. He also contributed to the Beethoven memorial fund.

His piano compositions include works such as his Piano Sonata in B minor, and two piano concertos, which have entered the standard repertoire. He also made many exuberant piano transcriptions of operas, famous symphonies, Paganini Caprices, and Schubert Lieder. As would be expected from a pianist-composer of Liszt’s virtuosity, many of his piano compositions are among the most technically challenging in the repertoire.

His music is well loved in part because of its melodic and emotional harmonies. He would often add a few pages of flashiness in his music to impress the young women. He deeply loved women and wrote many love songs for them.


Liszt was born in the village of Doborján, near Sopron, Hungary, in what was then the Austrian Empire (Doborján is now Raiding in Austria after the Treaty of Trianon of 1920). His baptism record is in Latin and lists his first name as Franciscus. The Hungarian variant Ferenc is often used, though Liszt never used this himself. His father, Ádám Liszt, was Hungarian and his mother was Austrian-born Anna Liszt, née Lager.

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, so the level of music was fairly good.

Liszt displayed incredible talent at a young age, easily sight-reading multiple staves at once. His father gave him his first music lessons when he was six years old. Local aristocrats noticed his talent and enabled him to travel to Vienna and later to Paris with his family. As a result, Liszt never fully learned Hungarian; 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 (his preferred language).

In Vienna he was educated in piano technique by Carl Czerny. His father had wanted 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-Saens, and the latter dedicated his Symphony #3 in C Minor to Liszt.

On April 13, 1823, Liszt gave a concert, and it is often said that the 53-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven gave him a kiss for his marvelous playing.

Years of Pilgrimage

Liszt left Vienna in 1823 to travel. In Paris, on March 9, 1831, he attended a concert by the virtuoso violinist Paganini and became motivated to become the greatest pianist of his day. He often took to seclusion in his room, and was heard practicing for over 10 hours a day. In 1832 he wrote the Grande Fantaisie de Bravoure sur La Clochette de Paganini (“Great 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 (Etudes for Transcendental Technique after Paganini). Also composed in this period were the 12 Grandes Etudes (Liszt later rewrote these into the 12 Transcendental Etudes in 1851).

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. He was very widely read in philosophy, art and literature and was on friendly terms with the painter Ingres and the authors Heine, Lamennais, H.C. Andersen, and Baudelaire, who addressed his prose poem “Le thyrse” to Liszt.

From 1835 to 1839 Franz Liszt lived with Marie Catherine Sophie de Flavigny, ex-wife of the Comte d’Agoult. She is better known by her pen name, “Daniel Stern.” They had two daughters, Blandina (1835-1862) and Cosima (1837-1930), and one son, Daniel (1839-1859).

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 1200 in Dublin. The tour was however a financial failure, and Liszt waived his promised 500 guineas a month fee.

After 1842, when “Lisztomania” swept acros the European continent, Liszt’s recitals were in an overwhelming demand. His admirers praised and courted him, and ladies fought over his handkerchiefs and gloves, which they often ripped to pieces as souvenirs. Liszt’s contemporaries such as Chopin and Schumann saw this kind of worship as vulgar and inappropriate, and eventually came to despise Liszt because of it.

In 1847 Liszt met Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. The Princess was an author, whose one work was published in 16 volumes, each containing over 1600 pages. Her longwinded writing style had some effect on Liszt himself. His biography of Chopin and his chronology and analysis of Gypsy music (which later inspired Béla Bartók) were both written in the Princess’ 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 could not approve the wedding. Liszt and Princess Carolyne remained friends, although Liszt never recovered from being unable to marry her.

During the years in which he performed regularly in public, he was almost universally acknowledged (even by musical conservatives who disliked his compositions) as the foremost pianistic executant and interpereter. 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

In 1848, Liszt gave up public performances on the piano and went to Weimar, remaining there until 1861. During this period he acted as conductor at court concerts and on special occasions at the theatre, gave lessons to a number of pianists, including the great virtuoso Hans von Bülow, who married Liszt’s daughter Cosima in 1857. He also wrote articles championing Berlioz and 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 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 Herder’s dramatic scenes Prometheus, and the Graner Fest Messe.

In 1851 he published a revised version of the 1838 Etudes d’Execution Transcendante d’apres Paganini, now titled Grandes Etudes de Paganini (Grand etudes after Paganini), the most famous of which is La Campanella, a study in octaves, shakes (trills) and leaps.

In retirement

Liszt retired to Rome in 1861. He joined the Franciscan order in 1865, receiving 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. Cosima left Bülow, who abused her, for Wagner in 1869. The intensely devout Catholic Liszt was personally repulsed by his new son-in-law, but continued to champion his music, and regularly attended the Bayreuth Festival.

From 1876 until his death he also taught for several months every year at the Hungarian Conservatoire of 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. Other pieces are based on works by Lord Byron, Goethe and Dante. Liszt’s symphonic poems, although successes, were criticised 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 nationalist works 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 Pélerinage (“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.

To Franz Liszt’s honor, he helped found the Liszt School of Music Weimar [1], which bears his name. – Besides, Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest (a music school and a concert hall) is also named after him.

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. This massive undertaking included a number of premiere recordings.

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 and Paganini Studies, written in 1838-39, and described by Schumann as “playable at the most, 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.

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 often applied in his compositions with, often unparalled difficulty. He would often challenge himself and his immaculate fingering by presenting random problems to his playing. During a performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in Vienna he managed to cut the second finger of his left hand, and played the entire piece by redistributing the notes amongst his other fingers.

During the 1830s and 1840s—the years of Liszt’s “transcendental execution”, he revolutionized piano technique in almost every sector. Figures like Rubinstein, Paderewski and Rachmaninoff turned to Liszt’s music to discover the laws which govern the keyboard.

Piano recital

While touring, Liszt would play before as many as three thousand attendees. He would learn entire programmes from memory, play with the piano at right angles to the platform (with its lid open, reflecting sound across the auditorium), and traversed the European continent from the Urals to Ireland. Those were all feats unmatched by any solo pianist at the time. The very term “recital” was coined by Liszt in London on June 9, 1840, and his career model is still followed by performing artists to this day.

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 “Scaffold March” from Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (S/G470, R136)
  • (1833) Divertissement on the Cavatina “I tuoi frequenti palpiti” from Pacini’s La Niobe (S/G419, R230)
  • (1838) Grandes Etudes de Paganini, including No. 3, “La Campanella”; and No. 5, “La Chasse” (revised 1851)
  • (1841) Feuilles d’album (‘Album Leaves’), (S/G165)
  • (1841) Réminiscences de Don Juan, (S/G418)
  • (1848) 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, (1848-9) (after Victor Hugo)
    • Tasso: lamento e trionfo, (1849) (after 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 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), piano concerto. (revised 1853-1859)
  • (1850) Liebesträume No. 3 (“Dreams of Love”) in A-flat Major (piano solo) (S/G541, R211)
  • (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)
  • (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.
  • (1852) Valse-Impromptu, (S/G213)
  • (1853) Piano Sonata in B minor (S/G178, R21)
  • (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)
  • (1866) Christus (S/G498b)
  • (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 Humphrey Searle catalogue of the 1960s, The Music of Liszt. [2]
  • 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 Paganini; the position of music in Italy; Robert and Clara Schumann; Chopin; Robert Franz; Beethoven’s “Fidelio”; Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; the Goethe’s Foundation at Weimar; 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 actually written by Marie d’Agoult and Carolyn von Sayn-Wittgenstein. 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. It is now considered a lost work. It would provide an invaluable insight into the playing style of probably the greatest pianist who ever lived.


  • Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt, The Virtuoso Years (revised edition) Cornell University Press, 1987. ISBN 0801494214.
  • Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt, The Weimar Years Cornell University Press, 1989. ISBN 0801497213.

External links

Further reading

  • Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years (1811-1847) by Alan Walker, Cornell University Press, Revised Edition (1993) ISBN 0801494214
  • Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years (1848-1861) by Alan Walker, Cornell University Press, Reprint (1993) ISBN 0801497213
  • Franz Liszt: The Final Years (1861-1886) by Alan Walker, Cornell University Press, reprint (1997) ISBN 0801484537
  • The Death of Franz Liszt: Based on the Unpublished Diary of His Pupil Lina Schmalhausen by Lina Schmalhausen, annotated and edited by Alan Walker, Cornell University Press (2002) ISBN 0801440769
  • The Piano Master Classes of Franz Liszt 1884-1886: Diary Notes of August Gollerich by August Gollerich, edited by Wilhelm Jerger, translated by Richard Louis Zimdars, Indiana University Press (1996) ISBN 0253332230

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