Print Shortlink

Liszt, Franz (22nd October 1811-41st July 1886)

He was a virtuoso pianist, composer and teacher born in Raiding, Hungary, where the Hungarian translation of his surname means “flour”.  His main language was German with Hungarian only being spoken by the minority until the 1870s.

His father, Adam, who was proficient on the cello, guitar and violin had aspirations towards music but Franz was the one who succeeded in the field.  He learned the piano from his father from the time he was seven and when he was 9 years old his father wrote to Prince Nikolaus II Esterhazy, who he worked as a steward for, and informed him that his son, who was a child prodigy, had already been through the complete works of many of the major composers including J.S. Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

Also when he was nine, he performed in a concert in Odenburg and performed Ferdinand Ries’ “Concerto in E flat major” and one of his own improvisations.  He also gave a performance at Count Michael Esterhazy’s palace, which resulted in his being given an annual sum to ensure he could study abroad for the next six years.

He studied with Carl Czerny in Vienna who described Liszt’s playing at that time as “very chaotic” and from 1822 he studied composition with Antonio Salieri.  Also in 1822 he made his debut at a concert in Vienna where he performed works by Beethoven, Hummel and Rossini.  The following year he gave another concert where he played works by Hummel and Moscheles where Beethoven was an admiring spectator and came and kissed him on the forehead while congratulating him..

When he was still only eleven years old he was helping provide financial support at home by performing concerts in various German cities and in December 1823, after he had turned twelve, the family settled in Paris.  The day after he arrived he was taken by his father to the Paris Conservatoire but was refused entry as they were only allowing French piano students at that time.  His father decided to become his teacher and his lessons included him having to perform some of J.S. Bach’s fugues in different keys each day.  He also learnt French in a very short time and soon it became his language of preference.

In early 1824 he had already gained popularity by giving performances at concerts and private functions and earned himself the nickname “Petit Liszt”.  This name changed to “Master Liszt” when he went to England and the money made from his concerts was enough for his father to invest in the bonds of Prince Esterhazy.  That same year he took further composition studies with Anton Reicha and composed many works that included chamber and piano pieces, sonatas and concertos, some of which were published.  Aside from these compositions he also began writing the opera Don Sanche, ou Le chateau de l’amour with the assistance of Ferdinando Paer in 1824 and it received its premiere at the Academie Royal de Musique in October 1825 with minimal success.

Becoming disheartened he started to be drawn towards religion but he was made to continue performing by his father.  However he returned to composition more in 1826 and published his Opus 6, which was 12 original etudes.  He became ill and went to Boulogne with his father to recover, but while there his father contracted and died of typhus in 1827.  Although writing a funeral march, Liszt was never thought to have visited his grave in Boulogne and returned to Paris to reside with his mother.

From around 1830 he made up for some of his lost education, due to constantly performing and studying music, by becoming an avid reader, which he continued to be for the rest of his life.  He also left home to live in an apartment, which he named “Ratzenloch” and helped finance himself by teaching piano and composition.  He did continue to perform but on a far smaller scale and would mainly take part in private functions hosted by Rossini and other artists.

He went to Geneva, Switzerland, at the end of 1830/beginning of 1831 and after experiencing personal problems during that trip he went almost two years without giving a concert performance until appearing at a charity event in Rouen in 1832.  He then went back to Paris and resumed performances there.  It was around that time that he became acquainted with Chopin and Mendelssohn who had visited Paris, neither of whom were initially impressed with his work.

After becoming a follower of the Saint-Simonist sect of Pere Enfantin he decided to give up teaching and concentrate on his work in music as a composer and performer.  He did, however, continue to teach but still wanted to concentrate on becoming the greatest virtuoso pianist.  He went to a village near Rouen to stay with a family and while there composed his “Grande Fantaisie de Bravoure sur La Clochette de Paganini” which wasn’t completed due to him falling ill.  However, he performed it at a concert in November 1834 but it didn’t go well and put people in doubt as to his compositional abilities.

After meeting the French author Marie d’Agoult and a French priest in 1834 he began to throw himself into composition again and produced several works that included a Mazurka, a duo-sonata, a duo for two pianos and several other pieces for piano and orchestra.  However, these works weren’t published or performed and were to meet a sticky end when he had a letter published in 1837 saying that he was going to burn them.

In 1835 he and Marie d’Agoult had their first child Blandine and he held a post on the faculty of the Geneva Conservatory.  Moving to Venice, his 12 Grande Etudes were completed in 1837 and he was requested to visit London and Vienna to perform them prior to publication but he was reticent to leave Marie who was expecting their second child, Cosima.

In 1838 he undertook to travel to Vienna and Hungary to perform concerts although his requests to return the following year were hampered when his third child, Daniel, was born in Rome.  However he did manage to give concerts in Venice, Trieste and Vienna and perform his Sonnambula-fantasy in 1839.  He went back to Vienna in 1840 to give even more performances and in March of that year performed in Prague.  He then went to Dresden and Leipzig but wasn’t given a good reception, even though Mendelssohn had arranged and performed in a concert with him at the Gewandhaus.  He returned to Paris in the hope that he could begin a new stage of his life and had planned to perform in a concert series.  It didn’t go as planned though when he was given a hard time on occasion by the written media although Berlioz wrote the statement “We let Mozart and Beethoven starve to death, while giving a sabre of honour to Mr. Liszt”.

He travelled to London in May 1840 but he didn’t receive the financial benefit that he had hoped for.  Marie joined him there for a while and then they went to Rotterdam.  He became a member of Lewis Henry Lavenu’s troupe and went back to England on a national tour with them while Marie went to Paris.   Although not a financial success, it still went down well enough to earn another tour for that winter.

He gave several European concerts in various cities before returning to England for the second tour but due to several mishaps in the journey over he missed the first couple of concerts and the tour itself became a financial disaster with him losing an awful lot of money.  This resulted in him being loaned money by a publisher and Ignaz Moscheles.   He gave a further performance in London, but once again got held up on a journey to Brussels at the beginning of February 1841 for a concert.  He missed the event again but a director of the Brussels Conservatoire put a private concert together for two days later and he gave several more performances in Belgium between then and mid-March when he returned to Paris.

This time he had a happy return to the city where his season of concerts which included his “Robert le Diable” brought him the most success he had seen since a child.  In fact it saw the start of “Lisztomania” where women apparently fought over his personal effects such as gloves and handkerchiefs so they could keep them as souvenirs.  He went back to London for a few dates and suddenly his virtuosity was being recognised once more throughout Europe.  He also performed concerts in Germany for the Beethoven monument in Bonn.

He accepted the offer of the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlova of Russia to become Kapellmeister Extraordinaire at Weimar.  Settling into this position in 1842 he would stay there as a composer, musician, conductor and teacher for nearly twenty years until 1861.

He gave up his career as a concert pianist in 1846 and it has been said that he had earned enough money by this time that he gave much of it away to charities and good causes and his performances after 1857 had most of his fees paid to charity..

In 1857 he joined a Franciscan order and in 1863 he settled in a small apartment at a monastery outside Rome.  He was given minor orders and a tonsure in 1865 but did not continue to become a priest.  His compositions during the 1860s did reflect on this part of his life with several taking on a religious aspect and he directed several sacred music events in Rome.

In 1869 he went back to Weimar and started to hold an annual series of master classes in piano.  He also did this at the Hungarian Conservatory from 1876 and the rest of his time was spent in Rome.  He founded his own school in 1872, which is now known as the Liszt School of Music Weimar.

In 1881 he became ill in Weimar after he had a fallen down some stairs and been confined for eight weeks.  Although suffering from various conditions following this event he managed to give a concert in Luxembourg in 1886, which would be his last.   He went to the Bayreuth Festival in July of that year where his daughter Cosima, who was married to Richard Wagner, was hosting the music festival and after contracting pneumonia, he passed away there at 74 years old.

Thought of as the leading piano virtuoso of his time, his works as a composer are many but include symphonies, numerous works for piano, fifteen Hungarian rhapsodies, twelve symphonic poems (which he created), two “Mephisto Waltz”, oratorios, masses, organ music and choral and sacred works.  He also transcribed and arranged many pieces of music such as the Christmas carols used in his Christmas Tree Suite, which he dedicated to his granddaughter.

Paul Bisaccia recordings
Adeste Fidelis as March of the Three Kings (John Wade/Traditional, arr. Franz Liszt)
Towerhill TH-72002 (CD: Paul Bisaccia – Classic Christmas, Jazz Christmas)