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Franz Liszt (1811–1886)


Franz Liszt was a Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, music teacher and arranger and organist and is widely regarded as one of the greatest pianists of all time. His notable compositions included symphonic poems, piano concerti, choral works and a wide range of solo piano pieces.

Liszt was born in Hungary, then part of the Habsburg Empire, in 1811. His father was a talented amateur musician and started teaching his son to love music and to play the piano when he was very young. Liszt started composing when he was eight and gave his first public recital when he was nine. His family were then given money to continue his musical education and moved to Vienna, where Liszt studied piano with Carl Czerny and composition with Antonio Salieri. He gave a number of successful public concerts in Vienna and at some point is thought to have met Beethoven, probably introduced to him by his teacher Czerny. (Add link to Czerny page) His family then moved to Paris, where Liszt continued his musical studies and gave further public recitals. His reputation across Europe grew and he became a piano teacher and concert pianist of some renown. He continued composing and giving concerts through the 1830s and 1840s, despite suffering bouts of depression and ill health, and at various times met, among other celebrities of the time, Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine, Berlioz (with whom he collaborated) and Chopin. He was also influenced by hearing Paganini perform. He subsequently embarked on a relationship with a married French aristocrat, Marie D'Agoult and they lived together in Switzerland from 1835 onwards and had three children. Liszt continued his touring career to widespread acclaim and adulation. He had numerous mistresses, although his relationship with Marie D'Agoult continued until 1844 when they finally parted. After that, his career as both virtuoso performer and composer continued to flourish. At various times, he lived and worked in Weimar, Rome, Budapest and Bayreuth. During his sojourn in Rome, Liszt took minor orders in the Roman Catholic Church (although he was never ordained a priest) and composed a certain amount of sacred music, much of which went unpublished in his lifetime. He also collaborated with Wagner, who subsequently lived with and then married Liszt's daughter Cosima. A relationship he had started in 1847 with a married Polish aristocrat, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, continued to play a major part in his life, although they were unable for various reasons to marry, until his death in 1886.

Liszt was undoubtedly the greatest piano virtuoso of his time and is regarded as a major figure in the romantic movement. He was also a composer of considerable originality who radically extended the techniques of both piano writing and playing. He is also sometimes credited with extending the harmonic language of his time and developing chromatic harmony in a way that facilitated the subsequent breakdown of tonality and to the atonal music of the twentieth century. He also invented the symphonic poem for orchestra and the method of “transformation of themes”, which had a considerable influence on Wagner's subsequent operatic compositions. His concerts helped promote the music of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Wagner and Schumann, as well as more modern composers such as Grieg, Borodin and Debussy. His musical and literary outputs were both prodigious and, although he may have been more highly regarded during his lifetime as a virtuoso pianist than as a composer, his standing as an innovative composer has grown since his death.

By way of note, Liszt has in more recent times been impersonated in a number of films. One of the more interesting impersonations, although not necessarily the most historically accurate, can be enjoyed in Ken Russell's 1975 film Lisztomania (a term thought to have been first coined by Heinrich Heine in Liszt's lifetime) in which the maestro was played by Roger Daltry, then lead singer of The Who. But be warned, the film also features a cameo appearance by Ringo Starr as the then Pope. It's that kind of film!