Known for his flair, superior technical ability, and his showmanship, Franz Liszt was idolized as a performer of the piano, recognized as an accomplished composer, a beloved teacher, and active as both conductor and author. As his life progressed, his works became more and more experimental giving birth to some of the most courageous and progressive compositions of his time. Liszt was a grand supporter of new works (particularly Wagner and Berlioz). Musical reform and social reform through music were aspirations of Liszt throughout his life. His works stood as inspiration for Wagner, Debussy, Bartók, Busoni, and Shoenberg through their daring harmonics and the structural experimentation. During the 1850’s, however, his pieces took on the character of almost an entirely different composer. These pieces show inspiration from Beethoven and embraced a more traditional structure (particularly Sonata form). It wasn’t until late in life that Liszt mastered orchestration, using assistants for the orchestration of earlier works. His virtuosic playing lent a hand to his piano compositions which demonstrate a complete understanding of the instrument and all its capabilities- often devising effects that were thought impossible by other musicians. Varying between diatonic and intense chromaticism, Liszt’s harmonies and melodies are so diverse and expand such a broad array of styles it is often hard to believe that two pieces were composed by the same man.
Born in 1811 to a clerk and chambermaid in lower Austria, Franz Liszt’s musical talents were discovered at a young age and he made his debut as a pianist at the age of nine playing a concerto by Ries. He soon took up study of the piano under the instruction of Czerny and composition under Salieri. During this time, Liszt was able to meet Beethoven (reported as one of Liszt’s proudest moments.) Although his study with Czerny only lasted a year, Liszt is not known to have had any other piano instructor during his life.
In 1823, Liszt’s family moved to Paris to seek larger audiences for the young prodigy and with a hope of enrolling him in the Conservatoire de Paris however, as a foreigner, Liszt wasn’t eligible for enrollment and therefore denied admission. After this rejection, Liszt began a relationship with the Érard firm whose pianos quickly became his preferred instrument. Between 1824 and 1827, Liszt made three successful concert trips to England and his reputation as composer also began to blossom. While his adolescent compositions were well received but were never quite to the level of young Mozart or Mendelssohn.
Liszt’s career continued to flourish until it came to an abrupt stall when his father died in 1827. Also at this time, Liszt was involved romantically with one of his pupils, Caroline de Saint-Circq, and, when discovered, Liszt fell into a spiral of depression and illness. In 1828, the journal Le Corsaire even mis-published Liszt’s obituary, however he had only withdrawn from public view and spent his days in religious contemplation. The July Revolution of 1830 pulled Liszt out of his reclusion and a sketch of the “Revolutionary” Symphony was the result and drew an interest in the reformation of society through art.
Liszt’s lack of formal education began to weigh on him as he grew older and he began a course of intensive self-education. During this time Liszt became associated with Chopin, Berlioz, and Alkan and, in 1832, his encounter with violinist Paganini drove Liszt to an ambition to achieve in piano technique the flair, passion, and technical abilities that Paganini had with the violin. In 1832, Liszt’s personal life was transformed when he met Marie, the wife of Count Charles d’Agoult. A passionate affair began between the two, making them the source of gossip in Parisian society when they eloped to Geneva in 1835. They had three children together (including Cosima who went on to marry Richard Wagner).
Liszt’s performance style was animated, filled with technical flair, and showboating. Liszt was the “rock star” of his time, gaining the idolization of many and being the object of lust for many women creating a sensation known as “Lisztomania”. From 1839 to 1847, Liszt toured Europe extensively and became the most celebrated pianist the world had ever seen. Liszt established the concept of the solo “recital” as we now know it. His extensive touring caused his compositions and his personal relationships to suffer and, in 1842, he accepted the position of “Kapellmeister in ausserordentlichem Dienst” in Weimar and in 1848 finally settled down there. He was soon joined by Princess Carolyne zy Sayn-Wittgenstein, his new lover and a worshiper of his compositional genius. His time in Weimar proved to be the most musically productive time in his life and gained Liszt the reputation of an accomplished composer and making the town the center for avant-garde music which included the premiere of Wagner’s Lohengrin in 1850 as well as two Berlioz festivals.
In 1861, Liszt moved to Rome with the intentions of marrying Princess Carolyne only to abandon the ceremony when the Vatican would not allow the union due to opposition from within the Vatican. He remained in Rome, however, with the new ambition to reform church music. While this was not a success, Liszt took minor orders in 1865 and, in 1867, he completed his largest work, Christus, an oratorio.
Beginning in 1869, Liszt embraced his Hungarian heritage more, visiting every year (and establishing a music academy in Budapest), spent most summers in Weimar and winters in Rome. The mature compositions of Liszt changed drastically from those of his younger years as he embraced his love for experimentation and by an increasing bitterness and frustration during this time. His efforts for social reformation through art went unrealized, his most ambitious pieces were torn apart by critics and left audiences baffled, two of his children had died prematurely and his only surviving heir, Cosima, was involved in an adulterous affair with Wagner and then converted to Protestantism in order to remarry- these events pained Liszt and it wasn’t until years later that his optimism began to return.
In 1886, Liszt died in Bayreuth.