Franz Liszt

(22 October 1811 - 31 July 1886)

Franz Liszt was a Hungarian composer and one of the greatest virtuoso pianists in history. Liszt was at the centre of salon life in the 1830s in Paris, where he cultivated many of his ideals about music and its relationship with the other arts, however in his later years, Liszt became more attached to his native Hungary. One of his most notable contributions to composition was his invention of the symphonic poem, which went side by side with substantial developments in musical form, harmony and thematic transformation.

He was born in Doborján, Hungary which is now known as Raiding and is part of Austria. He was an intensely patriotic Hungarian, something he shared with many of his ancestors. However, he grew up as a German speaker and never fully mastered the Hungarian language, which was no different to most Magyars born in his era in the same region.

Liszt began piano lessons with his father in his sixth year, and after 22 months, showed outstanding progress, already being able to play repertoire by Mozart, Hummel, Clementi and Bach in such a short time. He performed in public at the age of 9 in Oedenburg which was such a success that his father arranged a more significant concert soon after in Pressburg, (now Bratislava) for a large audience, among them many noblemen including Michael Esterházy, who later funded Liszt’s education abroad. The first ever review of Franz Liszt's piano playing was published in the Pressburger Zeitung, reporting that his playing "was beyond admiration and justifies the highest hopes". His debut concert in Pressburg garnered him attention and strategically positioned him on the path to what would be a long and successful career as one of the most outstanding piano virtuosi the world has ever known.

The Liszt family moved to Vienna in 1822 and young Liszt began to receive piano tuition from Czerny and counterpoint and score-reading from Salieri, both of whom refused to accept any tuition fees. Liszt’s study period with Czerny gave him an infallible technique and he learned to play with ‘masterful fluency’ and with very keen sight-reading and improvisation abilities. Liszt’s father Adam Liszt planned a concert tour for his son, with the intention of mirroring the journey the Mozart family took 60 years earlier with their boy genius. They went to Munich, Augsburg, Strasbourg, Stuttgart and eventually arrived in Paris in 1823. There, they formed a life-long friendship with the Erard family who owned the Erard piano factory and bestowed a piano on the young Franz Liszt.

For the virtuoso, musical works are in fact nothing but tragic and moving materializations of his emotions..

Liszt and his father travelled to England in 1824 and again in 1825, where he performed for King George IV at Windsor Castle. During a third visit to London in 1827, Liszt composed a Scherzo in G minor, which displays the sophisticated understanding of harmony that Liszt possessed. By the age of 15, Liszt had already composed a sonata for four hands, a trio, a quintet, and two piano concertos. By his late teens, Liszt was a sensation.

On the day after the Franz Liszt's 17th birthday, a fake obituary notice was published in Le Corsaire. Rumours of his death had been mounting due to the fact that he sought privacy and did not show up for an entire concert season. He was after suffering a nervous breakdown on being rejected by the Countess Caroline de Saint-Cricq, a matter that he took badly because he was still mourning the death of his father a year before. His first notable work after this dark episode was his Héroïde funèbre, which conveys the revolutionary wars of 1848-9, a cause that awakened his creativity. According to his mother 'The canons cured him!'

Liszt spent a lot of time in Paris in the 1830s, where he met many of the leaders of the Romantic movement. It was through these intellectual and fashionable circles that Liszt met his lover, long-term partner and the mother of his three children, Countess Marie d’Agoult. In order to escape scandal, they eloped to Switzerland, where Liszt was invited to become head of the piano department of the newly established Geneva Conservatoire. It was in Geneva that their three children were born. Cosima, the second child firstly married the famous conductor Hans von Bülow and then Richard Wagner, becoming the Bayreuth Festival director after Wagner’s death.

Sorrowful and great is the artist's destiny.

Liszt travelled to Weimar which was a small but very important cultural centre, the city in which Goethe and Schiller had lived. The thirteen years that Liszt lived there, 1848 to 1861, saw the creation of some of his best works. The Weimar years were famous for their struggle between conservative and progressive forces. Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms were on one side and Wagner, Berlioz and Liszt were on the other.

In his later years, Liszt became more attached to Hungary and was made president of the newly established National Hungarian Royal Academy of Music, which has since been named the Liszt Academy of Music. Before this academy was set up, the best Hungarian musicians had no choice but to travel abroad for their higher education. By the end of the 19th century, Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi had already graduated from the academy.

Liszt died of pneumonia at Bayreuth, aged 74.

Richard Wagner

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