Influential People: Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt: where does one begin?

Handsome chap, too

Most people know him as the frighteningly virtuosic virtuoso pianist born in 1811, the year after Chopin and Schumann, he himself being one of the most influential performers/composers of the 19th century. Unlike the aforementioned two contemporaries, however, Franz Liszt lived a long, and relatively healthy life, dying at the age of 74.
Born Liszt Ferencz on October 22, 1811, he grew up in a musically rich environment. His father, Adam Liszt, played a number of musical instruments. If you want his full biography, just check out the Wikipedia page on the guy. At the age of nine, he gave a series of concerts, after which he received some support from wealthy patrons to study abroad, abroad being Vienna.
There he studied under Carl Czerny, former student of both Beethoven and Hummel, as well as composition lessons from Antonio Salieri, having met both Beethoven and Schubert during this single year in Vienna. Father Liszt tried to extend his son’s studies there, but no dice. They went to Hungary, but apparently found themselves back in Vienna within a year.
The young Liszt’s first published work was also a precocious big break for someone so young: his Variation sur une valse de Diabelli, number 24 in a set of 50 variations commissioned by Diabelli himself. This was actually part II of the project, part one being Beethoven’s own 33 variations on the Diabelli waltz. Needless to say, Liszt was the only child composer included in this anthology, at the age of eleven. His connections through his teacher and the rest probably helped, but suffice it to say, the young composer/performer got off to a wonderful start.
The other thing that possibly might stand out at this point is how classical or traditional the man’s training and background seemed. Vienna with Czerny and Salieri, Diabelli and all the rest, but in his adolescence, in what was a quite difficult time in his life, (father’s death, broken relationship, doubts and struggle regarding his faith, etc.) he met Hector Berlioz. That, to me, was the first name that stood out as something I would relate to Liszt’s body of work as ‘an influence’ in the sense that it relates more to the “diabolical” nature and fiery liveliness and imagination of much of his work rather than just an incredibly musical upbringing.
His next big influence was Paganini. He apparently had his first impression of the violin virtuoso at a charity concert for the victims of an epidemic of cholera, he was
blown away and decided then to be the Paganini of the piano. That is also another thing I feel I hear in his music.
What perhaps might have been another thing that Liszt inherited or learned from Paganini was his kindheartedness, his desire to help. On more than one occasion throughout his life, he held concerts, even toured, in order to raise money for worthy causes. The first of these in his life, it seems, was to arrange piano transcriptions of some of Berlioz’s works, including the Symphonie Fantastique, which had not yet caught on, and was not even published. Liszt paid out of pocket all the expenses for publishing the transcription and building some reputation and appreciation for the piece, and Paris was a very suitable place to do this. It is also where Frederic Chopin was, and Wikipedia mentions that he influenced Liszt to help him develop a “poetic and romantic side,” but he was only one year Liszt’s senior, so I’m not sure what kind of mentoring, if any, took place.
At the age of only 23-24, he began a relationship with a married woman, had a few kids (one of whom, Cosima, would later marry Richard Wagner), and gained a teaching post at the Geneva Conservatory. Even with three children, upon hearing that the Beethoven Monument in Bonn was in danger of being cancelled, he came out of retirement and went back on tour to raise funds. Wikipedia says:

Franz Liszt involved himself in the project in October 1839 when it became clear it was danger of foundering through lack of financial support. Till then, the French contributions had totalled less than 425 francs; Liszt’s own personal donation exceeded 10,000 francs.[3] He contributed his advocacy and also his personal energies in concerts and recitals, the proceeds of which went towards the construction fund. One such concert was his last public appearance with Frédéric Chopin, a pair of piano duo concerts held at the Salle Pleyel and the Conservatoire de Paris on 25 and 26 April 1841.

You can’t help but admire that, but perhaps also… wonder if his responsibility fell more to his own family than a bust of Beethoven. In any case, all of it makes Liszt sound like a really nice, hardworking guy.
He also reached a fantastic level of stardom, causing women to faint in concerts and fight for his cigar stubs, handkerchiefs, etc. which would often get torn to shreds in a mob of people fighting for
them. Lisztomania was a real thing. Wikipedia says that it “was characterized by intense levels of hysteria demonstrated by fans, akin to the treatment of celebrity musicians today, but in a time not known for such musical hysterics.” He did that. I read somewhere that two of the only pianos to stand up to his incredibly forceful playing were those made by Bechstein and Bösendorfer.
While Liszt is hailed as one of the greatest pianists (if not the greatest) of the 19th century, he still hailed Charles-Valentin Alkan as undeniably greater than he.
His compositions are many, both for piano and orchestra. Aside from his own original compositions, there were many transcriptions, fantasies or variations on other classical works. One of his greatest contributions was to invent the “symphonic poem” or what would later be called the “tone poem.” In a time when Beethoven had all but won at the symphony with his ninth, Liszt began to work with other symphonic structures, and an idea that he and Berlioz developed to great success was the idea of thematic transformation, transforming and changing a theme throughout the progress of a piece. The term ‘leitmotif’ may be more associated with Wagner, but don’t forget that these two men had a close relationship during their lifetimes. Liszt promoted Wagner even during the latter’s exiles, conducting the overtures to his music when he could.
The entire article on Liszt is really enlightening; despite what impression may seem suitable of a world-famous virtuoso who ended up quite successful, he wasn’t an arrogant, stuck up jerk of a guy, it seems. Even his music is bold and big and sounds like it comes from a composer with quite an ego, but apparently not. His career was sufficiently enormous and encompassing that it stood the test of time; he is remembered down to today by many people for any number of his famous compositions, and the style of many of his works is easily identifiable.
What seems the most touching is how generous he was with his time (perhaps maybe not with his family and the woman who left her family for him, but…) to devote to noble causes, work for others and not just revel in his own success, which I’m sure he did a bit of.
Anyway, we’ve talked about only a few of Liszt’s pieces up to this point: his first piano concerto and his Totentanz, also for piano and orchestra. (For an example of a composition by one of his star students, check out this article. I really do love this work also.)
We’ll be addressing one of his most famous compositions, the first solo piano work from the man on this blog, and the last solo piano work we will be touching for quite some time, I’m afraid, so that series goes out with a bang for now. See you in a few days.

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