L is for…..

LISZT – The importance of Liszt in the piano world is reflected in two articles devoted to his life and work. The first is by Conor Farrington:

The great Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt was born on 22nd October 1811 in the village of Raiding, in present-day Austria. In the course of his long life Liszt gathered to himself an unusually generous share of achievement and adulation, bestriding the Romantic nineteenth century like a musical colossus and dominating artistic circles from Paris to Rome and from Budapest to Weimar. As a child prodigy he held all Europe spellbound, and later, as probably the greatest concert pianist in musical history, his particular brand of iconoclastic brilliance astonished and bewildered all who attended his concerts. Inspired by Paganini and Chopin, Liszt developed a pianistic technique that was simultaneously transcendental and lyrical. By inventing the solo piano ‘recital’ and by playing only from memory, he also transformed concert practice and elevated the role of the interpretive artist.

In his role as itinerant virtuoso, Liszt travelled the length and breadth of Europe, even visiting Istanbul as a guest of the Sultan; but it was in Weimar that he settled in 1848, having retired from the concert platform at the height of his power in order to focus on serious composition. From then until his departure in 1861, Liszt composed a series of masterpieces – most notably the Piano Sonata in B Minor and the Faust Symphony – while somehow finding time to conduct the court orchestra in world premieres of operas by Schumann, Wagner and many others. In this period, Liszt also developed the orchestral genre of the Symphonic Poem in works such as Les Preludes, Orpheus and Hamlet, and pioneered the masterclass as a method for teaching the many piano students who flocked to Weimar.

Following Weimar, Liszt charted new musical and religious waters in Rome and Budapest, although he frequently returned to the city of Goethe and Schiller in order to teach. In this last third of his life, Liszt worked tirelessly to promote young pianists and composers such as Hans von Bülow and Bedrich Smetana, composed many significant works (including his choral masterpiece Christus), and, in his final years, ventured into new realms of musical impressionism and even atonality with pieces such as the choral work Via Crucis and piano works such as Nuages Gris, the Mephisto Polka, and the Bagatelle sans tonalité he composed in 1885, the year before he died.

Liszt bridged the worlds of Czerny and Debussy, and was at the forefront of many significant artistic developments; the child prodigy whom Beethoven had kissed became Wagner’s friend and colleague and an inspiration to Ravel and Bartok. Liszt excelled as virtuoso, composer, conductor, and teacher, not to mention his activities as writer, correspondent, and benefactor, and it is no exaggeration to say that he singlehandedly changed the course of musical history. Liszt garnered many tributes from figures such as Chopin, who once remarked that ‘I would like to steal from him the way he plays my studies’, while Wagner (grudgingly) admitted that his own treatment of harmony had been transformed by his knowledge of Liszt’s works. Even Brahms, in many ways implacably opposed to Liszt, held that Liszt’s many operatic piano paraphrases and transcriptions represented the ‘true classicism’ of the piano.

Yet he also attracted a weighty measure of opprobrium. Some found his extreme virtuosity distasteful – Schumann described it as ‘showing too much of the tinsel and the drum’ – while for others his compositions themselves were the stumbling block. Schumann’s wife Clara condemned Liszt’s works as ‘stilted, impotent weeds’, while the young Brahms dealt Liszt the ultimate insult of falling asleep during Liszt’s own performance of the Sonata in B Minor. Others railed against Liszt’s personality and his (admittedly somewhat lurid) lifestyle, objecting variously to his relaxed morals, his undeniable vanity, or the contradictions between these enduring character traits and Liszt’s devout Catholicism – contradictions that became even more marked, at least in the eyes of the world, when Liszt was ordained as an Abbé, or deacon, in 1865.

Liszt felt these criticisms very deeply, and told his biographer Lina Ramann that he carried with him ‘a deep sadness of the heart.’ Yet he also frequently declared ‘Ich kann warten’ – ‘I can wait’ – and hoped that true appreciation of his compositions might come about after his death. The extent to which this has happened is debatable. Some of his works, such as the Sonata in B Minor and the Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, have become standard repertoire, and some of his more ‘Romantic’ works such as Un Sospiro and the third Liebestraüme are often played on popular classical music radio stations. Nevertheless, the majority of his vast output is performed only rarely, if at all, with many important and beautiful works known only to specialists and members of the various Liszt Societies dotted around the world. In many ways, Liszt is still waiting.

Conor Farrington

Conor Farrington is a writer, composer and academic researcher, based in Cambridge


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