[Franz Liszt, after an etching by Jean Ingres; dated Rome, May 1839; reproduced in Julius Kapp's Franz Liszt : Eine Biographie (second edition; Berlin: Schuster & Loeffler, 1911; illustration 18).]
As a composer, pianist, teacher, conductor and author, Franz Liszt (born Doborján, Hungary [now Raiding, Austria], October 22, 1811; died Bayreuth, Germany, July 31, 1886), one of the foremost proponents of the Romantic tradition in Western art music, exerted a formative influence on the course of musical expression in the nineteenth century and beyond. His imaginative approach to musical form, harmony and structure anticipated and inspired subsequent composers to explore the paths that he established; as the foremost piano virtuoso of his time, he introduced technical innovations that greatly expanded the expressive range of that instrument. He was tirelessly devoted to the progress and dissemination of music both old and new, raising audience awareness of the works of his musical forebears (such as Beethoven and Bach) as well as of his contemporaries (Wagner and Berlioz) through performances, transcriptions and writings. Although his larger-than-life personality and scandalous amorous adventures seemed at odds with his decision, late in life, to seek the holy orders (henceforth becoming known as l'abbé Liszt), his embrace of the full spectrum of life produced a creative legacy of unprecedented richness and breadth of perspective, and one of immeasurable impact upon the music of his era.
Liszt's immense keyboard skills and flamboyance established new stylistic and technical standards in piano performance, ushering in the era of the modern piano-virtuoso-as-showman, and securing for him a fame unprecedented for his time. His concerts evoked such frenzies that it was reported that women occasionally threw their undergarments at him during his concerts; despite the dubious credibility of such reports, however, they only served to enhance his reputation. What remains beyond a doubt is that Liszt's influence on compositional and performing styles had an immeasurable impact upon the music of his era, and upon the course of its development ever since.
The future composer was born on October 22, 1811 in the medieval town of Doborján, Hungary (now Raiding, Austria), the only child of Adám Liszt, a clerk employed by the aristocratic Esterházy family (the same family that supported composer Joseph Haydn as court musician between 1762 and 1802) and an amateur musician, and Anna Maria Läger, the daughter of an impoverished family. Doborján was a small, primarily German-speaking market town in Austria which bordered Hungarian territory, with a population largely of Magyar (ethnic Hungarian) descent. Although Liszt's first language was German, he nevertheless remained deeply proud of his Hungarian roots, a pride that was strongly tied to his creative impulse, and one that would inspire many Hungarian-themed works throughout his lifetime.
By the age of six years, young Ferenc had already demonstrated a remarkable affinity for music. His first music lessons were provided by his father; within a few years had made such progress that he began to perform in public at the age of nine. Liszt's prodigious talent began to attract the attention of concert audiences and critics alike; soon Adám Liszt moved with his son to Vienna to further the boy's musical education. He began piano studies with famed pedagogue Carl Czerny and theory with composer Antonio Salieri, both of whom refused payment for the boy's education. The young pianist first performed for the Viennese public in 1822, where he was hailed in the press as "a little Hercules… fallen from the clouds." From this time also dates his first composition, a variation on a waltz written by Viennese publisher and composer Anton Diabelli, who commissioned the work (one of fifty-one variations so commissioned; another became the monumental set of thirty-three variations on this theme that was produced by Ludwig van Beethoven). The twelve-year-old Liszt actually met Beethoven the following year (1823), later fondly recalling that the older composer bestowed a kiss upon his forehead.
Relocating to Paris that same year to continue his studies (with Anton Reicha and Ferdinando Paer), the young Liszt continued to build his reputation as a piano virtuoso through continual concert tours, acquiring an ever-increasing audience of admirers. The sudden death of his father and principal support, however, proved devastating for the fifteen-year-old, who absented himself from the concert stage for nearly four years. It was only the dramatic events of the French "July Revolution" of 1830 (which led to the overthrow of King Charles X and the Bourbon monarchy) unfolding before his eyes in the streets of Paris, that roused the young Liszt from his grief over his father's death. As the composer's mother, Anna, later recalled, "the cannons cured him!" Liszt soon rejoined Parisian music life, resumed concertizing, and became acquainted with his contemporaries, among them Hector Berlioz, Frédéric Chopin, and Niccolò Paganini, all of whom were to prove lasting influences on Liszt's own works and performance style.
It was also at about this time (1832) that Liszt first made the acquaintance of Countess Marie d'Agoult, who, although married, would become his companion for the next twelve years, and bear three children by him. Eluding the scandal that would have doubtless ensued were the couple to remain in Paris, they instead embarked on a four-year long period of travel throughout Switzerland, France and Italy; their personal "years of pilgrimage" would inspire the composition of several descriptive works for solo piano, collectively known as the Années de pèlerinage, regarded as being among Liszt's finest works.
As his relationship with the Marie d'Agoult waned, it was quickly replaced by yet another: with the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who, like the Countess d'Agoult before her, was a rich noblewoman trapped in an unhappy marriage. Liszt met the Polish-born Princess while concertizing in Kiev in early 1847; within a year Liszt was ensconced at the estate of the Princess, who had previously been living alone among her vast landholdings in the Ukraine. It was at that moment when Liszt, who had for years been leading the itinerant and solitary life of a concert artist, made the unexpected decision to accept a permanent position as Kapellmeister to the court of the Grand Duke of Weimar. Although common in the eighteenth century, this system of patronage had become rare by Liszt's time; his curious acceptance of a stable position at the age of thirty-seven may be explained both in terms of his desire to establish a home with Carolyne, who joined him in Weimar, as well as the substantial advantages offered to him by the resources of royal benefaction.
One of Liszt's first actions after arriving at Weimar was to improve the court orchestra. In addition to offering him the opportunity to promote new music through performances and festivals, the orchestra also afforded him the means for refining his large-scale symphonic works during the compositional process – encouraging both a degree of musical experimentation in Liszt's part, and an increased confidence in his own abilities as a composer. It is therefore no surprise to consider that his finest orchestral works were composed at Weimar.
By 1853 he had also developed the genre of the "symphonic poem," representing his response to organizing musical works beyond the traditional sonata form that composers had been relying upon for a century, and which Liszt sought to revitalize by creating a new form of musical expression for a new era. Although based on the principles of the sonata form, Liszt's symphonic poems were more complex and more highly developed; they took the shape of a single movement; and generally had a descriptive or programmatic basis (which conformed more closely to the highly dramatic- and literary-influenced creative works of the prevailing Romantic era aesthetic). Living and working in Weimar – which, as the home of the two great German writers, Goethe and Schiller, was regarded in the nineteenth century as the spiritual home of German literature – undoubtedly (and perhaps unavoidably) fostered in Liszt an intensely acute appreciation and sensitivity to musical Romanticism in his own compositions.
The best of these literary-based symphonic poems, all composed at Weimar, and most of which are dedicated to Carolyne, include Les Préludes, Tasso, Orpheus, Prometheus, Mazeppa, Hamlet, and Hungaria. Also composed at Weimar was Liszt's orchestral masterpiece, Eine Faust-Symphonie (1854/1861), comprised of three extended musical descriptions – essentially interrelated symphonic poems – of the characters depicted in Goethe's tragedy of the same name. Other composers recognized the expressive potential of the genre that Liszt had developed, and symphonic poems soon became a significant part of orchestral repertoire in their own right, rivaling the genre of the symphony both in popularity and in influence.
The Weimar orchestra also allowed Liszt to hone his conducting skills by developing a system of highly demonstrative gestures to communicate more clearly his expressive intent to the orchestra members. (Liszt disapproved of a purely mechanical approach to conducting, referring to those that followed such practices as "windmills.") The techniques that he developed were subsequently adopted by conductors, and are still in common use today – a groundbreaking contribution which is often overshadowed by Liszt's notoriety as composer and pianist. Biographer Alan Walker speculates that had Liszt remained at Weimar, he might well have been regarded as the founder of modern conducting.
But after ten years in the employ of the Court at Weimar, Liszt resigned from his post in 1859, primarily a result of his frustration with the lack of financial support from Carl Alexander, his royal benefactor. (Although exceedingly generous, even the Grand Duke must have perceived Liszt's continually excessive demands on the royal purse.) Liszt left Weimar in 1861 to join Carolyne, who had moved to Rome in order to pursue her petition to the Pope himself for an annulment of her marriage to Prince Nicholas von Sayn-Wittgenstein, with the goal of finally being free to marry Liszt. Although Carolyne's efforts were ultimately to prove fruitless, Liszt's involvement in Rome's musical circles (including the development of a friendship with Pope Pius IX, who referred to Liszt as "my dear Palestrina"), only proved beneficial to his career and personal life.
Inspired perhaps by his association with the Vatican, Liszt, at the age of fifty-four, entered the lower orders of the Church, and undertook serious theological study in preparation to become a member of the clergy. Although he was never ordained as a priest, Liszt nevertheless found spiritual solace in the Church's teachings, a solace that manifested itself musically in the composition of two large-scale religious choral works – the oratorios The Legend of Saint Elizabeth (1862) and Christus (1866) – as well as dozens of sacred choral works. Upon his investiture as abbot in 1865, he took to wearing the habit of the Franciscan order for the rest of his life.
In 1870, as Liszt was visiting Hungary, armies besieged Rome as part of Victor Emmanuel II's campaign to unify the Italian states, forcing even Pope Pius IX to take refuge within the Vatican's walls. As a return to Rome was out of the question, Liszt remained in Hungary, to the immeasurable benefit of its musical life – accepting an appointment as president of the recently established Hungarian Royal Academy of Music (since renamed the Franz Liszt Academy of Music), and undertaking to develop its curriculum to international standards of excellence. The quality of its resulting musical instruction was such that by the turn of the century, the institution had produced three of Hungary's greatest composers, Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi.
The better part of Liszt's final fifteen years was spent in constant travel between Budapest (to oversee the Academy of Music), Weimar (partly to appease the Grand Duke's efforts to lure him to return to the royal court) and a now liberated Rome (where Carolyne still resided), with occasional visits to Vienna – despite his advancing age and the difficulties of traveling in that era. In each city he held large group lessons for adoring students – being the first to cultivate the "master class" concept of instruction. Although having no real interest in pedagogy for its own sake, his method of simply demonstrating performance practice proved eminently successful. Liszt's own interpretations of various works, however, established performance traditions for these works that survive to this day. Ever generous, Liszt never charged a fee for providing instruction to his students, nor did he accept any remuneration (except living quarters) even from the Hungarian Royal Academy of Music. Even his concert fees were habitually donated to charitable causes, despite his often precarious financial situation. His years of travel were therefore motivated not by monetary gain, but rather by his sense of allegiance to those close to him, and to nurturing the progress of musical culture.
In Liszt's later years, as he began to suffer from bouts of depression and deteriorating physical health, his music grew accordingly darker, freer and even ambiguous in its use of non-traditional harmony (akin to that of Beethoven in his own later years). "I carry a deep sadness of the heart which must now and then break out in sound," he wrote. His use of chromatically dissonant textures established a precedent that would inspire later composers, such as Wagner, Schoenberg, Berg; his use of harmonies based on whole tone and other non-traditional scales, as well as bitonality, anticipated the musical impressionism of composers such as Debussy and Ravel.
Liszt's life and career nearly paralleled that of the unfolding of the Romantic era itself. Born at the height of Beethoven's career, in music's Classical era, Liszt died in 1886 at the dawn of an era that witnessed the emergence of musical styles such as impressionism and serialism – styles that he had helped to codify. Supplanted by the leaner textures and more chromatic language of the twentieth century, Liszt's work and reputation were marginalized until history once again cast its attention, in the mid-twentieth century, to Western art music's nineteenth century Romantic repertoire. The passing of years has furnished sufficient clarity of perspective to allow an objective reevaluation of the extent of Liszt's immense contributions to, and influence upon the development of music of his time. Consequently, Liszt's creative legacy has once again found favor with new generations of performers, audiences and scholars alike. As Liszt biographer Alan Walker so succinctly phrased it, "[as] pianist, composer, teacher, conductor, writer and musical administrator, [Liszt] enlarged everything that he touched."
Senior Music Specialist
Library of Congress, Music Division