top of page
  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Franz Liszt

I never cease to be amazed by the vast amount of music which awaits our exploration. There are so many composers from past centuries - not mention the present day - who are little-known but whose music is well worth our time. What is often even more surprising, though, is the fact that there is often a vast amount of music and information connected with the most famous names in the history of music which can remain unknown to all but the most ardent specialist.

In this post I want to attempt to give some sort of context to one of the most remarkable lives in the history of western music. His name is well-known but it didn't take me long to realise that his long life led to the creation of a vast musical legacy, most of which is little-known or understood.

The musician in question is Franz Liszt. To give an idea of the incredible amount of music Liszt composed, his work list in the 2000 print edition of Grove - just the list of titles of his music - runs to more than 86 pages. The Hyperion recordings of the complete piano works played by Leslie Howard - just the piano works - runs to 99 CDs totalling some 121 hours of music. It's a daunting body of work, stemming from an amazing life. To say there's more to explore than this article could ever share is the understatement of the century.

Franz Liszt (1858)

And composing wasn't really the main thrust of Liszt's life. He was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of the 19th century - many would say the greatest - the first real performing superstar. He was committed to music of the past (something unusual for the time), and also to new music written by composers largely shunned by the mainstream, such as Berlioz and Wagner. He was a man of conflicts and contradictions, a man of strong religious impulse and devotion, yet also a man who loved women passionately and was a party to two celebrated and scandalous relationships, among other liaisons. As Grove neatly summarises: Liszt "contained in his character more of the ideals and aspirations of the 19th century than any other major musician".

Franz Liszt was born in western Hungary on 22 October 1811. As a native Magyar his first name is often given as Ferenc (pronounced FE-rents), but as was common in those days, Liszt's first language was German, not Hungarian, so the German version of his name, Franz, is more commonly used outside Hungary today. Liszt's father, Adam Liszt, was an amateur singer, pianist and cellist and for many years worked as a clerk on the Esterházy estates. Adam Liszt knew Haydn, who of course also worked for the Esterházys, and at the time of Franz Liszt's birth, Liszt senior was working for the noble family as a sheep accountant.

Adam Liszt

Liszt's mother, Maria Anna Liszt (née Lager) was raised in poverty and had worked in her younger years as a chambermaid. She married Adam Liszt in January 1811 and Franz Liszt was their only child.

Maria Anna Liszt, née Lager (between 1828 and 1836)

Liszt's musical gifts became evident at a very early age and his first lessons were at the hand of his father. In less than two years he had mastered just about everything his father could teach him and he gave his first public concert in November 1820 when he was nine. Other concerts - and attention from important supporters - soon followed, and the boy's father tried to find a major figure who could not only teach his prodigiously gifted son but also act as an important supporter to launch what was already promising to be a glittering career.

The young pianist was taken by his father to Vienna in 1819 to meet Carl Czerny, then one of the most famous pianists, teachers and composers in Europe, himself a pupil of Beethoven. Czerny was amazed at the boy's prowess, albeit a prowess hampered by a wild and undisciplined technique. Three years later Adam Liszt moved his little family to Vienna and the boy started lessons with Czerny in the spring of 1822.

The separation between composer and performer we now expect was certainly not the norm in the early 19th century. Performers were expected to compose and to perform their own music, and Liszt's earliest compositions were written around this time. They are light pieces, designed to show off a young virtuoso's technique, but they also remind us that apart from studying piano with Czerny, Liszt also studied theory, harmony and counterpoint with Antonio Salieri, also regarded as one of the best teachers in Vienna at the time.

This little waltz was written by Liszt around 1823, when he was 10 or 11. [listen]

Motte: Franz Liszt (1827)

Liszt, aged 11, met Ludwig van Beethoven in April 1823, and later the same month gave a farewell concert in Vienna before departing for Paris. The story goes that at the concert Beethoven bestowed on the boy a Weihekuss or "kiss of consecration", something that turns both musicians into sacred relics rather than living, breathing people. If Beethoven did "anoint" the child in some way, it would have been done at their earlier meeting rather than at the concert; Beethoven's conversation books record that he didn't actually go to the concert, contrary to the legends which have grown up about the event.

Liszt travelled to Paris via Pest, and gave a hugely successful "homecoming" concert in the Hungarian city in May 1823. By December of that year, the family had arrived in Paris ready for the next stage of Liszt's career.

Liszt was refused entry to the Paris Conservatoire on the grounds that he wasn't French, but he studied privately, taking theory lessons with Anton Reicha and composition lessons with the opera composer Ferdinando Paer. His technical grounding with Czerny was secure and provided Liszt with the basis to develop his prodigious gifts at the piano. He toured extensively, even at this early age, and by 1827 had visited England no less than three times. A piece later published under the title of Scherzo dates from the third trip to England, which took place in 1827, the year in which Liszt turned 16. [listen]

Paris was Liszt's base for this period of his life, even after the death of his loving and supportive father in August 1827. He became the sole breadwinner to support himself and his mother, to which end he sold his beautiful Erard piano (the Erard company regularly provided pianos for Liszt to perform on over the years) and began teaching members of fashionable Parisian families.

At this time Liszt entered a dark period. The death of his father had been traumatic, and the frustration of a thwarted love affair only added to his turmoil. He was physically ill and suffered an emotional collapse. His response was a period of what Grove calls "religious mania", lasting some three years, during which time he undertook little musical activity and was even reported to have died.

The revolution of 1830 roused him out of this state and he became involved in the people's cause, demonstrating in the streets and writing revolutionary music. Yet his intense religious involvements continued into the 1830s, attending meetings of the clandestine Catholic sect known as the Saint-Simonians, whose ideals blended Catholicism and socialism.

The early 1830s saw Liszt write some of his earliest music which can be regarded as truly mature and individual, including the Apparitions. This extraordinary music is unlike anything else being written at the time and shows Liszt capable of moving into new musical worlds even at the age of 22. [listen]

Paris 1830 was also the setting for the first performance of Hector Berlioz's unprecedented Symphonie fantastique. Liszt made a piano arrangement of the radical French symphony, which was still unpublished at the time. In fact Liszt's piano arrangement was published in 1834, eleven years before the original version of Berlioz's symphony appeared in print. When Robert Schumann wrote a review of the piece he did so using Liszt's piano score as his source, and not Berlioz's full score. Berlioz was one of the composers whose radical and often-maligned work Liszt championed throughout his life.

Prinzhofer: Hector Berlioz (1845)

Around this time Liszt also met Frédéric Chopin, who arrived in Paris in 1831, but there was no great friendship between these two musicians. Both of course were masters of the keyboard and they were about the same age, but they were very different personalities and despite some dedications of his music to Liszt, Chopin is reputed to have disliked Liszt's alleged theatricality. Chopin's early death in 1849 meant that he never experienced the Liszt of later years.

Nicolò Paganini, though, was another matter. The Italian violin virtuoso made his Paris debut in 1831 and Liszt was very impressed. Liszt made piano versions of many of Paganini's solo violin caprices, starting with the six etudes of 1838. [listen]

Ingres: Nicolò Paganini (1819)

In late 1832 Liszt met the Countess Marie d'Agoult, who was unhappily married to Count Charles d'Agoult. Marie was 28, Liszt was 22, and they commenced an affair which would last twelve years and produce three children.

Lehmann: Countess Marie d'Agoult (1843)

The relationship between Marie and Liszt is one of the great romances of music history, and she was one of the two great loves in Liszt's life. It of course precipitated great scandal in Paris once it became public knowledge. Between 1835 and 1839 the couple travelled widely throughout Europe, their so-called "Years of Pilgrimage", and these travels are reflected in much of Liszt's piano music of the time, especially the Traveller's Album, which was published in three books and describes much of what they saw in Switzerland. This is The Lake of Wallenstadt. [listen]

Marie d'Agoult bore Liszt three children: Blandine-Rachel was born in 1835, Cosima in 1837 and Daniel in 1839. Cosima later achieved prominence as the wife of the conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow, whom she later left to become the lover, and later wife, of Richard Wagner.

Lanbach: Cosima Wagner, formerly von Bülow, née Liszt (1879)

Liszt's travels with Marie eventually took them to Italy, which resulted in some of his most famous music, including the sets of pieces called The Years of Pilgrimage. These include music inspired by Michelangelo's sculpture Il penseroso in Florence. [listen]

In 1839 Liszt and Marie ended their relationship, not long after the birth of their third child. Finding himself alone in the world yet again, Liszt embarked on an astonishing period in which he established himself as one of the greatest virtuosos of his age. These nine years are referred to by the German word of Glanzzeit, the "time of splendour", and it's described in Grove as "a virtuoso career unmatched in the history of performance".

In all he gave well over a thousand concerts during this time, establishing precedents now regarded as standard for solo concert giving. Liszt was the first to perform entire recitals from memory; the first to plan recital programs across a broad range of repertoire and not just recent music; the first to place the piano at right angles to the audience so the lid reflected the sound into the hall; he even coined the word "recital" itself to describe such events which were given alone, without the collaboration of associate artists. (Until then, the term had been used exclusively to describe readings of soliloquies or poems; Liszt’s recitals were in fact “musical soliloquies”.) The Glanzzeit saw Liszt perform in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Britain, Ireland, Romania, Turkey and Russia.

Franz Liszt (1843)

One of the public causes Liszt espoused during these years was Hungarian nationalism, and an interest in gypsy music and Hungarian folk music found expression in some of his most famous works, the Hungarian Rhapsodies. [listen]

The Grove article on Liszt points to Liszt's concerts in Berlin in 1841 as being a climax of this period in his life. The crowds exhibited mass hysteria in his presence, the sorts of behaviour we nowadays associate with teenagers and pop stars. But the artistry and commitment of Liszt to his art is undeniable: in the ten weeks he spent in Berlin, Liszt gave 21 concerts comprising 80 different works, 50 of which were played from memory.

Caricature of Liszt performing to ecstatic audiences

The tours of the Glanzzeit ended with performances in Ukraine in September 1847 after an arduous 18 months spent travelling and performing through central and eastern Europe. The end of the tour was the last time Liszt performed a recital for money; he was 35.

Earlier that year, in Kiev, he had met Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. She and Liszt became lovers, despite the fact that she was married. Her thirteen-year struggle to have her unhappy marriage annulled so that she might marry Liszt is a saga of epic proportions. She is described in Grove as the second great love of Liszt's life.

Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein (1847)

Carolyne moved with Liszt to Weimar when he took up, in 1848, the post of Kapellmeister-in-Extraordinary to the Duke of Weimar.

In Weimar Liszt had the chance to direct an orchestra and an opera house. He also had the opportunity to compose more, and although the Weimar years saw him often lock horns with those with more conservative views than his, he did create some of his most famous and enduring works during this time. He also kept his house open to students and virtuosos (either real or self-styled) who wished to see him.

Among the works Liszt composed in Weimar are most of the symphonic poems, the Faust Symphony (celebrating Weimar's connection with Goethe), the B minor piano sonata, many of the organ works (Weimar's association with JS Bach and his organ works was never forgotten), and many songs. The symphonic poems comprise one of Liszt’s greatest contributions to western music and their almost total absence from modern concert programs is, to my mind, appalling. The most famous is Les Préludes, perhaps the only one which gets an occasional outing today. [listen]

Liszt's songs are a stunning part of the lieder repertoire, again a body of work too often ignored by performers today. As Grove suggests, they provide a "missing link" between the songs of Robert Schumann and those of Hugo Wolf. This little gem, Blume und Duft ("Flower and Perfume") dates from the Weimar years. [listen]

The uncertainty which lingered over whether Carolyne and Liszt would ever be able to marry led to him starting a secret affair with another woman in Weimar. When she discovered what was going on, Carolyne accepted this with amazing forbearance. She went to Rome to appeal personally to the Pope for an annulment of her marriage. After eighteen months of legal tangles, the Vatican finally ruled in her favour.

Liszt resigned his post in Weimar in 1861 and went to Rome to join her, only to be thwarted not so much by religion as by politics and money. Carolyne's former husband's family brought pressure to bear on the church to not allow the couple to marry after all (the details are complicated and almost farcical) and Liszt found himself alone in Rome, without the woman he thought he was going to wed.

Franz Liszt (1870)

For the next few years he lived in Rome, developing a friendship with the Pope, Pius IX, and becoming more interested in sacred music. It was also at this time, from 1865, that he entered the lower orders of the church and became known as the Abbé Liszt. His religious and musical worlds coincided with the composition of two oratorios: St Elisabeth and Christus. This is the concluding movement of Christus. [listen]

It was while he was in Rome that Liszt wrote a pair of concert studies, the second of which, Gnomenreigen ("Dance of the Gnomes"), is one of his most famous pieces. [listen]

From 1869, when he was 58, Liszt became an eternal wanderer. He established a new home back in Weimar from February of that year but for the last fifteen years of his life divided his time more or less equally among Weimar, Rome and Budapest. (The famous meeting with Edvard Grieg in Rome dates from these years.) He was internationally famous and remained so, but as a composer he never rested on his laurels. The late works show Liszt striving after new forms of expression, and in harmony, especially, he continued to break new ground. Some of his music anticipates the early 20th century breakdown of traditional harmony, most notably Trübe Wolken (or "Grey Clouds", often known by its French title of Nuages gris). This piece, written in 1881, was much admired by Stravinsky and Debussy, and it's not surprising. Comparing Liszt’s clouds with those in Debussy’s Nocturnes (written just the following decade) is a fascinating exercise. [listen]

Liszt's international fame was celebrated across Europe in 1886, the year in which he would turn 75. Despite his frailty, he made his first trip to England for 45 years in the April of that year, and eventually went to Bayreuth to assist his daughter Cosima with the Wagner festival there, which was in danger of collapse (Wagner himself, Cosima’s husband, had died three years earlier). Liszt's health deteriorated while in Bayreuth, and he died there on 31 July, still two and a half months short of his 75th birthday.

Franz Liszt (1886)

In his day, Liszt's fame rested on his phenomenal pianism, and it was as a virtuoso pianist and conductor that he made his name while he was alive. Yet to us, Liszt's phenomenal contribution to music as a composer is what we remember first and foremost. His vocal music, orchestral works, and above all his piano works stamp him as one of the great individuals and innovators of any period of music history, and his music is a legacy which is as near as we could come, I think, to defining the word "inexhaustible".

I'll end this post with one of Liszt's late piano works, the Bagatelle without tonality, probably written in the year before his death. This indicates as much as anything just how "modern" (to our ears) Liszt was by the end of his life. Any wonder he inspired Stravinsky, Debussy and so many others. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2011. It was designed to mark the 200th anniversary of Liszt's birth.

438 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page