Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt was a renowned composer and tireless promoter of others’ works. With his compositions still as popular today as they were at the time they were written, he was considered the foremost pianist of his age and was known to stretch the piano to its limits in his works.

Born in the village of Raiding, a German-speaking part of Hungary, his talents were recognized early from his parents and intently nurtured. As a child, he met Beethoven and later took lessons with Carl Czerny, a brilliant pedagogue known to piano students for his monotonous but highly useful piano studies. Liszt clearly benefitted from this instruction and later dedicated his Transcendental Studies to his teacher. In 1823, the family left Hungary and moved to Paris so that Franz could enroll in the Conservatoire there. Excluded on grounds of his nationality, Liszt nonetheless studied composition and music theory. He wrote many works for piano, and in 1825 his one-act opera Don Sanche premiered in Paris. His performing career also flourished, and he toured extensively.

Liszt entered a period of depression following his father’s death in 1827 and a failed romance in 1828. He removed himself from public life for a time, which led to an obituary being published in a Parisian journal. However, his depression lifted with the July 1830 revolution. He became convinced of art’s power to change society, and joined the Saint-Simonian movement, which promoted a socialist understanding of Christianity.

In 1832, Liszt began an adulterous relationship with the Countess Marie d’Agoult. Marie left her husband in 1835 and eloped with Liszt to Geneva, creating an enormous scandal in Paris. They had two children together. Enjoying a concert by the violin virtuoso Paganini in 1832 was another revelation for Liszt and he immediately worked on achieving a similar virtuosity on the piano. From 1839 to 1847, he established his reputation as one of Europe’s finest pianists.

However, Liszt’s constant touring inevitably damaged his relationship with Marie, and also limited his composing. As a solution, he moved to Weimar in 1848, where he had been appointed Music master. His new love, Princess Carolyne ze Sayn-Wittgenstein joined him, and he established Weimar as a progressive music capital, staging performances by Wagner and Berlioz, and continued to compose. Together, Carolyne and Liszt had three children.

In 1865, having moved to Rome with the intention of marrying Princess Carolyne (hoping the pope would allow Carolyne to divorce her husband), Liszt took minor religious orders. His new interest in religion, which drastically contrasted his reputation as a womanizer, was expressed in several sacred compositions, and was preceded by several personal hardships, among them the deaths of two of his children. The final few decades of Liszt’s life were also difficult; his works became unappreciated by critics, and he was not happy about his daughter Cosima’s affair with Richard Wagner. His health gradually declined, and he died in Bayreuth, most likely from pneumonia, in 1886.

Liszt wrote 13 symphonic poems, which are orchestral works of about 10 to 30 minutes In length. Unlike symphonies, symphonic poems are a type of “program” music—they are not “pure” music, but tell a story, describe or depict something outside music, such as a storm or a rural landscape. His symphonic poems are often inspired by literary sources, including Hamlet and works by poet Lord Byron. But while Liszt coined the term “symphonic poem”, he was certainly not the first composer of program music—Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” are other early examples. While symphonic poems were mainly Liszt’s domain, many Romantic composers wrote programmatic overtures and symphonies, as the freedom from classical forms and the wider possibilities for expression appealed to them.

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