Franz Liszt: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Franz Liszt was a virtuosic pianist and composer who epitomized the Romantic period. In this lesson we will learn about his life, his music, and the ways in which he revolutionized the piano concert.

Blame Liszt!

Have you ever played a piano recital? Did you hate memorizing your piece? Did you hate getting all dressed up and sitting at the piano so the audience could watch your hands? Did you have to play something difficult so your teacher could 'show you off'? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you can blame Franz Liszt for your discomfort.

A Star is Born

The man who broke a thousand hearts. Liszt in 1858.
Photo of Franz Liszt

Ádám Liszt was a talented amateur cellist working for the court of Prince Nicolas Eszterházy in Hungary. When his wife, Anna, gave birth to their only child, Franz, on October 22, 1811, he could not have foreseen the epic waves this child would make in the musical word. He began teaching his son piano at age five. By age eight, little Franz was composing his own music. At age nine he gave his first public concert appearance, and Ádám knew he had a genius on his hands.

The Liszt family moved to Vienna for Franz to have lessons with the best teachers. His piano teacher was Karl Czerny, a former student of Beethoven. Antonio Salieri, the Court Composer, taught him composition. While in Vienna, Liszt also met Beethoven, who by this time was profoundly deaf, but was nonetheless reportedly impressed with young Franz.

In 1823 the Liszt family moved to Paris. Franz finished his education there by studying with composers Anton Reicha and Ferdinando Paer. He gave his Paris debut in 1824, cementing his reputation at just the age of 13 as Europe's virtuosic pianist.

He continued to concertize throughout France. He also traveled to England and Switzerland on concert tours. By 1827 Franz was completely exhausted. His father took him to the baths in Boulogne, hoping for a rest cure. Sadly, shortly after their arrival, Ádám died of typhoid. Franz returned to Paris to live with his mother.

A piano belonging to Liszt
Photo of piano belonging to Liszt

Life in Paris

Back at home in Paris Liszt began to question the life of the traveling, virtuoso pianist. He felt that it was demeaning to his art. He taught piano and turned to reading and immersing himself in an introspective, intellectual, and spiritual life.

Yet fate had something else in store for Liszt. In 1830 he met Hector Berlioz and heard his Symphonie fantastique. Liszt was smitten, both with the music and the man. They became friends, and Liszt learned a great deal from Berlioz by transcribing his music for piano.

Then in 1831 he first saw the famous violinist Niccolò Paganini in concert. Paganini's playing was so wild and tempestuous that he was rumored to be in league with the devil. Liszt was fascinated by the virtuosic skills displayed and wondered how they might be transferred to the piano.

As if this were not inspiration enough, at the end of 1831 Liszt attended the first concert given in Paris by Frédéric Chopin. Liszt was immediately impressed with the elegant style of his playing and compositions. The talents of these three gifted musicians fermented together in Liszt's brain, producing at last Liszt's own unique style that would dominate the piano scene for decades to come.

Liszt's Music

The autograph manuscript of the B Minor Piano Sonata
Liszt autograph manuscript

In 1834 the first piano pieces composed by a mature, confident Liszt appear, Harmonies poétiques et religieuse. These pieces display what would come to be hallmarks of Liszt's music. Extended piano techniques, chromatic harmonies, and expressive, representational pieces were his new language. Some of the most famous piano works were the Hungarian Rhapsodies (nineteen in all), based on folk tunes from his beloved homeland, Transcendental Etudes, inspired by Paganini's performances, and his piano concertos, including Totentanz (Death Dance).

In addition to writing some of the most difficult piano music ever composed, Liszt invented the symphonic poem. Also known as a tone poem, a symphonic poem is a piece for orchestra that tells a story or depicts an idea. In Liszt's symphonic poems the musical theme transforms as the story being depicted transforms, creating a free-from composition. Liszt composed twelve symphonic poems, the most popular being Les Préludes.

Liszt as Performer

In addition to his influence on composition, Liszt permanently changed the way pianists give recitals. Prior to Liszt, a pianist would play one selection on an evening concert with many different types of music. Pianists rarely played any music but their own. They also never played from memory. Playing without the score was considered careless.

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