Great Musicians of the 18th Century – Franz Liszt

The piano music of Chopin and Schumann reached the highest level attained during the Romantic period, in subtle originality of style and deep human sentiment, respectively. Notwithstanding their preeminence in these particulars, a master was destined to come who summed up the entire development of piano technic in his achievements, the greatest virtuoso of the century, to whose influence all piano playing since has been obliged to acknowledge its indebtedness. In addition, his services in breaking away from symphonic tradition, in achieving propaganda for various composers of epoch-making works, including Wagner, in giving up himself as teacher without remuneration, are equally significant.

Liszt’s Early Life.—Franz Liszt was born October 22, 1811, at Raiding, Hungary. His mother was of Austrian birth ; his father, a Hungarian, occupying an official position on the estates of Prince Esterhazy, was devoted to music. Liszt was a somewhat delicate child of acute sensibilities, especially in the direction of music. At the age of six he received piano lessons from his father. The intensity of his interest in music and his phenomenal progress soon showed the uncommon extent of his gifts. At the age of nine, he gave his first concert before an audience composed largely of Hungarian nobility. His performance was so extraordinary that some of those present agreed to give Liszt a pension for six years to insure his proper education. Accordingly, father and son went to Vienna, where the boy studied the piano with Carl Czerny and composition with Salieri. Czerny put Liszt through so thorough a course of discipline that at eleven years of age Liszt was known for his playing from scores, and reading the most difficult compositions at sight. In 1823, he gave two successful concerts ; Beethoven was present at the second, and publicly kissed the boy in token of his approval. Liszt’s fa her now took him to Paris to study at the Conservatory, but the director, Cherubini, refused to allow him to enter because he was a foreigner. Liszt studied composition, owever, with Paer and afterwards with Reicha. In the n eantime, letters of introduction from Liszt’s Hungarian patr.ns soon sufficed to make him known throughout the most ar stocratic circles, where he created an absolute furore. A pu.lic concert produced the same results on a larger scale, Later, Liszt made two visits to England; he was received at the Court of George IV, played in private, and gave oncerts. On returning to Paris, he completed an opera, which was performed in Paris. This opera and other compose tions of this period have entirely disappeared. Tours through France and a third visit to England followed. n 1827, Liszt’s father died, and his mother came to Paris to Iive; he supported her by giving lessons, and was soon in great demand as a teacher. An unfortunate love affair caused him to consider entering the church. He lost in erest in music, fell ill, and was supposed to be dead. Liszt radually recovered, however. He now underwent a remarka.le series of formative influences ; he read widely, formed the . cquaintance of many celebrated personages, including hateaubriand, Lamartine, Victor Hugo and George Sand, became interested in the principles of St. Simonians, as me what socialistic sect, dallied with free-thinking and revol tionary tendencies, formed a friendship with the Abbé Laennais, and became intimate with Berlioz and Chopin.

Period of Preparation.—Of far deeper result was the appearance of Paganini in Paris during 1831. Liszt bent all his energies towards devising a transcendent piano technic to reproduce Paganini’s caprices on the piano. It was at this time that he laid the foundations of his gigantic chievements in piano techHic, not merely in the interest f virtuosity, but for extending the limits of expression. He was also much affected by Chopin’s poetic individua ity. In 1834, Liszt entered into an intimacy with the 1 Comtesse d’Agoult, which lasted for several years. Three children were born of this union, of whom two survive . One daughter married M. Ollivier, a French statesman, e other became successively Mme. von Bülow and Mme. agner. During this period Liszt composed much for piano, made many transcriptions, and began his literary activity on musical subjects. He gave concerts, chiefly for cha ity. In 1837, he made a trip to Paris to contest the supre acy of the piano with Thalberg. Among his composition- of this period may be mentioned>the etudes, the Rossini tra nscriptions, many arrangements of Schubert’s songs, th piano scores of several Beethoven symphonies, besides opera-fantasies, original pieces for piano, etc.

Professional Activity.—In 1838, Liszt created a extra-ordinary sensation by his concerts in Vienna, and from 1839 to 1847 lived the life of a traveling virtuoso, giving an un-paralleled series of recitals throughout the length and breadth of Europe, which were a series of triumphs such as no artist had ever before experienced. In 1832, He was made court music-director at Weimar, his duties only requiring his presence for three months in the year. In 1847, Liszt met the Princess von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who exercised a remarkable influence over him. She persua.ed him to give up his career as a virtuoso, and turn to composition. From 1848 to 1861 Liszt passed the most significant period of his life at Weimar. From his position as condu tor he was of inestimable service to the cause of romanti. music through his performance of operas and orchestral works by Wagner, Berlioz, Schumann, Raff, Cornelius and others. He was equally active with his pen in deference to t e new artistic principles. To this epoch belong Liszt’s most important orchestral works, the concertos and other col positions for piano and orchestra, many transcriptions and editions of the classics.

Later Life.—In 1859, opposition to Liszt’s progr-ssiveness became so pronounced that he resigned. He did not leave Weimar, however, until 1861. The rest of his life was somewhat irregularly divided between Rome, Weimar and Budapest. During the first few years at Rome he composed chiefly church music and oratorios ; in 1865, he took minor orders in the Church of Rome. From 1869 on, persuaded by the Duke and Duchess of Saxe-Weimar, he passed portions of every year at Weimar in a beautiful house especially furnished for him by the Duke. Pupils flocked to him, he held a sort of musical court, and was treated with the respect due to royalty. His later years were full of activity, and generous sympathy to all that was worthy, and he was the constant object of homage and affection. In 1886, Liszt became overtaxed by a series of trips to hear his own works performed, including a reception in his honor at London. He also made exceptional effort to attend a performance of “Tristan and Isolde” at Bayreuth. A cold was speedily fol-lowed by pneumonia, from which he died on July 31, 1886.

Liszt’s Personality and Character.—Liszt’s character was remarkable for its conspicuous virtues and almost equally prominent faults. His was a large, noble nature, with deep humanitarian traits. His life was one long service to his art, accompanied in his later years by devotion to the church. Though not highly educated, except in experience of men and the world, he had an extremely keen mind, omnivorous in its tastes, and his interests were wide and penetrating. Perhaps his salient characteristics were generosity and unselfishness. Often during his career as a virtuoso he gave freely of the proceeds of his concerts to charity. After the close of his concert-tours he taught for years without remuneration. His help to younger artists was incalculable in its extent. As conductor at Weimar his motto was to help living composers first, and by his energy he did valiant work in helping Wagner’s cause. Largely endowed with wit, a fund of irony and charm of manner, men and women alike almost literally fell at his feet, and it is all the more admirable that in spite of the homage so unsparingly lavished upon him, he did not swerve from his artistic purposes. The strain of mysticism so marked in his youth, became later so pronounced that he felt compelled to give it expression by entering the church

Liszt as a Pianist.—Liszt was the most phenomen.1 pianist in the history of music. Other pianists have surpa sed, him in single qualities, but no one has united in so st Isendous fashion as much as he. Beginning with a strictly classical education, Liszt evolved a new technic which co pletely summed up the difficulties of piano playing. In elocity, wide stretches, double-notes, octaves, and a whole sjstem in itself of interlocking passages, he all but attained the impossible. He carried independence of fingers, espe:ially in fugue playing, to a pitch hitherto unequalled. His performance of brilliant music represented the last word in bravura ; in the classics his interpretation was, as Wagner says: “not reproduction, but production,” so vivid and glowing was it. His so-called “orchestral style” in its bold color and rich pedal effects was as distinct from the piano playing before him as the modern orchestra was from that of Mozart and Haydn. As he assimilated everything in the field of piano playing before him, so has everything since him been forced to take his method into account.

Liszt’s Compositions. — Among Liszt’s chief compositions are the “Faust” and “Dante” symphonies, with choral epilogues ; twelve symphonic poems, a form which he in-vented, and which is epoch-making in the development of music; many shorter orchestral works; two conce-tos, the Hungarian fantasy, the “Dance of Death” for piano and orchestra, besides several compositions for the same combination on themes of other composers ; the oratorios “St. Elizabeth” and “Christus,” a Solemn Mass, the Hungarian Coronation Mass, several other masses, twelve sacrei hymns for chorus, five psalms, and- many other pieces of church music, choruses for men’s voices, several compositions for solos, chorus and orchestra for various festival occasions; fifty-five songs for voice with piano accompanimen=; three collections containing twenty-five pieces for piano, entitled “Years of Pilgrimage,” a collection of the pian ) pieces named “Poetic and Religious Harmonies,” twelve “Etudes of Transcendent Technic,” three concert studies, a sonata, two ballades, two “Legends,” a concert solo, afterwards arranged as a “Pathetic” concerto, a Valse Impromptu, two polonaises, six Consolations, a Spanish Rhapsody, and nine-teen Hungarian Rhapsodies are the best known of the piano music. There are five ballades for declamation with piano accompaniment. For organ, there is a fantasy and fugue on a choral from Meyerbeer’s “Prophet,” a fugue on B. A, C. H., and variations on a theme from a Bach cantata.

Liszt’s original compositions are his matchless transcriptions. Instead of a trivial and literal process of transcribing, he penetrated the intimate spirit of the piece, and translated it into his own piano idiom, often adding considerably but always with supreme artistic effect. What is lost in fidelity of transfer is more than gained in added charm, new harmonic significance and a subtle enhancing of individuality. Liszt started the evolution of his epoch-making technic while experimenting with his arrangement of Paganini’s caprices, and of Berlioz’ “Fantastic Symphony.” He made easy arrangements from operas of Rossini, Mercadante and Donizetti. Then he turned to setting Schubert’s matchless songs for the piano, arranging in all fifty-seven; he continued by making piano scores of Beethoven’s symphonies, of Rossini’s overture to “William Tell,” and to Weber’s overtures “Jubilee,” “Freischütz” and “Oberon.” He also made many transcriptions from Wagner’s operas, including “The Flying Dutchman,” “Tannhauser,” “Lohengrin,” “Di Meistersinger,” “Tristan and Isolde” and “Parsifal,” besides a fantasy on themes from `”Rienzi,” and an arrange-ment of the “Walhalla” motive from “The Ring of the Nibelungs.” Liszt’s arrangements of six preludes and fugues as well as the fantasy and fugue in G minor by Bach are not only remarkable for the extent to which they reproduce organ-effect, but as pioneers in the transfer of organ pieces to the piano, in which Liszt has been followed by Tausig, d’Albert and Busoni. In addition he transcribed fourteen songs by Schumann, thirteen by Franz, eight by Mendelssohn, seven by Beethoven, six by and two by Weber, besides an arrangement from sohn’s music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” an scores” of the septets by Beethoven and Hummel. ranged Weber’s “Polacca Brillante,” Op. 72, and Sc Fantasy, Op. 15, for piano and orchestra. There many transcriptions of pieces by Palestrina, Di Lass delt, Mozart, Glinka, Dargomischky, Saint-Saëns, Raff, Gounod, Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, César others. Liszt scored the accompaniment of several bert songs for orchestra, he also orchestrated severa Schubert four-hand marches. He also arranged his own songs, orchestral and choral works for pi for organ. His transcriptions as a whole are mon not only on account of their artistic merit, but beca served an educational purpose in spreading the w little known composers. In this way Liszt cultiv public taste for Schubert’s songs, and brought within the reach of the average concert-goer.

Liszt a Writer.—As a critic, Liszt must stand as a although in a different direction from Schumann. early essay on the position of the artist is extremel ficant; his criticisms during the Weimar period, e his analyses of Wagner’s operas were of great val

“Life of Chopin,” while untrustworthy in detail an i some-what overdrawn, is nevertheless graphic; “The Gipies and Their Music” is picturesque if not entirely accurate. Liszt’s letters contain glimpses of his high qualities as well as vital presentations of his musical views. The corresp.ndence between Wagner and Liszt gives conclusive evidenc of the latter’s unselfishness in Wagner’s behalf.

Liszt’s Position and Influence as a Composer.—Lis it’s rank as a composer was undoubtedly overshadowed by is fame as a pianist and teacher, and by his facility as an a ranger. For many years neither critics nor public would a knowledge his creative gifts. Whatever our opinion of t e symphonies, the symphonic poems and the concertos, here is no doubt that Liszt rendered an inestimable servic to the Chopin endels-”piano iszt arubert’s re also Arca-Verdi, ui and Schuof the any of no and mental se they irks ofted the agner pioneer Liszt’s signifecially; his development of music in breaking away from the sonata form, and in demonstrating that form and substance can go hand-in-hand without detriment to organic unity and coherence. His forms are novel, his orchestration highly effective in spite of the achievements of Berlioz and Wagner in this direction. Liszt’s church music and his oratorios are worthy efforts towards a reform of ecclesiastic music. His songs are truly spontaneous lyrics, which are not appreciated at their true value. In spite of Liszt’s unquestioned attainments as a composer, there is a suggestion of skilful assimilation in his individuality rather than of unique and unquestioned personality. Nevertheless his influence has been vast. In his old age he encouraged Borodin and Glazounoff, he conducted works by Rimsky-Korsakoff, he made his pupils play Balakireff’s “Islamey.” In turn, the “new-Russian” school owes much to him. Tchaikovsky could hardly have written his symphonic poems without Liszt’s pioneer work to show the way. Saint-Saëns admits a similar influence. In fact, the entire development of the symphonic poem is directly due to Liszt; it is so consider-able in extent that the details cannot be examined here, but while both Wagner and Berlioz contributed much to the growth of orchestral style and individuality of expression, the orginality of the symphonic poem form belongs entirely to Liszt. Thus Liszt’s share in the evolution of ultra-modern orchestral music, as well as in the development of piano playing, is very important, and the greatest living composer, Richard Strauss, although also influenced by both Berlioz and Wagner, frankly avows himself to be a disciple of Liszt.


Grove’s and Riemann’s Dictionaries.—Article on Liszt.

Newman.—A Study of Liszt. (Century Library of Music.)

Ramann.—Franz Liszt as Artist and Man.

Saint-Saëns.—Franz Liszt. (Century Magazine, Feb., 1803.)