Born: 22 October 1811 in Raiding, Hungary
Died: 31 July 1886 in Bayreuth
Liszt was a nineteenth-century rock star. The greatest pianist of his time, he spent years as a touring virtuoso, had oodles of illicit relations, fathered multiple illegitimate children, and composed pieces of mind-blowing difficulty. He was a born showman with an unerring sense of drama, and he was responsible for various historically important innovations in both performance and composition. He was also an extraordinarily generous musician who unstintingly helped the careers of other composers and gave numerous benefit concerts, and he was a deeply spiritual man who considered the priesthood and ultimately took religious orders. His maxim was “create memories,” and he did precisely that. Intrigued? Read on, fellow chorister, read on.
Liszt’s father worked as a clerk for the Esterházy family, the same noble family that employed Haydn. In fact, because Papa Liszt was a talented amateur musician, he performed in summer concerts at Eisenstadt and knew Haydn. Before his marriage he had lived in Franciscan monasteries and trained for the priesthood, and the name of his only child reflects that time: Franciscus (in Latin), Franz (in German), Ferenc (in Hungarian).
The Liszt family was Hungarian and proud of it; Liszt’s grandfather had changed his name from the German “List” to the Hungarian “Liszt.” Liszt himself sometimes performed in native Hungarian attire and was to support various Hungarian causes throughout his life. Notwithstanding this identity, however, Liszt was born and raised in a predominantly German-speaking area (after World War I it became part of Austria), and German was his native language. He became fluent in French and in later years that was his preferred language.
Liszt’s enormous musical talent was apparent early on. Taught piano by his father, he presented his first public concert at the age of 9. With a bevy of Hungarian noblemen prepared to finance his education, Liszt was taken to Vienna to study piano with Carl Czerny and counterpoint and score-reading with Salieri (of Mozart rival fame); neither one accepted a fee. Czerny recognized Liszt as his most brilliant pupil ever, and concerts were arranged along with an introduction to Beethoven. From the famous composer Liszt received a Weihekuss (kiss of consecration) on his brow. Liszt also published his first composition, a variation on a Diabelli waltz.
At the age of 12 Liszt arrived in Paris (having concertized on his way from Vienna) to study at the Conservatoire, but a new regulation meant that foreigners were no longer permitted to enroll. Liszt thus studied theory and composition privately and continued touring and performing, with multiple visits to England. Just before Liszt’s fourteenth birthday his opera Don Sanche (the only one he ever finished) received four performance in Paris.
Liszt’s father died unexpectedly when the composer was 16, and his mother came to live with the now-impecunious musician in Paris. His father’s death, and the end of his first (innocent) love affair with a young countess led to a nervous breakdown (falsely reported as his death in a Paris obituary). Always mystically religious, he planned to enter a seminary to study for the priesthood. The July Revolution of 1830 (when King Charles X was deposed in favor of a new ruler, Louis-Philippe) jolted him back to the real world, though, and he plunged again into the intellectual and musical life of Paris. He was acquainted with pretty much everyone who was important therein, including Chopin, Berlioz, and especially the unparalleled violin virtuoso Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840), whom everyone knew had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his technical chops. Liszt instantly decided to achieve the equivalent abilities on the piano (he succeeded); specific business arrangements with devil are unrecorded, but Liszt’s smile was described by one writer as “Mephistophelean” and he did write an awful lot of pieces that dealt with the Faust legend (for more on the Faust legend, see the Gounod entry elsewhere in the Choral Singer’s Companion). Improvising one day in Ricordi’s music shop in Milan, Liszt was hailed by the publisher with the words “this must be Liszt or the devil!”
In polite terms, Liszt became known as a “ladies’ man;” in more modern parlance, he was considered a major hottie; women practically threw their panties at him. “Lisztomania,” as it was called, supposedly led fans to seek snippets of his hair, stubs of cigars, and even the dregs from his coffee cups (according to The New Grove). Yet Liszt was capable of sustained relationships, despite such adulation, and the first big one in his life was a doozy. He met the unhappily married Countess Marie d’Agoult (six years older than Liszt and mother of two children) in 1832, and in 1835 they ran off to Switzerland. Their stormy relationship endured in one form or another until 1844 and they had three children together, whom Liszt acknowledged and supported financially and emotionally. When they finally split up (Liszt’s liaison with dancer Lola Montez was the breaking point), d’Agoult took her revenge in her autobiographical novel Nélida, where Liszt is a thinly-disguised impotent painter. Ouch. (For an amusing take on Liszt and d’Agoult, see their portrayal in the 1991 film Impromptu, with Hugh Grant as the prissy Chopin).
Liszt returned to Paris briefly in 1837 for a piano duel with rival virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg, and he resumed his touring life in 1838 in a series of 10 concerts given in Vienna to benefit victims of the horrendous flooding of the Danube at Pest (another series of benefit concerts provided most of the funds for the Beethoven statue in Bonn). His return to regular concertizing (more than 1000 concerts before 1848) and his now unmatched brilliance was remarked by all. With technique to burn and a dazzling stage presence (breaking strings and hammers, tossing his long hair, sometimes even swooning at the piano), he was lionized everywhere he went (Ireland, Russia, and pretty much everywhere in between, including his first visit to Hungary since his childhood, where he was hailed as a national hero). He performed music from memory and changed the way the piano/pianist faced the audience. Before Liszt, the pianist performed either with his back to the audience or facing the audience (with the piano in between). Liszt turned the piano sideways; the raised lid in this new position increased the volume directed towards the audience. It was purely a coincidence that this new position enabled Liszt to show off his handsome profile. Really, you have to love this guy.
Liszt also created the solo piano recital, or what he called a “musical soliloquy,” in Rome in 1839; the term “recital” first showed up to describe a London gig the following year. Previously, pianists performed with various assisting artists. Liszt also helped move the piano from its home in the salon, as a chamber instrument, to the concert hall. His repertoire went as far back as Scarlatti and included numerous splashy arrangements of music from Schubert songs to Beethoven symphonies to Italian operas (not everything was splashy; some works he simply arranged for keyboard). While these works may hold little interest for us today, they were crucial in the nineteenth century for introducing listeners to pieces they might otherwise not encounter. Liszt was also important for championing works that weren’t yet well-known, e.g. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Diabelli Variations, as well as music by Berlioz and later Wagner; he played a key role in helping to establish the reputations of those two masters. His own works for this period include the daunting piano collections Grande études de Paganini (six of them, dedicated to Clara Schumann) and the Études d’exécution transcendante (twelve of these, dedicated to Czerny).
In 1848, tired of the non-stop touring (he never again took a fee for a recital after that point), Liszt took up the post of Kapellmeister-in-Extraordinary at the court of the Grand Duke of Weimar (a position first offered to him in 1842). He remained there until 1861, a period that was very fruitful for his compositional life and also for his continued championing of the works of others; he premiered Wagner’s Lohengrin, for example (and provided a safe house when Wagner was fleeing Germany as a result of his revolutionary activities, along with money, a forged passport, etc., etc.). His companion at this time, whom he met in 1847, was another unhappily married woman (and mother), the wealthy Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, a cigar-smoking eccentric seven years younger than Liszt who was a stimulating and supportive partner. That did not stop him from having an affair with a German spy in the 1850s.
Liszt’s many compositions from his productive time in Weimar include the first two volumes (Switzerland, Italy) of his Années de pèlerinage, a collection of piano works tracing the travels during his “years of pilgrimage”; two of his most important organ works, the Fantasy and Fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam and the Prelude and Fugue on BACH; his brilliant Sonata in b minor for piano, probably his best work; the Faust and Dante symphonies; his Missa Solennis; his two piano concertos; and twelve of his thirteen symphonic poems, a genre he created and named (a sinfonische Dichtung was a one-movement orchestral work not tied to a specific formal layout that used a visual or literary idea—something non-musical—as the inspiration).
These works were part of what was sometimes called Zukunftmusik: music of the future, the forward-looking movement that stressed formal freedom, thematic transformation (changing the character of a theme or motive via meter, tempo, mode, accompaniment, rhythm), programmatic inspiration, declamatory rather than lyrical melodic lines, and chromatic harmonies. Eventually the name “New German School” was formally adopted for the movement. Weimar was the center, Liszt was the acknowledged leader, and Wagner and Berlioz were the other main players. Leipzig was the spiritual locus for conservatives, represented primarily by the music of Brahms, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. Aesthetic clashes were inevitable. In the 21st century we can safely look back and enjoy the music of both sides, but the direction composition was supposed to take was very serious business in the 19th century.
Liszt eventually gave up his position in Weimar and moved to Rome; the plan was for him to marry Carolyne on his fiftieth birthday after the annulment of her first marriage. They were stopped at the altar by a reversal of the annulment; they went their separate ways for a variety of good reasons; and Liszt entered an unhappy period. His son had died in 1859, his oldest daughter died in 1862, and he became estranged for many years from his remaining daughter, Cosima, when she abandoned her husband to live with and eventually marry Wagner. Liszt hung out in Rome through 1868, spending two years in a monastery on the outskirts of the city. During his Roman years he wrote religious music (including the oratorios Christus and Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth), listened to plainchant and Palestrina, and eventually took minor holy orders (the third order of St. Francis of Assisi), becoming the Abbé Liszt (he also qualified as an exorcist). He struck up a friendship with Pope Pius IX, who loved music, and provided private recitals at the Vatican and at the papal summer home (the Pope called him “my dear Palestrina.”) He ended up living in the Vatican for more than a year.
The music that Liszt composed during the last period of his life, from 1869 to 1886, foreshadowed aspects of modernism, and it’s telling that Debussy, that proto-modernist, met Liszt on three different occasions. In this final period Liszt split his time each year between Rome, Weimar (where he gave masterclasses—one of his innovations—three times a week, always for free), and Budapest (where he became the first president of the National Hungarian Royal Academy of Music, now the Liszt Academy of Music). When he died in Bayreuth while visiting his daughter, Rome, Weimar, and Budapest were all spoken for as the appropriate final resting place. Instead, the Catholic Liszt is buried in the Protestant cemetery of Bayreuth. Just where his soul resides depends on what deal he did or didn’t conclude with Mephistopheles.
As we might expect from someone who penned the essay Über die zukünftige Kirchenmusik (On the Future of Church Music; the goal was to unify church and theater) at the age of 23, Liszt devoted a certain amount of time to music on sacred themes. Of the more than seventy such works, the Missa Solennis (sometimes called the “Gran Mass”) is one of the most significant (Alan Walker calls it “one of his masterpieces.”)
Liszt was first approached about a commission in 1846; the interested party was Hungarian cleric János Scitovszky. By the time everything was ready, it was 1856, Scitovszky was now a cardinal and the primate of Hungary, and the mass (“Missa solennis zur Erweihung der Basilika in Gran”) would serve to mark the consecration of Hungary’s most important cathedral, in Gran. Liszt said that he wrote the work in nine weeks, and that “it sprang from the truly fervent faith of my heart, such as I have felt since my childhood. Genitum non factum [begotten, not made = text from the Credo]. I can truly say that my mass has been more prayed than composed.”
The premiere brought Liszt to Hungary for the first time since 1848; he arranged his travel to Pest to arrive at 5:00 a.m. so that he could walk alone along the banks of the Danube, overcome by his feelings for his native land. Once everyone knew he was back, he was fêted and cheered everywhere. People bought tickets to rehearsals of the mass, applauding and hailing Liszt at every opportunity. Two days before the premiere Liszt traveled down the Danube to Glan for a final dress rehearsal. Dignitaries, including the Emperor Franz Joseph, poured into town for this biggest event in Hungary in years, and the big day opened at 7:30 a.m. with “the roar of gunfire” (Walker). It was 1:30 by the time the mass was performed, with more than 4,000 crammed into the cathedral. The composition was a smash hit, and featured in numerous performances thereafter (e.g. in Pest eight days later, in Prague later the same month, in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1859, during Liszt’s final trip to England not long before his death). The work was published in 1859, with a revised version appearing in 1871, and Liszt sent a specially bound copy to the Pope (he also planned to send a copy to Wagner in response to a gift of a copy of Tristan und Isolde).
The work is written for SATB soloists, SATB choir (each voice part dividing at times), and full orchestra including three flutes, cymbals, bass drum, harp, and organ. Liszt follows the normal divisions, with a separate Benedictus sung by soloists. Soloists, in fact, play a big role throughout, appearing in every movement. Almost all of our choral writing is homophonic, and we sometimes sing in octaves. Exceptions include “cum sancto spiritu” in the Gloris (which provides a fugal exposition and then switches right back to homophony), another fugal exposition at “et unam sancta catholicam” in the Credo that likewise morphs rapidly into more homophony, and a few bits of imitation here and there (e.g. “cuius regni” in the Credo; the “plenis” in the Sanctus).
What makes the work a challenge to sing are the constant changes in almost everything, the drastic shifts of mood that Liszt employs for words and phrases. Think of the harmonic shifts at the beginning of “et resurrexit,” for example: we start in B major, morph to Eb major (this is not a closely-related key), and then end up in E major (ditto). Or the massive tempo change when we switch from cut time to 4/4 in the “cum sancto spiritu.” Or the silences following the huge “unam ecclesiam” and surrounding our choppy “et expectam.” All of this fits with Liszt’s innate sense of drama and clearly demonstrates his idea of melding theater and music.
It’s best, then, to try to conjure up the original circumstances for this piece and imagine that you are in an enormous, resonant cathedral crammed with an international bevy of dignitaries from both church and state, and that the goal is to astound the listeners with ever new combinations of texture, instrumentation, dynamic, rhythm, harmony, tempo, melody. Keep them guessing; make them hang on our every word. That’s what Liszt did—he knew, better than anyone, how to hold an audience.
Selected Works “Liszt”
Liszt wrote hundreds of works; those listed below are some of the more important ones (or ones I happen to know and like).
- Dante Symphony (women’s chorus in last movement)
- Faust Symphony (final movement, with men’s chorus, added later)
- Les preludes
- Piano Concerto #1 in Eb
- Piano Concerto #2 in A
- Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust (second one = Mephisto Waltz #1; also in piano version)
- Années de pélerinage, 3 vols. (Vol. 1, Suisse, including Au bord d’une source and Au lac de Wallenstadt; Vol. 2, Italie, including Sonetto 104 del Petrarca; Vol. 3, including Le Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este)
- Deux études de concert (Waldesrauchen; Gnomenreigen)
- Deux légendes (also in orchestral versions)
- St. François d’Assise prédication aux oiseaux
- St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots
- Études d’exécution transcendante
- Funérailles (from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses)
- Grandes études de Paganini
- 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies (best known = 2, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15; some also in orchestral versions)
- Liebesträume (most famous is #3 in Ab; originally songs)
- Mephisto Waltz #2 (also in orchestral version)
- Mephisto Waltz #3
- Sonata in b minor
- Trois études de concert
- Fantasie und Fuge über der Choral Ad nos ad salutarem undam
- Praeludium und Fuge über den Namen BACH
- Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth
- Missa solennis
- Psalm XIII
- Qui seminant in lacrimis
- Die Lorelei
A Personal Note
Many years ago I was thrown off a train in Basel on my way from Florence to Brussels. This was during a brief period when France, for some reason or other, decided that various people needed visas to enter France even if their time there (like mine that trip) would be spent entirely on a train en route to another country. Also thrown off the train with me was a Japanese pianist on her way to participate in the prestigious Queen Elizabeth competition. In the many hours between the time they threw us off the train at 5:00 a.m. and the time the visa office opened (and then the time before we could get on another train), we had lots of opportunity to talk, and I learned that her specialty was Liszt.
When we finally made it to Belgium, I attended the performance of my new friend out of a sense of camaraderie from our shared experience rather than any desire to hear Liszt. I expected to be bored. But her performance was a revelation: suddenly instead of empty virtuosity I heard real music, and I realized that Liszt is “hard” to play in the same way that Mozart is “hard” to play, but from the opposite direction. In Mozart, the notes are easy; making music from them is the hard part. In Liszt, the notes are hard (very hard), and they are so hard, in fact, that most pianists seem to forget that they need to make music out of them once their fingers are falling in the right places. So it takes a very, very special musician to make the piano pieces sound the way the composer was doubtless able to.
As for works with chorus, I’ve performed two, which is probably two more than your average choral singer. The first was the Dante Symphony, which I sang with Kurt Masur and the Boston Symphony. This is a two-movement work, with women’s chorus singing at the end of the second movement. It’s also a work where the vocal score is one of those useless items that give you no cues (this was before the chorus memorized everything). The second movement is 30 minutes long, and there are 23 minutes of (unmarked) rest before the chorus enters. None of us had any idea when we were supposed to come in, and, frantic that I would miss the not-very-visible cue that Masur gave, I spent hours with the full score and a recording so I had some sense of what was happening. When we finally got to the actual performances I made subtle “sitting up straighter” gestures and the like as we approached our entrance to signal “we are getting closer!!!!!” Miraculously, it all worked out—or maybe not so miraculously, as we were singing the “Paradiso” part of Dante, after all. Worries aside, I’d be happy to sing it again.
The other piece I’ve sung is one of Liszt’s many motets, his late Qui semirant in lacrimis (1884, for mixed choir and organ): dramatic, powerful, a great sing. It makes me wonder how many other terrific Liszt choral works are languishing out there, waiting to be performed?
For Further Reading
The definitive biography of Liszt is the massive three-volume work (Franz Liszt) by Alan Walker; if you’re only up for a single volume, try Derek Watson’s Liszt in the Master Musicians series. For a short introduction, see the excellent article in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Alan Walker). Edited volumes include The Cambridge Companion to Liszt (ed. Kenneth Hamilton), Franz Liszt: The Man and His Music (ed. Alan Walker), Liszt and His World (ed. Michael Saffle), and The Liszt Companion (ed. Ben Arnold). And there’s tons of other stuff out there as well, with new material appearing regularly. He’s just too interesting to let go.