Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt was born on 22 October 1811 in Doborján, in western Hungary (today Raiding, a town in eastern Austria). Adam Liszt discovered his son Franzi’s great musical talent when he was six years old. At the age of eleven, the Wunderkind journeyed to Vienna to study with Carl Czerny and Antonio Salieri, and, while still a student, had already made his Vienna debut on 1 December 1822, prompting the city’s Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung to refer to him as a small Hercules who appeared to have fallen from heaven. From Vienna, the young Liszt embarked on his first concert tour, which took him to Munich, Augsburg, Stuttgart, Strasbourg and Paris, a city where he gave no fewer than 38 concerts in two months. Successful appearances in England followed, and in no time his reputation as a great pianist was established throughout Europe – and without the help of today’s electronic media.

Adam Liszt died in 1827. To earn a living, and to support his mother, Franz resolved to become a piano teacher. He considered becoming a priest and withdrawing from life in the public eye, but the July Revolution of 1830 marked a turning point for him, prompting a return to life in all its facets. In the salons of Paris, Liszt got to know such figures as Heinrich Heine, Victor Hugo, Hector Berlioz and Frédéric Chopin. Certainly of equal importance to his artistic development was his attendance at a concert given by Niccolò Paganini: he resolved to master his instrument to the same degree as the famed violinist had mastered his, and so to penetrate to the core of music itself.

In 1833, Liszt met the married countess Marie d’Agoult; two years later, he flees with her to Switzerland, and then on to Italy. In 1835, their first child was born: Blandine. In 1837, Cosima came into the world, and in 1839, Daniel. Liszt’s golden period began in late 1839 : from then until September 1847, he went on tour after tour of Europe. The music world came under the spell of the pianist-composer who, as Heine observes, unleashed a veritable ‘Lisztomania.’ On one of his tours, he paid a visit to the Netherlands, making his one and only Utrecht concert appearance at the Stadschouwburg (= theatre) at Vredenburg Square on 9 December 1842. Liszt’s perpetual problematic relationship with Marie d’Agoult came to an end in 1844. In 1847, in Kiev, he made the acquaintance of Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who convinced him to stop his exhausting concert tours. They both went to live in Weimar, where Liszt became Archduke Carl Friedrich’s director of music, and where, under his baton, the works of numerous contemporary composers premiered. Weimar had now become a centre for the musical avant-garde, but this did not go unnoticed by the conservative establishment, and, following a scandal concerning the premiere of Peter Cornelius’ opera ‘The Barber of Baghdad,’ Liszt had to relinquish his position.

Liszt and Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein moved to Rome, each residing in a separate apartment. They hoped to marry there on 22 October 1861, Franz’ fiftieth birthday, but the Vatican quashed their plans. In 1865, Liszt received the Lower Orders, which carried the title of Abbé. He now divided his time between Rome, Budapest and Weimar. In Weimar, Liszt gave masterclasses to young pianists, who journeyed here from all over the world; in Budapest, he became director of a new conservatory; in Rome, he composed works that were almost exclusively religiously inspired.

In 1881, Franz Liszt fell down a staircase in his Weimar home – the beginning of the end. Despite increasingly poor health, however, he continued to travel, compose and teach. He died in Bayreuth on 31 July 1886, at the age of almost 75, bequeathing the world some 1,400 compositions.

Mathieu Heinrichs