Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The birth of one of classical music’s earliest heartthrobs: Franz Liszt…
Franz Liszt was born in the Hungarian town of Raiding on October 22, 1811—a little more than a year after the births of Chopin and Schumann. Unlike those two composers, however, he reached old age: he died at 75, three years after his friend and son-in-law Richard Wagner. He’s one of very few composers whose life makes the 19th century look rather short.
Both his father and his grandfather worked for the Esterházy estate, in the services of the ruling family in the Austro-Hungarian border region. They therefore shared an employer with one of the 18th century’s leading composers: Joseph Haydn. Liszt’s father Adam even used to boast that as a child he had played cards with the “father of the symphony.”
Franz’s talent was clear from the age of six, and Adam—whose own compositional aspirations had been frustrated—wasted little time in promoting his child prodigy of a son. They went to Vienna, and Franz was taught by both Carl Czerny (Beethoven’s star pupil) and the elderly Antonio Salieri (Mozart’s unjustly maligned colleague). His first published composition came when he was 11 years old. It was a variation on a waltz by Anton Diabelli—the same waltz that inspired Beethoven’s monumental set of variations.
From his twenties until the age of 35, Liszt was one of Europe’s leading pianists, adored by his audiences. A technically brilliant player and a hypnotic stage presence, he even had an entire craze named after him: Lisztomania, the Beatlemania of its time. To demonstrate his talent, he wrote such works as his Grandes études (1837), revised in 1851 as the Transcendental études. The sensationally difficult No. 4, “Mazeppa,” draws on a Victor Hugo poem in which a man is strapped on to a horse running wild:
But then, the restless Liszt retired from the stage, focusing his efforts instead on composition, as well as religion: he took holy orders and was known as “Abbé Liszt” from 1865. As a composer he proved just as innovative as he had been on the stage, and he coined the term “symphonic poem,” first used to describe his 1854 composition Les préludes (below). His orchestral music may be less well known than his piano music today, but it was hugely innovative and important. Liszt was also a tireless champion of the music of others, from Wagner to Hector Berlioz.
His late works, which sometimes even push at the boundaries of tonality, amply show the influence of Wagner, whose second wife, Cosima, was Liszt’s daughter. It was during a visit to see Cosima at Bayreuth that Liszt passed away in 1886, just days after attending performances of Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde.
Legend has it that Beethoven attended a recital of Liszt’s in 1823, and kissed the young composer on the forehead. This is almost certainly untrue. But the facts of Liszt’s incredible—and incredibly long—career are perhaps remarkable enough. Taught by Salieri, a composer six years Mozart’s senior, he outlived Wagner, thrilled the young Debussy with his playing, and wrote works that still seem startlingly modern today.