6 Degrees of Separation: Franz Liszt [Contest Closed]

Have you heard of the 6 Degrees of Separation theory? In a nutshell, it’s the idea that you can link any two people in a community through six (or fewer) intermediate steps. In pop culture, it’s often played with the prolific actor Kevin Bacon as the starting point, but we thought it might be fun to try it out with one of the classical music community’s most well-connected figures: Franz Liszt.



From his very famous son-in-law (Richard Wagner) to his well-respected teacher (Czerny), Liszt counted some of classical music’s most iconic figures in his network. His rock-star status and constant touring also helped him add countless names to his Rolodex.

Read on to see three of the fun—and perhaps surprising—examples we came up with! Then put your thinking cap on to play with us…

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Want to play along? Here’s how it works:

  • The two people must have met in person. This could be through a collaboration, a teacher-student relationship, a personal friendship, attendance at a legendary event…
  • Start with Liszt and move in any direction temporally. Try to see how close to modern day you can get or just how far back in time you can travel!
  • You can use up to 6 intermediary steps to link your person to Liszt.
  • Our examples focused on musicians but feel free to be creative!

[Update] Thanks for playing along with us here and on social media! We were so pleased to see all of your responses. Here are our winners:

  • A reader on the blog connected HERSELF (!) to Liszt via two separate paths, one tracing the Russian tradition and another working its way through the French).
  • A fan on Facebook went on an interdisciplinary journey to connect Liszt to Albert Einstein! Liszt –> writer Victor Hugo –> artist Rodin –> choreographer Nijinsky –> composer Stravinsky –> actor Charlie Chaplin –> mathematician Albert Einstein

Example #1: Liszt –> Daniil Trifonov (6 degrees of separation)

Step 1: For this first example, let’s dive into the great Russian tradition. In 1876, Liszt and Piotr Illyitch Tchaikovsky met in Bayreuth. That summer saw the premiere of (Liszt’s son-in-law) Richard Wagner’s now-infamous Ring Cycle, which Tchaikovsky wrote an in-depth series of articles about for a Russian newspaper.

Step 2: Tchaikovsky’s most prodigious student? Sergei Taneyev. Taneyev studied with Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory and would later take over teaching the harmony and orchestration classes himself.

Step 3: By 1902, Taneyev had become director of the Moscow Conservatory and had a meeting to discuss the future of a promising young student: 11-year-old Sergei Prokofiev. After consulting with Prokofiev’s mother, Taneyev arranged for the budding composer’s first composition lessons with Reinhold Glière.

Step 4: Nearly fifty years later, Prokofiev—by then an established composer—would meet a promising young cello student: Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich would go on help Prokofiev revise his cello sonata.

“At the end of 1945, I was still a student at the Moscow Conservatoire. I begged my teachers to introduce me to Prokofiev—which they did. But I only got his attention when I won the first prize in a National Competition. In order to get close to him, I decided to learn his first concerto and I put it on my program for a recital at the Conservatory. That was on January 18th, 1948. Prokofiev attended the concert and came backstage to tell me: ‘I want to revise the work… If you could help me, I’d be very grateful.’ One of the great moments of my life was hearing him say that.”—Rostropovich, in Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary: The Indomitable Bow

Step 5: In addition to being a legendary performer, Rostropovich was also a passionate teacher who was deeply engaged in his students’ lives. As his former student (and celebrated cellist in his own right!) Mischa Maisky said in a documentary interview, “he was like a second father to me.”

Step 6: For our final step, we’ll bring things full circle and connect Liszt to one of his twenty-first-century counterparts: virtuoso pianist Daniil Trifonov. A perennial headliner of some of the world’s biggest festivals and a skilled chamber musician, Mischa Maisky has performed with many of today’s stars. Just this past summer, he shared the stage with a veritable constellation of the who’s-who of classical music at the Verbier Festival’s 25th Anniversary Gala Concert. See if you can spot him and Daniil Trifonov in the excerpt below…


Example #2: Liszt –> Michael Jackson (5 degrees of separation)

 Step 1: Liszt spent several years in Paris and became close with a number of prominent French composers. He was particularly fond of Camille Saint-Saëns and even helped advocate for the premiere of Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson et Dalila in Weimar in 1877, where he had previously served as music director.

Step 2: Saint-Saëns also had a long friendship with Gabriel Fauré. Two of the major figures active in the turn-of-the-century French music circles, the pair crossed paths frequently in both professional and personal settings and exchanged over 130 letters.

Step 3: One of the most remarkable entries on Fauré’s long list of students was Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger entered the Paris Conservatory at age 9 and joined classes alongside Debussy and Ravel, both nearly a decade her senior.

Step 4: While Boulanger’s music is (unjustly) relatively little-known today, she left an indelible mark on classical music. In addition to serving on the faculty of numerous conservatories in the Paris region, she also helped found the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau. Many of the most well-known American composers of the twentieth century made the pilgrimage across the Atlantic to study with her: Elliot Carter, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and—a name you were perhaps not anticipating seeing on this list—Quincy Jones.

“Nadia Boulanger, my former teacher in Paris, used to tell me, ‘Quincy, there are only 12 notes. And until God gives us 13, I want you to know what everybody did with those 12.'” —Quincy Jones

Step 5: Quincy Jones moved to Paris in 1957 and studied composition with both Boulanger Olivier Messiaen. From Quincy Jones, we can pivot in any number of directions. Jazz? Jones was a key player in the jazz scenes on both sides of the Atlantic and collaborated regularly with musicians like Herbie Hancock, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. Pop? His work as a producer resulted in the highest-selling album of all time: Michael Jackson‘s Thriller. He played trumpet in the band Elvis Presley first performed on television with. Now in his 80s, he is still ultra-connected, for example hosting swanky holiday parties headlined by Beyoncé

Example #3: Liszt –> John Cage (5 degrees of separation)

Step 1: Once again, we’ll start with Tchaikovsky and Liszt meeting at the Bayreuth Festival in 1876. But this time we’ll end up on the other side of the Atlantic.

Step 2: Back in Russia, Tchaikovsky frequently crossed paths with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov at competitions, in the conservatory teaching system, and in the concert hall.

Step 3: It seems that Igor Stravinsky was nearly destined to meet Rimsky-Korsakov. After studying with several of his students and even befriending his youngest son at the law faculty in St. Petersburg, he began to work with the master composer and pedagogue directly. They worked closely together and Stravinsky spent considerable time with the Rimsky-Korsakov family, attending birthday parties and traveling with them to the countryside.

Step 4: With Stravinsky, our chain travels West. Stravinsky settled in the United States in the 1940s, after having toured the country earlier. In January 1960, at nearly eighty years old, the composer reached a new cultural milestone: his first American television appearance. His introduction came via a media-savvy composer already at ease on the small screen; watch below as Leonard Bernstein passes the baton to the man he calls “the greatest composer of our time.”

Step 5: We’ve already covered Bernstein’s extensive impact as part of our #Bernstein100 celebrations. Through Bernstein’s vast network, we can link Liszt to a composer who is perhaps his polar opposite: John Cage. The pair notoriously clashed on certain subjects but remained essential figures of the American musical scene. It’s a long way from the dazzling virtuosity of Liszt’s scores to the experimental sonic landscape of John Cage’s, but perhaps they would have agreed on Cage’s assertion that music’s role is “to bring about an enjoyment of the life that we’re living.”


Over to you, medici.tv community! What interesting connections can you make?

Comment with your chain below by October 31st for the chance to win a medici.tv Premium gift card!


  1. Liszt-Tchaikovsky-Taneyev-Prokofiev-Rostropovich-me (In 1966 I was a counselor in a music camp run by Eddie and Helen Finckel. Their son David, who was about 13, was a prodigious cellist with a huge poster of his idol, Rostropovich, on the wall of his small cabin. A few years later, at a concert in Boston, David introduced me to the great cellist, who had become his teacher and mentor, helping launch him on his way to fame as the founding cellist of the Emerson Quartet.

    Liszt-Saint-Saens-Fauré-Boulanger-Louise Vosgerchian-me
    Miss Vosgerchian, as we undergrads at Harvard addressed her, was an incredible and demanding teacher of harmony, which probably owed something to her years studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

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