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Liszt, Franz

Category: Musician or composer

 

Franz Liszt (born Franz Joseph Liszt) , (October 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886) was a prolific 19th-century Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, conductor, music teacher, arranger, organist, philanthropist, author and a Franciscan tertiary.  He was born in the village of Doborján (German: Raiding) in Sopron County, in the Kingdom of Hungary, Austrian Empire.

Liszt gained renown in Europe during the early nineteenth century for his prodigious virtuosic skill as a pianist.  As a composer, Liszt left behind an extensive and diverse body of work in which he influenced his forward-looking contemporaries and anticipated many 20th-century ideas and trends.

Works

Liszt was a prolific composer. He is best known for his piano music, but he also wrote for orchestra, and for other ensembles, virtually always including keyboard. The relative obscurity of the vast majority of his works may be explained by the immense number of pieces he composed, literally thousands, and the level of technical difficulty which was present in much of his composition. 

 

Liszt's piano works are usually divided into two classes.

On the one hand, there are original works, and on the other hand there are transcriptions, arrangements, paraphrases or fantasies of works by other composers, for example, his transcriptions of Schubert songs, his fantasies on operatic melodies, and his piano arrangements of symphonies by Berlioz and Beethoven.

Liszt's compositions such as Nuages gris, Les jeux d'eaux à la villa d'Este, etc., which contain parallel fifths, the whole-tone scale, parallel diminished and augmented triads, and unresolved dissonances, were exceptionally innovative for the time and influenced Debussy, Ravel and Béla Bartók.

The Spectator - Hit Liszt - Damian Thompson

If you were to listen to his works one after another without interruption, it would take about a week. I’m basing that estimate on the fact that Leslie Howard’s 98 CDs of Liszt’s complete piano music, which are just about to be reissued …., last for just over five days. That’s nine million notes spread over 12 miles of printed pages, in case you were wondering. Add the orchestral and sacred music and you’d have about 120 CDs.

With Liszt, …. it’s difficult to distinguish the tinsel from the magnificence, as Schumann put it. The same piece can sound noble or overblown, heartfelt or syrupy, depending on the interpretation. You could never say that Liszt is ‘music better than it can be played’: no composer of piano music is so completely at the mercy of the performer.

Sources of inspiration

 

Believing in the spiritual world

Liszt was both a Catholic and a Freemason.  He was admitted to the Freemason's lodge "Unity" "Zur Einigkeit", in Frankfurt am Main, in 1841. He was promoted to the second degree and elected master as member of the lodge "Zur Einigkeit", in Berlin. From 1845 he was also honorary member of the lodge "Modestia cum Libertate" at Zurich and 1870 of the lodge in Pest (Budapest-Hungary). His faith was absolute.

Franz Liszt The Virtuoso Years – Alan Walker
Among the many influences which were already working on [Liszt’s] character during these early years, two call for special mention.  The first was the church.  Liszt never lost the faith that he won for himself as a boy through his prayers in the tiny churches of Raiding and Frauendorf.  From the outset he was a deeply religious, mystical child.  Nothing seemed to him so ‘self evident as heaven, nothing as true as the compassion of God’.  He dreamed himself incessantly into the world of the saints and the martyrs.  He knew that his father had once dedicated himself to the priesthood.  More than once his father was to take the small boy on a nostalgic trip to the Franciscans and their monastery and point out the place where he had experienced his first religious crisis.
These powerful memories never left Liszt; they were to surface many times in later life.  In his adolescence he would beg to be allowed to enter a seminary in Paris and die the death of the martyrs.  Later still, aged 53, he would finally take holy orders.  To interpret such a solemn act, as so many of Liszt’s romantic biographers have done, as an escape into the refuge of a monastic cell in order to avoid capture by his Egeria, the Princess von Sayn-Wittgenstein, is to reveal scant acquaintance with his earliest years.  Liszt’s life must be seen whole.  The church, as he himself acknowledged, was his vocation almost from the start.…..

Humility [squash the big I am]

On 14 March 1842, Liszt received an honorary doctorate from the University of Königsberg - an honour unprecedented at the time, and an especially important one from the perspective of the German tradition. Liszt, however, never used 'Dr. Liszt' or 'Dr. Franz Liszt' publicly.

Franz Liszt The Virtuoso Years – Alan Walker

Liszt was already familiar with the Lives of the Saints, and he knew every page of the Imitation of Christ by the great mystic Thomas a Kempis, a work which illuminated his inner life.  Some of its aphorisms were elevated by him to the level of moral precepts, to be lived out in his daily existence.
Learn to obey …..
Learn to make thyself meek………….
Dilate me in love that I may learn to taste with the inward mouth of mine heart how sweet it is to love and in love to melt and swim

Serving others [charity] and generosity

 

 Liszt gave away much of his proceeds to charity and humanitarian causes. In fact, Liszt had made so much money by his mid-forties that virtually all his performing fees after 1857 went to charity. While his work for the Beethoven monument and the Hungarian National School of Music are well known, he also gave generously to the building fund of Cologne Cathedral, the establishment of a Gymnasium at Dortmund, and the construction of the Leopold Church in Pest. There were also private donations to hospitals, schools and charitable organizations such as the Leipzig Musicians Pension Fund. When he found out about the Great Fire of Hamburg, which raged for three days during May 1842 and destroyed much of the city, he gave concerts in aid of the thousands of homeless there.

Inherited genes

There is an element of inherited talent which contributed to Liszt’s abilities.  Liszt's father played the piano, violin, cello and guitar and had been in the service of Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy.  He had known Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven personally. At age six, Franz began listening attentively to his father's piano playing and showed an interest in both sacred and Romani music. His father, Adam began teaching him the piano at age seven, and Franz began composing in an elementary manner when he was eight. He appeared in concerts at Sopron and Pressburg (Hungarian: Pozsony, present-day Bratislava, Slovakia) in October and November 1820 at age 9. After the concerts, a group of wealthy sponsors offered to finance Franz's musical education in Vienna.

Liszt received piano lessons from Carl Czerny, and received lessons in composition from Antonio Salieri, then music director of the Viennese court. Liszt's public debut was in Vienna on December 1, 1822, aged 11, at a concert at the "Landständischer Saal".  It was a great success.

Towards the end of 1823 or early 1824, Liszt's first composition to be published, his Variation on a Waltz by Diabelli (now S. 147), appeared as Variation 24 in Part II of Vaterländischer Künstlerverein. This anthology, commissioned by Anton Diabelli, includes 50 variations on his waltz by 50 different composers.  Liszt's inclusion in the Diabelli project—he was described in it as "an 11 year old boy, born in Hungary"—was almost certainly at the instigation of Czerny, his teacher and also a participant. Liszt was the only child composer in the anthology.

‘May I play something of yours now I boldly asked’.  Beethoven smiled and nodded.  I played the first movement of the C major concerto.  When I had concluded Beethoven caught hold of me with both hands, kissed me on the forehead and said gently ‘Go! You are one of the fortunate ones!  For you will give joy and happiness to many other people!’  

Thus he would be classified these days as a child prodigy, but as he grew older another very strong influence came into play – love.

Liszt’s life was full of love in all its forms – unrequited love, romantic love, the great love of friendship and just love.  He gave his heart away.

Requited love and making love

 

In 1833, Liszt began his relationship with the Countess Marie d'Agoult. In addition to this, at the end of April 1834 he made the acquaintance of Felicité de Lamennais. Under the influence of both, Liszt's creative output exploded.  In 1835, the countess left her husband and family to join Liszt in Geneva; their daughter  Blandine was born there on December 18th.

For the next four years, Liszt and the countess lived together, mainly in Switzerland and Italy, where their daughter, Cosima, was born in Como, with occasional visits to Paris. On May 9, 1839, Liszt's and the countess's only son, Daniel, was born, but that autumn relations between them became strained. Liszt heard that plans for a Beethoven monument in Bonn were in danger of collapse for lack of funds, and pledged his support. Doing so meant returning to the life of a touring virtuoso. The countess returned to Paris with the children, while Liszt gave six concerts in Vienna, then toured Hungary.

For the next eight years Liszt continued to tour Europe, spending holidays with the countess and their children on the island of Nonnenwerth on the Rhine in summers 1841 and 1843. In spring 1844 the couple finally separated. This was Liszt's most brilliant period as a concert pianist. Honours were showered on him and he met with adulation wherever he went. Franz wrote his 'Three Concert Études' between 1845 and 1849. Since he often appeared three or four times a week in concert, it could be safe to assume that he appeared in public well over a thousand times during this eight-year period. Moreover, his great fame as a pianist, which he would continue to enjoy long after he had officially retired from the concert stage, was based mainly on his accomplishments during this time.

Unrequited love

After his father's death in 1827, Liszt moved to Paris; for the next five years he was to live with his mother in a small apartment. To earn money, Liszt gave lessons in piano playing and composition, often from early morning until late at night. And in 1828, aged 17, he fell in love with one of his pupils, Caroline de Saint-Cricq, the daughter of Charles X's minister of commerce, Pierre de Saint-Cricq. Her father, however, insisted that the affair be broken off. Liszt fell very ill, to the extent that an obituary notice was printed in a Paris newspaper and had many discussions with the Abbé de Lamennais, who acted as his spiritual father.

 

In February 1847, Liszt played in Kiev. There he met the Polish Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was to become one of the most significant people in the rest of his life. She persuaded him to concentrate on composition, which meant giving up his career as a travelling virtuoso. He spent the winter with the princess at her estate in Woronince.
The following year, Liszt took up a long-standing invitation of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia to settle at Weimar, where he had been appointed Kapellmeister Extraordinaire in 1842, remaining there until 1861.
Princess Carolyne lived with Liszt during his years in Weimar. She eventually wished to marry Liszt, but since she had been previously married and her husband, Russian military officer Prince Nikolaus zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Ludwigsburg (1812–1864), was still alive, she had to convince the Roman Catholic authorities that her marriage to him had been invalid. After huge efforts and a ‘monstrously intricate process’, she was temporarily successful (September 1860). It was planned that the couple would marry in Rome, on October 22, 1861, Liszt's 50th birthday. Although Liszt arrived in Rome on October 21st, the Princess declined to marry him that evening. It appears that both her husband and the Tsar of Russia had managed to quash permission for the marriage at the Vatican. The Russian government also impounded her several estates in the Polish Ukraine, which made her marriage to anybody infeasible.

Liszt never got over this and it affected much of the final years of his life.

Grief

The 1860s in general were a period of great sadness in Liszt's private life. On December 13, 1859, he lost his 20-year-old son Daniel, and on September 11, 1862, his 26-year-old daughter Blandine also died. In letters to friends, Liszt afterwards announced that he would retreat to a solitary living. He found it at the monastery Madonna del Rosario, just outside Rome, where on June 20, 1863, he took up quarters in a small, Spartan apartment.

Catholic Encyclopedia

 

As early as 1856 or 1858 he became a Franciscan tertiary. The failure of the Princess Caroline von Sayn-Wittgenstein, a most estimable lady whose influence over him was most potent for good, to secure a dispensation to marry him, only brought his religious designs to a more definite point. He received minor orders from Cardinal Hohenlohe in his private chapel at the Vatican on 25 April, 1865. This he did, "convinced that this act would strengthen me in the right road", and therefore he "accomplished it without effort, in all simplicity and uprightness of intention", and as agreeing "with the antecedents of my youth, as well as with the development that my work of musical composition has taken during the last four years" (La Mara, "Letters of Franz Liszt", New York, 1894, II, 100).


On July 31, 1865, he received the four minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte. After this ordination he was often called Abbé Liszt. On August 14, 1879, he was made an honorary canon of Albano.

The Platonic love of Friendship and companionship

Then there is love for his fellow man.  Liszt had a great generosity of spirit and an enduring empathy for his fellow composers and artists.  In 1833 he made transcriptions of several works by Berlioz, including the Symphonie fantastique. His chief motive in doing so, especially with the Symphonie, was to help the poverty-stricken Berlioz, whose symphony remained unknown and unpublished. Liszt bore the expense of publishing the transcription himself and played it many times to help popularise the original score.

His friendships were numerous.  He was a friend, musical promoter and benefactor to many composers of his time, including Frédéric Chopin, Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Camille Saint-Saëns, Edvard Grieg, Ole Bull, Joachim Raff, Mikhail Glinka, and Alexander Borodin. 

In the 1860s. Liszt gave lessons to a number of pianists, including the great virtuoso Hans von Bülow, who married Liszt's daughter Cosima in 1857.  Years later, she would marry Richard Wagner and Liszt later wrote articles championing Wagner, he also helped raise the profile of Wagner when he was in exile, by conducting the overtures of his operas in concert. Liszt and Wagner would have a profound friendship that lasted until Wagner's death in Venice in 1883. Wagner held strong value towards Liszt and his musicality, once rhetorically stating "Do you know a musician who is more musical than Liszt?"  

Liszt also worked extremely hard to obtain better conditions for his fellow artists.  Liszt taught at the newly founded Geneva Conservatory and contributed essays for the Paris Revue et gazette musicale. In these essays, he argued for the raising of the artist from the status of a servant to a respected member of the community.

Music, passion and emotion

Sometimes great grief and anguish, and adversity in all its forms, can be a driver to creativity.  As long as we know how to channel that grief, that extreme emotion, how to express it, the emotional pain it represents can be converted into an expression of both the divine and the sublime:

Franz Liszt The Virtuoso Years – Alan Walker
Among Liszt’s most colourful childhood memories was the image of the wandering tribes of dark skinned gypsies who trekked back and forth across the plains of Hungary, remarkable people whose customs, language and music he later described in such vivid detail in Des Bohemiens et leur musique en Hongrie.  The very best passages in that book are autobiographical; they are first hand, eye witness accounts of this proud, nomadic race and they could have been written by no one but Liszt.
The gypsies entered Hungary from the Balkan Peninsula as early as the 15th century.  They flourished there simply because they were not subjected to the terrible persecutions which decimated their numbers in Russia, Poland, Turkey and other less tolerant countries.  By the 19th century, tens of thousands of them were living in Hungary, side by side with the Magyars.  The gypsies often camped outside Raiding.  Liszt describes how they would form their caravans into a large circle and unfurl their tents…. At nightfall they would build a huge fire in the middle of their encampment around which singers and dancers would perform.  Theirs was a purely improvisatory art.  Responding entirely to feeling and emotion, they would sway back and forth to the music, as if under an hypnotic spell.

What Liszt admired in Tzigane music was its improvisatory, impulsive nature.  It coincided with his own view of the art as something fundamental to mankind.  Here was a living proof for him that music was truly innate, for it had been preserved within an ancient people who had received no formal instruction whatever in the art, who could not read music notation, who were illiterate by the standards of the day, and yet whose music somehow managed to survive across generations.

Liszt and ‘music therapy’

Liszt appears to have made a detailed study into the use of music for therapy and in healing the mentally ill.  His experiences of Romany music and the effects it had had on him, in turn guided him on his choice of the music he composed and played.  We have a specific observation which describes how he used music in an asylum, but he appears to have also used music to induce a sort of hysteric release for repressed women!

Music as cause and cure of illness – Dr Cheryce Kramer

According to the Romantic author Alexander Sternberg, an 'insane stupor' overcame the female population of the city when Liszt performed in Berlin during the 1820s and 1830s. Sternberg, who witnessed this stupor with his own eyes, places the event in 'the annals of medical history rather than the history of music'. He consistently refers to Liszt devotees, who were primarily women, as 'the mesmerized ones' ['die Electrisierten'], comparing the effects of Liszt's musical performances to a Mesmeric seance.

As he remembers, 'the galvanized ones' would collapse into a state of either manic excitation or deep melancholy. The manic would have no other desire than 'to draw attention to themselves. They would bribe waiters, stand behind doors and wait by the carriage until the concert ended in order to drink the dregs of tea remaining in the cup of their beloved'. The melancholic would 'waste away, stare fixedly at one point and turn inwards for days on end' after having been 'helped home' from the concert on the arm of a friend. This passion stirred by a Liszt recital are confirmed by the music historian, Percy Scholes, who writes that 'so fervid was feminine admiration that if [Liszt] dropped his handkerchief it was torn to pieces as "souvenirs"'.

Romantic music was potentially pathogenic. It could produce such a powerful psychological response that it robbed the subject of all reason. The same fate that befell Bogs at his trial concert also befell many a hapless listener at a Liszt concert - confirming, for anyone in need of such confirmation, that real life will tend to surpass even the most satirical literary accounts.

This atmosphere was fuelled in great part by the artist's mesmeric personality and stage presence. Many witnesses later testified that Liszt's playing raised the mood of audiences to a level of mystical ecstasy.


Lest, however, we think that his music only had this effect on women, we have the following

Russian critic Yuri Arnold
I was completely undone by the sense of the supernatural, the mysterious, the incredible… as soon as I reached home, I pulled off my coat, flung myself on the sofa and wept the bitterest sweetest tears.

And

Franz Liszt The Virtuoso Years – Alan Walker

With his mesmeric personality and long mane of flowing hair, he created a striking stage presence.  And there were many witnesses to testify that his playing did indeed raise the mood of the audience to a level of mystical ecstasy.  In 1840, Hans Christian Anderson, a close observer of men and manners, happened to be present at one of Liszt’s Hamburg recitals.  He recorded his impressions in his travel book A Poet’s Bazaar

As Liszt sat before the piano, the first impression of his personality was derived from the appearance of strong passions in his wan face, so that he seemed to be a demon nailed fast to the instrument whence the tones streamed forth – they came from his blood, from his thoughts; he was a demon who would liberate his soul from thraldom; he was on the rack, his blood flowed and his nerves trembled; but as he continued to play, so the demon vanished.  I saw the pale face assume a nobler and brighter expression; the divine soul shone from his eyes, from every feature; he became as beauteous as only spirit and enthusiasm can make their worshippers

Last years and death

Liszt was invited back to Weimar in 1869 to give master classes in piano playing. Two years later he was asked to do the same in Budapest at the Hungarian Music Academy. From then until the end of his life he made regular journeys between Rome, Weimar and Budapest, continuing what he called his "vie trifurquée" or threefold existence. It is estimated that Liszt travelled at least 4,000 miles a year during this period in his life—an exceptional figure given his advancing age and the rigors of road and rail in the 1870s.

Liszt fell down the stairs of a hotel in Weimar on July 2, 1881. Though friends and colleagues had noticed swelling in his feet and legs when he had arrived in Weimar the previous month (an indication of possible congestive heart failure), he was still active. He was left immobilised for eight weeks after the accident and never fully recovered from it. A number of ailments manifested themselves—dropsy, asthma, insomnia, a cataract of the left eye and heart disease. The last-mentioned eventually contributed to Liszt's death. He became increasingly plagued by feelings of desolation, despair and preoccupation with death—feelings that he expressed in his works from this period. As he told Lina Ramann, "I carry a deep sadness of the heart which must now and then break out in sound."

Liszt died in Bayreuth, Germany, on July 31, 1886, at the age of 74, officially as a result of pneumonia, which he may have contracted during the Bayreuth Festival hosted by his daughter Cosima. Questions have been posed as to whether medical malpractice played a part in his death. He was buried on August 3, 1886, in the municipal cemetery of Bayreuth in accordance with his wishes.

Observations

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