Cambridge Liszt Festival 2011

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was one of the greatest composers of his age and arguably the greatest pianist of all time.

 The essay below, by festival director Conor Farrington, gives a general introduction to Liszt's life and work. It was first published in The Pianist magazine in 2004.

Composer, mystic, lover and musical superstar: Franz Liszt was all these. Even today, he inspires both adulation and contempt, but Conor Farrington argues that Liszt’s romantic legend makes us neglect his visionary music.

In the year 1811, the Great Comet appeared in the skies above Europe, inspiring wonder, awe and even fear in those who gazed up at its incandescent trail. A small band of Hungarian gypsies, staying near a small town called Raiding in Hungary, took the comet as a sign that a great man had been born. Whether by chance or by destiny, their prediction turned out to be true, for in 1811 that little town saw the birth of Franz Liszt. In his own lifetime and indeed for many years afterwards, Liszt provoked a confusing welter of emotions and reactions: outrage and adulation, admiration and opprobrium, contempt and worship. Rather than calling his greatness into question, these mixed responses instead confirm Liszt’s status as an innovator, a rebel, and a Romantic. Like all true Romantics, he had a personality divided by paradoxes: sinner and a saint, charlatan and  mystic, Franciscan and gypsy – but it was these very contradictions that drove him to the heights of musical eminence.

As pianist, composer, conductor and teacher, Liszt displayed an array of musical and intellectual gifts that even Mozart would have envied. Despite this, his work was the subject of much misunderstanding, confusion, and even contempt, in his own lifetime and indeed to the present day. His extreme personal beauty and charisma earned him the friendship of distinguished men and the love of beautiful women, yet he often yearned for the peace and solitude of a monastery, and was ordained an abbé, or deacon, in Rome in 1865. Liszt was the first musical superstar, fêted and adored throughout Europe and beyond, yet he turned his back on his virtuoso career in 1847 while at the height of his powers. His was a strange, contradictory, and haunted existence, enigmatic and uniquely compelling in an age of fascinating men and women.

Like Mozart, Liszt’s great talents were evident from an early age. By the age of nine, he had overcome every difficulty in the work of every composer from Bach to Beethoven (the latter was a particularly strong influence upon the young Liszt). His father, Adam, was a talented amateur musician, but he realised that young Franz needed professional tuition, so they journeyed together to Vienna. In this great cultural centre, Liszt not only found the perfect teacher – Carl Czerny – but also audiences eager to hear the playing of the ‘little Hercules’. In 1822, Liszt underwent an unforgettable experience – his Weihekuss (kiss of consecration) from Beethoven. The young Hungarian had a private meeting with the great German at which he played a Bach fugue. Beethoven asked him to transpose the piece into another key, which the 11-year-old did without hesitation. At the end of the meeting, Beethoven kissed the boy’s forehead, saying, ‘Go! You are one of the fortunate ones! For you will give joy and happiness to many other people! There is nothing better or finer!’ Understandably, Liszt always recalled these words with deep emotion, saying later that they had ‘set the seal’ on his career.

By the age of 13, Liszt was not only the finest pianist in Europe, he had also staged his own opera, Don Sanche. Only one other musician had achieved these things before: Mozart. But broader horizons beckoned, and in 1823 Liszt and his father left Vienna for Paris. The French capital was to be Liszt’s home for many years to come, and he quickly took up Parisian ways. Paris in the 1820s and 1830s was a hotbed of Romanticism, artistic genius and revolutionary fervour, leading the poet and writer Heinrich Heine to speculate that ‘when dear God is bored in heaven, he opens the window and contemplates the boulevards of Paris’ – heady stuff for a young pianist with the world at his feet.

Some introspective episodes aside, the young Hungarian threw himself into his musical career. The music of Berlioz and Chopin entranced Liszt and encouraged him to develop his own musical style. In 1832 he fell under the spell of the great violin virtuoso Paganini and was seized with the desire to emulate and even transcend Paganini’s almost unbelievable skill, albeit on the piano rather than the violin. Thus began what are now known as Liszt’s years of transcendental execution, when he (in biographer Kenneth Hamilton’s words) ‘scaled the Himalayas of piano virtuosity’.

Paris in the 1830s was ‘a riot of pianists’, all of whom had some special trick up their sleeve with which to impress audiences. Kalkbrenner specialised in passagework, for instance, while Dreyschock learned to play the difficult left hand part for Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude (op 10, no 12) in octaves. Liszt took on all of these pianists at their own game – and emerged victorious. As Liszt biographer Alan Walker wrote, ‘there was nothing they could do as a group that he could not do by himself.’

From the mid-1830s until 1847, Liszt’s career as a concert pianist took him to every corner of Europe – and beyond. He was the first pianist to play from memory at concerts, and the first to give entire concerts by himself, boasting ‘Le concert, c’est moi!’ No musician had ever received the universally rapturous welcome accorded to Liszt, who was showered with acclaim, honours, and the affections of a series of dazzling women. This naturally placed a considerable amount of strain on his relationship with the married Countess Marie d’Agoult, with whom he had had three children. (One of his daughters, Cosima, later married Richard Wagner.) In 1847, however, he met Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein in Kiev, with whom he quickly fell in love. This was to be a fateful encounter in many ways, since Carolyne, convinced of Liszt’s compositional genius, was instrumental in persuading Liszt to give up his career as a virtuoso in favour of a settled life in pursuit of Kapellmeister at the Weimar Court, Germany. For contemporary audiences, drunk on the splendour and verve of Liszt’s performances, it must have seemed as if the sun had gone out. Yet Liszt knew that he was called to greater things than the life of the virtuoso. As he wrote to an aristocratic friend, ‘The time has come for me to break my virtuoso chrysalis and give full flight to my thoughts.’

Three-pronged life

He now entered into his mature compositional stage, and many masterpieces flowed from his pen during the 13 years he spent at Weimar: the final versions of the first two Années de pèlerinage (Suisse and Italie) and the Transcendental and Paganini Études; thePiano Sonata in B minor; the Faust Symphony;the 12 Symphonic Poems and many other works. At the same time, Liszt was assiduous in promoting and performing the works of other composers, with Berlioz, Schumann, and most of all Wagner benefiting greatly from his promotional efforts. Weimar, however, became less welcoming as the years went by, partly because of his open relationship with Carolyne and partly because of his support for, and involvement with, the ‘New Music’ – that is, anything that wasn’t Brahms. When an audience hissed and booed a performance of Peter Cornelius’s The Barber of Baghdad, which Liszt was conducting, it was the last straw: he resigned immediately, and left Weimar altogether in 1861.

Liszt’s initial plan upon leaving Weimar was to sanctify his union with Carolyne by having her previous marriage annulled, and then marrying her himself. However, the annulment never occurred, and the wedding was postponed indefinitely. In fact, Liszt ended up being ordained as a deacon instead. Liszt’s deep spirituality, always a powerful impetus in his life and work, began to exert more and more influence upon him in his later years and he began what he termed his Vie trifurquée – his three-pronged life. He divided his year between Weimar, Budapest and Rome. Rome provided a forum in which he could explore his spirituality while maintaining his creative life, and many sacred works date from this period. In Weimar, he began his famous piano masterclasses – a style of teaching that he invented. In these classes, he taught the finest young pianists from all over the world for over 20 years. Admission was free; all one required to get in was a formidable piano technique and a willingness to learn. By all accounts, these classes were unforgettable. An American student, Amy Fay, found that Liszt’s presence had not diminished over the years: ‘Anything so perfectly beautiful as he looks when he sits at the piano I never saw, and yet he is almost an old man now. His personal magnetism is immense, and I can scarcely bear it when he plays.’ In Budapest, lastly, Liszt became closely involved with the musical life of his beloved homeland, and he later took on teaching duties at the newly established Academy of Music.

This strange, three-sided life has the appearance of a desperate attempt by the ageing Liszt to somehow reconcile the disparate elements within his personality. To some extent, perhaps, he succeeded, but not even the spiritual riches of Rome, the roots of his homeland in Budapest, and the fervour of his students in Weimar could altogether ease the loneliness and inner desolation that he often felt during his final years. In 1883 he wrote to Carolyne, ‘It would be better for me not to go out this evening, my fatigue in living is extreme and, in spite of my wish to do so, I no longer feel good for anything.’ Liszt’s long life ended just three years later in 1886, at Bayreuth in Germany. The master’s magical playing, as a contemporary put it, had fallen silent forever.

Virtuoso composer

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to criticise the way Liszt composed. He wrote very quickly, so some of his works are uneven in quality. The piano concertos, for instance, while containing passages of great beauty, suffer from occasional lapses of taste and proportion. Similarly, several of the symphonic poems – especially Hungaria, Festklänge, and Die Ideale – would have benefited from some conscientious editing. It is also true that some of his piano works, such as the first editions of the Transcendentaland Paganini Études, are too virtuosic; that is to say, the physical challenges of these works occasionally threatens to overshadow their musical content. (It must be noted that this failing of certain of Liszt’s works is greatly exaggerated by inadequate interpretations. Played by a lesser pianist, his music can sound shallow and even vulgar, whereas a true Lisztian – such as the Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet – will always impart to the music the power and breadth that it requires.) In any case, many critics have claimed that Liszt is an inferior composer, labelling him as a great pianist – but nothing more.

This claim does not, however, hold up to any scrutiny. To begin with, not all of his works are impossibly difficult, as some maintain. Although he wrote few pieces suitable for beginners, he did write some simpler works that are accessible to the intermediate pianist, such as the six Consolations(reputedly so-called because they offer a consolation to pianists unable to tackle the more difficult works), the late Elegies, and the Christmas Tree Suite. It is true that Liszt, as a pianist, was gifted beyond all reckoning, but that does not mean that he was not also a great composer.

More generally, it is surely the case that every composer has his or her weak moments, and as Liszt scholar Humphrey Searle wrote, ‘nobody would dream of assessing Beethoven’s powers on the strength of the Battle Symphonyalone.’ It is by his finest music that Liszt should be judged, and – to quote Searle again – ‘what is important with Liszt is not only the number of ideas that came to him, but also the remarkable quality of very many of them.’ The Sonata in B minor for piano and the Faust Symphony, for instance, display Liszt’s great gifts as melodist, harmonist, and structural craftsman to such an extent that they would guarantee Liszt an eminent place in the musical hall of fame even if he had never written anything else.

He did, however, write a multitude of other works whose genius equals and in many cases surpasses the quality of work by more celebrated composers such as Chopin and Tchaikovsky. Other great works include: several of the symphonic poems, especially Hamlet, Les préludes, and Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe; the three piano cycles of the Années de pèlerinage – particularly the unforgettable Petrarca Sonnetti and the Dante Sonata from the second year, Italie – and a host of individual pieces such as the Mephisto Waltz No 1and the Fantasy and Fugue on the name B-A-C-H. Lastly, it is impossible to ignore the works of Liszt’s late period. Dissonant, fragmented, bittersweet, and elegiac, these prophetic works amply fulfil Liszt’s avowed aim to cast his lance far into the future. Works such as the Années de pèlerinage - Troisieme Année, the Via crucis for choir and organ, and individual pieces for piano such as Nuages gris, seem to reach into the realms of Impressionism and even atonality. They are comparable in spirit and accomplishment to Beethoven’s late period, and this is perhaps the greatest achievement of Liszt’s lengthy career.

Impact and influences

No artist exists in a vacuum, and Liszt came to exert as great an influence on certain other composers as Beethoven, Berlioz, and Chopin had exerted on him. Wagner admitted to Liszt (but not in public) that Liszt’s harmonic innovations in works such as the Symphonic Poemshad greatly influenced his own compositional techniques, and indeed there are many anticipations of Wagner’s celebrated harmonic style in Liszt’s works. Liszt’s approach to pianism greatly influenced almost every subsequent composer for the instrument, especially Scriabin, Satie, Rachmaninov and Bartók. His early form of Impressionism was an inspiration to Ravel and Debussy, while his overtly nationalistic Hungarian works stimulated nationalist works by composers from other countries, notably Smetana, Grieg, and the Russians: Glinka, Cui, and Borodin.

Yet, despite these apparent signs of artistic success, Liszt’s life was in many ways a tragic one. He was a true Romantic, but he never found lasting love, and while his spirituality was profound, the lure of the world often proved too strong to resist. Liszt’s cosmopolitan sophistication ultimately robbed him of the ability to find a secure national identity, and his efforts to promote new music in Weimar and elsewhere met with only limited success. He gave up the greatest virtuoso career in history only to find that his compositions frequently provoked incomprehension and, all too often, contempt. The many ways in which Liszt influenced fellow composers and pianists were forgotten, and much of his work lay neglected while lesser composers were praised to the skies. In spite of these and many other setbacks, Liszt still retained the courage to say to his students, ‘Ich kann warten’ (‘I can wait’). Is Liszt a forgotten genius, a neglected visionary? It seems exaggerated to speak about someone so famous as ‘neglected’ or ‘forgotten’, but on the other hand it is true to say that Liszt is better known today for his pianism (and a handful of piano works) than for his mature compositions. Perhaps this will be the era in which, at last, Liszt’s long wait will end, and it will finally be recognised that Liszt’s titanic pianism was fully matched by his creative ability.

(c) Conor Farrington 2004.

Cambridge Liszt Festival