Classical Composer : Franz Liszt
by Betty Fry
When I discovered Franz Liszt had been interested enough in gypsies to become their friend, and to even spend time in a gypsy encampment in his childhood home of Hungary, I immediately became very interested in him as a man as well as a musician. On one occasion when he visited the camp, he was given a pile of fur skins as a seat of honour, and from this special vantage position he watched the men eating meat and honey, while the women danced, crashing their tambourines and shouting to each other.
Then the men rose to examine several horses they had been given, and were so delighted with the animals, they threw their caps into the air with joy before taking up their violins and cymbals to play in excited celebration.
The series of pieces he called ‘Magyar Dallock’, which were later published as ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’ were also based on music he had heard the gypsies play.
He is said to have admired their prophetic talent, and although he found their primitive ways both erotic and barbarous, the simplicity of their life also charmed him. As a boy he was influenced by the gypsy violinist Janos Bihari, and for this reason had a rich knowledge of his country’s national music to draw on. But his fascination with their music related directly to his own attraction to the colourful and unconventional.
Although born in 1811 in what is now Hungary, Liszt came from a German speaking family. His father Adam, played the cello and began to teach his son the piano when he was about the age of six.
His progress was such that by the age of nine he was giving concerts, composing short pieces, and by the age of eleven had already become established as a virtuoso pianist. Wealthy patrons then made it possible for him to continue his studies in Vienna.
Finally the Liszt’s settled in Paris and the career of the young Franz progressed at a tremendous pace. In 1825 his one act opera Don Sanche was performed in Paris.
In 1827 he experienced a spiritual crisis, aggravated by his father’s death, and considered the priesthood as a vocation. Instead he continued to live with his mother, teaching the piano and reading widely.
In March of 1831 he heard the celebrated violinist Paganini play and determined to become his pianistic equivalent, devoting long hours to the perfection of his already dazzling keyboard technique.
His meeting with Chopin in 1832 was also influential, and it was Liszt who introduced him to the female novelist George Sand who became the great love of Chopin’s life.
But the two men were total opposites. Chopin found Liszt rather vulgar and never really warmed to him, although he was always grateful to the older man for his help and kindness.
Liszt himself began a ten year relationship with Marie d’Agoult who left her husband in 1835 to elope with Liszt to Switzerland where he taught at the Geneva Conservatoire. They had three children, Blandine, born in December of that year; Cosima in 1837, and Daniel in 1839.
But even during that liaison, and long afterwards, Liszt had several other amorous affairs. Notably with the Polish Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, the young courtesan Marie Duplessis, and the dancer Lola Montes. All of which clearly made it possible for him to write the score of ‘Liebestraume’ from a great wealth of personal experience.
My first choice to play tonight as I began to write these words, was the very famous and highly romantic music from Liebestraum No 3 in A flat, or ‘Dream of Love’ composed for the piano. It opens in a mood of quiet and tender reflection, builds up to a passionate climax, and then fades away again on a note of soft and sweet remembrance.
Liszt also works into the music some wonderful examples of his own virtuoso piano style without ever disturbing its basic dreamlike quality.
Franz Liszt was one of the first true piano virtuosos, and the musical ‘superstar’ of his day. As a young man he looked like a god, and he played like one too. Women used to faint when he brought his fingers down on the keys. They fought over locks of his hair, buttons off his clothes, even his cigar butts !
Pictures I have seen of this charismatic man tell me that I too could easily have fallen in love with his dark aquiline good looks, especially when under the spell of his wonderful music.
But great showman as he was, it was only one side of Liszt. He eventually tired of his ‘superstar’ lifestyle and retired to the peaceful old town of Weimar in Germany where John Sebastian Bach had once been court organist.
There Liszt gave more time to serious composition, and to promoting the music of some of his greatest musical contemporaries, including Berlioz, and Wagner, who married Liszt’s daughter Cosima.
Franz Liszt was one of the most influential composers of the 19th century. Almost every contemporary musician of note made a point of meeting him.
I paused here to put Liszt’s ‘Etude de concert No. 3′ into my player, and found that the sub title ‘Un Sospiro’ (A Sigh) aptly describes the rippling broken chords, and the seamless melody, both of which are skilfully divided between two hands in this lovely piece of music.
There is a floating tenderness in the theme, at first picked out daintily, then rising in dramatic intensity before dying away – a long drawn out ‘sigh’ of rare poetic beauty. If you like piano music, you will certainly like ‘Un Sospiro’.
Etudes were originally intended as technical exercises, usually written for the piano, with each one tackling a specific technical difficulty. However Liszt’s ‘Etudes de Concert’ are more than an exercise. They are highly expressive virtuoso pieces, intended for public performance.
But Liszt was a mass of contradictions. Elegant and worldly in society though he undoubtedly was, he was also deeply religious, and did in fact eventually take minor orders in 1865 when he would have been 54 years of age.
In his later years he gave up his virtuoso career to concentrate on conducting, giving master classes, and composing sacred music. He died of pneumonia at the age of 75, after collapsing at a performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.
And so from the ardent passion of his famous ‘Liebestraume’ to the musical fireworks of his ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies,’ Liszt was the supreme romantic composer.
His piano music has never been surpassed for dazzling virtuosity. While his orchestral symphonic poems conjure up a scene or tell a story as vividly as any painting or book.
Liszt was a musical wizard, if there ever was one. He was also the greatest pianist of his time, if not of all time. Many of his compositions reflect his phenomenal technique, and still tax the best of pianists. His contemporary, Anton Rubenstein, also a virtuoso pianist, observed that, compared with Liszt all other pianists were ‘children.’