Richard Nisley

The artist as virtuoso -- the music of Franz Liszt
Music - Classical Released - Feb 03, 2014

We’re talking major charisma; rockstar-like status that had the masses worshiping at his feet. Imagine Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley rolled into one. That’s Franz Liszt, pianist extraordinaire, and creator of a new musical genre--the symphonic tone poem.

As a pianist, Liszt was unrivaled. Biographer Alan Walker writes: “Liszt’s career remains the model which is still followed by pianists today. The modern piano recital was invented by Liszt. He was the first to play entire programs from memory. He was the first to play the whole keyboard repertory (as it then existed) from Bach to Chopin. He was the first consistently to place the piano at right angles to the platform, its open lid reflecting the sound across the auditorium.”

Liszt was the first pianist to tour ALL of Europe, from the Pyrenees to the Urals. In Milan and St. Petersburg he played before audiences of three thousand or more, the first time a solo pianist had appeared before such crowds. In Berlin he gave 21 concerts in ten weeks, playing eighty works--50 of them by memory.

Liszt smashed the barriers. He put performing artists on a different social plateau. He sold the notion that gifted soloists were superior by definition and thus owed not only respect but homage. To enhance the image, he dressed in Hungarian Magyar costume, with bejeweled sword, medal-covered chest and flowing cape. (Elton John, eat your heart out.) The ladies would swoon as they watched him remove his velvet gloves before playing, and they envied the women who appeared on stage with a basin to wash his hands before he performed. It didn’t hurt that Liszt had a dashing sweep of blonde hair and the torso of a Greek statue.

“This view of the artist who walks with God and brings fire down from heaven with which to kindle the hearts of mankind became so deeply entrenched in the Romantic consciousness that today we regard it as a cliche,” writes biographer Walker.

Liszt knew the piano so well and could make it do so many things that he transcribed for piano all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies. Indeed, he exploited the virtuoso possibilities of the piano so thoroughly that he produced sonorities that could rival those of a full orchestra.

Liszt was born in Hungary in 1811 but didn’t stay. He learned piano early at home and was perceived as brilliant by noblemen who helped advanced his career. He was schooled in Vienna, further trained in Paris, and at 14 toured Europe as a prodigy virtuoso. By 16 he had started the first of a long string of love affairs for which he became nearly as famous as he was for his virtuoso playing. He settled in Paris, befriended the social and artistic elite, and became thoroughly saturated in French thought, due in part to his acquaintance with such intellectual and artistic luminaries as Victor Hugo, Hector Berlioz, George Sand and Frederic Chopin. He also became romantically involved with Countess d’Agoult by whom he had three children, one of whom eventually married German opera composer Richard Wagner.

Liszt retired from the concert stage at the age of 35, thereafter playing only in private or for charity. During the last 40 years of his life, he devoted himself to composing, teaching, and furthering the cause of other composers, chief among them Wagner. As a composer, he created a new musical form--the tone poem. Unlike the symphony, which consists of three or four movements written in the same key, the tone poem is a one-movement, free-form composition. Also unlike symphonic music, the tone poem is based on a pictorial, literary, or other nonmusical idea. Liszt wrote 13 tone poems in all, the most famous of which is “The Preludes.” Some tone poems were nationalistic in orientation while others drew on such literary sources as the writings of Hugo, Goethe and Shakespeare. Composers who followed Liszt’s musical direction included Richard Strauss of Germany, Tchaikovsky of Russia, Smetana of Bohemia, Saint-Saens of France, Sibelius of Finland, and Vaughn-Williams of England.

Liszt wrote two concertos for piano and orchestra, with No. 1 in E-flat the better known. He composed two vast symphonies, neither of which is performed much today. While his work in developing the tone poem was Liszt’s major contribution to music, his best compositions were for solo piano. The best known pieces are his 19 “Hungarian Rhapsodies” of which No. 2 is the most popular. Also popular is “Liebestraum” (song of love). He wrote one piano sonata, and a long and difficult one at that, the Sonata in B Minor.

After several affairs with ladies of social prominence, Liszt, the great libertine and freethinker, sought escape from worldly temptations. He fled into the arms of the church and, in 1879, was permitted to take minor holy orders. In this last period of his life, he devoted himself to the furthering and improvement of church music. He died in 1886 in Bayreuth, the city of Wagner, whose operas he had so eagerly promoted.

Topping the list of must-have Liszt compositions are “Liebestraum,” which translates so well into orchestral music, “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” (for orchestra), “The Preludes,” “Hungarian Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra,” and “Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat.”

On the list of 50 greatest composers, Liszt ranks 13th.

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