Liszt's unique "transcendental" skills forever defined the role of the piano virtuoso, and his daring use of non-traditional harmony inspired many later composers. His personality encompassed the elegant and worldly as well as the heavenly and the diabolical. Often inspired by some natural scene or by a work of literature or art, his compositions range from finely lyrical to bombastic, from glitteringly impressionistic to austere and philosophical.
Sonetto 104 del Petrarca S . 161 No. 5
Here, Liszt transforms Italian love poetry into passionate solo piano music. In Petrarch's poem, Pace non trovo (I Find no Peace), the poet is torn by wildly contrasting emotions, skilfully mirrored in Liszt's music.
Un Sospiro in D-flat Major, S . 144 No. 3
Un sospiro (A Sigh) is a lovely poetic piece but also a study in hand crossings. An ethereal, pentatonic melody played by alternating hands and embedded in lush arpeggios, gives the piece a distinct impressionistic quality.
Sonata in B Minor, S . 178
A monumental work of inspiring musical architecture, conjuring up images of demonic rage, monumental struggle as well as angelic bliss; demanding almost superhuman virtuosity and stamina, as well as exquisite lyrical refinement from the pianist.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886), the greatest piano virtuoso of his time, was also highly influential in shaping the western musical canon. His championship of new composers like Wagner and Berlioz helped them to fame; equally important was his promoting past masters including Bach, Handel, Schubert and Beethoven. In his compositions he developed piano technique beyond recognition, made radical experiments in harmony and invented the symphonic poem. Born in Hungary, he went as a boy to Vienna, where he studied with Czerny and Salieri and met Beethoven and Schubert. Still in his teens, he settled in Paris where he soon became a prominent figure in society, first and foremost because of his wizardry at the piano, but also because of his various romantic entanglements, which provided much material for gossip.
Liszt became acquainted with a number of musical contemporaries at this time, including Berlioz, Chopin, Alkan and others. One of the most important events of these early years was his witnessing of the concerts of the diabolical violinist Niccoló Paganini. Towards the end of 1832, Liszt was introduced to Countess Marie d’Agoult, who was to become his lover; as she was already married, the couple eloped to Switzerland to escape scandal. The relationship went on for 12 years and resulted in three children – Liszt’s daughter Cosima would go on to marry Richard Wagner.
During the years 1839 to 1847 Liszt unfolded a virtuoso career unmatched in the history of performance. He was the first to play entire programmes from memory; the first to play the full range of the keyboard repertory (as it then existed) from Bach to Chopin; the first consistently to place the piano at right-angles to the stage, so that its open lid reflected the sound across the auditorium; and the first to tour Europe from the Pyrenees to the Urals. However, at 35 years of age he abandoned the concert stage, persuaded by his new lover Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein to concentrate on composition. Liszt settled in Weimar and went on to compose some of his most important masterpieces, include the Faust Symphony, the Symphonic Poems, and the two piano concerti.
In the so called War of the Romantics, he supported his son-in-law Wagner and the futuristic school of Weimar against the more conservative Leipzig school, most famously represented by Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. Around 1860, Liszt settled more or less permanently in Rome, where he took minor orders and became Abbé Liszt. Here his output consisted mainly of religious music. In his last years, he abandoned the virtuoso style in favour of a bleak and introspective approach, pointing forward into atonality.
Quotes by Liszt
“My mind and fingers have worked like the damned. Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber are all around me. I study them. I devour them with fury.”
“Music is never stationary; successive forms and styles are only like so many resting-places - like tents pitched and taken down again on the road to the Ideal.”
“My sole ambition as a composer is to hurl my javelin into the infinite space of the future.”
"For the virtuoso, musical works are in fact nothing but tragic and moving materializations of his emotions; he is called upon to make them speak, weep, sing and sigh, to recreate them in accordance with his own consciousness. In this way he, like the composer, is a creator, for he must have within himself those passions that he wishes to bring so intensely to life.”
Quotes about Liszt
"Liszt knows no rule, no form, no law; he creates them all himself! He remains an inexplicable phenomenon, a compound of such heterogeneous, strangely mixed materials, that an analysis would inevitably destroy what leads to the highest charm, the individual enchantment: namely, inscrutable secret of this chemical mixture of coquetry and childlike simplicity, of whimsy and divine nobleness. After the concert, he stands there like a conqueror on the field of ballet, like a hero in the lists; vanquished pianos lie about him, broken strings flutter as trophies and flags of truce, frightened instruments flee in terror into distant corners, the listeners look at each other in mute astonishment as after a storm from a clear sky, as after thunder and lightening mingled with a shower of blossoms and buds and dazzling rainbows; and he the Prometheus, who creates a form from every note." (Moritz Saphir)
"Liszt, after giving a charity concert on behalf of the unfortunate inhabitants of the two neighboring cities, Pest and Ofen, performed six more concerts and one soirée musicale. Each of these netted him on average between 1,600 to 1,800 silver Gulden. He also played twice for the Imperial Court in the private residence and just as many times for charitable causes. He even played to help out a female singer who was passing through. And he performed in the salons of the foremost families of this Imperial city, in the homes of various artists, in the showrooms of the finest instrument makers, as well as at his own lodgings. It is not in the character of this childlike, amiable young man to refuse any request, or behave in a self-important or precious manner. The subtly uttered wish of a true friend of art is all that is required, and he is ready at the piano. He will fantasize at the keyboard for an hour just for one overjoyed listener, without thinking of stopping." (Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung)
"He gives me the impression of being a spoilt child." (Clara Schumann)