Franz Liszt: The Modern Pianist

Who exactly is Franz Liszt? He is called the Priest of the Piano, The Wizard of the Piano, the Great Technician, the Prophet, even a Freak of Nature! Yes, he could and did match every name stated but Liszt is nothing short of a genius and a musical giant among the many composers of the past! Among the many composers, none have come to the point of making a mark in every genre of music as Liszt accomplished. The question is: How exactly did Franz Liszt enhance the world of music as we know it? Liszt accomplished this through his ingenious musical innovations and through diligent work of specific pianistic innovations.

            Franz Joseph Liszt was born in the town of Raiding, Hungary in the year 1811 to Adam Liszt and Maria Anna Lager. Liszt’s father Adam Liszt was a musician and played the Esterhazy orchestra. He played cello, piano, violin and sang bass. Liszt started to show signs of his musical genius at the early age of six. Adam Liszt wrote in one of his journals:”After his vaccination, a period commenced in which the boy had to struggle alternately with nervous pains and fever, which more than once impelled his life. On one occasion, during his second or third year, we thought him dead and ordered his coffin made. This agitated condition lasted until his sixth year. In that same year he heard me play Rie’s Concerto in C-sharp minor. Franz, bending over piano, was completely absorbed. In the evening, coming in from a short walk in the garden, he sang the theme of the concerto. We made him sang it again. He did not know what he was singing. That was the first indication of his genius.” Franz’s father began to give him lessons at the piano in which Franz showed phenomenal progress. He was able to improvise on spot given any melody and was well known for having a freakish ability to sight read at performance level. Later in life Liszt astonished many composers such as Mendelssohn, Brahms, Chopin, Glinka and Grieg with his sight-reading capabilities!  Liszt also began composing not too long after he began lessons, and in 1822 he composed a variation on a waltz by Diabelli. (Walker)

Throughout his childhood, Liszt’s parents were extremely supportive of him and Moved to Vienna to study with Carl Czerny a student of Beethoven. Here with Czerny did Liszt’s talent and artistry prospers all the more. It is recorded in history that after Liszt played for Beethoven in his home (not in public as some biographers write) Beethoven kissed Liszt on the head. Scholars and Liszt refer to this as the Weihekuss– which means “kiss of consecration.” After about fourteen months of study with Czerny, Liszt left from under the wing of his old master and was on to embrace the musical world ahead. Liszt’s father died, and this marked a turning point in the life of Liszt. He went through a stage of depression and (including the loss of his first love affair) but soon afterward recovered. He settled in Paris for some time and heard the virtuoso Paganini play in 1832. This changed his entire outlook and was a divine apocalypse of what Liszt was to do with the piano. He practiced 8 hours a day after hearing Paganini’s performance and even records this in a letter to his pupil Pierre Wolff: “…For a whole fortnight my mind and my fingers have been working like to lost souls. Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Byron, Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber are all around me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them with fury; I practice four to five hours of exercises (thirds, sixths, octaves, tremolos, repetition of notes, cadenzas, etc)…” One can see the devotion that Liszt has acquired to music at this point. Due to the brevity of this short essay, all biographical details cannot be discussed unfortunately. Liszt travels throughout Europe concertizing and touring in a time now referred to by scholars as “Lisztomania”- but eventually retired from the concert stage at age 35 around 1846. He is famous also for his ten year (1833-44) affair with the Countess Marie D’Agoult- of who bore his three children: Blandine, Cosima (later wife of Hans von Bulow and Richard Wagner), and Daniel Liszt. (Huneker; Walker)

In Liszt’s old age he divided most of his time between Budapest, Weimar and Rome. It is kind of bizarre that Liszt after living such lavish and “mountain top” lifestyle, that at the end of his life he became Abbé Liszt. He was given the four minor orders of the Roman Catholic Church which was porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte. He suffered much depression during the end of his life with the deaths of his daughter and son: Blandine and Daniel. In Liszt’s last years, his depression is evident in the strange output of music. This depression stemmed from his ailing health and also the loss of his children as stated earlier. His music from this period seems very distant and even hollow to some degree and seems to point towards atonality. Franz Liszt died on July 31, 1886 in the city of Bayreuth as a result of pneumonia. His body is laid to rest in a cemetery in the city of Bayreuth. (Huneker; Walker)

The legacy and the innovations Liszt left behind in his music are nothing short of genius and deserve the utmost respect from the musical world. Without Liszt, the idea of the tone poem would not exist nor would piano technique be what it is today if Liszt had not made the sacrifice and given his life for the betterment of music today.

To begin, the piano works of Liszt are notably among the most difficult to ever be written for the piano. The only other pianist to match the virtuosity of Liszt (or maybe even supersede Liszt’s facility) was his good friend, Charles Valentine Alkan. Liszt once stated about Alkan that”he had the finest technique of any pianist that he knew.” [Walker] Pianist coming after Liszt owe to him a great deal of respect because most of the technical problems faced at the keyboard was solved by Liszt. In the early compositions of Liszt, this is where the technical breakthrough can be found and this is also referred to by some biographers as his years of transcendental pianist execution. What was so innovative about these years? Here we see Liszt taking risks that were not necessarily taken before. For example in his Douze Grandes Etudes, (we find that this version was the second version of his original childhood set of studies for the piano) we find awkward figurations and problematic passages required a certain technique. What technique? Before Liszt, most pianists played from the fingertips and produces sound mainly from the hand and no further. In Liszt’s playing, he uses the entire upper body for the sake of making music. Here in the music of Liszt and to get the effect that is needed, one need not only use the fingers and hand but the arm, the upper arm, the shoulders, the back and the torso for getting the powerful sound and expression that Liszt’s music called for. This new way of playing was not very popular amongst some of his other contemporaries and often earned him immature names such as “smasher of pianos” and “banger.” Little did his contemporaries know that his accomplishments at the time were the model by which future pianist would mold themselves and the direction in which piano technique would eventually take. Musicians also owe some homage to Paganini himself, for if it had not been for his inspiration, then there no doubt would have been a slightly different Liszt. Liszt took many of the difficulties by Paganini and transformed them into technical difficulties. His reasoning was to solve every problem that could be solved and not only for show but for the sake of artistry. For example, this Paganini caprice poses a problem for violinist in fast arpeggios and skips:

Liszt on the other hand takes these passages and “translates” them into pianistic language and we get a piece that is extremely difficult and stretches beyond the norm for virtuosity for its day. This piece requires moving the hand from one octave to the other with quadruple notes in each hand and at the end using large jumps. This is an example of using the entire body because this passage cannot be played with fingers and hand alone. One must employ proper wrist alignment, use of arm and forearm for weight, the torso for guiding the arms, the strength of the back, and to top it off the lightness (no tension is meant here) of the wrist and hand to play at the marked tempo! One’s topography of the keyboard has to be accurate and flawless! Observe the passages:

There are so many technical gems to be learned from this piece alone and this is only a foreshadowing of the future of virtuosic piano technique! Not only was Liszt instrumental in musical innovations on piano technique, but Liszt was also the person responsible for the term recital- the very term was used by him and is a legacy that is alive this day. Before Liszt, the piano keyboard or “butt” was facing the audience, but Liszt turned the piano on its side that way the music from the piano would escape the piano and be directed into the audience with an open lid.  Also, Liszt’s own music was innovative within itself. In the Liszt etudes, we often find that instead of each etude focusing on a particular technique (like Chopin etudes do), the pianist gets a 2 for 1 deal or even a three for one. Basically, just one of his 12 etudes could be aimed at more than one specific technique. For example in the Etude of Transcendental Execution No. 5 (version 2), Liszt aims at the execution of double notes in fast tempo and also large jumps leaps in fast tempo with a touch of leggiero! Observe the following passage:

(Note the quasi-impossibility of the original left hand execution [marked ossia] in this passage : )

It is in his Etudes and early mega-virtuosic works when Liszt raises the performance bar of piano playing to unheard of heights.

            Liszt is also praised for his culmination of thematic transformation! In his symphonic poems we see thematic transformation manifested and this opens a door for composers after Liszt such as Wagner, Bruckner, etc… Each one has a theme that is completely transformed or morphed into something new but still keeps unity and variety all at the same time. For example in the symphonic poem Les Preludes we have a theme that transforms and molds into other elements as the piece calls for. (Burkholder, Grout, Palisca) For example, observe the following passages:

See how the theme here is transformed and even inverted as given in the last passage.

            Toward the end of Liszt’s life, we began to see an introduction to atonality (really before Wagner approached). Liszt depression and his failing health help to bring on music that would be a foreshadowing of what was to come in the musical world. For example, his Bagatelle without Tonality is experimentation with atonality and unresolved harmonies. Observe the passage:

Even though this is not the extreme dissonances that we expect to hear in Schöenberg, but it is without tonality none the less. The harmonies here seem to be more related to Wagnerian harmonies. We already see here the genius and the innovations of Liszt still alive even in depression and at this stage in his life.

            Lastly, Liszt’s huge oeuvre, accomplishments and innovations have earned him a spot in musical history that is truly unmatched or unparalleled by any composer before or after him. He is and will forever be considered the greatest pianist and one of the greatest musical minds to walk the face of the earth. Not everything Liszt has accomplished can be attained in a college scholastic paper or even books one can suspect. It is safe to say that the legacy of the great Franz Liszt will continue to live on in the world of music now and for tomorrow’s generation.

error: Content is protected !!