Born Oct. 22, 1811, Raiding, Hungary
Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany
Liszt’s father was a cellist in the court of Esterhazy (where Haydn had also served as composer), and he instructed his son in piano. Franz was a child prodigy, and developed an early interest in both church and gypsy music. He began to compose at age 8, and by age 9 performed his first concert. His father then took him to Vienna, where he studied piano with Carl Czerny (a pupil of Beethoven) and composition with Antonio Salieri, music director of the Viennese court (and rival to Mozart). In 1923 Liszt moved with his family to Paris, where he was refused admittance to the Paris Conservatory because he was a foreigner. He made his sensational Paris debut in 1824 and traveled with his father throughout France, Germany, Switzerland, and England to rave reviews.
Liszt grew into a dashing, handsome virtuoso and composer, whose fame spread throughout Europe. And his charms were not lost on the ladies, who regarded him as a sort of “rock star.” Earning his living primarily as a piano teacher, he fell in love with one of his students. After her father objected to the affair, Liszt’s health suffered, and later he considered becoming a priest. His personal life revived with Countess Marie d’Agoult, with whom he had 2 daughters and a son. (His daughter Cosima was the future wife first of conductor/pianist/composer Hans von Bulow then later of Richard Wagner). Other romantic interests played significant roles in his life, but the loves of Liszt are too many for this short blog.
Liszt met and was greatly influenced by Berlioz, Chopin, and the violinist Paganini. He composed over 700 works including symphonic poems, sacred and secular choral works, songs, chamber music and piano music. He was one of the greatest late Romantic composers, and also wrote several books on music. As a pianist, he was the first to give complete solo recitals. Through his transcriptions for piano, he did a great deal to introduce concert audiences to the music of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz, and Wagner, at a time when they were insufficiently known or appreciated. He also generously encouraged younger composers, including Grieg, Borodin, Saint-Saens, and Debussy. As a teacher, he inspired a new generation of virtuosos.
Lizst’s Rhapsody DVD is a fictionalized PBS film for children based on the life of Liszt, with numerous excerpts of his music. A teacher’s guide is also available for this DVD and others in the Composers’ Specials DVD series.