Personalities | Franz Liszt | Early Romantic | Classical

(Frants List) 1811–86
Hungarian composer and pianist

Liszt was one of the leading and most adventurous composers of the nineteenth century. His vast output is unusually complicated: many works exist in more than one version, and he was constantly revising and redrafting.

His body of work may be somewhat uneven, but it should hardly be surprising if a composer at the leading edge of artistic exploration occasionally produces works in which experiment outweighs achievement.

The greatest piano virtuoso of his time, he wrote piano music that includes some of the most taxing pieces ever written, and he did much to spread knowledge of other composers’ works through his transcriptions. Absorbed by a spiritual longing, he was nevertheless also a man of broad social horizons. Few composers have aroused such contradictory opinions in their lifetime and since, and few have been so misunderstood; once seen as an eccentric and peripheral composer, he is increasingly viewed as one of the central figures of musical Romanticism.

Years of Pilgrimage

Born in Raiding (then in Hungary, now in Austria), Liszt studied the piano with his father, an amateur musician, before moving to Vienna in 1822 to have lessons with Czerny. Thanks to Czerny’s rigorous methods, his immense natural gift for the piano was given a sound technical foundation. In 1823 he met Beethoven, his spiritual mentor, whose music he promoted throughout his life. When Liszt’s father died in 1827, he settled in Paris with his mother and became deeply religious. He met Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, who was unhappily married with two children, and when in 1835 she became pregnant with Liszt’s child the couple eloped to Switzerland. This period of Liszt’s life is known as the ‘Years of Pilgrimage’, and his travels through Switzerland and later Italy are represented musically in the first two books of his Années de pèlerinage. Liszt continued to give concerts, and enjoyed the social trimmings associated with his success and fame, but this created tension in his relationship with Marie, who wanted him to concentrate on composing. In 1839 Liszt travelled to Vienna to give charity concerts in aid of the Beethoven monument, while Marie travelled with two of their children to Paris; it was the turning point of their relationship and the beginning of the most glamorous period of Liszt’s career.


The period from 1839 to 1847, when Liszt toured Europe from Lisbon to Moscow and from Dublin to Constantinople, playing to audiences that went wild with adulation, represents the most remarkable concert tour in the history of performance. The poet Heinrich Heine coined the term ‘Lisztomania’ to encapsulate the hysterical response of many (mostly female) admirers. In some quarters Liszt was viewed with suspicion: there was a belief that he was compromising his art and prostituting his talent. Liszt certainly knew how to maximize his theatrical effect, and some compositions (Grand galop chromatique; some of the opera fantasies) were designed unashamedly for show purposes, but he did...

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