Franz Liszt


Franz Liszt

Born: 22 October 1811, Doborján, Sopron County, Hungary
(now Raiding, Burgenland, Austria)
Died: 31 July 1886, Bayreuth, Germany

Teacher, conductor, and virtuoso pianist, Franz Liszt was the most celebrated concert musician of the 19th century. A writer, philanthropist, and committed Hungarian patriot, he was also a principal figure in the era’s Romantic movement.

He was born to Anna (née Lager) and Adam List on 22 October 1811, in the village of Doborján in Sopron County (known in German as Raiding, which is now in Burgenland, Austria), in the German-speaking area of the old Kingdom of Hungary, then an integral part of the Austrian Empire. Liszt’s father changed the spelling of his name to facilitate its pronunciation by Hungarians, though he himself never had more than a rudimentary knowledge of the language.  Though employed as an administrator on the Esterházy estates, he was an accomplished amateur musician, so he was delighted to notice that his young son showed all the signs of being a musical prodigy.  Under his father’s tutelage, young Franz’s extraordinary pianistic talents were increasingly on display and earned him a financial award from several noble benefactors, which enabled him to study in Vienna with Czerny and Salieri in 1822 and 1823. His ambitious father wanted Franz to continue his studies at the Conservatoire in Paris. He resigned his position and with their minimal savings the family moved to the French capital in December 1823, only to discover the Conservatoire did not admit foreigners. At the age of 12 young Liszt thus began his career as a child prodigy, supporting his parents by giving concerts in private palaces and in public in Paris as well as the French provinces, England and Switzerland.  The unexpected death of his father in 1827 and a disappointed love affair sent the 17-year old Liszt into a mental crisis that led to his retirement from public performance.  But the July 1830 revolution in Paris and his association with fellow composers such as Berlioz and Chopin rekindled his poetic and romantic passions.  In 1833 he found a new love with the six-years-older and married Countess Marie d’Agoult, who bore him three children and with whom he eloped first to Switzerland and then to Italy. Liszt chronicled these years (1835-1839) in a series of piano works, the Années de pèlerinage.

By this time Liszt was already widely regarded as the greatest pianist the world had ever seen, and by 1840 he returned to the concert stage, startling and delighting audiences with his recitals. From 1840 to 1847 he toured virtually every corner of Europe, and was received with all the hysteria of a celebrity. “Lisztomania” was the term then coined for the phenomenon. Women fought over his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves, which they ripped to shreds as souvenirs. This atmosphere was fuelled in great part by the artist's mesmeric personality and stage presence. Many witnesses later testified that Liszt's playing raised the mood of audiences to a level of mystical ecstasy. At a concert in Kiev in 1847 he met the 28-year old Polish princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, who had recently left her husband and who soon became his mistress. Later that year Carolyne persuaded Liszt to give up his virtuoso career and concentrate on composition.  Accordingly Liszt took up a long-standing invitation by the Grand Duchess of Weimar to settle there as Kapellmeister Extraordinary. It was during these years in Weimar (1847-1861) that he composed a large number of his best-known works: his 12 symphonic poems, two piano concertos, the Sonata in B minor, the 15 Hungarian Rhapsodies, the Transcedental Études and two major works for organ.

In the hope of securing an annulment for Carolyne so that they could marry, the two moved to Rome in 1861.  The annulment was never granted and Liszt’s hope of marriage was never fulfilled.  Adding to his sadness were the death of his son and one of his daughters, while his surviving child, Cosima, committed open adultery with the composer Richard Wagner. Thereafter his relationship with Carolyne became platonic, and he announced that he would retreat to a solitary life. He took up residence in a monastery near Rome and received the minor orders of the Catholic Church, after which he was often called the Abbé Liszt. His hope of becoming a musical force in the Catholic Church’s musical life there, however, fell on stony ground and in 1869 he returned to Weimar to give master classes in piano playing.

Throughout his life, Hungary, his homeland, inspired him.  Hungarian patriotism in the 19th century was not confined to ethnic Hungarians (Magyars), who formed only slightly more than half of the population of the Kingdom.  So, despite his German origin and mother tongue and his adopted French culture, he never ceased to declare himself a Hungarian. After 1870 he did attempt to learn Hungarian, but his knowledge of the language remained very poor. From 1869 he visited Hungary every year for some months (establishing a music academy in Budapest) and spent most summers in Germany and winters in Italy.  Thus, till his death, he lived what he called a "vie trifurquée" or tripartite existence, dividing his time between Rome, Weimar and Budapest. In 1881 Liszt fell down the stairs and was left immobilized for eight weeks, and never fully recovered.  He died in Bayreuth, Germany, on 31 July 1886, at the age of 74, the cause of death thought to be a case of pneumonia, which he likely contracted during the Bayreuth Festival hosted by his daughter, Cosima. He was buried on 3 August 1886, in the municipal cemetery of Bayreuth, leaving a lasting influence on generations of musicians to come.

Liszt was renowned far and wide for his exceedingly complex piano compositions, considered by many amongst the most challenging ever written. His persona was equally commanding, on and off the stage. A darkly charismatic and cynical disposition, intensified by the magnitude of his talent, cast him as a larger than life figure. There were even those who speculated that Liszt’s abilities were the product of a pact with the Devil, whispers of which were underscored by the dark and otherworldly notes of his Dante Sonata and Mephisto Waltz — the latter painting a musical picture of that very same unholy creature.

Online Performances

Musical selections curated by our founding director, Professor Franz Szabo.

Liebesträume No. 3 in A-flat Major
Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Live at iTunes Festival, 30 September 2014
The Roundhouse Art Center in Camden Town, London 

Consolation D flat major No.3
Vladimir Horowitz
Live from the Konzerthaus, Vienna, 1987 

Concert Étude No. 3 in D-flat major (“Un Sospiro”)
Lang Lang, piano
Live from the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space
at WQXR, New York, 23 January 2012
China in New York Festival 

Grandes études de Paganini No.3 in G sharp minor “La Campanella“
Alice Sara Ott, piano
Recording date: 6 June 2008. Album released by Deutsche Grammophon 

Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (piano version)
Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Live at iTunes Festival, 30 September 2014
The Roundhouse Art Center in Camden Town, London 

Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (orchestral version)
McGill Symphony Orchestra
Alexis Hause, conductor
Live from Pollack Hall of the Schulich School of Music
McGill University, Montreal 6 October 2011 

Piano Sonata in B minor
Yundi Li, piano
Live in concert from the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany, 2003 

Transcendental Études
Daniil Trifonov, piano
Live from the Auditorium Maurice Ravel, Lyon, France, 7 November 2014 

Ballade No. 2 in B minor
Claudio Arrau, piano
Recorded Live at Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 6 February 1983 

Csárdás macabre
Zlata Chochieva, piano
Miami International Piano Festival, Aventura, Florida, 19 March 2017 

Concert Etude no.1 in D-flat major “Waldesrauschen”
Elisa Tomellini, piano
Teatro Comunale di Casal Maggiore, Italy, January 2018 

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor
Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 6 June 2017
Celebration of the 200th anniversary of
the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst 

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (orchestral version)
Cologne New Philharmonic Orchestra
Volker Hartung, conductor
Recorded live at Laeiszhalle Hamburg, Germany in March 2012 

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in D-flat major
Anna Fedorova, piano
Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition, Tel Aviv, May, 2011. 

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 in E-flat major "Pesther Carneval"
Misha Dacić, piano
Live from the Liszt Marathon
Broward Center for the Performing Arts Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 2 March 2011 

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp minor
Valentina Lisitsa, piano
Live from Bonn Beethoven-Haus recital, 9 September 2011 

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14 in F minor
arranged for piano and orchestra as: Hungarian Fantasy
(Fantasie über Ungarische Volksmelodien)
Bertrand Chamayou, piano
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Jérémie Rhorer, conductor
Live from the Alte Oper Frankfurt, 23 May 2014 

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E flat major
Lang Lang, piano
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner conductor
Last Night at the Proms 2011, Royal Albert Hall, London 

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2
Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta, conductor
Live from the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, Tel Aviv, July 2015 

Totentanz: Paraphrase on Dies irae for Piano & Orchestra
Denis Matsuev, piano
St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Zoltán Kocsis, conductor
Live from Sainte-Bernadette Church, Annecy, France, 2014
Annecy Classics Festival 

Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra, "Malediction"
Pavel Kachnov, piano
Liszt Festival Orchestra
Johannes Kutrowatz, conductor
Live from the Liszt Festival, Raiding, Burgenland, 22 March 2019 

Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H.
Georges Athanasiadès, organ
Live from the "Septembre Musical de Montreux” Festival, 2 September 2018
Inauguration of the great organ of the Catholic Church of Montreux, Switzerland 

Symphony to Dante's “Divine Comedy”
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Peter Eötvös, conductor
Live from the Alte Oper Frankfurt, 19 May 2017 

Symphonic Poem No. 3 “Les Préludes”
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Live from the Staatsoper Berlin, 1998 

Symphonic Poem No. 6 "Mazeppa"
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Metha, conductor
Live from the Berliner Philharmonie, 1994 

A Faust Symphony
Marco Jentzsch, tenor
London Philharmonic Choir
London Symphony Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski, conductor
Live from Royal Albert Hall, London
London Proms 2011 

Watch the full collection of performances on our YouTube channel!