Franz Liszt (1811-1886) Franz Liszt’s extraordinary career reflects his complex biography

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Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Franz Liszt’s extraordinary career reflects his complex biography (see chronology, below):

  • Hungarian heritage, Viennese training (through Salieri and Czerny), French literary Romanticism (through Princess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein)

  • Born the son of a minor official at the Esterhazy Court

  • Trained by Salieri (theory and counterpoint)

  • Trained by Czerny (pupil of Beethoven) on piano

  • 1822—debut at age 11

  • 1825—Liszt moves to Paris after the death of his father. Over the next six years, Liszt takes on piano students (many the children of wealthy families), falls in love, suffers a nervous breakdown, and regroups.

  • 1832—meets Paganini

  • 1833—meets Marie d’Agoult. He lived with her from 1835-39. They had three children, of which Cosima (who later married Hans von Bülow and then Richard Wagner) was the second child.

  • 1842-47—Liszt’s popularity as a pianist sweeps over Europe. He is idolized as a pianist. Women reputedly fought over his gloves and handkerchiefs as souvenirs of his concerts.

  • 1847—meets Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein. It was under her influence that Liszt retired from the concert stage as a pianist and took up composition and conducting

  • 1848—retired from the concert stage as a pianist

  • 1848-61—Music Director at Weimar

  • 1861—moved to Rome at took minor orders in the Catholic Church

Major Works:

  • 13 symphonic (tone) poems, including Les Preludes, Orpheus, Hamlet

  • 2 symphonies—Faust, Dante.

  • 100s of piano works, including

    1. Sonata in B Minor

    2. Transcendental etudes

    3. Années de pélerinage

    4. numerous transcriptions

  • 3 piano concertos

  • 4 masses

Symphonic works:

  • Faust Symphony. Liszt’s choice of Faust as a subject reflects his own questing personality. Many consider it is masterpiece, at least in the orchestral genre. The symphony uses Liszt’s principle of thematic metamorphosis. The main theme is based on the augmented triad, which was one of Liszt’s favorite chord structures. It appears in a sequence of descending half-steps, forming a twelve-tone row! He composed the first three movements in 1854, and each is named for one of the protagonists in Goethe’s play; in succession, they are:

    1. Faust—an introduction and Allegro in sonata form.

    2. Gretchen—slow movement, in an ABA form

    3. Mephistopheles—a scherzo in three-part design with an additional development and coda, added later, for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra. The text is taken the final words of Goethe’s Faust, Part II.

  • Tone Poems. Liszt composed 13 tone poems with titles such as Les Préludes, Hamlet, Orpheus, Prometheus, Die Ideal, Hunnenschlacht, and Mazeppa. He uses thematic transformation in many of these works, especially Les Préludes. Liszt was following Berlioz’s example. Liszt called these works “tone poems” rather than “symphonic poems” because they were relatively short and because they were not dramatic and narrative, but rather imaginative portrayals of the ideas reflected in the literary works (poems, plays, novels) from which they derived inspiration and to which the titles referred.

Piano Music

  • Sonata in B Minor—Liszt’s most important piano work. It was composed in 1853. It is cast in one continuous movement, based on four themes which are developed in three large sections which correspond to three movements of a classical sonata form.

  • Annés de pélerinage

  • Transcendental Études

  • Hungarian Rhapsodies (19 in all, some later orchestrated)

  • Transcriptions of orchestral works, opera excepts, songs, Bach organ fugues. The transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies helped popularize these works. The transcription of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is the way that Schumann actually learned the Berlioz score! Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert songs became well-known concert pieces, especially Der Erlkönig. Late piano works like Nuages gris point toward tonal techniques of the 20th century. The transcriptions of, or imitations of Paganini’s music demonstrates Liszt’s indebtedness to the great Italian virtuoso. Liszt transcribed some of Paganini’s unaccompanied violin etudes as well as La Campanella from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

Liszt’s life, with parallel events


  • Liszt born in Hungary


  • Oct 10—Verdi born in La Roncole


  • Weber becomes Kapellmeister in Dresden


  • Pub. Of Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Verstellung (Will and Representation)


  • Premiere of Der Freischütz

  • Liszt family moves to Vienna; Liszt plays first public concert


  • Liszt begins his years of pilgrimage


  • Premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth

  • Liszt concretizes throughout Europe


  • Death of C.M. von Weber



  • Death of Schubert


  • Liszt hears Paganini


  • Death of Goethe in Weimar


  • Birth of Brahms in Hamburg

  • Liszt meets Chopin and Berlioz

  • Liszt meets Countess Marie d’Agoult


  • D’Agoult leaves husband


  • Liszt near height of concert career


  • Liszt plays first solo recital


  • Liszt appointed Kapelmeister in Weimar


  • Death of Mendelssohn

  • Liszt Meets Carolyne Sayn-Wittengenstein; begins to compose most of compositions that established his reputation as a major composer; accepts invitation from Maria Pavlovna of Russia to become musical director in Weimar


  • Publication of Communist Manifesto

  • Fall of the “July” Monarchy in Paris


  • Hopes of the Italian patriots collapse; phrase “Viva Victor Emanuele Re d’Italia” coined


  • Premiere of Lohengrin under Liszt at Weimar


  • Premiere of Rigoletto in Venice, likely composed at instigation of Strepponi


  • Heine dies in Paris

  • Cosima married Hans von Bülow


  • Birth of Puccini

  • Birth of Mahler

  • Death of Schopenhauer

  • Liszt settles in Rome, becomes Abbé


  • Birth of Debussy

  • Bismarck become Prime Minister

  • Ludwig II ascends to Throne of Bavaria

  • Birth of Isolde von Bülow, first child of Cosima and Richard Wagner (1862)


  • Austro-Hungarian War

  • Rossini and Berlioz die in Paris

  • Franco-Prussian War

  • French defeated

  • Birth of Eva and Siegfried, the 2nd and third children of Cosima and Wagner. They were married in 1870.


  • German Empire proclaimed

  • Verdi’s Aida premiered in Cairo

  • Verdi composes Requiem (1874)

  • Completion of Bayreuth in 1876. Liszt is invited to attend opening performances.


  • Liszt dies in Bayreuth

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