Musically, Franz Liszt (1811–1886) is one of the most written about but least understood composers of the 19th century. As for his life—Felix Mendelssohn observed that Liszt’s character was “a continual alternation between scandal and apotheosis.” “Scandal and apotheosis”? What could that possibly mean? Join music professor Robert Greenberg for these lectures, and go on a fascinating journey in search of the truth about both. “Franz Liszt, Both Sides Now,” you might call it.
Lisztomania! or A Portrait of the Artist as Hero
More than anyone before him—more than Beethoven, Byron, even the preternatural Paganini—it was Liszt who created one of the most enduring archetypes of the Romantic era: that of the artist “who walks with God and brings down fire from heaven in order to kindle the hearts of humankind.”
After experiencing Professor Greenberg’s lectures, you will know—really know—what “Lisztomania” is all about. That word is not just the title of a quirky 1975 Ken Russell movie, but a term invented by Liszt’s contemporaries.
You’ll learn why it made sense to so many at the time, and why it drove others, Brahms and his friend Clara Schumann among them, up the proverbial wall.
Liszt was without a doubt the greatest pianist of his time. He may well be the greatest of all time. Traveling arduously all over Europe on mail coaches, playing whatever instrument was available in whatever hall he could find, he stunned even the most jaded critics and listeners everywhere he went with his sheer virtuosity and almost unbelievable musical gifts.
Two Sides of a Virtuoso
Liszt was an innovative composer both for his own instrument and on an orchestral scale, a visionary about the future of art, a big-hearted developer of young talent who frequently taught for no pay, and a sincere lover of gypsy freedom as well as Franciscan faith and charity.
Liszt also had many sides to his personal life. He was a lover of adulation and women, sleeping with everyone from countesses and princesses to wild-eyed young groupies; a well-meaning but absent and rather indifferent father to three out-of-wedlock children; and a Hungarian patriot who spent most of his time in Paris, Germany, and Rome.
Additionally, Liszt was a self-conscious artiste, damaging his own reputation by insisting on publishing just about every piece of music that came from his pen and a proud meritocrat from peasant stock who nonetheless had a weakness for what struck some observers as pseudo-aristocratic posturing.
The Gypsy Franciscan
On stage—he was the first pianist ever to play a solo concert—he was a shameless showoff. But he had the talent to display, and this attention-loving side of Liszt was inseparable from his apotheosis as a veritable deity of the keyboard who could sight-read even the most difficult and illegible score with the pages turned upside down—all the while playing the piece flawlessly and commenting on it as he played!
As Professor Greenberg observes, Liszt would hardly have reached “legend” status if his chosen instrument had been the oboe.
As Liszt himself said of his zest for living, “In life one must decide whether to conjugate the verb to have or the verb to be.”
For all his reputation (much of it very well earned) as a lady-killer, a high-society bon vivant, and something of a 19th-century rock star, Liszt was also a man of warm, heartfelt Catholic piety and moving personal generosity.
He held many benefit concerts—among his causes were construction of a monument to Beethoven and flood relief in Hungary—and the stories of his acts of kindness are legion.
Liszt: A Brief Biography
Liszt was born into a musical family in 1811. His father, Adam, recognized his musical gifts when Franz was about 5 and gave him piano lessons. The family moved to Vienna when Franz was 11 to continue his musical education. In a subsequent tour of Europe, nobles, stunned by the prodigy’s abilities, offered letters of introduction to the next stop on the tour.
Finally, the Liszt family landed in Paris, where Franz performed almost nonstop. The aristocrats of the city loved Franz, and he absorbed their language, culture, and sophistication. During these years, Liszt wrote his Etudes en douze exercices, which he would rewrite as the Grand Etudes in 1838 and as the Transcendental Etudes in 1851.
After his father died in 1827, and he had a breakdown over the ending of a love affair, he stopped practicing the piano and did not write any music. For three years he was depressed, ill, and apathetic. Finally, the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris blasted Liszt out of his lethargy and reignited his creative energies.
After the revolution, Liszt became a popular figure at Parisian salons and met Nicolo Paganini and Hector Berlioz, two men who would help shape his vision of himself as a composer and pianist.
In 1847, Liszt met Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who would become his soulmate and mistress. Liszt took up conducting and composing for the orchestra in Weimar, ultimately turning out his “symphonic poems,” and Faust and Dante symphonies.
After considering the priesthood following the deaths of two of his children, Liszt’s final years were filled with music, traveling, honors, and a few disappointments. He divided his living arrangements among Rome; Weimar, where he taught extensively; and Budapest, where he was honored as a national hero. He died of a heart attack on July 31, 1886.
“A Talented Humbug”?
Some critics, then and now, have felt that Liszt, while incomparable at the keyboard, was derivative and seriously uneven as a composer. The conductor Hermann Levi even called him “a talented humbug.”
Professor Greenberg weighs this charge, explains its grounds (as we have seen, Liszt, unlike Brahms, did tend to publish indiscriminately), and then shows you—concretely and with specific examples from Liszt’s works—the grounds for his own belief about the merits of this claim.
What is the truth about Liszt as a composer? Does he belong in the first flight with Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart? How should his avant-garde risk-taking—his invention of the “symphonic poem,” for instance—affect his reputation?
And how should Liszt’s truly extraordinary performance innovations affect our answer?
Works you’ll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:
Etude in 12 Exercises, no. 10 in F Minor (1826)
Grande Fantasie de Bravoure sur La Clochette, variations (1832)
Transcendental Etude no. 10 in F Minor (1851)
Totentanz (1849, revised 1853–1859)
Sonata in B Minor for Piano (1853)
Piano Concerto no. 2 in A Major (1849, revised 1861)
Faust Symphony (1854)
Mephisto Waltz no. 1 (1860)
Hungarian Rhapsody no. 19 in D Minor (1885)
Transcendental Etude no. 8, Wilde Jagd (Wild Chase) (1838/1851)
Variation on a Theme by Diabelli (1822)
Arrangement of “Scaffold March” from Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1833)
Divertissement on the cavatina, “I tuoi frequenti palpiti” from Puccini’s La Niobe (1833)
From Six Grand Etudes after Paganini: no. 5, “The Chase,” and no. 3, “La Campanella” (1838/1851)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in E-flat Major (1849, revised 1856)
Franciscan Legend no. 1 from St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds from Franciscan Legend (1863)
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