Franz Liszt:
Virtuoso + Composer
Teacher + Innovator

Franz Liszt


Birthdate

October 22, 1811

Birthplace

Raiding, Kingdom of Hungary

Maybe We're Related!

I may be related to Franz Liszt. OK, it might be a stretch, but my Grandmother’s maiden name was List, which some believe to be Franz’s father’s original last name. However, there is some dispute over the family heritage – German vs. Hungarian – so I may just be dreaming, but it’s a nice thought anyway! Enough about me.

Early Years

Franz Liszt began playing piano at age 7 and, with the help – and insistence – of his father, was a well-known child prodigy well into his mid teens. He met Schubert and Beethoven in Vienna when he was just 11 years old. In fact, one legend tells the story of a concert in 1823 at which Beethoven came on stage, kissed Liszt (that has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? ;-) on the forehead, and praised him enthusiastically in front of the audience. Although other versions of the story – including Beethoven’s own – give different accounts of the concert, there’s no question that Liszt was a phenomenal pianist from an early age.

During his teens and twenties, he was living in Paris, among other romantic composers and artists, including quite a few virtuoso musicians.

Breakthrough

After hearing Paganini, the famous violinist, work the audience to a frenzy at a concert in Paris in 1832, Liszt decided then and there that he wanted to become the “Paganini of the piano.” So, he practiced 4-5 hours per day for at least a month and began devoting himself to piano virtuosity and showmanship, which he began displaying in extensive concerts throughout Europe from 1839 through 1847.

At other times, Liszt has said he practiced 10-12 hours per day to maintain his virtuoso skills. He was an unbelievable sight-reader and, because the usual “webbing” between his fingers was nearly non-existent, he had a huge reach on the piano, maybe even 12 whole steps!

Later Years

At age 36, he became a conductor in Weimar and wrote a number of orchestral pieces. He also taught hundreds of gifted pianists at no charge, and provided musical and financial support to his future son-in-law, Richard Wagner.

In his later years, he began experimenting with new sounds on the piano, some of which were kind of “musical forecast” of twentieth-century music to come a bit later.

Major Contributions

Franz Liszt made some major, amazing contributions to the world of music. Although he was known to be somewhat of a ladies’ man, and his showmanship sometimes led critics to give poor reviews to his compositions, history has upheld both his performing and composing brilliance.

Here are just a few of the musical gifts he gave us:

  • He invented the symphonic poem, a single-movement composition form that influences popular compositions to this day.
  • He developed the “transformation of themes,” which was later copied by Wagner and became famous as “leitmotif.” When you think of something like John Williams’ awesome score to the “Star Wars” movies, where each character has his/her own theme, you begin to understand leitmotif, and now you know it all started with Franz Liszt!
  • He was the original inventor of impressionism and atonal music.
  • He designed the piano recital and piano master class, which are foundations of piano education even today.
  • He was the first performer to play entirely from memory, and the first to play with the piano at right angles to the audience, both of which audiences take for granted today.

Date of Death

July 31, 1886

Burial Location

Bayreuth, Germany

More About Franz Liszt

If you’d like to dig a little deeper into Liszt’s life and work, I recommend checking out The Franz Liszt Site.

And if you'd like to actually see what Liszt's hands looked like, you can find plaster casts of them at the National Hungarian Museum in Budapest!


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