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Ferenc Liszt (22.10.1811–31.07.1886)

Franz Liszt was a Hungarian-Austrian composer, pianist and conductor and gave several concerts in Leipzig. He was also instrumental in founding the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein (General German Music Society) in the Leipzig Gewandhaus (music hall).

  1. Biography
  2. Private Life
  3. Connection to Leipzig
  4. Reception
  5. Works
  6. Sources and Links

1. Biography

Franz (born Ferencz) Liszt was born on October 22nd, 1811 in Raiding (then Doborján) in the Kingdom of Hungary as the only child of an administrative official of Prince Esterházy. He performed publicly as a pianist at the age of nine. His parents, who had recognised his exceptional talent, travelled with him to Vienna a year later to enable him to take lessons with Czerny and Salieri. In 1823, the family moved from Vienna to Paris, where Franz Liszt was to study at the conservatory. However, director Luigi Cherubini turned him down because the places were to be reserved for French students. Instead, Liszt received private lessons in composition. He performed at many private concerts in high society and soon achieved a great reputation as a child prodigy. In the years from 1824 onwards, he undertook many trips, for example to London.

During a concert tour in 1827, Liszt's father died, a drastic experience for the young musician. Severely psychologically scarred, Liszt returned to Paris with his mother and later devoted himself entirely to teaching in order to support them. He met many composers such as Chopin, Berlioz, Paganini and Mendelssohn. These encounters inspired him to re-enter public concert life. Years of travelling followed, with stays and concerts all over Europe. In 1848 Liszt moved to Weimar, primarily to devote himself to the post of music director, which he had held since 1842, but whose duties he had fulfilled only irregularly until then. The Weimar years were the composer's most productive creative period. He also worked successfully as a teacher.

In 1861 Liszt moved from Weimar to Rome to marry his last companion Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. However, the marriage did not take place. From then on Liszt devoted himself to composing in Rome and undertook numerous concert tours. In 1865 he was ordained "Abbé" (a low-ranking title in the Catholic Church) – outwardly recognisable by the Abbé dress he wore from then on. "My inclination towards Catholicism stems from my childhood and has become an abiding and dominating feeling," he wrote in a letter in 1863. Years of travelling followed, during which he performed his works. He also taught and composed. Liszt devoted himself especially to works with a spiritual background. In the last years of his life, he suffered from heart and asthmatic complaints, insomnia, dropsy and consumption. Finally, Franz Liszt died of pneumonia on July 31st, 1886 during the Bayreuth Festival, which was hosted by his only living child, Cosima. He was buried in the Bayreuth city cemetery on August 3rd, 1886.

2. Private Life

The death of his father, who died on a concert tour in England in 1827, was a drastic experience for Liszt. Back in Paris, where he lived in a small flat with his mother, he withdrew almost completely from public life as a pianist. He began to teach piano and composition in order to be able to care for his mother. The next stroke of fate hit him when he got to know Caroline de Saint-Criq, the daughter of the French Minister of the Interior, but was forbidden to have a relationship with her because of the differences in status.

His second great love, Countess Marie d'Agoult, left her husband for Liszt in 1835, as she was expecting their daughter Blandine. Later they had two more children, Cosima and Daniel. After many conflicts between them, mainly due to the infidelity of the idolised Liszt, the couple finally separated in 1843.

In 1847 Liszt met the Russian Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, née von Iwanowska, his last companion, on a journey through Eastern Europe. They lived together in Weimar for 13 years. The couple wanted to marry in Rome in 1861, but on the eve of the wedding this was prevented by papal intervention, resulting in the separation of the couple.

Liszt had a close friendship with Richard Wagner, whom he met during a trip to Dresden in 1844. In 1868, his daughter Cosima divorced her husband Hans von Bülow to eventually marry Richard Wagner, whereupon Liszt distanced himself from her and his former friend. Although the friendship between the two musicians later blossomed again in a weakened form, the relationship between father and daughter remained strained.

3. Connection to Leipzig

On March 17th, 1840 Liszt performed for the first time as a pianist in the Leipzig Gewandhaus. On this occasion he met Mendelssohn and Schumann. Because of inflated ticket prices, the concert caused a public stir. Hans von Bülow appeared in Leipzig for the first time at a concert conducted by Franz Liszt in February 1857. Apart from a duet from the Flying Dutchman, Liszt performed only his own works. Brendel, the editor-in-chief of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music), described the concert as “epoch-making” and “a turning point in the annals of Leipzig musical life.”1

In 1859, at a meeting of musicians in Leipzig on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which had been initiated by Schumann in Leipzig, the Allgemeine Deutsche Musikverein was founded with the support of Liszt and Brendel. Liszt had already advocated the founding of an association of music makers in 1835.

Especially during his work in Weimar, Liszt championed contemporary composers, some of whose works were also controversial. He and his followers presented a current in Weimar that gave itself the name Neudeutsche Schule (New German School) at the assembly and manifested itself in the city with the founding of the Neu-Weimar-Verein (New Weimar Society) in November 1854. The Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which appeared in Leipzig, represented the literary centre of the movement.

In 1885, at the suggestion of the Russian composer Alexander Silotis and with the support of Arthur Nikisch and the pianist and Liszt pupil Martin Krauses, the Leipziger Liszt-Verein (Leipzig Liszt Society) was founded to honour his commitment to the Neudeutsche Schule and its importance for the further development of the Gewandhaus’ programmes and their openness to works of modernism.

In honour of Liszt, his symphonic poem Héroïde funèbre was performed at the Gewandhaus on October 14th, 1886.

1  Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, March 6th, 1857, No.10.

4. Reception

With the beginning of the 20th century, the view and evaluation of Liszt's works changed significantly. Efforts were made to re-evaluate Liszt’s reception in the 19th century and his image to his contemporaries as a piano virtuoso; they saw him primarily as an interpreter and of lesser importance as a composer. Influenced by the clichés of the virtuoso bon vivant and womaniser, he was accused of superficiality, and formal aesthetes in particular criticised the programme of his works. Therefore, his later works were severely neglected in performances and by critics. Nevertheless, his many successful concert tours eventually led to his being known throughout Europe as a successful virtuoso from the 1840s onwards, and in some cities, he was celebrated as a star. Liszt then had to contend with great difficulties regarding his reputation both as a composer and as a music director in Weimar. His tireless efforts to pave the way for artistic progress met with little goodwill in Weimar. Groups of Liszt's opponents formed and hissed him during the premiere of the opera Der Barbier von Bagdad (The Barber of Bagdad) by Peter Cornelius, causing a major scandal that resulted in Liszt's resignation as music director in 1858. In the early 1860s, his late works came back into focus and Busoni, for example, recognised their importance for the development of modern piano playing. Today, especially in connection with the Neudeutsche Schule his historical significance for the development of music towards modernity is justifiably attributed to him.

5. Works

Franz Liszt's complete works are extensive. The musicologist Humphrey Searle summarised it in a systematic catalogue and counted 703 works.

Piano/Organ Works

Liszt had a significant influence on piano playing and composition in his time and composed numerous works for the instrument. Among the best known are Liebestraum No.3 (Dreams of Love No. 3, 1850), La Campanella (1838) and the Hungarian Rhapsodies (1846-47).

He also composed some works for organ, for example Prelude and Fugue on BACH for organ (1859).

Songs and Melodramas

Liszt wrote over 70 songs with piano accompaniment, which were published in several volumes, for example Die Loreley (1843) or Oh! Quand je dors (1844). Liszt's melodramas are largely unknown; one of them sets the poem Der traurige Mönch (The Sad Monk, 1860) by Nikolaus Lenaus to music.

Orchestral Works

Among the most important works for orchestra are the Dante Symphony (1857), the Faust Symphony (1857) and a cycle of 12 symphonic poems.

Sacred Works

Liszt composed numerous works with a religious background: masses, psalms, oratorios and also piano works, such as Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (1847).

Audio Samples

La Campanella from Six Grandes Etudes de Paganini (1851) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIxGUAnj46U

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Piano solo (1847) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yOSweFsmO0

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Orchestra (1857-1860) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNi-_0kqpdE


6. Sources and Links

- Böhm, Claudius & Staps, Sven-W.: 250 Jahre Leipziger Stadt- und Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig 1993.

- Felix, Werner: Franz Liszt, Reclam 1969.

- Fischer, Rita: Franz Liszt – Superstar am Konzertflügel, In: Dr. Metzger, Franz (ed.): Im tödlichen Griff der Inquisition. Ketzer im Mittelalter Ausgestoßen – Verfolgt-Hingerichtet; Augsburg 2011, p. 72-75:

- Franz Liszt 1811-1886 – Pianist, Komponist, Dirigent, https://www.dhm.de/lemo/biografie/franz-liszt.

- Grunsky, Karl: Franz Liszt, Leipzig 1911.

- Kolleritsch, Otto: Bemerkungen zur neuen Liszt-Rezeption, in: Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 1983, p. 135-143.


Franz Hanfstaengl, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FLiszt.jpg