Franz Liszt

A pianist for the ages

Created date

September 13th, 2018
Liszt was as famous in his day as he is in ours. He was photographed and painted numerous times. This photograph, circ., 1858, shows his dashing side.

Liszt was as famous in his day as he is in ours. He was photographed and painted numerous times. This photograph, circ., 1858, shows his dashing side.

Several words come to mind at the mention of pianist and composer Franz Liszt, including virtuoso, maestro, and genius. And unlike so many brilliant artists who went through life unappreciated, Liszt was as revered in his day as he is in ours.

The great composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner once remarked of him: “Do you know a musician who is more musical than Liszt?…I feel thoroughly contemptible as a musician, whereas [he], as I have now convinced myself, [is] the greatest musician of all times.”

Normally, such accolades are dubious. In this case, however, Wagner may have been on to something.

Liszt surely had the musical gene.

He was born in 1811, in a small Hungarian village within the Austrian Empire. His father Adam was an accomplished musician who played the cello, piano, violin, and guitar and mixed in high musical circles.

He knew Haydn and Beethoven personally and passed his knowledge and experience on to his son.

When Liszt was seven, his father started him on piano lessons and, by age eight, basic composition. In 1822, at just 11 years old, young Liszt gave his first public performance in Vienna.

The reception was very positive.

A little over a year later, he had his first composition published—a variation on a waltz by Diabelli, known as Variation 24 in the second part of an anthology entitled Vaterlandischer Kunstlerverein (or the Patriotic Artist Association).

Following his father’s death in 1827, the teenage Liszt relocated to Paris, France, where he lived with his mother and earned a living composing for and teaching piano.

During this period, Liszt began extensively reading the Romantic works of contemporary poets and novelists the likes of Christian Johann Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo. In line with their writing, he turned to such composers as Hector Berlioz, who greatly influenced his compositional and technical styles.

A chance encounter

Despite his natural talent, it was a chance encounter with another musical great that actually inspired his virtuosic facility at the keyboard.

In 1832, Liszt went to a benefit concert for Parisian cholera victims, where one of the performers was the famed violinist Niccolo Paganini. Upon witnessing Paganini’s incredible skills, Liszt was determined to do the same at the piano.

For the next several years, he didn’t simply compose prodigiously; he also studied ground-breaking keyboard methods. In this time, he continued to write pieces for the piano while teaching at the Geneva Conservatory.

Most importantly, he mastered the “three-hand effect,” a manner of playing in which a pianist uses one hand to keep the melody (typically in the middle of the keyboard) and the other for arpeggios in either the bass or treble registers. The resulting effect is a fantastically sophisticated sound.

But he didn’t merely master it. He made it his signature technique.

Throughout the 1840s, the now internationally renowned Franz Liszt toured Europe and, in 1847, composed perhaps his best-known work and the model example of the three-hand effect, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor.

Listening to this piece, one might think that it requires five hands to play.

Generous and kind

His persistent kindness furthermore added to his genius reputation, earning him the adoration of countless people on multiple levels. For much of his career, Liszt donated portions of his concert proceeds to various charities and never stopped teaching junior musicians.

Even his respected contemporaries—composers like Claude Debussy and Camille Saint-Saens—learned from and imitated Liszt.

For the remainder of his life, the maestro continued to travel the world, giving performances, teaching students, composing music, and writing essays on composition and theory. His fame and professional demand only grew as the years passed.

He spent the early 1860s in Rome playing piano and symphonic concerts. At the end of the decade and into the 1870s, Liszt worked in Germany, then Budapest, and enjoyed reasonably good health until 1881, when he started to show signs of heart failure.

This ultimately led to full-blown heart disease, blindness, and breathing problems; indeed, it took a lot to slow, if not stop, a man of such energy. In 1886, the effects of pneumonia took his life but not his legacy.

As one music historian declared, Liszt has long been considered “the greatest pianist who ever lived.” Many people would agree.

Selected works


• Dante Symphony, 1856

• Faust Symphony, circ. 1861

• Legendes, 1863

• Ungarischer Sturmmarsch, 1875

Piano and orchestra

• Grande fantaisie symphonique, 1834

• Piano Concerto Nos. 1-3, circ., 1835-1861

Piano rhapsodies

• Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 1-19, 1846-85