Saturday, 22 October 2011


“Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul” – Plato

It is the 200th anniversary of Franz Liszt’s birthday today. This Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer was born on the 22nd of October 1811, at Raiding, in Hungary, and he died at Bayreuth, Germany, 31st July, 1886. His appeal to musicians is threefold: There was Liszt the unrivalled pianoforte virtuoso (1830-48); Liszt the conductor of the “music of the future” at Weimar, the teacher of Tausig, Bülow and a host of lesser pianists, the eloquent writer on music and musicians, the champion of Berlioz and Wagner (1848-61); and Liszt the prolific composer, who for some 35 years continued to put forth pianoforte pieces, songs, symphonic orchestral pieces, cantatas, masses, psalms and oratorios (1847-82).

Liszt’s musical precocity was recognized early by his parents, and his first teacher was his father, Adam Liszt, a musical amateur of rare culture. His son’s first public appearance at Oedenburg at the age of nine was so startling, that several Hungarian magnates who were present assumed the financial responsibilities of Liszt’s further musical education. Taken to Vienna by his father, who devoted himself exclusively to the development of his talented child, he studied the piano for six years with Czerny, and theory and composition with Salieri and Randhartinger.

His first public appearance in Vienna (1st January, 1823) proved a noteworthy event in the annals of music. From Beethoven, who was present, down to the merest dilettante, everyone immediately acknowledged his great genius. His entry to the Paris Conservatory, where his father wished him to continue his studies, and which at the time was under Cherubini, proved unsuccessful on account of his not being a native of France. His studies, however, under Reicha and Paer, made the youthful prodigy one of the most conspicuous figures of the French capital. His one act opera, “Don Sanche”, as well as his piano compositions, achieved a flattering success. His brilliant concert tours in Switzerland and England enhanced an already established reputation.

His father’s death (1827) made Liszt the main supporter of his mother, but the temporary hardship disappeared when he began his literary and teaching career. His charming personality, conversational brilliancy, and transcendent musical ability opened the world of fashion, wealth and intellect to him. His intimacy with Meyerbeer and his friendship with Chopin, whose biographer he subsequently became, kept alive and fostered his interest in his art.

An alliance (1834-44) with the Countess d’Agoult resulted in three children. A son who died early, Blandina, who became the wife of Emile Ollivier, Minister of Justice to Napoleon III, and Cosima, first the wife of Hans von Bülow, then of Richard Wagner, owner of Villa Wahnfried, Bayreuth. The rupture of this liaison signalled the beginning of his dazzling career as a virtuoso pianist without peer or rival. His concert tours throughout Europe evoked an unparalleled enthusiasm and the doors of the nobility opened wide for him.

His twelve years at Weimar (1849-61), where he assumed the proffered position of court conductor, were years of intensive activity. He supervised the court concerts and operatic performances, bringing them to a perfection that made the small provincial town of Weimar synonymous with the highest achievements in music. During this period he also gave the world a series of notable piano compositions, and even more notable choral and orchestral works, that have been very influential musically.

His support of Wagner and some of his composition pupils that were not publicly popular caused him to resign his position as court conductor in 1861. After his resignation he lived in turn at Rome, Budapest, and Weimar. Religion which was only temporarily overshadowed began playing an active part in his life again. As early as 1856 or 1858 he became a Franciscan tertiary. He received minor orders from Cardinal Hohenlohe in his private chapel at the Vatican on 25th April, 1865. His career of twenty-one years as an abbé was most exemplary and punctilious as he was in the performance of his ecclesiastical duties, his interest in his art continued unabated. He succumbed to an acute attack of pneumonia at the home of a friend, near Wagner’s Villa Wahnfried and was buried, without pomp or display, in the Bayreuth cemetery.

Here is a beautiful contemplative piece for piano, Liszt’s “Consolation No. 3”, S. 172, played by the great Vladimir Horowitz.

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