Anna Liszt, born Maria Anna Lager (portrait by Julius Ludwig Sebbers between 1826 and 1837)
Franz Liszt was born to Anna Liszt (née Maria Anna Lager) and Adam Liszt on 22 October 1811, in the village of Doborján (German: Raiding) in Sopron County, in the Kingdom of Hungary, Austrian Empire.[n 2]
Liszt's father played the piano, violin, cello, and guitar. He had been in the service of Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy and knew Haydn, Hummel, and Beethoven personally. At age six, Franz began listening attentively to his father's piano playing. Adam began teaching him the piano at age seven, and Franz began composing in an elementary manner when he was eight. He appeared in concerts at Sopron and Pressburg (Hungarian: Pozsony, present-day Bratislava, Slovakia) in October and November 1820 at age 9. After the concerts, a group of wealthy sponsors offered to finance Franz's musical education in Vienna.
There Liszt received piano lessons from Carl Czerny, who in his own youth had been a student of Beethoven and Hummel. He also received lessons in composition from Ferdinando Paer and Antonio Salieri, who was then the music director of the Viennese court. Liszt's public debut in Vienna on 1 December 1822, at a concert at the "Landständischer Saal", was a great success. He was greeted in Austrian and Hungarian aristocratic circles and also met Beethoven and Schubert.[n 3] In spring 1823, when his one-year leave of absence came to an end, Adam Liszt asked Prince Esterházy in vain for two more years. Adam Liszt therefore took his leave of the Prince's services. At the end of April 1823, the family returned to Hungary for the last time. At the end of May 1823, the family went to Vienna again.
Towards the end of 1823 or early 1824, Liszt's first composition to be published, his Variation on a Waltz by Diabelli (now S. 147), appeared as Variation 24 in Part II of Vaterländischer Künstlerverein. This anthology, commissioned by Anton Diabelli, includes 50 variations on his waltz by 50 different composers (Part II), Part I being taken up by Beethoven's 33 variations on the same theme, which are now separately better known simply as his Diabelli Variations, Op. 120. Liszt's inclusion in the Diabelli project—he was described in it as "an 11 year old boy, born in Hungary"—was almost certainly at the instigation of Czerny, his teacher and also a participant. Liszt was the only child composer in the anthology.
Adolescence in Paris
After his father's death in 1827, Liszt moved to Paris; for the next five years he was to live with his mother in a small apartment. He gave up touring. To earn money, Liszt gave lessons in piano playing and composition, often from early morning until late at night. His students were scattered across the city and he often had to cover long distances. Because of this, he kept uncertain hours and also took up smoking and drinking—all habits he would continue throughout his life.
The following year, he fell in love with one of his pupils, Caroline de Saint-Cricq, the daughter of Charles X's minister of commerce, Pierre de Saint-Cricq. Her father, however, insisted that the affair be broken off. Liszt fell very ill, to the extent that an obituary notice was printed in a Paris newspaper, and he underwent a long period of religious doubts and pessimism. He again stated a wish to join the Church but was dissuaded this time by his mother. He had many discussions with the Abbé de Lamennais, who acted as his spiritual father, and also with Chrétien Urhan, a German-born violinist who introduced him to the Saint-Simonists. Urhan also wrote music that was anti-classical and highly subjective, with titles such as Elle et moi, La Salvation angélique and Les Regrets, and may have whetted the young Liszt's taste for musical romanticism. Equally important for Liszt was Urhan's earnest championship of Schubert, which may have stimulated his own lifelong devotion to that composer's music.
During this period, Liszt read widely to overcome his lack of a general education, and he soon came into contact with many of the leading authors and artists of his day, including Victor Hugo, Alphonse de Lamartine and Heinrich Heine. He composed practically nothing in these years. Nevertheless, the July Revolution of 1830 inspired him to sketch a Revolutionary Symphony based on the events of the "three glorious days," and he took a greater interest in events surrounding him. He met Hector Berlioz on 4 December 1830, the day before the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique. Berlioz's music made a strong impression on Liszt, especially later when he was writing for orchestra. He also inherited from Berlioz the diabolic quality of many of his works.
After attending a charity concert on 20 April 1832, for the victims of the Parisian cholera epidemic, organised by Niccolò Paganini, Liszt became determined to become as great a virtuoso on the piano as Paganini was on the violin. Paris in the 1830s had become the nexus for pianistic activities, with dozens of pianists dedicated to perfection at the keyboard. Some, such as Sigismond Thalberg and Alexander Dreyschock, focused on specific aspects of technique, e.g. the "three-hand effect" and octaves, respectively. While it has since been referred to as the "flying trapeze" school of piano playing, this generation also solved some of the most intractable problems of piano technique, raising the general level of performance to previously unimagined heights. Liszt's strength and ability to stand out in this company was in mastering all the aspects of piano technique cultivated singly and assiduously by his rivals.
In 1833, he made transcriptions of several works by Berlioz, including the Symphonie fantastique. His chief motive in doing so, especially with the Symphonie, was to help the poverty-stricken Berlioz, whose symphony remained unknown and unpublished. Liszt bore the expense of publishing the transcription himself and played it many times to help popularise the original score. He was also forming a friendship with a third composer who influenced him, Frédéric Chopin; under his influence Liszt's poetic and romantic side began to develop.
With Countess Marie d'Agoult
In 1833, Liszt began his relationship with the Countess Marie d'Agoult. In addition to this, at the end of April 1834 he made the acquaintance of Felicité de Lamennais. Under the influence of both, Liszt's creative output exploded.
In 1835, the countess left her husband and family to join Liszt in Geneva; Liszt's daughter with the countess, Blandine, was born there on 18 December. Liszt taught at the newly founded Geneva Conservatory, wrote a manual of piano technique (later lost) and contributed essays for the Paris Revue et gazette musicale. In these essays, he argued for the raising of the artist from the status of a servant to a respected member of the community.
For the next four years, Liszt and the countess lived together, mainly in Switzerland and Italy, where their daughter, Cosima, was born in Como, with occasional visits to Paris. On 9 May 1839, Liszt's and the countess's only son, Daniel, was born, but that autumn relations between them became strained. Liszt heard that plans for a Beethoven monument in Bonn were in danger of collapse for lack of funds and pledged his support. Doing so meant returning to the life of a touring virtuoso. The countess returned to Paris with the children, while Liszt gave six concerts in Vienna, then toured Hungary.
Earliest known photograph of Liszt (1843)
For the next eight years Liszt continued to tour Europe, spending holidays with the countess and their children on the island of Nonnenwerth on the Rhine in summers 1841 and 1843. In spring 1844, the couple finally separated. This was Liszt's most brilliant period as a concert pianist. Honours were showered on him and he met with adulation wherever he went. Franz wrote his Three Concert Études between 1845 and 1849. Since he often appeared three or four times a week in concert, it could be safe to assume that he appeared in public well over a thousand times during this eight-year period. Moreover, his great fame as a pianist, which he would continue to enjoy long after he had officially retired from the concert stage, was based mainly on his accomplishments during this time.
During his virtuoso heyday, Liszt was described by the writer Hans Christian Andersen as a "slim young man...[with] dark hair hung around his pale face". He was seen as handsome by many, with the German poet Heinrich Heine writing concerning his showmanship during concerts: "How powerful, how shattering was his mere physical appearance".
In 1841, Franz Liszt was admitted to the Freemason's lodge "Unity" "Zur Einigkeit", in Frankfurt am Main. He was promoted to the second degree and elected master as member of the lodge "Zur Eintracht", in Berlin. From 1845, he was also honorary member of the lodge "Modestia cum Libertate" at Zurich and 1870 of the lodge in Pest (Budapest-Hungary).
After 1842, "Lisztomania"—coined by 19th-century German poet and Liszt's contemporary, Heinrich Heine—swept across Europe. The reception that Liszt enjoyed as a result can be described only as hysterical. Women fought over his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves, which they ripped to shreds as souvenirs. This atmosphere was fuelled in great part by the artist's mesmeric personality and stage presence. Many witnesses later testified that Liszt's playing raised the mood of audiences to a level of mystical ecstasy.
On 14 March 1842, Liszt received an honorary doctorate from the University of Königsberg—an honour unprecedented at the time and an especially important one from the perspective of the German tradition. Liszt never used 'Dr. Liszt' or 'Dr. Franz Liszt' publicly. Ferdinand Hiller, a rival of Liszt at the time, was allegedly highly jealous at the decision made by the university.
Adding to his reputation was the fact that Liszt gave away much of his proceeds to charity and humanitarian causes in his whole life. In fact, Liszt had made so much money by his mid-forties that virtually all his performing fees after 1857 went to charity. While his work for the Beethoven monument and the Hungarian National School of Music are well known, he also gave generously to the building fund of Cologne Cathedral, the establishment of a Gymnasium at Dortmund, and the construction of the Leopold Church in Pest. There were also private donations to hospitals, schools, and charitable organizations such as the Leipzig Musicians Pension Fund. When he found out about the Great Fire of Hamburg, which raged for three days during May 1842 and destroyed much of the city, he gave concerts in aid of the thousands of homeless there.
Liszt in Weimar
In February 1847, Liszt played in Kiev. There he met the Polish Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was to become one of the most significant people in the rest of his life. She persuaded him to concentrate on composition, which meant giving up his career as a travelling virtuoso. After a tour of the Balkans, Turkey and Russia that summer, Liszt gave his final concert for pay at Yelisavetgrad in September. He spent the winter with the princess at her estate in Woronince. By retiring from the concert platform at 35, while still at the height of his powers, Liszt succeeded in keeping the legend of his playing untarnished.
The following year, Liszt took up a long-standing invitation of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia to settle at Weimar, where he had been appointed Kapellmeister Extraordinaire in 1842, remaining there until 1861. During this period he acted as conductor at court concerts and on special occasions at the theatre. He gave lessons to a number of pianists, including the great virtuoso Hans von Bülow, who married Liszt's daughter Cosima in 1857 (years later, she would marry Richard Wagner). He also wrote articles championing Berlioz and Wagner. Finally, Liszt had ample time to compose and during the next 12 years revised or produced those orchestral and choral pieces upon which his reputation as a composer mainly rested.
During those twelve years, he also helped raise the profile of the exiled Wagner by conducting the overtures of his operas in concert, Liszt and Wagner would have a profound friendship that lasted until Wagner's death in Venice in 1883. Wagner held strong value towards Liszt and his musicality, once rhetorically stating "Do you know a musician who is more musical than Liszt?", and, in 1856, stating "I feel thoroughly contemptible as a musician, whereas you, as I have now convinced myself, are the greatest musician of all times."
Princess Carolyne lived with Liszt during his years in Weimar. She eventually wished to marry Liszt, but since she had been previously married and her husband, Russian military officer Prince Nikolaus zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Ludwigsburg (1812–1864), was still alive, she had to convince the Roman Catholic authorities that her marriage to him had been invalid. After huge efforts and a monstrously intricate process, she was temporarily successful (September 1860). It was planned that the couple would marry in Rome, on 22 October 1861, Liszt's 50th birthday. Although Liszt arrived in Rome on 21 October, the marriage was made impossible by a letter that had arrived the previous day to the Pope himself. It appears that both her husband and the Tsar of Russia had managed to quash permission for the marriage at the Vatican. The Russian government also impounded her several estates in the Polish Ukraine, which made her later marriage to anybody unfeasible.
Rome, Weimar, Budapest
Liszt, photo (mirror-imaged) by Franz Hanfstaengl, June 1867
The 1860s were a period of great sadness in Liszt's private life. On 13 December 1859, he lost his 20-year-old son Daniel, and, on 11 September 1862, his 26-year-old daughter Blandine also died. In letters to friends, Liszt afterwards announced that he would retreat to a solitary living. He found it at the monastery Madonna del Rosario, just outside Rome, where on 20 June 1863, he took up quarters in a small, spartan apartment. He had on 23 June 1857, already joined the Third Order of Saint Francis.[n 4]
On 25 April 1865, he received the tonsure at the hands of Cardinal Hohenlohe. On 31 July 1865, he received the four minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte. After this ordination, he was often called Abbé Liszt. On 14 August 1879, he was made an honorary canon of Albano.
On some occasions, Liszt took part in Rome's musical life. On 26 March 1863, at a concert at the Palazzo Altieri, he directed a programme of sacred music. The "Seligkeiten" of his Christus-Oratorio and his "Cantico del Sol di Francesco d'Assisi", as well as Haydn's Die Schöpfung and works by J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Jommelli, Mendelssohn, and Palestrina were performed. On 4 January 1866, Liszt directed the "Stabat mater" of his Christus-Oratorio, and, on 26 February 1866, his Dante Symphony. There were several further occasions of similar kind, but in comparison with the duration of Liszt's stay in Rome, they were exceptions.
In 1866, Liszt composed the Hungarian coronation ceremony for Franz Joseph and Elisabeth of Bavaria (Latin: Missa coronationalis). The Mass was first performed on 8 June 1867, at the coronation ceremony in the Matthias Church by Buda Castle in a six-section form. After the first performance, the Offertory was added, and, two years later, the Gradual.
Liszt was invited back to Weimar in 1869 to give master classes in piano playing. Two years later, he was asked to do the same in Budapest at the Hungarian Music Academy. From then until the end of his life, he made regular journeys between Rome, Weimar and Budapest, continuing what he called his "vie trifurquée" or tripartite existence. It is estimated that Liszt travelled at least 4,000 miles a year during this period in his life—an exceptional figure given his advancing age and the rigors of road and rail in the 1870s.
Royal Academy of Music at Budapest
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From the early 1860s, there were attempts to obtain a position for Liszt in Hungary. In 1871, the Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Andrássy made a new attempt writing on 4 June 1871, to the Hungarian King (the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I), requesting an annual grant of 4,000 Gulden and the rank of a "Königlicher Rat" ("Crown Councillor") for Liszt, who in return would permanently settle in Budapest, directing the orchestra of the National Theatre as well as musical institutions.[n 5]
The plan of the foundation of a Royal Academy was agreed by the Hungarian Parliament in 1872. In March 1875, Liszt was nominated as President. The Academy was officially opened on 14 November 1875 with Liszt's colleague Ferenc Erkel as director, Kornél Ábrányi and Robert Volkmann. Liszt himself came in March 1876 to give some lessons and a charity concert.
One of Franz Liszt's pianos from his apartment in Budapest
In spite of the conditions under which Liszt had been appointed as "Königlicher Rat", he neither directed the orchestra of the National Theatre, nor did he permanently settle in Hungary. Typically, he would arrive in mid-winter in Budapest. After one or two concerts of his students, by the beginning of spring, he left. He never took part in the final examinations, which were in summer of every year. Some of the pupils joined the lessons which Liszt gave in summer in Weimar.
In 1873, on the occasion of Liszt's 50th anniversary as performing artist, the city of Budapest instituted a "Franz Liszt Stiftung" ("Franz Liszt Foundation"), to provide stipends of 200 Gulden for three students of the Academy who had shown excellent abilities with regard to Hungarian music. Liszt alone decided the allocation of these stipends.
It was Liszt's habit to declare all students who took part in his lessons as his private students. As consequence, almost none of them paid any fees to the Academy. A ministerial order of 13 February 1884 decreed that all those who took part in Liszt's lessons had to pay an annual charge of 30 Gulden. In fact, the Academy was in any case a net gainer, since Liszt donated its revenue from his charity concerts.
Liszt in March 1886, four months before his death, photographed by Nadar
Liszt fell down the stairs of a hotel in Weimar on 2 July 1881. Though friends and colleagues had noticed swelling in his feet and legs when he had arrived in Weimar the previous month (an indication of possible congestive heart failure), he had been in good health up to that point and was still fit and active. He was left immobilised for eight weeks after the accident and never fully recovered from it. A number of ailments manifested themselves—dropsy, asthma, insomnia, a cataract of the left eye and heart disease. The last-mentioned eventually contributed to Liszt's death. He became increasingly plagued by feelings of desolation, despair and preoccupation with death—feelings that he expressed in his works from this period. As he told Lina Ramann, "I carry a deep sadness of the heart which must now and then break out in sound."
On 13 January 1886, while Claude Debussy was staying at the Villa Medici in Rome, Liszt met him there with Paul Vidal and Victor Herbert. Liszt played Au bord d'une source from his Années de pèlerinage, as well as his arrangement of Schubert's Ave Maria for the musicians. Debussy in later years described Liszt's pedalling as "like a form of breathing." Debussy and Vidal performed their piano duet arrangement of Liszt's Faust Symphony; allegedly, Liszt fell asleep during this.
The composer Camille Saint-Saëns, an old friend, whom Liszt had once called "the greatest organist in the world", dedicated his Symphony No. 3 "Organ Symphony" to Liszt; it had premiered in London only a few weeks before the death of its dedicatee.
Liszt died in Bayreuth, Germany, on 31 July 1886, at the age of 74, officially as a result of pneumonia, which he may have contracted during the Bayreuth Festival hosted by his daughter Cosima. Questions have been posed as to whether medical malpractice played a part in his death. He was buried on 3 August 1886, in the municipal cemetery of Bayreuth against his wishes.