Franz Liszt was definitely one of the greatest pianists in history. Here are just a few reasons why…
- He was the first piano “rock-star” virtuoso, thrilling audiences and capturing the hearts of women with his exciting playing.
- Franz Liszt invented the concept of the piano recital. Before him, nobody dared to have just a single pianist for an entire concert! But Liszt’s powerful and astounding playing were enough to fill concert halls all over Europe. He changed the position of the piano on the stage as well, so that the sound board faced the audience. This meant the music was louder and the audience could see Liszt’s acrobatic hand-work on the keyboard.
- Liszt’s level of technical skill was off the charts! After Liszt penned the Transcendental Etudes, Robert Schumann thought only a handful of piano players in the entire world were good enough to perform them.
- Liszt wrote over 1000 piano pieces, most of them original. This is ridiculous number, considering that most of his pieces are exceptionally high quality as well.
- Liszt used the piano to champion less well-known composers, by writing solo piano transcriptions of their works to be published and bought by amateur music makers.
WIth all these qualifications, his piano compositions have to be some of the most inventive and incredible ever written, right? I definitely think so! So here are videos of some of Liszt’s greatest and most popular pieces…
La Campanella, a delicate but extremely difficult piece. The pianist’s hands have to jump all over the place, but make the piece sound light at the same time:
Liebestraume No. 3, a warm and lyrical song. The title means “dream of love”, and Liszt definitely manages to portray that through this magical piece:
Hungarian Rhapsody No.2. The typical Liszt piece, this one has languid gypsy melodies, and an exciting fast section. Did I mention the melody in the fast section is world famous, and has been in hundreds of adverts and cartoons?
Un Sospiro (“a sigh”), a beautiful concert study, which always moves my heart:
For more, check out this site all about classical composers.
Franz Liszt music is some of the most difficult ever for the piano. But its complexity means Liszt’s pieces which touch listeners on many levels.
Liszt transformed the role of the piano. Before him, people didn’t really take it seriously. But Liszt used it as a mini-orchestra, using it to paint thousands of shades and colors. People sat up and listened afterwards!
Some people think that Liszt’s music is attention-seeking and brash. They have a point, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of pianistic fireworks!!
As a (former!) piano player I can say that Liszt’s piano music is extremely “pianistic”. Even though it’s enormously difficult, it uses the hands and wrists’ natural shape.
Franz Liszt was very well-traveled. He had the ability to compose in different “national styles”.
For example, his Italian songs have a very different feeling than his German songs. And let’s not forget the Hungarian Rhapsodies, which use gypsy melodies to conjure up images of Liszt’s Hungarian roots.
Here’s a short selection of Liszt’s famous pieces…
- Christus, S.3. Liszt’s huge Oratorio, depicting the entire life of Christ. He wrote this when he was in his religious phase (he received orders from the Roman Catholic Church).
- Dante Symphony, S.109. Liszt’s orchestral version of Dante Alighieri’s famous Divine Comedy. Liszt was particularly good at writing devilish music, and this symphony depicting hell is a perfect example.
- Années de Pélinerage (Years of Pilgrimage), S.160, S.161, S.162. Three collections of evocative piano music, inspired by the travels of Franz Liszt.
- Sonata in B Minor, S.178. Liszt’s masterpiece, and probably one of the most incredible piano pieces ever written. It’s a complex and powerful work, a spectacular showcase of what’s possible on the piano.
- Grand Galop Chromatique, S.219. This is basically a piece written to show off how good Liszt was at playing piano. He used to play it as an encore at the end of his concerts, to make the crowd go insane with excitement. It’s definitely very tricky to play – a perfect example of what Liszt was capable of when he just wanted to impress people with technical skill!
To finish, here’s Reminiscences de Don Juan, a long Franz Liszt piece built from themes of the Mozart opera Don Giovanni. Parts 1 and 2:
Date of Birth: October 22, 1811 – Raiding, Hungary
Date of Death: July 31, 1886 – Bayreuth, Germany
Quick facts about Franz Liszt:
- He is known as one of the greatest pianists in history. His advanced technical skill broke all known laws of the keyboard.
- He was trilingual in German, French, and Italian, and traveled around all of Europe for most of his life
- He was the inventor of the modern piano recital, and the first person to play with the piano’s sound board facing the audience
- He was a generous philanthropist, and also greatly helped bring attention to then-unknown composers such as Franz Schubert.
Liszt’s parents were Adam and Marie Liszt, descendants of German immigrants who went to Vienna in the 18th century. His father was a cello player and amateur piano player.
Liszt started learning piano when he was 7 years old, taught by his father. His skill improved quickly, even though his hands were sometimes too small to play properly. When this happened, he’d thrust his head down and play the missing note with his nose!
He was noticed by the local Prince, who financed his studies in Vienna with Czerny. Liszt also studied in Paris.
Liszt moved to Paris with his mother, and gave piano lessons to support himself and his mother. His life was gloomy at this point, since he worked long hours and had stressful living conditions.
He entered a period of depression for two years, but recovered. He was hugely embarrassed about not having had a normal and proper education, so he dug his nose in books. This paid off, as eventually he became quite erudite. Being well-read also had benefits for his future career, since he was to meet with the greatest aristocrats and intellectuals of his time.
But he didn’t know it yet…
A defining moment in Liszt’s life came in 1832. He saw the famous violin virtuoso Paganini perform, and afterwards resolved to become the greatest piano virtuoso of the day. He began practicing piano for 10-12 hours a day, mastering all of the most difficult playing techniques.
He toured all over Europe in the late 1830s and 1840s, dazzling, astounding, and shocking audiences with his electrifying and masterful performances. Princes and emperors showered him with gifts and praise, and he met all of the most powerful people in Europe. He stopped touring in 1847, after meeting Princess Wittgenstein. She convinced him to focus on composing.
Liszt settled in Weimar for the next 14 years. He held the position of Kapellmeister Extraordinaire there, and was extremely active in the city’s musical life. He also found his more relaxed life a great aid to composition: during the 1850s he wrote his greatest piano and orchestral music.
After his two children died at the beginning of 1860, Liszt became extremely religious. He took minor Roman Catholic orders, and became known as the Abbé Liszt.
During the last years of his life, Liszt lived a triple existence. He traveled regularly between Rome, Weimar and Budapest, giving free lessons and masterclasses. He died of pneumonia at the age of 74.
Important Works by Liszt:
-Sonata in B Minor – 1853
-Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10 – 1853
-Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 – 1853
-Mephisto Waltz No. 1 – 1852
-Transcendental Etudes – 1852
-Nuages Gris – 1881
-Hungaria – 1854
-Faust Symphony -1857