Fryderyk Chopin and Franz Liszt, or as he was known in his ancestral Hungary as Liszt Ferenc, were two of the greatest pianists and composers of the 19th century. Both contributed to the development of the Romantic piano literature and advanced piano technique considerably. Liszt destroyed many a piano that came his way, what with his thundering octaves and all. Or so the stories would have us believe. And yes, Liszt was one of the first musical idols, at least as we understand the term today.
Like Paderewski later on, Liszt attracted quite a lot of women to his recitals. There was a great deal of swooning, screaming, and so forth. If one story is to be believed, once two countesses got into a veritable cat fight over a pair of gloves he threw into the audience.
Another thing Liszt was famous for was the solo recital itself. The term caused, in the words of Harold C. Schonberg, late chief music for the New York Times “great merriment in England”. “How does one recite on the piano?”, they asked. Before Liszt, pianists played in musical programs which also featured other musicians.
It is easy, I suppose, to dismiss a lot of Liszt’s works as vulgar showpieces meant nothing more than to display one’s flashy piano technique. Liszt did make contributions in some other areas than just in the realm of flashy piano music. Saint-Saëns was greatly influenced by his ideas on form. The symphonic poem, something later composers such as Jean Sibelius and Richard Strauss were to excel in, was a Liszt creation. Towards the end of his life, he composed some very adventurous pieces such as a bagatelle that anticipates the atonality of Schoenberg. Another piece seems to anticipate Debussy.
In the latter half of the 20th century, Liszt and his work was dismissed by many critics. Alfred Brendel, a musician’s musician, championed a lot of Liszt’s work. While some have criticized Brendel’s rather intellectual take on Liszt, it certainly did play a role in his later revival.
Liszt also contributed to the organ repertoire. One of his compositions for organ, the Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H is based off of the family name of Johann Sebastian Bach. In Germany, B is B flat and H is B natural. Liszt’s contributions to the organ, while not nearly as large as those of his piano output, are quite impressive.
Here, the German organist Felix Hell performs the Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H at Trinity Church, Wall Street.
Another area in which Liszt excelled was that of making transcriptions. He transcribed works by Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz, and others. The late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who positively disdained nearly all of Liszt’s creations, did record some of his transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies. One of his most famous, and one of my favourites, is of his transcription of the Liebstod from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.
Wagner was Liszt’s son-in-law. Wagner, who had a long string of marital infidelities, ran off with Liszt’s daughter Cosima von Bülow who was married to the great conductor Hans von Bülow at the time. Hans von Bülow would later devote his energies to championing the works of Wagner’s archrival Johannes Brahms. I wonder why! Interestingly enough, Liszt disapproved of their union.
By this point, Liszt had more or less rediscovered his Catholic faith and had become quite devout. His children were all born out of wedlock. The Catholic Church then as now disapproved of divorce and remarriage, at least not without an annulment. Cosima would later become a Protestant and married Wagner in Switzerland.
Here is Alfred Brendel performing Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Liebstod.