Today we’re going to discuss the life, times and history of Franz Liszt. He was the rock star of the Romantic era, and was a touring vagabond for most of his life.
Despite his many love affairs, and the constant performing and traveling, you’d think his personality would be that of a party animal. However, it seems like Liszt was a rather deep thinker and quite serious – he was definitely a multifaceted man.
There’s also a tendency to assume that his rise to stardom came easily and naturally – but the truth is that he was in danger of becoming one of those child wonders. You know the kind – a really famous kid who turns into a washed-up adult.
But his extreme dedication pushed him through that early adult phase where everyone thought he would be nothing, and he achieved significant stardom and respect.
Aside from just being a composer and virtuoso pianist, Liszt wore many other hats, including that of an arranger, music teacher, philanthropist, and author (among other talents).
Without further ado, let’s get started!
History of Franz Liszt: Early Life
Liszt was born on October 22, 1811, and died on July 31, 1886, living to the respectable age of 75.
He was born in the village of Raiding in Hungary, which is actually preserved as a museum nowadays, so if you want, you can go and visit Liszt’s birthplace.
His parents were Adam Liszt and Anna Lager, and he was an only child.
His father, Adam, was a musician, and it was he who began to teach Liszt piano when he showed an interest at age 6.
The Language of Liszt
Before we get into Liszt’s childhood, let’s talk about the languages he spoke and his nationality. Liszt always identified as Hungarian, even though he actually couldn’t really speak Hungarian, and he never lived there exclusively.
Liszt, himself, said:
“It must surely be conceded to me that, regardless of my lamentable ignorance of the Hungarian language, I remain from birth to the grave, in heart and mind, a Magyar.”
The area he was born was an area that spoke mostly German. As a young teen, he became fluent in French, and later Italian, when he lived and traveled to those countries.
As a fun side note, apparently the word “Liszt” in Hungarian means “flour”. As in, “I’m making bread out of flour”.
Adam Liszt and teaching of young Franz
So some fun music lineage facts:
Adam Liszt, Franz’s dad, served Prince Nikolaus II Esterhazy, and if that name rings a bell, it’s because that’s who Joseph Haydn worked for too. As such, Liszt’s dad personally knew not only Haydn, but also Hummel and Beethoven.
When Liszt was nine years old, his father bought 8,800 pages of music from the best masters – by that time Liszt had already worked through all of the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Clementi, and more.
In later 1820, when Liszt was nine, he performed for aristocrats at the Esterhazy palace, and some wealthy folk there were so impressed that they gave him money to study music abroad in Vienna for six years.
History of Franz Liszt: Young Liszt in Vienna
For more musical lineage fun, Carl Czerny was Liszt’s piano teacher in Vienna. Carl Czerny, as some of you might know, was Beethoven’s star pupil and a very well-known teacher.
Czerny’s initial impressions were that Liszt had talent, but that he had “no knowledge of proper fingerings and that his playing style was very chaotic.” Liszt also studied composition with Antonio Salieri.
Liszt’s first public performance in Vienna was in 1822, when Liszt was 11 years old. He gave a well-known concert in 1823 where he played a Hummel Concerto, variations by Moscheles, and an improvisation of his own. Beethoven and Schubert were at said concert, and Beethoven was reportedly very impressed.
Liszt goes to Paris
In 1823, the Liszt family moved to Paris (it had to do with a work situation of Adam Liszt’s). Liszt was then the primary bread winner at age 12, and gave plenty of concerts to support the family. It was at this time that he was likened to Mozart at the same age.
In Paris, Liszt wasn’t allowed to join the conservatory, and so Adam continued to personally teach him piano, including strict scale and etude exercises with the metronome, and Bach fugues that he had to transpose to different keys.
At this point, Liszt was known in Paris as “little Liszt”, and toured England with his father between 1824-27, where he was known as “Master Liszt”. Little Master Liszt made a good sum of money on this tour, which was good news for his father, who was essentially acting as his manager.
History of Franz Liszt: Early compositions
Liszt’s early compositions were written in the style of the Viennese school (think Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn), and were also influenced by Czerny’s writing. However, his early works were not hits.
For example, Liszt wrote an opera which premiered in 1825 (when he was 14), but it wasn’t successful at all.
It was during this teenage point in Liszt’s life where he became disinterested with being a boy wonder, and instead developed an interest in religion. But since he was still a kid and not the captain of his own ship, Adam Liszt forced him to keep giving concerts.
Adam Liszt’s Death
In the summer of 1827, Adam Liszt died of typhus. Liszt wrote a short funeral march for the occasion, which is thought to mark the death of two things: his father, and himself as a child prodigy. For one reason or another, Liszt never visited his father’s grave.
History of Franz Liszt: self education
It was around this point where Liszt lamented his lack of education. Life as a touring prodigy meant that he didn’t have time for school, which he regretted. So instead of moping around, he dedicated himself to intense reading and studying, and by the time of his death many decades later, he had thousands of books in his collection.
Teaching in Paris
In 1827, Liszt stopped touring and lived in a small apartment with his mother in Paris. He still did some small performances, but mainly focused on teaching music so he could earn a living for himself and his mother.
When he was teaching, his students were scattered all around the city, so he had long daily commutes and long teaching days (often from 8 in the morning to 10 at night).
Liszt meets Mendelssohn and Chopin
In the winter of 1831-32 when Liszt was around 20, Liszt met Mendelssohn and Chopin, but he didn’t make a good first impression. They both had tons of compositions under their belt, but Liszt had basically nothing (because he rejected his compositions from childhood).
In letters, Chopin referred to him (and all Parisian pianists) as a “zero”, and Mendelssohn called him a dilettante. No one, including themselves, considered Liszt to be in their league.
Virtuoso inspiration via Paganini
In 1832, Liszt went to a charity concert put on by Niccolo Paganini, a virtuoso violinist. Liszt was so impressed that he vowed to become just as good (but on piano), and started practicing with much more vigor.
In 1833, Liszt wanted to be a bro and help out a fellow musician whom he respected, Berlioz (this generosity would continue throughout his life). Berlioz was a great musician but was in poverty, so Liszt made piano transcriptions of some of Berlioz’s works, like his Symphonie Fantastique. Liszt hated that people didn’t know about this great symphony, and wanted to popularize it – he even self-published the piano score and performed it lots to popularize it.
It was also around 1833 where Chopin began softening to Liszt, and the two developed a friendship. Liszt was likely very inspired by Chopin’s poetic style of piano writing.
This was a very hectic time of Liszt’s life. He had a wild social life and would often return home in the early moment. He barely did any songwriting.
History of Franz Liszt: Love affair with Caroline de Saint-Cricq
So now it’s time to talk about his love affairs.
His first major love affair was with his student Caroline de Saint-Cricq, which sounds more creepy than it is – at the time, in 1828, he was 16 and she was 17. She was beautiful and rich, but that’s not what Liszt fell in love with her for. They would have long talks about holy and religious topics, and that sealed the deal for Liszt’s love.
Caroline’s mom was cool with them getting married, but then she died. Unfortunately, Caroline’s father was not cool with the arrangement at all and kicked Liszt to the curb.
This was very hard on poor 20 year old Liszt, who had a nervous breakdown as a result. This prompted a period of religious doubt for him.
Instead of being obsessed with the holy, Liszt then became something of a hedonist. He had another affair with a lady named Adele de Laprunarede, who was also beautiful and rich – unfortunately, she was married. But they still spent the winter of 1832-33 together. Possibly at the same time there was another woman as well, but we won’t get into that. Either way, it was doomed to fail (because of being married).
Relationship with Marie d’Agoult
In 1833, Liszt started another love affair, this time for a much longer period of time, and with the woman who would become the mother of three of his children. Her name was Marie d’Agoult.
At this time, Liszt and Marie were both in the same boat – they were burned out from being so heavily involved in their social lives, and bonded over a desire for a quieter lifestyle.
In 1833-34, Liszt had his own apartment (“Ratzenloch”), and Marie would visit him under a fake name. Liszt also went to visit her at her place in Croissy.
By the summer of 1834, they were “officially” a couple. Liszt described Marie as a woman “whom he desired, after whom he always had to run but without ever reaching her.”
The weird George Sand incident
There were also weird rumors that George Sand (Chopin’s paramour) and Liszt had an affair in 1835. George tried to get Liszt to convince people she was innocent, but Liszt basically disappeared from the face of the earth for the next couple months, and didn’t respond to her letters. He just took off – so who knows what happened there.
History of Franz Liszt: Life with Marie
In 1835, Liszt and Marie started living together, and that’s where their first child, Blandine, was born. At this time he was also teaching at the conservatory of music in Geneve.
So now we’re in 1837. By this point, Liszt has been composing much more (including his famous 12 Grandes Etudes), but since he was known as being a bad composer, no publisher wanted to look at his music.
Basically what publishers were telling him, and what Czerny echoed, was that Liszt needed to do a concert tour in Vienna, but that was complicated because he was living in Venice, Italy with Marie at the time, and she was pregnant – he didn’t want to just ditch her. So at the end of 1837, his daughter Cosima was born.
Once she was born, Liszt decided to travel to Vienna and Hungary to perform concerts. Him and Marie were planning on traveling together, but she had a third child, a son named Daniel, so she stayed home.
Start of Liszt’s virtuoso career – early disappointments
Liszt was well-received in Vienna in 1839-40. His concerts were a success, and he was re-building his reputation. However, the road to fame was not smooth. When he traveled to Germany, they hated him.
Schumann and Mendelssohn were bummed out that the German people had such a dislike of Liszt, so they tried to help him out by organizing a concert that Mendelssohn also performed in. Mendelssohn drew the crowds, but the German people were not convinced of Liszt.
He also did poorly in Paris at first. The media attacked him, and there were all kinds of caricatures and sarcastic comments made about Liszt (including by Berlioz).
One of Liszt’s rivals, Thalberg, was regarded as being the top piano virtuoso at the time, and since he had just been in Paris weeks prior to Liszt, Thalberg was praised in comparison to that schlubby Liszt guy.
So then Liszt went to London in 1840, where he thought he could trump Thalberg once and for all, but failed there too (at least in a financial sense).
History of Franz Liszt: 8 years of touring
Liszt continued to tour tirelessly for the next eight years. Marie and the children sometimes traveled and vacationed with him, but they officially separated in 1844.
Around the time of the dissolution of his relationship, Liszt really started to gain steam as a concert pianist. This is the period in which he really became a rock star. He often performed three or four concerts a week, which means he performed literally over a thousand times in this eight-year period.
All of the piano fame that Liszt was known for, both in his time, his older age, and even nowadays, is all back from this period in the 1840s.
A contemporary of Liszt’s, a poet named Heinrich Heine, dubbed the term “Lisztomania”, which referred to Liszt’s fame. Women would fight over his handkerchiefs and velvet gloves, ripping them to shreds. They were said to faint and swoon when he performed. He was basically Elvis before Elvis was Elvis.
There was something about Liszt’s performances that “raised the mood of audiences to a level of mystical ecstasy” – some combination of his good looks, his charisma and his stage presence.
Even though Liszt was never properly educated in school, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Konigsberg in 1842. This was basically unheard of – but Liszt, being the somewhat modest guy he was, never referred to himself as Dr. Liszt.
History of Franz Liszt: Humanitarian reputation
Speaking of modesty, Liszt made a fortune during his heyday, but wasn’t remotely greedy with the money. In fact, he was known for his humanitarianism.
He gave away a large amount of his income to charities, and helped fund the building of certain churches and cathedrals. He donated to hospitals and schools. When disasters happened, like the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1842, he gave concerts to help out the thousands of people who were left homeless.
Meeting of Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein
So now we’re going to jump ahead to 1847. Liszt met another girl – this time the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, in Kiev. Princess Carolyne was a fairly successful author, and her writing style ended up rubbing off on Liszt, who dabbled in the literary arts himself. He even wrote a biography of Chopin, among many other essays and works.
It was Princess Carolyne who convinced Liszt to spend less time traveling, and more time composing. In the late 1840s, Liszt took her advice and retired from his hectic life as a performer. This ended up being a good move, because by stopping at the height of his talent, he never became one of those musicians who used to be good, but is now just sad and washed up. He quit at his peak, and kept his reputation in tact because of it.
Liszt in Weimar
In 1842, Liszt was convinced to become the Kapellmeister Extrordinaire in Weimar in 1842, so that’s where he and Carolyne settled down toghether. He kept that position until 1861. At this time he taught a number of pianists, including the well-known Hans von Bulow, who would go on to marry his daughter Cosima in 1857. He wrote articles about musicians like Wagner and Berlioz. And he also had ample chance to compose.
In another bro move, Liszt helped out Wagner, who was in exile, by conducting the overtures of his operas in concert. They became really good friends up until Wagner’s death in 1883. Wagner once said of Liszt,
“Do you know a musician who is more musical than Liszt?”, and later, “I feel thoroughly contemptible as a musician, whereas you, as I have now convinced myself, are the greatest musician of all times.”
Later on, Liszt’s daughter Cosima would end up getting into a relationship, which makes Liszt Wagner’s father-in-law.
Liszt and Carolyne wanted to get married, but she was technically still married to a Russian military officer – they had been separated for years, but since he was still alive, she had a tough time convincing the Roman Catholic authorities that a divorce was in order.
But after a herculean effort, they actually convinced the church, and the two planned to get married on Liszt’s 50th birthday (1861).
When Liszt arrived in Rome to meet her the day before the marriage, it turned out they couldn’t get married after all. Her current husband and the Tsar of Russia also revoked the Vatican’s agreement to let them marry.
She also had some bitterness toward her relationship with Liszt, and wrote in a letter many years later that she thought Liszt was ungrateful for all the sacrifices she had made to marry him. She lost nearly her entire fortune, and yet Liszt was lolly-gagging around their home in Weimar having affairs with other women (for the record, there’s no evidence that Liszt ever did that).
A final mistress
Liszt’s other important mistress was Agnes Street-Klindworth, and they started a relationship in 1853. They kept the long-term relationship secret, and it’s speculated that some of her children were fathered by Liszt.
History of Franz Liszt: loss and monastery life
Then the 1860s rolled around, and things took a dark turn for Liszt. His 20-year old son Daniel died at the end of 1859, and his 26-year old daughter Blandine died a couple years later. It was at this point that Liszt became more solitary, and decided to live at a monastery just outside of Rome. He received the four minor orders, part of the process of becoming a priest, but never officially became a priest – he later explained that he wanted to keep his freedom.
Liszt thought that this misfortune was because he had lived a hedonistic lifestyle. He had sinned, he thought, and this was his punishment. That influenced his decision to join a monastery, where he could withdraw and practice abstinence.
return to Weimar and the threefold existence
At the end of the 1860s, Liszt returned to Weimar to give master classes in piano. He was then asked to do the same thing at Budapest’s Music Academy. That’s when he started his “threefold existence” as he described it – dividing his life between Rome, Weimar and Budapest.
There are estimates that Liszt travelled about 4,000 miles a year during this period in his life, which was crazy given how rough traveling was back then. Liszt also wasn’t young anymore – around age 60.
Position in Hungary and President of the Royal Academy
Hungary loved Liszt (and Liszt loved Hungary), and people kept trying to get him into a prominent musical position there. Finally, in June of 1871, Liszt was appointed the director of the National Theatre’s orchestra, and was put in charge of the new Royal Academy for Music in Budapest in 1875.
In 1873, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Liszt’s performing history, Budapest started the “Franz Liszt Foundation”, which was a way to financially support three gifted students from the Academy, hand-picked by Liszt.
And that takes us to the start of the end of Liszt’s life.
In July of 1881, Liszt had a bad fall down some stairs. Friends had noticed that in the month prior, his feet and legs looked swollen – but Liszt had been in overall excellent health, remaining slim and vigorous just like in his younger years. As soon as his fall happened, that all changed.
He was diagnosed with a variety of ills – asthma, insomnia, an eye cataract, ad chronic heart disease (which would eventually kill him). This caused Liszt to spin into depression, saying things like, “I carry a deep sadness of the heart which must now and then break out in sound.”
During his last year in 1886, he and Debussy actually had a chance to meet. Liszt and Debussy both performed in a small group of musicians. Debussy was blown away by Liszt’s pedaling, describing it as “like a form of breathing” (apparently Liszt fell asleep when Debussy performed a duet of Liszt’s Faust Symphony).
His final concert, just a couple weeks before his death, was on July 19, 1886, at the Casino Bourgeois in Luxembourg.
History of Franz Liszt: Death
Liszt died in Bayreuth on July 31, 1886. The official cause is said to be pneumonia. Some of his students were at his deathbed, but when things started to take a turn for the worse, his daughter Cosima kicked them all out so they could have more privacy.
It’s debateable that Liszt’s death was actually caused by pneumonia. A credible account says that his heart was accidentally injected with camphor (instead of morphine), which would result in a very quick death.
Physical description of Liszt
Let’s briefly talk about what a dream boat lady-killer Liszt was.
During his peak performing years in the 1840s, Liszt was described as a “slim young man with dark hair hung around his pale face” by Hans Christian Andersen. Basically everyone agreed he was handsome. The poet Heinrich Heine wrote, “How powerful, how shattering was his mere physical appearance.”
In Liszt’s day (and now as well), he was viewed as one of the greatest virtuosos of all time. Liszt himself deflected that honor to Charles-Valentin Alkan (who we’ve discussed on this channel previously), saying that he “had the finest technique of any pianist” known to him.
Liszt’s Literary talents
Aside from being a piano virtuoso, Liszt also did a lot of writing. He mainly wrote essays about operas, symphony, musicians and other musical topics. He also wrote a biography on Frederic Chopin, and a book about the Gypsies and their music in Hungary.
Influence on future composers
Though a Romantic composer through and through, Liszt’s compositions were very forward-looking – he used things like whole tone scales, unresolved dissonances and other musical nuances that would go on to influence the next generation of musicians, such as Debussy and Bartok.
Liszt as a piano teacher
Since I’m a piano teacher, I always think it’s fun learning about the methodologies of famous musicians. Apparently Liszt was a little unconventional, refusing to give technical advice to students. He would say things like, “wash your dirty linen at home”, and he didn’t want to concern himself with petty errors.
Instead, Liszt focused on musical interpretation and artistry, and would often use amusing metaphors to convey his thoughts.
For example, to one student tapping out the opening chords of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, he said, “Do not chop beefsteak for us”.
Another student who blurred the rhythm of Liszt’s Gnomenreigen by playing to fast, he said, “There you go, mixing salad again.”
He also didn’t charge for piano lessons, which is interesting because his original teacher Carl Czerny charged a hefty fee and made a good living as a teacher. But Czerny gave free lessons to Liszt, and Liszt dedicated his Transcendental Etudes to Czerny – so even though they had opposite philosophies, Liszt obviously had huge respect for Czerny.
The Liszt Monkey
And as a final fun Liszt fact: The Liszt Monkey.
Seriously, there’s a monkey called the cotton-top tamarin whose nickname is “Liszt Monkey” because it looks so much like Liszt. Liszt surely lives on, in music and in monkeys.
I hope you enjoyed our two-part series on the history of Franz Liszt! He’s one of my all-time favorite composers, and I find his life fascinating.
Until next time!