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24 Fascinating Facts about Franz Liszt, the first Classical Superstar

In today’s video, we’re going to have a bit of fun and look at 24 fascinating facts about Franz Liszt, a Romantic-era superstar who was renowned as a piano virtuoso.

We’ve done a brief history video on Liszt, and there is a bit of overlap in this video – though this one is more for fun anecdotes and such. Definitely check out that video if you’re interested in more Liszt details!

Let’s get started.

1.      Liszt’s father

Liszt’s interest in music began with his father, who was a musician and personally knew Classical giants such as Haydn and Beethoven. Adam Liszt, his father, worked at Esterhazy, the same estate where Haydn worked for much of his life.

Young Liszt would listen to his dad play piano, and began lessons and composition with him as a young boy.

2.      Tempo skills

Liszt’s father was strict about him practicing with a metronome, which might be one reason Liszt was well-known for his ability to keep absolute tempo.

In addition to his tempo skills, he was an excellent sight-reader as well (are you really surprised?).

3.      Lessons with Carl Czerny

In addition to his father knowing the Classical greats, Liszt himself studied with Carl Czerny as a boy. Carl Czerny was one of Beethoven’s best students, and was a renowned piano teacher.

List also took lessons from Antonio Salieri, a peer of Mozart’s.

4.      Liszt the piano teacher

Liszt spent many years of his life teaching piano, which he would often do in a group setting. In his younger days he would teach from morning to night, with students scattered all across Paris. He would travel long distances to get to their houses, and worked very late because of this.

As a piano teacher, Liszt was less concerned with technical details – he wanted his students to “clean their dirty laundry” at home. Instead, he helped them with big picture thinking, expression and storytelling through piano.

5.      Liszt’s touring career

Liszt spent almost a decade of his life touring Europe and performing relentlessly, usually 3-4 times a week. That means he performed over 1,000 concerts in this decade.

It was during this period, in the 1800s, where Lisztomania began and his fame skyrocketed.

Even after he retired from relentless touring, his reputation as one of the greatest pianists of all time, would stay with him throughout his life and beyond.

6.      Lisztomania

Liszt was Elvis before Elvis was Elvis. They called it “Lisztomania” – women would faint and go into a frenzy when he performed, so much so that local doctors thought it was an epidemic of mental illness.

And it wasn’t just women swooning for Liszt! Upon seeing Liszt, one critic, Yuri Arnold, wrote: ““As soon as I reached home, I pulled off my coat, flung myself on the sofa, and wept the bitterest, sweetest tears.”

Hans Christian Anderson wrote of Liszt, “When Liszt entered the saloon, it was as if an electric shock passed through it,” he wrote in his diary after seeing Liszt for the first time. “It was as if a ray of sunlight passed over every face.”

7.      Birth of the solo piano recital

In the early 1800s, it was unheard of for a single musician to play an entire concert on his own. But sometimes Liszt couldn’t find any musicians to share a program with (what with his thousands of performances), and so performed some solo recitals.

Liszt’s fame allowed him to fill concert halls with his solo performances, and he elevated the piano as a solo instrument in the concert hall as well. He even moved where the piano was positioned on stage so the audience could see his hands, and so the sound would project more loudly.

8.      Inspiration via Paganini

Liszt wasn’t immediately famous, however. His early composition attempts were criticized. When Liszt saw the violin virtuoso Paganini perform in 1832, it set his soul on fire. Liszt determined then and there to be to piano what Paganini was to violin (and he succeeded).

9.      Hard work

Virtuosity didn’t just happen to Liszt – he worked really hard for it. After being inspired by Paganini, he wrote to a friend, “My mind and fingers are working like the damned Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Byron, Hugo….., Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber, are all around me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them furiously. Furthermore, I practice for four or five hours a day….If only I don’t go mad, you will find in me an artist”.

Around this time he was known to practice for many hours a day, even doing finger exercises while reading books.

10. Technical skill

Because of his motivation, drive and hard work, Liszt built up an unparalleled technical prowess at the piano. His Transcendental Etudes are particularly difficult (see our video on The Hardest Liszt pieces) – so much so that Robert Schumann claimed only a few piano players in the entire world would be able to play them.

11. Breaking piano strings

Liszt was such an intense piano player – loud enough to fill a recital hall on his own – that he would break piano strings while playing. Granted pianos in the 1800s weren’t as strong as modern pianos, but you have to credit the guy with wild and raw enthusiasm.

12. Symphonic poems

In addition to being virtuosic and loud, Liszt created an entire genre of music – the symphonic poem. A symphonic poem is basically orchestral music (no vocals) based on art/literature that tells a story through music.

It’s kind of like an updated version of Baroque program music.

13. Relationship with Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein

Liszt’s longest-running relationship (40 years) was with Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein. They never married, though they wanted to – but her ex-husband was a jerk and made sure it wasn’t allowed. He also took her estate, leaving her with little.

The two had children together, and she was the one to convince Liszt to focus on composing after his epic decade of touring. Because of this, he never became “washed up” – by finishing all the touring at age 35, he quit at the peak of his game.

14. Generosity to friends

Liszt was known for being generous to friends and family (as well as people he didn’t know, which we’ll talk about in a moment). He often let people stay at his place, including the Princess, piano students who didn’t have anywhere to go, and various friends such as Hector Berlioz when he was poor.

In addition to an ever-rotating ensemble of guests, Liszt’s Weimar household also included a family cat named Madame Esmeralda, and a loud guard dog named Rappo.

15. Charitable generosity

By the 1850s, Liszt was making so much money that he donated the vast majority of his concert income to various charities. He donated to music programs like the Hungarian National School of Music, he helped build the Cologne Cathedral, a Gymnasium at Dortmond, and countless hospitals, schools and causes.

In 1842 there was the Great Fire of Hamburg which destroyed a good chunk of the city and left many homeless. Liszt hosted some concerts and donated all of the proceeds to those in need from the disaster.

16. Distate of conservatories

One Liszt biographer mentioned that he would often say while teaching, “Pfffft, Ich bin kein Professor, aber…” (I am no professor, but…). This showed a casual distaste for music conservatoires. Maybe Liszt felt that music schools were too focused on technical details and not enough on artistry.

17. Liszt was heartsick

When Liszt was a young man, he fell in love with one of his students, but her father forbade the affair. After this crushing disappointment, Liszt was so sick that an obituary notice was printed about him in Paris.

This period of heartsickness inspired him to want to join the church (something he wanted to do his whole life), but his mother talked him out of it.

18. Almost became a priest

Later in Liszt’s life, he went through some real trauma which inspired him to become ordained – and his mother was no longer around to talk him out of it.

In the 1860s, Liszt lost two of his children – his 20-year old son Daniel, and 26-year old daughter Blandine. This left him with just one living daughter, Cosima.

Afterward, Liszt wrote his friends that he would be living a solitary life in a monastery and received the four minor orders, which meant he could be called Abbé Liszt.

19. Piano output

Let’s take a quick moment to marvel at Liszt’s massive productivity and piano output. He wrote over 1000 piano pieces, most of them original and the rest being transcriptions of instrumental music to piano solos.

20. Helping out composers with transcripts

Liszt’s piano transcriptions are less-known nowadays, but they were a big deal when he was alive. By making transcriptions of other composers’ works, he was able to popularize them and drive interest toward composers he deemed worthy.

One example is Hector Berlioz. By penning Symphony Fantastique for piano solo and performing it frequently, he helped Berlioz out of destitution and obscurity.

Another composer he helped in this way was Richard Wagner, who had been exiled. The two ended up becoming very close.

21. Friends with Wagner

Wagner and Liszt for so close, in fact, that Liszt became Wagner’s father-in-law. Wagner married Liszt’s daughter, Cosima.

In addition to being close friends until the end of Wagner’s life, Wagner considered Liszt a top-rate musician, stating, “I feel thoroughly contemptible as a musician, whereas you, as I have now convinced myself, are the greatest musician of all times.”

22. Liszt met Debussy

Toward the end of Liszt’s life, him and young Debussy had a chance to meet in Rome. They had a piano party and Liszt played one of Debussy’s pieces from Années de pèlerinage, as well as Schubert’s Ave Maria.

Debussy was very impressed, describing Liszt’s pedaling as “like a form of breathing”.

Debussy performed with another musician, Vidal – they made a piano duet arrangement of Liszt’s Faust Symphony. Apparently Liszt fell asleep during that performance. In Liszt’s defense, he was 75 years old at the time.

23. Extravagances in performing

Back to Liszt as a performer. In addition to being wildly skilled and loud enough to break piano strings, he also apparently made dramatic facial expressions and gestures at the piano. Enough so that the press would make comics about it.

In his younger days he also took some liberties with compositions by others, adding cadenzas and trills to tunes like Moonlight Sonata. He did this to a Chopin composition once, and Chopin was not impressed.

24. The greatest pianist

Our final fact today is how Liszt is widely considered THE greatest pianist of all time, at least in his day. One music critic suggested that maybe Liszt “was not the most transcendent virtuoso who ever lived, but his audiences thought he was.”

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this collection of fun facts about Franz Liszt! A lot of you really like him (as well as other Romantic-era composers such as Chopin), and I have to agree. For being such a flashy performer in his youth, Liszt was decidedly not vain, had some depth and a spiritual side, and was very generous. There’s lots to love about Liszt!

Until next time,

Xo,

Allysia