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Learn About the Hungarian Composer, Franz Liszt's Works and Life

Franz Liszt: Overview

  • Born: October 22, 1811 - Raiding, Hungary
  • Died: July 31, 1886 - Bayreuth, Germany
  • Historical Period: Romantic era
  • Musical Media: Orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, choral, operas songs. 

Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt

Hungarian virtuoso Franz Liszt, born in 1811 in Raiding, Hungary, now in Austria, was one of the most influential and respectable composers of the 19th century. His potent combination of creativity with a connoisseur-like understanding of contemporary and historical composers made him a unique individual. After a lifetime of over 700 compositions and a brilliant career, Franz Liszt passed away in the year 1886. 

Franz Liszt: The Hungarian Virtuoso

Taught to play the piano by his father, Liszt, when he was only nine was already performing in concerts. His father, Adam Liszt, served Prince Nicolas Eszterházy. The prince’s Eisenstadt palace was a famous meeting place for numerous talented composers and musicians, and Adam Liszt was considered a skilled musician who played the cello. Franz Liszt, who was attracted to the piano from a very young age, was enamored by church music, and consequently, spent two years with the Franciscan order.

Franz’s compositional talents began to show from the young age of eight. Gaining major attention at age nine with a public concert performance as a pianist at Sopron and Pozsony, his talents impressed many Hungarian rich and powerful, who decided to finance his musical education for six years. Franz went to Vienna with his father, where he learned from some great musicians. Among these was Carl Czerny for piano lessons, a composer who had been a pupil of Beethoven himself. Additionally, Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival, who was also the Musical Director at the Viennese court, taught musical composition to young Franz. The young Liszt was highly successful in Austrian stage performances and is rumored to have been admired by Beethoven. 

In the year 1823, the Liszt family moved to Paris, where Franz was not allowed entry to the Paris Conservatoire since he wasn’t French. Consequently, Anton Reicha, a musical theorist and, former student of Johann Michael Haydn and Ferdinando Paer, taught him. Liszt debuted in Paris in 1824, which was followed by other performances and an eventual visit to London in the same year.

The next year in England, Franz played in front of George IV at Windsor Castle. This gave him recognition, and his New Grand Overture debuted in Manchester. This was also utilized for his one-act opera Don Sanche, staged at the Paris Opéra in 1825. 1826 followed Franz touring further reaches of Europe in France and Switzerland, and then back to England. 

In Paris, Liszt took up the profession of a piano teacher. Consequently, he became severely ill and took a long time to recover. Post-recovery, Franz had a period of self-doubt and depression, whereupon he almost gave up all musical endeavors. 

This was the period when Franz Liszt educated himself extensively through the famous works of the day, and also came into contact with world-class artistic personalities such as Victor Hugo and Heinrich Heine. Franz, during this period, had also suffered from exhaustion, for which his father took him to Boulogne to make him feel better. But tragically, Adam Liszt died here of typhoid fever. In 1830, the July Revolution saw the coronation of Louis-Philippe, and Franz consequently sketched out a Revolutionary Symphony

In the year 1834, Liszt composed the piano piece Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, based on Lamartine’s poem collection. He used lyrics of a starkly different quality than those of his younger years, which reflects his maturity with time. That very year, he encountered Marie de Flavigny who was the Countess d’Agoult. She left her husband for Liszt in the year 1835, and consequently, the couple’s first daughter, named Blandine, was born in Geneva. Franz Liszt was a teacher at the Geneva Conservatory and wrote a number of essays, such as On the Position of Artists, where he tried to propel the status of an artist to a respected member of the society.

Remembering his time with Madame d’Agoult, Liszt wrote two books of solo piano pieces called Années de pèlerinage. He then wrote the Transcendental Études in 1838 and revised in 1851. These were solo piano compositions based on the Étude en 48 exercises, written when he was much younger. For the piano, Franz Liszt transcribed Paganini’s six pieces, which are Grandes études de Paganini, including La campanella. Along with this, Franz also transcribed three of Beethoven’s symphonies and works by Franz Schubert, and Berlioz. He also composed fantasias on popular operas of the day, impressing his audience significantly.

Liszt subsequently held concerts in countries such as Ireland, Portugal, Russia, and Turkey. Liszt’s enigmatic fame and towering success were ever-increasing during this time. In addition to numerous gifts and praises for his performances, he also had mistresses, that included Lola Montez, a dancer, and Marie Duplessis. Franz Liszt’s visit to Hungary in 1840 reinvigorated his interest in Gypsy music. Following his Hungarian Rhapsodies, he also composed a cantata for the Beethoven Festival of 1845, his first work for chorus and orchestra. In 1847, Liszt was persuaded by Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein to leave the life of a virtuoso and to concentrate on composing only. 

Having performed in Weimer concerts since 1844, the composer decided upon a permanent settlement there in 1848. This period would go down in history as the period of his greatest pieces ranging from:

  • The Piano Concerto No. 1 In E-Flat Major
  • The Piano Concerto No. 2 In A Major
  • The Piano Sonata in B Minor
  • A Faust Symphony
  • A Symphony to Dante’s Divina Commedia
  • The First 12 Symphonic Poems

Franz Liszt wrote the Totentanz for piano and orchestra. Some of the most exquisite and original of Franz Liszt’s works include his literary-based symphonic poems, during his time at Weimer. Dedicated to Carolyne, these include Orpheus, Les Préludes, Prometheus, Hamlet, and Hungaria.

Liszt's masterpiece for the orchestra, Eine Faust-Symphonie, was composed in 1854 and was about three extended musical imagery or symphonic poems dedicated to the characters in Goethe's tragedy of the same name. Thanks to Franz Liszt, symphonic poems rapidly and prominently became a part of orchestral music, rivaling the popularity of the symphony.

A special mention needs to be made of Liszt’s greatest piece, the Liebesträume.  A wonderfully tender piece written in Liszt’s own identifiable style, it requires skill with both hands and a deep understanding of the senses. Literally translating to “Dreams of Love”, the Liebesträum many a time used to refer to a third of the piece, which was written in the inspiration of the poems by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath. 

The three different ‘love’ elaborated here are:

  • Hohe Liebe, which is about religious love and divinity. There is a moderate and serene sensation in the tune.
  • Seliger Tod, which is entirely about the delights gained from erotic love. Warm and sensuous, to say the least, the music comforts the listener.
  • Lieb is all about loving unconditionally. 

The Libesträume’s third movement is the most beautiful and popular. He also created other beautiful pieces like Liebesträume, such as the Faust Symphony.

The rhythm of Libesträume is really slow but extremely expressive about the elements of love and passion. Accompanying the dramatic feel of the piece, we also find that there isn’t any vocalist involved which allows for the appreciation for the instrument and their melodies. True to the Romantic period, this piece fits perfectly with the fantastic elements of the Romantic era.

The Weimar orchestra was highly responsible for Liszt’s development into a great conductor via his animated and demonstrative gestures and mannerisms. The master composer wasn’t fond of the conventional form of conducting, which he considered mechanical. Liszt gave up his position at the court of Weimer in 1859, frustrated by the lack of financial support from Grand Duke Carl Alexander.  

In the year of 1861, Liszt joined Carolyne in Rome to meet the Pope for the annulment of her marriage. Although this didn’t bear any fruit, Liszt's association with Rome's musical personalities helped him in his career.

Liszt never became a priest, but he did find inner peace in Christian religious teachings, which reflected in the Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth (1857–62) and Christus (1855–66), among other sacred choral works. When he became an abbot in 1865, he adapted and followed the Franciscan order for the remainder of his life. 

Gradually involving himself with Church music and other religious music, Liszt hoped to create a new genre of religious music that would be less sentimental than the usual norm of the period. He also showed interest in Gregorian plainsong, but this was unapproved by ecclesiastical communities of the day. 

When his daughter Blandine died in 1862 at the age of 26, Liszt composed his variations based on a theme from J.S. Bach’s cantata “Weinen, Klagen” which ended with the chorale “Was Gott tut das ist wohlgetan. Liszt wrote the Hungarian Coronation Mass in 1867 for the coronation ceremony of Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria, as the King of Hungary. 

Liszt was also the author of a number of literary books on composers and pieces. These included personalities like Frédéric Chopin (Life of Chopin), Wagner’s Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, John Field’s nocturnes, and the Goethe Foundation in Weimar. 

Franz Liszt is the finest example of a compositional genius. Born in a modest family with prodigious talents, Franz Liszt went on to write and create immortal works of art, which elevated the status and outlook toward musicians in the 19th century. Revered in his time as a master in creating musical pieces, transcribing and even writing literary works, Liszt was somewhat of a shining example of versatility in the musical spheres.


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