Franz Liszt (22 October 1811, Doborján, Hungary [now Raiding, Burgenland, Austria] - 31 July 1886, Bayreuth, Germany [pneumonia]), the virtuoso pianist and composer, was the most famous concert superstar of the 19th century. He was born in what was then the Austrian Empire. His father was Hungarian and his mother was Austrian. At age 6 he took music lessons from his father, Adam Liszt, who worked at the Court of Count Esterhazy, the main sponsor of Liszt’s education and career.
Liszt continued his music studies in Vienna under Carl Czerny and Antonio Salieri. In 1823, at the young age of 12, Liszt moved with his parents to Paris. There he enjoyed an early friendship with Frédéric Chopin, but later they became rivals. At that time young Liszt began his career of a travelling virtuoso. He was adulated all-over Europe, from Ireland to Russia. His concert performances included his own compositions, regarded by many as the most difficult piano music ever written.
His elegant, worldly manners in combination with diabolic cynicism and his impressive stage presence and supernatural virtuosity gave cause for rumors, that he must have made a deal with the Devil. His “Mephisto Waltz” depicts the Devil playing a Paganini-style violin on the piano. Franz Liszt became a friend of many important cultural figures of his time. He attended the Paris premiere of the “Symphonie Fantastique” by Hector Berlioz and the two composers became good friends. Liszt shared mutual respect with Mikhail Glinka. He also admired Aleksandr Borodin and promoted his first symphony for performances in Western Europe.
Liszt was a friend of Richard Wagner, who was Liszt’s son-in-law, until their differences led to cooler relationship in their later years. Liszt’s influence on his fellow musicians was legendary. He made superb piano transcriptions of symphonies, operas and large orchestral works of other composers, such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Wagner. Operas and symphonies in Liszt’s transcriptions became valuable repertoire of many pianists. Liszt lived and travelled with the married Countess Marie D’Agoult for 12 years and they had three children.
In 1847, in Russia, Liszt met the beautiful and wealthy Princess Carolyne Wittgenstein, who soon left her husband for Liszt. In 1848 he became the Director of Music at the Court of Weimar. There, living with Carolyne in her mansion, he composed and revised his most important music, including the “Dream of Love”, dedicated to Carolyne. The Church did not allow Liszt to marry Carolyne and also did not allow Carolyne to divorce Wittgenstein, with whom she had a daughter.
In 1861 Liszt settled in Rome where Carolyne bought a home and they tried to marry again, but the Church did not terminate Carolyne’s marriage until her husband died in 1864. She then changed her mind and lived with unmarried Liszt, who was stuck in this painful situation until the end of his life. Under her influence, he became a religious man and in 1865 Pope admitted Liszt into Holy Orders and commissioned the church music. Since 1870s Liszt taught at the Budapest Conservatory and also participated with Wagner in several concert events in Bayreuth. He spent his last years between Rome, Weimar, Budapest and Bayreuth, where he died in 1886.
Here is Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, originally written for solo piano, which comes to life in its orchestral version in this fiery performance by the Cologne New Philharmonic conducted by Volker Hartung. Recorded live at Laeiszhalle Hamburg, Germany in March 2012.