A Portrait of Franz Liszt (1811-1886)


Dr Robert Blackburn, former Principal Lecturer in Music, Bath Spa University

19 July 2011   

On Tuesday 19 June 2011, to mark the bicentenary of Franz Liszt’s birth (he was actually born on 22 October, in Raiding, Hungary) I gave a lecture-recital at the BRLSI. Association with Liszt’s music goes back to my early teenage years, and I was fortunate in being introduced to his greatest piano works in the years that followed. He was, of course, one of the major and most widely influential cultural figures of the nineteenth century, a performer of staggering technical brilliance and charisma from his earliest years, and a man whose output as a composer numbered some 1300 items, 700 original works and 600 transcriptions, paraphrases or arrangements of works by other composers. His international fame during his relatively long lifetime (Liszt died in his 75th year) meant that young musicians of several succeeding generations sought him out, wherever he was, to seek inspiration, advice and encouragement at the master’s feet. He was always generous with his time and money, helping to support good causes - for example, paying most of the cost of the Beethoven monument in Bonn in 1845, and giving the proceeds of a number of his public recitals to flood relief in Pest (the Hungarian capital) in 1838. The older he grew, the greater was his sense of Hungarian patriotism, even though he never really learned to speak Hungarian properly, having been brought up bilingually in German and French. Most of his voluminous correspondence, to the end of his life, was written in French.

Liszt’s strong constitution and resistance to serious illness enabled him to live much longer than most of the great composers who were his contemporaries, that is, those celebrated figures born in Europe between 1809 and 1813, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann. The obvious exceptions in this group are Verdi (1813-1901), a very remarkable span for the 19th century, and Wagner, born in the same year as Verdi, but predeceasing his old friend and colleague (and father in law - by a quirk of fate, he married Liszt’s daughter Cosima as her second husband) by over three years, in February 1883. Liszt’s health was already failing by then, and it is arguable that he never fully recovered from the shock of Wagner’s sudden death. Their creative paths were very closely connected, going back to 1840, and it is very fitting that Liszt actually died and was buried (like Wagner) in Bayreuth, Germany, near to the opera house built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria for the exclusive performance of Wagner’s operas and music dramas. One complete volume in the Peters edition of Liszt’s piano transcriptions and reminiscences is devoted to Wagner’s stage works, ranging from Rienzi (1842) to Parsifal (1882).  The last word uttered by Liszt on his deathbed is said to have been ‘Tristan’. Despite the influences Liszt clearly had on the development of Wagner’s mature musical style, particularly in the area of chromatic harmony, he must always have realised that Wagner was the greater composer.


Drawing of Liszt, Ingres, Rome 1839



Liszt in 1847, Barábas

The Roman Catholic faith was very important to Liszt from early on in his life. In the midst of all his travels as an itinerant, glamorous virtuoso pianist, he was very careful about religious observance. He became as a young man one of the many posthumous followers of the Comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), philosopher, social reformer and political activist.  Saint-Simon wished to improve the quality of human life through the spread of scientific knowledge, to reorganise society on a basis other than rank and birth, to prohibit idleness, to work for the emancipation of women, and to humanise religion. Heinrich Heine, George Sand, Berlioz and Sainte-Beuve were other adherents of Saint-Simonism during its most fashionable period in the 1830s. Liszt was also a devotee of the Abbé Félicité de Lammenais, who was ordained a priest in 1816, and vigorously sought the union of a ‘regenerated’ Catholic Church with political liberalism. He fell foul of the Vatican in his aims, and eventually retired to his estate at La Chênaie, Brittany, where he died forgotten in 1854. Liszt discovered himself as a composer in 1834 at La Chênaie. Not for nothing does his first important collection of piano pieces bear the title Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses.

Liszt’s prodigious career as a travelling virtuoso was developed in conjunction with his early original compositions for the piano, and the large number of transcriptions of German Lieder and other songs, operatic transcriptions (mostly but not entirely from Italian operas) and symphonic works (all nine of the Beethoven symphonies, and, notably, the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz, whose work he greatly admired). The transcriptions were made for himself to play in public (Liszt single-handedly invented the solo public recital, along with the great violinist Paganini) but it needs to be emphasised that his aim was not self glorification, but a genuine desire to publicise more widely musical works in different genres which he felt were not yet well-enough known. The earlier works for solo piano are the ones which have endured in the repertoire to this day, even though the pieces in the general collections  (the Années de Pèlerinage, or Years of Pilgrimage, and the Twelve Transcendental Studies) went through several different versions over the years, including, in the case of the well-known Petrarch Sonnets, versions for voice and piano. An exception to this was the great Sonata in B minor, in one movement (though three clearly defined sections) composed in 1852-3, and generally regarded as Liszt’s finest single work. It was dedicated to Schumann, who couldn’t understand it, so we are told - but neither could many other listeners at that time. It was the first significant work in one single, continuous movement, and has been a cornerstone of Liszt’s growing reputation as a composer during the years since 1945, following decades of neglect and denigration (‘superficial’, ‘bombast’, ‘showy’ ’tinsel’ and all the rest).

Liszt’s three children by Countess Marie d’Agoult



Cosima von Bülow with her father in 1867 a drawing by Friedrich Preller 1855



Despite his often-expressed resentment in later adult life of a lack of general education experienced early on while on tour as a boy prodigy with his father Adam, Liszt amply made up for it eventually by copious general reading in a number of languages, especially in literature and philosophy. His reading of Dante in Italian, for example, inspired at least two important works, the Fantaisie quasi Sonate ‘after reading Dante’ (composed in the 1840s,and issued in its final revised version in 1858) from the Italie volume of the Années de Pelèrinage, and the orchestral Dante Symphony (1856). His reading of Goethe’s Faust, Parts One and Two led to the large- scale three movement Faust Symphony, completed in its first draft between August and October of 1854, and reflecting in turn the characters of Faust himself, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. At the close of the symphony, Liszt, like Schumann before him in the Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, set for men’s chorus the final scene from Faust Part 2, ‘Das ewig weibliche zieht uns hinan’ (The eternal feminine leads us ever onwards). Long after Liszt’s death set also by Mahler in his Eighth Symphony, the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’, though this time for a full SATB chorus.  Liszt’s Faust Symphony, together with the Dante Symphony, the Totentanz for piano and orchestra based on the ‘Dies Irae’, both piano concertos, and a number of solo instrumental works featured prominently in the 2011 BBC Promenade concerts season. Also included in the 2011 Proms was the funeral ode La Notte, an orchestral transcription and expansion, through the addition of a Hungarian-related middle section, of Il Penseroso, after Michelangelo’s sculpture, one of the shorter, more meditative pieces from the Italie volume of the Années de Pelèrinage. The piece dates from 1862, and was written in the period following the deaths of Liszt’s son Daniel (from tuberculosis) in 1859, and his daughter Blandine (following childbirth) in September 1862, as well as the failure of his marriage project to Princess Carolyne von Sayn Wittgenstein (see section three of this essay). It is little wonder that Liszt’s mood during these years was so sombre.  La Notte, a very rarely performed work is typical of the protean nature of so much of Liszt’s output. Far more than most composers, he was inclined to let works gestate over long periods, to issue them in various forms at different times, and to return to them, after an interval, to see if something more might be done with them.

The whole lifetime of Liszt as performer/composer coincided with, and reflected seismic changes in general thinking about music, in relation to the other arts, and in relation to society as a whole.   The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) vehemently asserted the superiority of music over the other arts (‘music is completely ignorant of the physical world, and could exist, in a sense, even if there were no world……music’s effect is so much more powerful and penetrating than that of the other arts…..while  these deal  only with the shadow, music deals with the substance’) and is permanently associated with Wagner’s celebrated reading of The World as Will and Representation ( Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, 2nd edition 1844, 3rd edition 1859) and its effect on the creation and composition of the great music drama Tristan and Isolde (1856-9). We have no clear indication that Liszt read The World as Will and Representation, but he was certainly familiar with Schopenhauer’s Parerga e Parelipomena of 1851.  In a letter of 1857 to his uncle-cousin Eduard (1817-79) Liszt provides as a possible family emblem ‘a tree swaying violently in a storm, revealing ripe fruit on every branch’, with, underneath, the motto ‘While I am uprooted, the fruit ripens.’  This is a direct quotation from Schopenhauer’s well-known volume of essays and aphorisms.  Liszt was also familiar with G.W.F. Hegel’s very different views on music, expressed in the Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics (1820-1829, ed. H.G. Hotho 1835, with further revisions in 1842).  Here music is seen as ‘soul and spirit, producing sounds which are absolute, and meant for itself alone.’ Hegel went on to say, in the passage quoted by Liszt in a letter, that music ‘ holds us all in an elemental power, deriving solely from the world of sound.’ Hegel, along with F.W. J. von Schelling, Tieck, Novalis, and the Schlegel brothers, did not rate music highly among the arts, regarding it as bound up with purely technical accomplishment, since composer-performers were likely to have reached a high level of superficial proficiency early in life, before profounder experience had made its mark on the development of the individual. Thus, in Hegel’s view, music was largely of entertainment value in comparison with poetry and drama, and was essentially an inferior art form, connected with empty, mechanical or undeveloped minds.   This view of music was already seriously out of date by the time of Hegel’s death in 1831, and was overtaken by the gradual elevation of music to a supreme, even especially metaphysical position among the arts. The works and reputation of the Viennese classical composers played a vital part in this, as did Schopenhauer eventually, but the change was part of the big shifts in emphasis and interest characteristic of the Romantic movement in Europe generally. Schumann, Berlioz and Wagner all contributed to this, together with wider public perceptions of the possibilities, scope and influence of music in society and the world. Hegel’s literary heroes, Goethe and Schiller found themselves posthumously the subject of close attention from most of the leading European composers of the mid-19th century. The art and styles of music was rapidly changing in the present, while at the same time music was gradually becoming more aware of its historical past.  Liszt was the beneficiary of all these changes as well as being part of them himself.

Franz Liszt was active as a writer from his 24th year. His collected writings, included his short valedictory book on Chopin (1852) a study of Hungarian Gipsy Music (1859), a study of the Nocturnes of John Field (also 1859), various writings on Meyerbeer, Thalberg, Schumann, Paganini, and others, and a very early polemical work, On the Future of Church Music, of 1834, written when he was deeply under the influence of Lammenais. There were also numerous articles on contemporary operas, of special interest to the historian in that after his boyhood effort, Don Sanche, Liszt was never again tempted to write for the stage. His collected writings were edited by Liszt’s first biographer, Lina Ramann, and published in six volumes posthumously. In his early 1835 essay ‘On the Position of Artists and their Place in Society’, Liszt show as himself ahead of his time in the notion of founding ‘an assembly to be held every five years for religious, dramatic and symphonic music, by which we mean all the works which are considered best in these three categories….to be ceremonially performed every day for a whole month in the Louvre, being afterwards purchased by the government and published at their expense. Provocative and polemical this may sound, a young man’s idea, perhaps, but there is much visionary common sense behind it.’  The practicality of Liszt’s world, his natural empiricism, derived from his life as a performing musician, a creative virtuoso from his earliest years. He was the first to use the terms ‘paraphrase’, ‘transcription’ and ‘reminiscence’ in relation to his pianistic versions of other men’s music.  He was the first to use the term ‘recital’ for a solo musical performance, in fact, at Hanover Square Rooms in London in 1840. Liszt was the first to publicise the idea of ‘programme music’, to denote fundamental narrative or pictorial extra-musical elements in a given work, even though the concept had existed in a loose way well before his time. He was to a great extent responsible for setting out the performer’s name, aside from the composer’s name, on concert programmes. More importantly, Liszt was the first major artist to perform a whole programme of pre-composed works entirely from memory, and to include ‘historical pieces’ (as distinct from new or newish works) in concert programmes.

Unfortunately, during his lifetime and for many years following his death, Liszt’s detractors were many, and they were not merely figures at the margins of cultural life. Sad to say, neither Robert nor Clara Schumann warmed to his music (it was left to Hans von Bülow to play the B minor sonata in Berlin in 1857 after other pianists had declined to do so) and Clara said that whatever she thought of Liszt the man, she ‘found his compositions terrible.’ Brahms never liked Liszt’s music, and, as Brahms’ general influence on music in Germany grew after 1860, the indifference, even hostility of such a major figure was a big disadvantage for Liszt the composer. Eduard Hanslick, the critic, hugely pro-Brahms and generally vigorously anti-Wagner as well, was scornful of Liszt, describing his music in 1894 as ‘false (and) bogus, characterised by tangible symptoms of decay…..’ G.B. Shaw, a good, readable critic, but a vain man with an unstoppable tendency to show off in print, wrote in his obituary of Liszt in September 1886 that ‘as an original composer he was like a child, delighting in noise, speed, and stirring modulations, and indulging in …irritating excesses and repetitions…….’ Shaw was thirty when he wrote this, but there is no reason to think that he ever changed his view. Such a severely prejudiced judgement was commonplace right up to the 1960s and 1970s, though even now no one would deny that Liszt was a very uneven composer.

It is a relief to turn to more positive views. Despite their often difficult relationship, Wagner realised how much he owed to his old friend when surveying his career in Mein Leben. (1865-1880). After all, Liszt had generously taken up both Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, and conducted them at the court of Weimar. Looking back, Wagner said that ‘for the first time, the glowing, flattering feeling came over me that here was someone who understood me and shared my most intimate feelings.’ On 7 June 1855, Wagner had written to Liszt: ‘When I look back on your activity in these years, you appear superhuman to me; there is something very strange about this. However, it is very natural that creating is our only joy, and alone makes life bearable for us. We are what we are only while we create; all the other functions of life have no meaning for us……..’ Over the decades scores of young musicians made their way across Europe to meet Liszt and seek his advice and encouragement, or were met by him on his travels. These ranged from Glinka, Dargomizhky and Tchaikovsky to Grieg, Smetana, Vincent d’Indy, Saint-Saëns, Borodin, Fauré and Debussy, this last in 1885, when Liszt was nearing the end of his life, and the Frenchman was only 23. H.W. Longfellow visited him in Rome in 1869,while many years earlier, in 1856, George Eliot, together with her partner George H. Lewes had been Liszt’s guest in Weimar. She was much taken with his obvious kindness and hospitality. Later she wrote: 'Liszt is the first really inspired man I ever saw. His face might serve as a model for Saint John when he is in repose, but seated at the piano he is as grand as one of Michelangelo’s prophets………..He is a glorious creature in every way - a bright genius with a tender, loving nature, and a face in which this combination is perfectly expressed.'

Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein and her daughter Marie in 1844


The Abbé Liszt in 1884 two years before his death



Over the years, Liszt had many mistresses, and even more female admirers and hangers- on or correspondents from a distance. Given his looks and the brilliant glamour of his public persona, this cannot be at all surprising, though it was one more brickbat, which his enemies were pleased to hurl at him. The Countess Marie d’Agoult (1805-76) left a loveless marriage for Liszt, and bore him three children during the 1830s. Sadly for Marie, the inevitable long periods of separation undermined their relationship, and it ended in great bitterness on her part. In 1847, when Liszt was 36, and about to give up his career as a virtuoso pianist in order to compose, he met the Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein in Kiev (1819-1887) Carolyne was of Polish birth, and had a daughter, Marie, already, by her husband Prince Nicholas. She, too was seeking escape from her own loveless marriage, and the bond she formed with Liszt was the deepest relationship he had with anyone in his life. They lived together in the 1850s in the court at Weimar, in an atmosphere of considerable social and moral disapproval, while Carolyne strove to promote Liszt’s career as a composer of orchestral music, especially of symphonic poems-essentially Liszt’s own invention as a genre. All were dedicated by him to his muse, the indefatigable and remarkable Carolyne. Despite their strenuous efforts to marry, the Vatican placed numerous obstacles in their way, and they never achieved their ultimate goal. After 1863 they lived separate lives physically, though not spiritually. Liszt had lost two of his three children, Daniel and Blandine, by late 1862, and after entering the monastery of the Madonna del Rosario in 1863, entered the Vatican in 1865, and received minor orders as an Abbé. He divided his later years between Rome, Weimar and Budapest, always on the go, travelling huge distances by the rapidly developing network of railways across Europe, teaching and playing (though not for payment) wherever he went. In these years his composing interests turned, unsurprisingly, to church music, most of it destined to sink into obscurity, despite the ambitious nature of such works as the oratorios Christus and The Legend of St Elizabeth. His later piano pieces were invariably brief, even apparently fragmentary, and for the most part carefully avoided anything resembling virtuoso display. Few of them appeared in his lifetime, yet aspects of Liszt’s style (both his mature, typical style and his later, pared-down style) had a considerable effect on subsequent music by Debussy, Ravel, Bartόk, Busoni, Albeniz and Granádos, as well as many lesser composers. So it was that the man who as a boy had been taught by Salieri for composition and Czerny for piano, and who when he was twelve (1823) played for, and was famously blessed on that occasion by Beethoven, entered the world of 20th century modernism as one of its forefathers. The South African-born composer Kevin Volans, now resident in Ireland, and a lifelong devotee of Liszt’s music, has actually (in 2011) called him ‘the father of modernism’, echoing several other commentators in recent years.

In a letter of 1860 to Princess Carolyne Liszt stated with admirable frankness: 'My entire life has been nothing but an odyssey of love, if you will permit the phrase. I was fitted only for loving - and, so far, alas, I have only succeeded in loving badly.   There are many vices which, if I am not mistaken, are completely foreign to my nature. When I think back over the many long years during which I have not been to confession, I cannot recall the slightest trace of pride or envy, still less of meanness or hatred. My besetting hazard is this need for a certain emotional intensity, which quickly leads me to a state of paradox in intellectual matters, and to an excessive indulgence in alcoholic stimulants. I promised that I would reform in this latter respect, but it will not be without effort.'

Liszt relationship with his daughter Cosima is well documented. She lived until 1930, dying at 91 as the undisputed guardian of the great Wagnerian tradition at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. This tradition has, of course, been passed down through the Wagner family to this day. But Cosima’s attitude to her father was complex, its characteristic note normally being one of distance and criticism. At its centre was probably the resentment she felt at Liszt’s long absences abroad during her upbringing by her mother Countess Marie d’Agoult, She shared with Marie her acute sense of abandonment and betrayal. When Liszt died, Cosima declared that ‘his death was for me nothing more than the last twenty-five years of his life.’ These were harsh words. But Cosima knew her father’s true worth, and spoke much more generously about him on another occasion.

‘He believed’, she observed, ‘in a union of noble minds to build the civitas dei. The loneliness of this task was one of the factors that made him turn away from the world spiritually, without, however, being able to affect the quality of human kindness which, now devoid of hope, yet continued to shine forth from him, like the little red clouds we see in the sky at dusk as darkness falls.’

In talking about Liszt, and playing his music on the BRLSI’s own upright piano, I was keen to show aspects of his musical styles from a number of angles. I quoted from two transcriptions (Schubert’s Der Wanderer and the Miserere from Verdi’s Il Trovatore), from the Vallée d’Obermann (after Senancour’s 1804 novel) and the three Petrarch Sonnets (one, No.104, in its entirety), the Piano Concerto No. 2, and substantial extracts from the B minor Sonata. The audience had a short selective work list to take away, together with a 3-page chronology of Liszt’s life. Also provided to take away was an A3 sheet containing themes from the beginnings of some 15 different works by Liszt. I felt this was the right thing to offer, even though I am well aware that many people today are not familiar with music notation.


The following is a very short bibliography of material on Liszt which will be of interest to the general reader and music lover:

Searle, Humphres: The Music of Liszt 2nd,revised edition - Dover Press, 1967

   Very much a study of the music rather than the life. Searle provided one of the comprehensive catalogues of Liszt’s works, as far as possible in chronological order-a daunting task for anyone.  Humphrey Searle (1915-1982) was, of course, a composer himself, mainly of works using versions of the then very fashionable serial technique.

Sitwell, Sacheverell: Liszt - Originally published in 1934, revised 1955, Dover Press edition 1967

    A valuable pioneer study, which is strikingly personal, and helped to change, however gradually, the general perception of Liszt and his music. Sitwell includes a summary of Liszt’s compositions as an appendix. Though the list   is not exhaustive, it does, unusually, indicate by a single or double star system, the works by Liszt which Sitwell deems to be of special merit, or even, in some cases, outstanding.

Taylor, Ronald: Franz Liszt; The Man and the Musician - Grafton Books, 1986

    A readable, stimulating account, of moderate length, though detailed commentary on the music is not really a feature of the narrative.

Walker, Alan: Franz Liszt: The Man and his Music - Barrie and Jenkins, 1970

    This lengthy symposium was at the time a major landmark in modern Liszt studies, and remains very valuable. It contains essays, illustrated by many music examples ,by Sacheverell Sitwell, Arthur Hedley, Alan Walker, Louis Kentner, John Ogdon, David Wilde, Christopher Headington, Robert Collet  and Humphrey Searle. This is a roll call of modern English-speaking Liszt specialists at the time.

Walker, Alan: Franz Liszt 3 Volumes:

Vol 1:  The Virtuoso Years, 1811-47

Vol 2:  The Weimar Years, 1847-61

Vol 3: The Final Years, 1861-86

    This is without question the definitive, detailed study of Liszt’s life and music, by the Anglo- Canadian musician and writer Alan Walker (b.1930). Vols 1 and 2 were published by Faber in 1983, rev.1988 and 1989 respectively, while Vol 3 appeared much later, in 1995, from Cornell University Press.

Walker, Alan: Reflections on Liszt - Cornell UP, 2005

    An after gathering of essays on topics which had to be omitted from Walker’s great three volume biographical critical study.

Watson, Derek: Liszt - J.M.Dent, 1989 (Master Musicians series)

    Together with Taylor, the most useful one-volume treatment of Liszt.

Williams, Adrian: A Portrait of Liszt: By Himself and his Contemporaries - Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990

    An indispensable collection of original source material on Liszt, much of which had never appeared in English previously.

Rousselot, Jean: Franz Liszt (tr. Moura Budberg) - Cape, 1960

    This was published in 1958 as La Vie Passionnée de Franz Liszt, and is characteristic of the genre of novelistic treatment of a great artist’s life. In Liszt’s case, the material is all too  plentiful, but the story is certainly very entertaining, even in this form. The translator, Moura Budberg, was a well-known, charismatic figure in her own right, and the companion of H.G. Wells’ later years. The novel is, unusually, copiously illustrated by a large number of black-and-white illustrations, referring to the central characters. I include it here, out of correct bibliographical sequence since it is not a scholarly work like the other items above, but because of its intrinsic interest.  Copies can still be found occasionally in second-hand bookshops.


Dr Robert Blackburn