Supreme serenity still remains the Ideal of great Art. The shapes and transitory forms of life are but stages toward this Ideal, which Christ’s religion illuminates with His divine light.Franz Liszt
I’ve been playing the piano since the age of six, and in that time, two composers have left my imagination in raptures of beauty, love, and admiration: Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Liszt.
Beethoven was my first love at the age of nine, when I first began playing his Sonatinas and Romanzas. I studied his life for school projects and created drawn-out day dreams in which I was his sole companion who took the time to understand him in his old age. I even fancied he’d dedicate his seventh symphony to me if we’d been friends.
Beethoven is still so dear to my heart (and for those of you who remember, I wrote/filmed a vlog with Ioan on the subject of our favorite composer), but next to him is that other aforementioned composer of equally epic proportions: Franz Liszt.
My friends either rejoice with me in my love of Liszt or roll their eyes in dismay at my constant ramblings about him. But Liszt’s influence in my life has been heavy. For such reasons I must speak.
I was first introduced to Liszt’s music as a child, when I heard his transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies for the piano. Then I explored further, marveling over pieces like his famous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-Sharp minor, his first Mephisto Waltz, La Campanella, his Transcendental Etudes, and—my favorite growing up—Liebestraum No. 3 in A-Flat Major (Liebestraum meaning “a dream of love” in German). I was obsessed. I caught a bad case of Lisztomania (as Liszt hysteria was referred to in the nineteenth century).
If only I could ever chance to play such masterpieces.
As a young twelve-year-old pianist, the dreaded word Liszt (along with Chopin, surely) intimidated me. The older students of music I grew up with carried around terrifying tomes of sheet music (the blue Henle volumes) with titles like Liszt: The Liebesträume, or Liszt: The Consolations, or (even worse still), Liszt: The Transcendental Etudes.
The pieces, when I was permitted to look at them, were horrifying combinations of cadenzas, 6/4 time signatures, and chords stretching to a mad twelfth (sometimes a thirteenth). And then those older students would play, and my eyes grew dizzy with the constant movements of their fingers like a blur over the keys. The melodies were beyond me, and I resolved to consider myself “lucky” if I ever chanced to play even a few notes from this man Liszt’s compositions.
I remember getting my first Chopin piece at fifteen, which was a rite of passage on its own, since Chopin was another name that generally translates to “difficulty” in the piano world.
But there still loomed the ever present shadow of Liszt.
I began to study Liszt a few years ago, just for fun. As a person, his spirit of romanticism and extravagance mesmerized me, and I was quite in love with the stories of his life, as wild and dramatic as they were. I own two of his biographies, which are always a delight to peruse when the Lisztomania gets a bit feverish (I refer here to the biography by Oliver Hilmes and the first of the three volumes that Alan Walker wrote).
And only recently, I felt myself cross the metaphysical threshold of Lisztomania once more as I began studying two Liszt pieces: Consolation no. 3 in D-Flat Major, and (my beloved) Liebestraum no. 3 in A-Flat Major. I’m still relentlessly toiling away at them. The polyrhythms and cadenzas hurt my brain.
This is actually my book of Liszt’s music. Isn’t it beautiful? How things have changed!
To even be setting a finger on dear Franz’s melodies feels like the greatest privilege and honor. He inspires me on every front, and his solidification in music history as the “world’s first rockstar” continually gives me cause to smile.
But apart from sweeping Europe off its feet with his insane technique, musical execution, and ridiculously hyped performances, Liszt was quite a fascinating person. He was a desperate romantic, a devoted Catholic, a deeply soulful artist, and a passionate lover.
From his scandalous affairs with aristocratic women to his fervent religious piety and admittance as a monk into the Catholic Church (!!), Liszt was a multifaceted, complex, walking disaster of a man. I think that’s why I’ve no choice but to like him so much, both as an artist and a person. His obsession with living dangerously, purposefully, and passionately constantly warred with his desires for God and holiness, which made him the absolute perfect candidate to create music that sways the soul.
Music is the heart of life. She speaks love; without it there is no possible good, and with it, everything is beautiful.Franz Liszt
In the contemporary classical music world, Liszt is something of a bone of contention. He’s either deeply admired or thoroughly hated in academic music circles. Some today consider him nothing more than a charlatan and a show off, who played difficult music for the sake of preening himself.
And it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Liszt was dramatic. He had charisma, he knew how to put on a performance, and his compositions pushed music to its limits.
But to ignore his genius—both in performance and composition—is, in my view, a grave mistake. Liszt anticipated jazz trends (like improvisation and extended use of chromatics), created some of the first atonal melodies (that would pave the way for artists like Schoenberg, Scriabin, and Debussy), invented the orchestral symphonic poem, wrote scores of religious music for the church, supported and popularized the New German School of Music, and became music’s first real celebrity (in the sense of the word as its used today) among numerous other accomplishments.
But above all, Liszt was far more concerned with making music emotional, tempestuous, and passionate than with meticulously obeying the laws of technicality and tone (although his music is immensely technical in its own ways). He wanted music to be beautiful. Difficult, but beautiful. He saw music as a divine gift, and giving that gift to as many people as he could was something he always strove for.
He taught literally thousands of students in his lifetime, the vast majority of whom he taught free of charge—an absolutely unheard of concept at the time. During the mid nineteenth century, to get lessons from a virtuoso and composer as musically accomplished as he was, lessons were expensive. And yet he insisted on teaching for free. Génie oblige, he always said.
After making substantial amounts of money touring, he sent virtually all of his profits to aid Hungarian refugees, flood victims, orphans, widows, and the homeless. And for those who claim he gave only for favorable publicity, scholars have found numerous anonymous gifts of enormous sums in his financial records that were never made known to the public.
He couldn’t keep music—much less the profits of his work—for himself, and it had to be given to others, because he wanted everything he did to be a gift. As a Catholic, Liszt equally saw music as a way to honor God—something he longed to do despite his frequent moral shortcomings.
At the age of seventeen, a weeping Liszt begged his parents to let him attend the Paris seminary, which they ardently refused due to his prodigious musical talent. He threw himself into music instead, but still spent multitudes of his spare time reading theology as well as philosophy and literature.
His wild days of libertinism as a young man eventually drove him into the arms of the church when he was older—granting him the wish he’d always dreamed of. He even received minor orders and was given the religious title of abbé (you can see his little white priest collar in the last photograph).
[In] spite of the transgressions and errors which I have committed, and for which I feel sincere repentance and contrition, the holy light of the Cross has never been entirely withdrawn from me. At times, indeed, the refulgence of this Divine light has overflowed my entire soul.—I thank God for this, and shall die with my soul fixed upon the Cross, our redemption, our highest bliss…”Franz Liszt, in a letter to Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, 1860
Isn’t that a beautiful passage?
I could go on and on, but I really must reign myself in with a final few points.
For me, Liszt is a creative mind I can understand. He wanted so much of life, of love, of himself. I don’t claim to know him or his thoughts, but from his papers, journals, and letters, we see a man who lived wildly—often thoughtlessly. But for all his errors, he always sought beauty, threw himself into the pursuit of art, and collapsed into the arms of God before it was all over.
His big-hearted nature saw him revolutionize the world of music, through his own compositions and performances as well as his contributions to academia, philanthropy, and the church. His music was a gift, and he gave it willingly. His life was a gift: a tumultuous, beautiful, imperfect gift, but a gift nonetheless. Offering it to the people, to his music, and to God in all its human distortions and beauties easily makes him one of my favorite composers of the romantic era.
Life is only a long and bitter suicide, and faith alone can transform this suicide into a sacrifice.Franz Liszt
Now, before I conclude in all finality (I really have been rambling for far too long, haven’t I?), let me share a few of my favorite Liszt compositions. This should prove especially beautiful for my readers who aren’t acquainted with good old Franz.
Natürlich, I must include Liebestraum (Notturno) No. 3 in A-Flat Major. I still remember the first time I ever heard this piece. My heart felt all warm, and I let out an “oh!” That’s how soothing and touching this melody was—and still is—to me. My grandmother says it makes her feel like she’s falling in love. The feeling is wholly mutual.
Khatia Buniatishvili is one of my favorite pianists currently on the world stage, and her interpretation of the piece is spectacular:
Here’s another favorite of mine, the Grand Galop Chromatique. It was one of Liszt’s favorites to play as an encore after his concerts, and he even referred to it as a “rouser” that could get audiences into a frenzy. Ah, Franz. Ever the showman, you are.
And I think it’s only fitting to include Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-Sharp Minor. It’s an absolute masterpiece and one of the most challenging pieces in all of piano repertoire. Some consider it the most famous of his solo pieces for piano, and I have to agree. If you find the beginning boring (which is truly a pity, but alas), skip to the start of the friska at approximately 5:09.
There are so many other of Liszt’s compositions I could refer you to, beloved friends, but for that I must point you in the direction of Spotify, where you might shuffle the “This is Liszt” playlist, which is a fantastic stepping off point for getting familiar with his compositions:
I’ll (finally) conclude with the following account of Liszt’s 1840 concert in Hamburg from his contemporary and friend, author Hans Christian Andersen:
When Liszt entered, an electric shock seemed to pass through the salon…. [It] was as if a ray of sunshine passed over every face, as if all eyes were greeting a dear, beloved friend! I was standing quite near the artist, a thin young man with long, dark hair hanging around his pale face. He bowed and sat down at the piano. The whole of Liszt’s appearance and movement immediately reveals one of those persons we notice for their individuality alone; the Divine hand has impressed a stamp upon him, which makes him recognizable among thousands. As Liszt sat down at the pianoforte, my first impression of his personality was derived from the appearance of strong passions in his pale face. He seemed to me a demon who was nailed fast to the instrument whence the tones were streaming forth—they came from his blood, from his thoughts. He was a demon trying to play his soul free. He was on the rack, his blood was flowing and his nerves trembling. But as he continued to play, the demonic disappeared. I saw that pale face assume a nobler and brighter expression. The divine soul shone from his eyes, from every feature. He became as beautiful as spirit and enthusiasm can make one!…
He who admires art in its technical perfection must respect Liszt. He who is charmed by God-given genius must respect him all the more.Hans Christian Andersen, from “The Poet’s Bazaar”
And with this bit of genius, I shall leave you.