Today is the birthday (1811) of Franz Liszt celebrated Hungarian composer, conductor, and virtuoso pianist. He was born to Anna Liszt (née Maria Anna Lager) and Adam Liszt in the village of Doborján (German: Raiding) in Sopron County, in the then Kingdom of Hungary. Liszt’s father played the piano, violin, cello and guitar. He had been in the service of Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy and knew Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven personally. At age six, Franz began listening attentively to his father’s piano playing and showed an interest in both sacred and Romani music. Adam began teaching him the piano at age seven, and Franz began composing in an elementary manner when he was eight. He appeared in concerts at Sopron and Pressburg (Hungarian: Pozsony; present-day Bratislava, Slovakia) in October and November 1820 at age 9. After the concerts, a group of wealthy sponsors offered to finance Franz’s musical education abroad.
In Vienna, Liszt received piano lessons from Carl Czerny, who in his own youth had been a student of Beethoven and Hummel. He also received lessons in composition from Antonio Salieri (Mozart’s rival, off and on), who was then music director of the Viennese court. His public debut in Vienna on December 1, 1822, at a concert at the “Landständischer Saal,” was a great success. He was greeted in Austrian and Hungarian aristocratic circles and also met Beethoven and Schubert. In spring 1823, when his one-year leave of absence came to an end, Adam Liszt asked Prince Esterházy in vain for two more years. Adam Liszt, therefore, took his leave of the Prince’s services. At the end of April 1823, the family returned to Hungary for the last time. At the end of May 1823, the family went to Vienna again.
Towards the end of 1823 or early 1824, Liszt’s first composition to be published, his “Variation on a Waltz by Diabelli” (now S. 147), appeared as Variation 24 in Part II of Vaterländischer Künstlerverein. This anthology, commissioned by Anton Diabelli, includes 50 variations on his waltz by 50 different composers (Part II), Part I being taken up by Beethoven’s 33 variations on the same theme, which are now separately better known simply as his Diabelli Variations, Op. 120. Liszt’s inclusion in the Diabelli project—he was described in it as “an 11 year old boy, born in Hungary”—was almost certainly at the instigation of Czerny, his teacher and also a participant. Liszt was the only child composer in the anthology.
After his father’s death in 1827, Liszt moved to Paris; for the next five years he lived with his mother in a small apartment. He gave up touring. To earn money, Liszt gave lessons in piano playing and composition, often from early morning until late at night. His students were scattered across the city and he often had to cover long distances. Because of this, he kept uncertain hours and also took up smoking and drinking—all habits he would continue throughout his life.
The following year he fell in love with one of his pupils, Caroline de Saint-Cricq, the daughter of Charles X’s minister of commerce, Pierre de Saint-Cricq. However, her father insisted that the affair be broken off. Liszt fell very ill, to the extent that an obituary notice was printed in a Paris newspaper, and he underwent a long period of religious doubts and pessimism. He again stated a wish to join the Church but was dissuaded this time by his mother. He had many discussions with the Abbé de Lamennais, who acted as his spiritual father, and also with Chrétien Urhan, a German-born violinist who introduced him to the Saint-Simonists. Urhan also wrote music that was anti-classical and highly personal, with titles such as “Elle et moi,” “La Salvation angélique” and “Les Regrets,” and stimulated the young Liszt’s taste for musical romanticism. Equally important for Liszt was Urhan’s earnest championship of Schubert, which presumably stimulated his own lifelong devotion to that composer’s music.
During this period, Liszt read widely to overcome his lack of a general education, and he soon came into contact with many of the leading authors and artists of his day, including Victor Hugo, Alphonse de Lamartine and Heinrich Heine. He composed practically nothing in these years. Nevertheless, the July Revolution of 1830 inspired him to sketch a Revolutionary Symphony based on the events of the “three glorious days,” and he took a greater interest in events surrounding him. He met Hector Berlioz on December 4, 1830, the day before the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique. Berlioz’s music made a strong impression on Liszt, especially later when he was writing for orchestra. Paganini
After attending an April 20, 1832, charity concert, for the victims of a Parisian cholera epidemic, by Niccolò Paganini, Liszt became determined to become as great a virtuoso on the piano as Paganini was on the violin. Paris in the 1830s had become the nexus for piano, with dozens of pianists dedicated to perfection at the keyboard. Some, such as Sigismond Thalberg and Alexander Dreyschock, focused on specific aspects of technique (e.g. the “three-hand effect” and octaves, respectively). While it has since been referred to the “flying trapeze” school of piano playing, this generation also solved some of the most intractable problems of piano technique, raising the general level of performance to previously unimagined heights. Liszt’s strength and ability to stand out in this company was in mastering all the aspects of piano technique cultivated singly and assiduously by his rivals.
In 1833 he made transcriptions of several works by Berlioz, including the Symphonie fantastique. His chief motive in doing so, especially with the Symphonie, was to help the poverty-stricken Berlioz, whose symphony remained unknown and unpublished. Liszt bore the expense of publishing the transcription himself and played it many times to help popularise the original score. He was also forming a friendship with a third composer who influenced him, Frédéric Chopin; under his influence Liszt’s poetic and romantic side began to develop.
I can’t explore all of Liszt’s life and works, so let me just take a few aspects, specifically his celebrity and his piano technique. It is said that women AND men would react hysterically in Liszt’s concerts; these antics were reported to heighten the audience’s mood so that at times they reached a kind of mystical ecstasy. Fans would swarm over Lizst, fighting over his belongings. Women would try to get pieces of his hair or broken piano strings, if one broke during a performance, to be fashioned into a bracelet. Liszt once finished a cigar and threw it to the ground a lady fan’s watchful eye, and who picked it up out of the sidewalk and had it encased in a glass locket with the monogram “F.L” in diamonds.
There are few, if any, good sources that give an impression of how Liszt sounded in the 1820s. Carl Czerny claimed Liszt was a natural genius who played according to feeling, and reviews of his concerts especially praise the brilliance, strength and precision in his playing. At least one also mentions his ability to keep absolute tempo, which may be due to his father’s insistence that he practice with a metronome. His repertoire at this time consisted primarily of pieces in the style of the Viennese school, such as concertos by Hummel and works by his former teacher Czerny, and his concerts often included a chance for the very young Liszt to display his prowess in improvisation.
Following the death of Liszt’s father in 1827 and his hiatus from the life as a touring virtuoso, it is likely Liszt’s playing gradually developed a more personal style. One of the most detailed descriptions of his playing from this time comes from the winter of 1831/1832, during which he was earning a living primarily as a teacher in Paris. Among his pupils was Valerie Boissier, whose mother Caroline kept a careful diary of the lessons. From her we learn that:
Liszt’s playing contains abandonment, a liberated feeling, but even when it becomes impetuous and energetic in his fortissimo, it is still without harshness and dryness. He draws from the piano tones that are purer, mellower and stronger than anyone has been able to do; his touch has an indescribable charm. He is the enemy of affected, stilted, contorted expressions. Most of all, he wants truth in musical sentiment, and so he makes a psychological study of his emotions to convey them as they are. Thus, a strong expression is often followed by a sense of fatigue and dejection, a kind of coldness, because this is the way nature works.
His attitude at the piano changed, however, possibly influenced by Paganini’s showmanship. Once Liszt began focusing on his career as a pianist again, his emotionally vivid presentations of the music were rarely limited to pure sound. His facial expression and gestures at the piano would reflect what he played – for which he was sometimes mocked in the press (and such is common in performers of his music nowadays). Also noted were the extravagant liberties he could take with the text of a score at this time. Berlioz tells us how Liszt would add cadenzas, tremolos and trills when playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and created a dramatic scene by changing the tempo between Largo and Presto. In his Baccalaureus letter to George Sand from the beginning of 1837, Liszt admitted that he had done so for the purpose of gaining applause, and promised to follow both the letter and the spirit of a score from then on. In July 1840 the British newspaper The Times reported:
His performance commenced with Händel’s Fugue in E minor, which was played by Liszt with an avoidance of everything approaching to meretricious ornament, and indeed scarcely any additions, except a multitude of ingeniously contrived and appropriate harmonies, casting a glow of colour over the beauties of the composition, and infusing into it a spirit which from no other hand it ever received.
During his years as a travelling virtuoso, Liszt performed a wide range of music throughout Europe, but his core repertoire always centered on his own compositions, paraphrases and transcriptions. Of Liszt’s German concerts between 1840 and 1845, the five most frequently played pieces were the “Grand galop chromatique,” Schubert’s “Erlkönig” (in Liszt’s transcription), “Réminiscences de Don Juan,” “Réminiscences de Robert le Diable,” and “Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor,” Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance,” Chopin mazurkas, études by composers like Ignaz Moscheles, Chopin and Ferdinand Hiller, and also major works by Beethoven, Schumann, Weber and Hummel, and from time to time even selections from Bach, Handel and Scarlatti.
Liszt incorporated his virtuosic skill into his compositions in celebrated ways. The third of the “Three Concert Études” is in D flat major, and is usually known as Un sospiro (Italian for “A sigh”). However, it is likely that the title did not originate with Liszt. Although there is no evidence that he actively attempted to remove the subtitle, none of the editions or subsequent printings of the “Three Concert Études” published by Kistner during Liszt’s lifetime used them; he simply ignored such subtitles in later years, always referring to the piece by key only.
The étude is a study in crossing hands, playing a simple melody with alternating hands, and arpeggios. It is also a study in the way hands should affect the melody with its many accentuations, or phrasing with alternating hands. The melody is quite dramatic, almost Impressionistic, radically changing in dynamics at times, and has inspired many listeners. The étude has been considered by many pianists as one of the most beautiful piano pieces ever composed, Liszt kept the ètude in his repertoire until his final years.
Un sospiro consists of a flowing background superimposed by a simple melody written in the third staff. This third staff—an additional treble staff—is written with the direction to the performer that notes with the stem up are for the right hand and notes with the stem down are for the left hand. The background alternates between the left and right hands in such a way that for most of the piece, while the left hand is playing the harmony, the right hand is playing the melody, with the left hand crossing over the right as it continues the melody for a short while before regressing again. There are also small cadenza sections requiring delicate finger work throughout the middle section of the piece.
Towards the end, after the main climax of the piece, both hands are needed to cross in an even more complex pattern. Since there are so many notes to be played rapidly and they are too far away from other clusters of notes that must be played as well, the hands are required to cross multiple times to reach dramatic notes near the end of the piece on the last page. Here is a video so that you can see the technique. This is a rare case where seeing the performer can help, although many of the performers (I’m thinking of Lang Lang) rather go over the top with their elaborate hand gestures and facial contortions – maybe in the spirit of Liszt himself?
In later life Liszt refused to play his Hungarian Rhapsody no.2 because he felt it had been destroyed by its own immense popularity. It is still arguably his best known work, largely because of its use in cartoons as well as film scores. Here is an instructive compilation of its use in a number of cartoons.
Such usage makes it impossible for me to listen to the piece any more without thinking of outrageous antics.
For a recipe to celebrate Liszt I have chosen a famous Hungarian dish, Palóc soup, which combines the savors of dill and paprika in a sour-ish broth. For choice of paprika I suggest you consult this post:
The exact history of the soup is not known, however, there are several legends surrounding its origins. The most prominent is the soup having been created by János Gundel, for a restaurant opening event, where well-known writer Kálmán Mikszáth was invited to. Gundel named the soup after Mikszáth’s nickname, “the greatest of Palóc people”. Elek Magyar’scookbook, Az ínyesmester szakácskönyve recalls the soup being created for a food contest, where the jury liked it so much they ate two bowls of it.
You can find a good recipe here:
I have modified it a little. I note when I read the Hungarian ingredient list that “liszt” means “flour” in Hungarian !! A fiendishly difficult language. Ignore the historical notes in the header. It is customary to cook the beans separately and then add them. Hence you can use frozen if you wish.
800g of beef shank, bone in, or mutton shank, chopped in pieces
lard or vegetable oil
½ kg cooked or frozen green beans
2-3 tsp ground cumin
freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste
4 bay leaves
2 medium onions (1 white, 1 red), peeled and diced
6 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
200 ml sour cream
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp paprika
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Heat the lard or oil in a heavy soup pot over medium-high heat and sauté the onions until translucent. Add the meat and sauté a few minutes longer.
Cover the meat with light stock and add the garlic, cumin, paprika, bay leaves, and salt and pepper to taste.
Simmer until the meat is tender.
Top up the stock so that you have plenty of soup and add the potatoes. When the potatoes are cooked to your liking, add the green beans (defrosted if frozen).
Mix the flour with a little cold water to make a lump free slurry. Then mix in the sour cream. Add to the soup and stir until it is thickened.
Serve in deep bowls, garnished with dill, and crusty bread.