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6.7: Music of Franz Liszt

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    Franz Liszt (b. 1811-1886) was born in Doborján, Hungary (now Raiding, Austria). His father, employed as a steward for a wealthy family, was an amateur musician who recognized his son’s talent. A group of Hungarian noblemen sponsored him with a stipend that enabled Franz to pursue his musical interest in Paris. There, he became the friend of Mendelssohn, Hugo, Chopin, Delacroix, George Sand, and Berlioz; these friends influenced him to become part of the French Romanticism movement.

    Also in Paris in 1831, Liszt attended a performance of virtuoso violinist Paganini, who was touring. Paganini’s style and success helped make Liszt aware of the demand for a solo artist who performed with showmanship. The ever growing mass public audience desired gifted virtuoso soloists performers at the time. Liszt, one of the best pianists of his time, became a great showman who knew how to energize an audience. Up until Liszt, the standard practice of performing piano solos was with the solo artist’s back to the audience. This limited—and actually blocked—the audience from viewing the artist’s hands, facial expression, and musical nuance. Liszt changed the entire presentation by turning the piano sideways so the audience could view his facial expressions and the manner in which his fingers interacted with the keys, from playing loud and thunderously to gracefully light and legato. Liszt possessed great charisma and performance appeal; indeed, he had a following of young ladies that idolized his performances. During his career of music stardom, Liszt never married and was considered one of the most eligible bachelors of the time. But he did have several “relationships” with different women, one of whom was the novelist Countess Marie d’Agoult who wrote under the pen name of Daniel Stern. She and Liszt travelled to Switzerland for a few years and they had three children, including Cosima who ultimately married Wagner.

    While at the height of his performance career, Liszt retreated from his piano soloist career to devote all his energy to composition. He moved to Weimer in 1948 and assumed the post of court musician for the Grand Duke, remaining in Weimer until 1861. There, he produced his greatest orchestral works. His position in Weimer included the responsibility as director to the Grand Duke’s opera house. In this position, Liszt could influence the public’s taste in music and construct musical expectations for future com- positions. And he used his influential position to program what Wagner called “Music of the Future.” Liszt and Wagner both advocated and promoted highly dramatic music in Weimer, with Liszt conducting the first performances of Wagner’s Lohengrin, Be- lioz’s Benevenuto Cellini, as well as many other contemporary compositions.

    While in Weimer, Liszt began a relationship with a woman who had a tremendous influence on his life and music. A wife of a nobleman in the court of the Tsar, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittenstein met and fell in love with Liszt on his final per- formance tour of Russia. Later she left her husband and moved to Weimer to be with Liszt. She assisted Liszt in writing literary works, among which included a fabricated biography by Liszt on the Life of Chopin and a book on “Gypsy,” a book also considered eccentric and inaccurate.

    While Liszt had an eventful romantic life, he remained a Roman Catholic, and he eventually sought solitude in the Catholic Church. His association with the church led to the writing of his major religious works. He also joined the Oratory of the Madonna del Rosario and studied the preliminary stage for priesthood, tak- ing his minor orders and becoming known as the Abbé Liszt. He dressed as a priest and composed Masses, oratorios, and religious music for the church.

    Still active at the age of seventy-five, he earned respect from England as a com- poser and was awarded an honor in person by Queen Victoria. Returning from this celebration, he met Claud Debussy in Paris then journeyed to visit his widowed daughter Cosima in Bayreuth and attended a Wagnerian Festival. He died during that festival, and even on his death bed, dying of pneumonia, Liszt named one of the “Music of the Future” masterpieces: Wagner’s Tristan.

    Liszt’s primary goal in music composition was pure expression through the idiom of tone. His freedom of expression necessitated his creation of the symphonic poem, sometimes called a tone poem--a one movement program piece written for orchestra that portrays images of a place, story, novel, landscape or non-musical source or image. This form utilizes transformations of a few themes through the en- tire work for continuity. The themes are varied by adjusting the rhythm, harmony, dynamics, tempos, instrumental registers, instrumentation in the orchestra, timbre, and melodic outline, or shape. By making these slight-to-major adjustments, Liszt found it possible to convey the extremes of emotion—from love to hate, war to peace, triumph to defeat—within a thematic piece. His thirteen symphonic poems greatly influenced the nineteenth century, an influence that continues through to- day. Liszt’s most famous piece for orchestra is the three portrait work Symphony after Goethe’s Faust (the portraits include Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles). A similar work, his Symphony of Dante’s Divine Comedy, has three movements: Inferno, Purgatory, and Vision of Paradise. His most famous of the symphonic poems is Les Preludes (The Preludes) written in 1854.

    His best known works include nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies (Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 may be heard at the following link: www.52compos-, Piano concertos (Piano concerto No. 1, Part 1 may be heard at the following link:, Mephisto Waltzes, Faust Symphony (Mephisto from Faust Symphony Part 1 may be heard at follow- ing link:, and Lieberstaumes (may be heard at the following link:

    Listening Guide

    For audio, go to:

    Composer: Franz Liszt
    Composition: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
    Date: 1847
    Genre: The second of a set of 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies
    Performing Forces: Piano solo

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    • Widely popular, this piece offers the pianist the opportunity to reveal exceptional skill as a virtuoso, while providing the listener with an immediate and irresistible musical appeal.
    • Listen to the dance rhythms and strong pulse even at the slower tempos

    Other things to listen for:

    • The piece begins with the “lasson”, a brief dramatic introduction that is followed by the “friska”, an energy building section that build to a tempest of sound and momentum.
    • This piece was used in many animated cartoons in contemporary culture, “Tom and Jerry”, “Bugs Bunny”, “Woody Woodpecker” and several others.
    • Interest in this piece is rooted in the period’s interests in “Exoticism” (music from other cultures).
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture
    00:00-04:26 The lasson opens at a slow tempo
    04:26- to the end The friska follows and builds feverishly. Dance rhythms with heavy pulse.

    For more information and listening opportunities for Liszt selections, go to: sic-where-start/#qhmCIMkIdTaD2o88.97
    We shift now from smaller compositions for small forces to larger-scale com-

    positions written for entire orchestras.

    This page titled 6.7: Music of Franz Liszt is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.