Franz Liszt


Born: 1811   Died: 1886   Country: Hungary   Period: Romantic
Liszt was the only contemporary whose music Richard Wagner gratefully acknowledged as an influence upon his own. His lasting fame was an alchemy of extraordinary digital ability -- the greatest in the history of keyboard playing -- an unmatched instinct for showmanship, and one of the most progressive musical imaginations of his time. Hailed by some as a visionary, reviled by others as a symbol of empty Romantic excess, Franz Liszt wrote his name Read more across music history in a truly inimitable manner.

From his youth, Liszt demonstrated a natural facility at the keyboard that placed him among the top performing prodigies of his day. Though contemporary accounts describe his improvisational skill as dazzling, his talent as a composer emerged only in his adulthood. Still, he was at the age of eleven the youngest contributor to publisher Anton Diabelli's famous variation commissioning project, best remembered as the inspiration for Beethoven's final piano masterpiece. An oft-repeated anecdote -- first recounted by Liszt himself decades later, and possibly fanciful -- has Beethoven attending a recital given by the youngster and bestowing a kiss of benediction upon him.

Though already a veteran of the stage by his teens, Liszt recognized the necessity of further musical tuition. He studied for a time with Czerny and Salieri in Vienna, and later sought acceptance to the Paris Conservatory. When he was turned down there -- foreigners were not then admitted -- he instead studied privately with Anton Reicha. Ultimately, his Hungarian origins proved a great asset to his career, enhancing his aura of mystery and exoticism and inspiring an extensive body of works, none more famous than the Hungarian Rhapsodies (1846-1885).

Liszt soon became a prominent figure in Parisian society, his romantic entanglements providing much material for gossip. Still, not even the juiciest accounts of his amorous exploits could compete with the stories about his wizardry at the keyboard. Inspired by the superhuman technique -- and, indeed, diabolical stage presence -- of the violinist Paganini, Liszt set out to translate these qualities to the piano. As his career as a touring performer, conductor, and teacher burgeoned, he began to devote an increasing amount of time to composition. He wrote most of his hundreds of original piano works for his own use; accordingly, they are frequently characterized by technical demands that push performers -- and in Liszt's own day, the instrument itself -- to their limits. The "transcendence" of his Transcendental Etudes (1851), for example, is not a reference to the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, but an indication of the works' level of difficulty. Liszt was well into his thirties before he mastered the rudiments of orchestration -- works like the Piano Concerto No. 1 (1849) were orchestrated by talented students -- but made up for lost time in the production of two "literary" symphonies (Faust, 1854-1857, and Dante, 1855-1856) and a series of orchestral essays (including Les préludes, 1848-1854) that marks the genesis of the tone poem as a distinct genre.

After a lifetime of near-constant sensation, Liszt settled down somewhat in his later years. In his final decade he joined the Catholic Church and devoted much of his creative effort to the production of sacred works. The complexion of his music darkened; the flash that had characterized his previous efforts gave way to a peculiar introspection, manifested in strikingly original, forward-looking efforts like Nuages gris (1881). Liszt died in Bayreuth, Germany, on July 31, 1886, having outlived Wagner, his son-in-law and greatest creative beneficiary. Read less
Liszt: Les Preludes, Orpheus… / Fruhbeck de Burgos
Release Date: 03/27/2001   Label: Bis  
Catalog: 1117   Number of Discs: 1
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Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies / Fagen, Staatskapelle Weimar
Release Date: 10/30/2007   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8570230   Number of Discs: 1
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Liszt: Works for Violin & Piano / Wallin, Pontinen
Release Date: 07/10/2015   Label: Bis  
Catalog: 2085   Number of Discs: 1
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Liszt: Complete Piano Music, Vol 42 / Filipec
Release Date: 03/11/2016   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8573458   Number of Discs: 1
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The Best Of Liszt
Release Date: 10/20/1997   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8556667   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Hungarian Rhapsody no 2 in C sharp minor

About This Work
Liszt was proud of his Hungarian origins, yet his command of Hungarian was poor and he remained a tourist in his putative homeland until the end of his life. This was a formula for misunderstandings, of which the Hungarian Rhapsodies are the richest, Read more most controversial, and most glorious. A European celebrity, Liszt made a triumphal return to Hungary in December 1839, staying until the end of January 1840, during which he made the acquaintance of Gypsy bands roaming the Hungarian countryside and heard them perform, on violins and cymbals, a great deal of music in a wildly impassioned, improvisatory manner which affected him deeply and impelled him to translate its effects to the piano. Unaware that many of the melodies upon which the Gypsies visited their flair - and which he notated scrupulously - were salon fare, Liszt supposed them to be parts of a vast "Gypsy epos," a sort of musical Hungarian oversoul, which he set about recreating in a series of piano pieces, the Magyar dalok & Magyar rapszódiák. But these proved to be mere preliminary drafts for the magnificent series of fifteen Hungarian Rhapsodies composed between 1847 and 1853. (The Rhapsodies XVI-XIX are much later and quite different in style.) Meanwhile, Liszt's confusion of Gypsy manner with Hungarian music was received as a national affront in Hungary, while the systematic exploration of genuine Hungarian folk music awaited the attentions of Kodály and Bartók in the early years of the twentieth century. But in the upshot, Liszt derived from the Gypsies the immemorial pattern of a slow, elegiac first section (lassú) leading to a propulsive, often vertiginous, fast section (friss), and a peculiarly kinetic improvised manner of bringing them off.

Of all the works in Liszt's enormous, labyrinthine catalogue, the Second Hungarian Rhapsody is the best known or, at least, the most familiar. Composed probably in 1847, and published in 1851, its popularity became baneful to Liszt himself, and it was one of a handful of works which he would not allow his students to play to him. Since, its satirical use by everyone from Bugs Bunny to Tom Lehrer has saddled it with risible associations which render it nearly impossible to hear in its appropriate context. Curiously, it is the only one of the series of Hungarian Rhapsodies I-XV whose thematic materials are not to be found in the Magyar dalok & Magyar rapszódiák. The effusively ruminative opening theme was noted by Liszt in a sketchbook of 1846 as something heard, but the origins of the remainder remain untraceable and may be original. Proceeding by a series of broad melodic coups piqued by cimbalom imitations, this surefire piece rises in giddy effervescence to a direction for a "cadenza ad libitum" which pianists from d'Albert and Rachmaninov to Marc-André Hamelin have been happy to supply. Supervised and reworked by Liszt, an orchestral arrangement in D minor by Franz Doppler has also become a repertory staple.

-- Adrian Corleonis
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