The Hungarian-born musician, Franz Liszt, was one of the great piano virtuosos and composers of the 19th century. Liszt’s musical legacy is substantial, and he would be well-remembered even just for his musical compositions. But what makes Liszt interesting is the extraordinary life he lived. As Oliver Hilmes puts it in his recent Liszt biography, Liszt was a “superstar, a genius and a European celebrity – he was utterly exceptional.” During his long life, Liszt reinvented himself several times, yet each time he seemed to enhance his stature as one of the great characters of his age, or indeed of any age.
Liszt was born in 1811 a small town in the Kingdom of Hungary, the son of a minor official in the service of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Liszt’s father was an amateur musician who was quick to recognize his son’s extraordinary talent. Through his contacts in the Prince’s court, Liszt’s father was able to secure music lessons for his son, and then to launch him as a child prodigy performing throughout Europe. Liszt’s early performing career came to an abrupt end when is father died unexpectedly while Liszt was still a teen. Liszt then moved to Paris with his mother, earning his living for a number of years giving lessons. During his early Paris years, he came into contact with many of the leading authors and artists of the day, including Victor Hugo and Hector Berlioz.
During these years, Liszt also formed a relationship with Countess Marie d’Agoult, a married woman with whom Liszt was to have three children. Liszt never married himself but he did have several extended romantic relationships, each of which influenced him in their own way. During his years with Countess Marie, Liszt’s creative output exploded, and during the 1840s he spent several years constantly touring Europe to increasingly rapturous crowds.
Liszt undoubtedly was a great musical virtuoso; during the most active years of his touring career, he was, as Hilmes puts it, “the most famous pianist in the world and regarded by many as the uncrowned king of piano playing.” Liszt was also one of the great masters of “the art of self-representation,” in creating an almost magical aura around himself that drew his listeners in. Liszt carefully managed his attire, his movement, his gestures, and his facial expression. His performances were both dramatic and energetic. The result was that “everywhere he went, he was frenetically acclaimed.” Liszt’s performances would lift his audience to a level of musical ecstasy; his fans (particularly his female fans) would swarm after him and fight to snatch his handkerchief or his gloves.
The German poet Heinrich Heine was to call the outpouring of emotion that accompanied Liszt and his performances “Lisztomania.” It was not necessarily meant to be a term of praise. Indeed, after her relationship with Liszt ended, Countess Marie was to characterize Liszt’s public persona as “half fairground entertainer, half conjurer.”
Liszt could not possibly have sustained the demands that his performing career put on him indefinitely, and in 1847 his life took an unexpected turn. In Kiev, he met the Polish Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, with whom he was to form a lifelong relationship. Under Princess Carolyne’s influence, he stepped away from his life as a traveling virtuoso and accepted a position as Kappelmeister in the court of Weimar. He was to remain in the position in Weimar for more than 12 years, a period during which he composed many of his best-known works – including, as discussed below, his Piano Sonata in B Minor.
Eventually Liszt and Princess Carolyne were to make their way to Rome. After a series of personal setbacks (including the death of his oldest daughter), Liszt moved into a monastery, and ultimately was to take four minor religious orders. Liszt had been religious throughout his life, but his new religious identity was greeted with skepticism by many of his critics. Hilmes notes in his biography that there is, in fact, “a subtle distinction between being a fanatical Catholic and demonstrating that quality.” Nevertheless, Liszt was to wear the black cassock as an abbé for most of the remainder of his life – perhaps it was, as Hilmes notes, yet another costume for Liszt, and it does not seem to have been lost on Liszt that the cassock “evidently made him even more desirable in the eyes of women.”
In the final years of his life, Liszt was to play a role as a sort of international grand master. He was to become an ardent proponent of Hungarian nationalism as well as a promoter of musical education in Hungary and in Weimar. He was also one of the early promoters of Richard Wagner, who ultimately was to marry his daughter, Cosima. There was a definite artistic tension between Liszt and Wagner, both of whom were each in their own way masters of self-promotion. Liszt’s relationship with Cosima was to become increasingly strained, and he was virtually estranged from her when he died.
Liszt was throughout his career the consummate showman and it is clear that he sought the adulation that his performances kindled. Particularly later in life, Hilmes, writes, Liszt’s “need for adulation and homage seems to have increased.” There is a sense in which it seems the adoring clamor provide Liszt with a level of affirmation, something he seemed to have needed. At times Liszt apparently questioned whether his creative output matched the promise of his genius. He wrote to a friend in 1865, “I would willingly forego all the cheering and the enthusiasm if I could produce one truly creative work.”
In his late compositions, as he sought to test his creative possibilities, Liszt became increasingly experimental. Some of his later works border on atonality. (Indeed, one of his late works is even entitled Bagatelle sans tonalité.) Hilmes writes that many of Liszt’s later works “point the way to the twentieth century,” adding that “the works of Liszt’s final years threw open the door of the modern age, and composers such as Bartók, Schoenberg and Alban Berg drew on his music for many of their ideas and stimuli.”
Within Liszt’s work, arguably one of his greatest legacies is one of these experimental works, his B Minor Piano Sonata, written in 1853 but, owing to its difficulty, not first performed until years later. Hilmes writes that it “stands out like an erratic block from the rest of the piano repertory of the nineteenth century.” Liszt dedicated it to Robert Schumann, who unfortunately was never able to appreciate the honor; Schumann by this time had been committed to an asylum after attempting suicide. Liszt sent the composition and some other works to Schumann’s wife, the pianist and composer Clara Schumann. Clara’s reaction to the works was, as Hilmes put it, “less than enthusiastic.” She wrote in her diary that the works were “dreadful” and that they are “nothing but noise – there is not a wholesome thought in them.”
The critical reaction to the B Minor Piano Sonata at the time, when it finally was publicly performed, was also mixed at best. However, as time has gone by, the work has received greater appreciation, and it is now part of the repertoire of the many of the highly regarded pianists of our age. The work is unquestionably difficult and demanding, but it has come to be recognized, as Hilmes puts it, “one of the most important works ever written for the piano.” As the musicologist Francis Wilson wrote, “It’s an incredibly powerful work of great emotional breadth, and a test for any performer in its technical and artistic challenges.”
Some may wonder, given Clara Schumann’s reaction to this piece, why I am featuring this work in this post. It is undeniably a difficult piece of music — difficult to perform, and, yes, maybe even difficult to listen to. Readers may recall that the whole reason I started the Sunday Arts series on this site was to review some of the learnings I have been able to glean from my reading and study during the pandemic. One of the unexpected pleasures for me from the enforced leisure of the pandemic has been the opportunity to try out things I have not previously tried — things like trying to listen to a difficult piece of music I had not previously heard. Liszt’s B Minor Sonata is one of the new challenges I attempted as part of this process. Here’s what I found: The work may indeed be difficult, but if you listen to it and listen to it carefully, there is a lot there, a great deal worth hearing. For me the piece is such an interesting combination of power, texture, and emotion. It is music that makes you listen and think. Here is a video of Seong-jin Cho playing the work. It is an amazing performance of an amazing work.