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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Incredible Life of Franz Liszt

French caricature of Franz Liszt at the piano, circa 1845
Ed. Note: This article marks the first in an ongoing Liszt at 200 series, celebrating the bicentennial birthday of Franz Liszt in the year 2011.

Oct. 22, 2011 marks the 200th birthday of Franz Ferenc Liszt, the Hungarian composer, pianist, and showman whose prestidigitative playing marked the dawn of a new era in piano music. Liszt's meteoric career signalled the rise of the piano virtuoso as a public figure equivalent with kings, generals, and minor gods.

Franz Liszt was the greatest pianist of the 19th century, a formidable performer who could play anything, from all nine Beethoven symphonies (re-arranged for solo piano) to the operatic works of Verdi, Wagner, and Johann Strauss. But his own music came first.

Famous Liszt piano compositions include the Annéés de la pèlerinage (Years of Pilgramage), the Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Transcendental Etudes, finger-busting works inspired by the violinist (and fellow showman) Niccolò Paganini. He even experimented with atonality in late works, setting the stage for the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.

Liszt's concerts (he popularized the concept of the "piano recital") caused women to scream and throw clothes in a precursor of Beatlemania. They were his primary source of income. But he found time to compose orchestral works. Deciding that symphonic form was too restrictive, he created the "symphonic poem." (This may have been the idea of Belgian composer Cesar Franck.) The popularity of Liszt's tone poems (which include the Faust Symphony, the Dante Symphony and Les Preludes) showed the way for later composers like Richard Strauss.

Liszt only wrote one opera: Don Sanche. It premiered when he was 14 and quickly dropped from sight. However, he remained heavily involved in that genre. During Wagner's Swiss exile, Liszt conducted the world premiere of Lohengrin. Still later, he became Wagner's father-in-law and most prominent musical advocate. Liszt's transcriptions of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and the Pilgrim's Chorus from Tannhäuser led to this "music of the future" being played outside the opera house in the century before recordings existed.

This bicentennial year promises a great deal of exciting Liszt music. There are concerts scheduled, (Jean-Yves Thibaudet at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 2, Evgeny Kissin in March), and of course, new recordings on their way. The most prominent of these is from the acclaimed British label Hyperion: Leslie Howard's 99-disc Complete Piano Works of Liszt. It comes out on February 8.

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