Hysterical Franz Liszt

When Liszt (1811 – 1866) played the piano, ladies flung their jewels on stage instead of bouquets. They rushed madly to the stage to fish out the stub of cigar that Liszt smoked and the ladies who recovered them carried them in their bosom to the day she died. Other ladies came away with priceless broken strings from the piano he had played. Heine gave an account of a concert he attended at which two Hungarian countesses, contending for Liszt’s snuffbox, threw each other on the ground and fought until they were exhausted. Liszt was paid to have his ladies faint and fight but with his reputation, he had ladies who swooned over him all his life.

He was a proud man, and he did not allow anyone to forget that he was Franz Liszt. In 1875, before his death, he gave a concert in Leipzig. It was reported by the Musical Record in London:

Precisely at eleven o’clock a silver head of hair and well-known countenance above a cassock-girt figure moved majestically down the room and received a Caesar-like condescension the applause of the surrounding crowd. After having remained standing long enough to allow all the opera glasses a sufficient survey of his fine head, Liszt began an extemporizing fantasia. After a few bars of prelude, he took the theme from Wagner’s KaisermarschI and by degrees worked himself up into a storm of rain-like run, hail-like trills, lightning arpeggios and thunderous chords, until at last his hair fell over his forehead, and as he tossed it back the figure at the piano recalled the well-known inspired look of the pictures of our youth’.

In his concerto appearance, he would during the tuttis, talk gesticulate, beat time, stamp the floor, wiggle around so that he medals and decorations he loved to wear would clink and clank. He often had three pianos on the stage, using them as he fancied. Seldom would one of those pianos end up without broken strings and hammers.

Liszt’s flamboyance was part of his personality and he had amazing talent to start with but who had not been properly trained until he met Carl Czerny, a fine pedagogue who had Liszt in 1819 and gave an account of the young Liszt:

‘He was a pale, delicate looking child and while playing swayed in the chairs as if drunk, that I often thought he would fall to the floor.  His playing was irregular and careless, and he had so little knowledge of correct fingering that he would be disorientated on the keyboard. Nevertheless, I was amazed by the talent with which nature had equipped him. His mental gift is ahead of his physical strength but he lacks solid technique. It seems imperative to use the first months to regulate and strengthen his mechanical dexterity to avoid sliding into bad habits. I made him learn each piece very rapidly and he became an avid reader and was able to sight read compositions with considerable difficulty in public as though he had been studying them for a long time. I tried to make him improvise them to equip him with improvising skills’.

One musician that Liszt would model was Paganini, a virtuoso violinist. Liszt was swept off his feet after he attended Paganini’s Paris debut at the Opéra on March 9, 1831. For the first time he saw a consummate showman in action (one of the supreme virtuosos in history), and from that moment on Paganini turned to be the decisive influence in his life. Liszt consciously worked to outdo Paganini to create the piano equivalent effect Paganini had created on his violin.

Paganini, Violin Virtuoso

The other great influence for Liszt was Chopin, whom he heard of in 1832. Liszt learned that the piano can be a means of delicate expression as well as a bravura instrument. From Paganini, Liszt learned transcendental bravura and from Chopin he learnt poetry, style and finesse. He put together what was equivalent to Paganini’s violin virtuoso on the piano and modified the virtuosity in the colour and poetry that Chopin had to introduce.

In his youth, Liszt was slim, blond, aristocratic, volatile and was breathtakingly handsome and physically made of iron. His entrance on the stage would make the ladies’ head turn. A refined, elegant pianist, he was never a virtuoso, nor did he ever try to be. When Mocheles (link with Pianist in transition pt.2), heard the seventeenth year old Liszt, he was overcome ‘As to his playing, it surpasses in power and mastery of difficulties, everything I have ever heard’.    

Clara Wieck was overwhelmed when she first heard him in 1838 and sobbed aloud ‘I have never found any artist except Paganini elevating and leading the public.’ Von Lenz summed that when Liszt appeared all other pianists disappeared. Chopin may have been the one who liberated piano technique, but it was Liszt who spread the results through Europe. Chopin might have been the better pianist of the two, but he lacked the strength, the power, the flair and the sex appeal to drive audiences to sheer madness. Up until his time, except Beethoven with their hand held close to the keyboard, Liszt threw all that overboard; he was the first who orchestrated on the piano, some of his earlier pieces were his arrangement of symphonies by Beethoven and Belioz.

No other competition could exist before Liszt except Thalberg, the Swiss born virtuoso. He first appeared in Paris in 1836. The division between the Thalbergians and Lisztian were immediately clear. When Liszt, who was away with his countess for eighteen months heard his contender, his nostril dilated and rushed back to Paris only to find Thalberg were gone. Liszt gave two soirées at the Érard Salon. Belioz reviewed that Liszt had grown artistically to the extent that his playing was hardly recognized. Previously, Belioz said it had been exaggerated, rhythmically unsettled and over-ornamented but now it had stature and musicianship. Liszt was challenged to play Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata – ‘the Sphinx Enigma of every Pianist’ during Thalberg’s absence. He set a new bar to the playing and if Beethoven have heard it would have sent a thrill of joy from his grave.

As Liszt grew older, he became more complicated. A mixture of genius, vanity, generosity, lust, religious and snobbery. He spent his life relentlessly in search for something torn between the demands of art, religion and the flesh. In 1865, he became a priest and received four degrees of priesthood. He then lived in Villa d’ Este for four months of the year and the rest of the time in Rome, Weimar and Budapest.

His career as a pianist did not occupy a major part of his life. The height of his fame in 1847, he stopped concertizing and never appeared in public again as a paid artist. Towards the end of his life, he re-appeared in public as flattery and public adulation were the air he breathed. He spent more time teaching and focused on his duties as a musical director at the Weimar Court. Weimar were the center of the world flocked with gifted musicians ranging from pianists, conductors, singers, violinists and composers.

Liszt was beyond any doubt one of the two greatest sight-readers (the other was Camille Saint-Saën). He could hear a complicated piece of music for the first time and immediately play it back without recourse to the printed notes. Mendelssohn presented him the manuscript of his G minor Piano Concerto, which was hardly legible, but Liszt rattled it off at sight in the most perfect manner.

Everything was too easy and Liszt would become bored unless he could keep up his interest by adding to the music. He could never keep his hands off music or play arrangements as they had been written. He was seldom contented with the simple work of art as he must elaborate on it and ‘arrange’ it to the extravagance. He would transpose a simple passage on the second and third time from an octave to another or from thirds to a sixths. All musicians agreed that technicalities did not exist for Liszt and the wrong notes which appeared later in his year was sheer negligence and not the results of insufficient technique.

Sometimes, Liszt let one wonder if he was as good of a technician as his contemporaries. Breithaupt, incidentally wrote that Liszt had a large hand spanning a twelfth. This was highly unlikely though there has been much conflicting testimony about the size of Liszt’s hand. William Mason, an early pupil of Liszt testified that Liszt’s hand span was not as remarkable while Amy Fay, an American Pianist described Liszt’s hand as ‘very narrow, with long and slender fingers that look as if they had twice as may joints as other people.’

As Liszt aged, there was less egocentricity although he was never entirely without it. It seemed clear that he employed a weight technique playing from maintaining loose shoulders and his fairly high hand and finger position. He was not far removed from Czerny. The boldness of attack, the orchestration on the piano and the exploitation of the instrument were the important things for Liszt. Most pianists had technique, but few had the technique to use breathtaking daring techniques in their playing.

Aged Liszt

Good-natured Liszt took thousands of pupils who were not really pupils. They were auditors who might have played for him once or twice and advertised themselves as Liszt’s pupils. After 1845, he took only advanced pupils and did not concentrate on technique. He told them ‘wash your dirty linen at home’ and only concentrated on coaching only.

Liszt was one who helped the young composers progress in Europe and whose piano playing was an inspiration to every instrumentalist in the world.

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