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The Life of a Composer

Of all classical composers, Franz Liszt was the most colourful: an eccentric and heartthrob, a virtuoso pianist, an intellectual, cosmopolitan and globetrotter. And above all, he composed incessantly. His musical oeuvre comprises 123 piano works, 77 lieder, 25 orchestral works, 65 sacred and 28 secular choral pieces, plus numerous arrangements and compositions for organ and other instruments.

Portrait of Franz Liszt © Österreich Werbung /Trumler

Franz Liszt was born on 22nd October 1811 in the town of Raiding in Burgenland, which at that time belonged to Hungarian half of the Austrian empire. At an early age he received piano lessons from his father, an ambitious and strict music teacher. The family moved first toVienna, where the young Liszt received lessons in composition from Antonio Salieri, and then to Paris. Although the 12-year-old wunderkind was denied admission to the Paris Conservatoire because he was a foreigner, his father had him tutored intensively in composition and theory.

Liszt was very interested in the intellectual trends of his time and he formed friendships with numerous celebrated artists in Paris. However, his acquaintance with eminent musical figures of the time, such as Frédéric Chopin, Hector Berlioz and Felix Mendelssohn, made him aware of his own musical limitations. But this knowledge only served to spur him on. In a letter to his pupil and friend Pierre Wolff in May 1832 he writes: “My mind and my fingers are working like the damned. Homer, the Bible, Plato, Locke, Byron, Hugo […], Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber, are all around me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them furiously. Furthermore, I practise four or five hours a day […].If only I don’t go mad, you will find in me an artist!"

The following years were characterized by restless travel all across Europe, innumerable compositions and performances. He began a relationship with Marie d’Agoult, six years his senior, with whom he had three children. Stays in Switzerland and Italy were followed by concert tours all over Europe. Artistically, Liszt experienced criticism of his music as well as towering triumphs in this period. In 1841/42 his fame in Berlin as a pianist – in particular among female music lovers – reached the point that Heinrich Heine coined the phrase “Lisztomania” to describe this hysteria.
Liszt and Marie d’Agoult separated at the end of 1843, after Marie refused to continue to overlook Liszt’s frequent affairs. A vehement battle over the custody of their children was won by Liszt, who then decided to allow the children to stay with their mother in Paris.

From 1843 to 1861 Franz Liszt was court music director in Weimar and became friends with Richard Wagner, who later – against Liszt’s will – was to marry Liszt’s daughter Cosima. It was also during this period that Liszt began a relationship with the tempestuous princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, who became a strong supporter of his music. The Weimar years were the most artistically productive of his life. He composed many of his piano works here, as well as the first twelve symphonic poems, numerous secular works (lieder, melodramas, and choral pieces), and sacred music. Nevertheless, the respect he was accorded as a composer remained modest. This was also true of his activities as a conductor, which received decidedly mixed reviews. He conducted Wagner’s operas no fewer than thirty-six times, in addition to works by Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Schumann.

After nearly twenty years in Weimar, Franz Liszt moved to Rome, where he hoped to marry Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein. Only a day before the wedding, however, under pressure from her family, Carolyne withdrew her consent to the marriage. This episode had dire consequences for the couple’s relationship and ultimately led to their separation.

Subsequently, Liszt devoted himself increasingly to sacred compositions and liturgical works. In 1865 he received minor orders and was made an abbé by Pope Pius IX. In these latter years of his life his compositions finally began to receive recognition, especially his orchestral works and his sacred music. In 1886, already gravely ill, he travelled to Weimar to attend the Bayreuth Festival, which was being run by his daughter Cosima. On 31st July 1865 only days after his arrival, he died and was buried at the Bayreuth town cemetery.