Franz Liszt

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Liszt, Franz

Liszt, Franz (fränts lĭst), 1811–86, Hungarian composer and pianist. Liszt was a revolutionary figure of romantic music and was acknowledged as the greatest pianist of his time. He made his debut at nine, going thereafter to Vienna to study with Czerny and Salieri. In Paris (1823–25) he knew all the principal artistic figures of the period and was influenced by Berlioz, Chopin, and Paganini. He lived with Mme d'Agoult (better known by her pen name, Daniel Stern) from 1833 to 1844, and they had three children; their daughter Cosima became the wife of Hans von Bülow and later of Wagner. As a piano virtuoso, Liszt enthralled his audiences with his expressive interpretations and grand style of playing, augmented with dramatic gestures.

In 1848 he decided to make a career as a composer, and became musical director to the duke of Weimar. He remained at Weimar until 1859, and two years later went to Rome, where he became an abbé (1865). During the years between 1880 and 1885, in Rome, Weimar, and Budapest, he taught most of the famous pianists of the succeeding generation. In his compositions he favored program music over traditional musical forms.

Liszt originated the symphonic poem, and although he wrote symphonies, such as the Faust Symphony (1857), most of his orchestral pieces, including Les Préludes and Mazeppa (both 1854), are symphonic poems. In his Sonata in B Minor (1853) he developed the technique of transformation of themes, which completely altered the concept of sonata construction. This technique, together with his chromatic harmony, strongly influenced both Wagner and Richard Strauss.

For the piano Liszt composed prolifically in addition to transcribing many works of other composers. His most outstanding works for the piano include Années de pèlerinage (1855–83), Douze Études d'exécution transcendante (final version, 1852), Six Paganini Études (final version, 1851), concertos in E Flat (1855) and A (1848–61), and 20 Hungarian Rhapsodies (of which he published 19). Some of his most popular pieces, including Liebestraüme (c.1850), are characterized by lyrical, romantic sentiment; many of his later compositions are somber in tone, full of dissonance and unusual harmonic effects that foreshadow 20th-century music.


See his correspondence with Wagner, ed. by F. Hueffer (2 vol., rev. ed. 1969); his letters, ed. by La Mara (2 vol., 1968); biographies by E. Newman (1935, repr. 1970), S. Sitwell (rev. ed. 1966), D. Watson (1989), and A. Walker (2 vol., 1983–87); studies by H. Searle (2d ed. 1966) and A. Walker (2011).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Liszt, Franz


(Hungarian, Ferenc Liszt). Born Oct. 22, 1811, in Doborján, near Sopron, Hungary; died July 31, 1886, in Bay-reuth, Germany. Hungarian composer, pianist, and figure in music and sociology.

Liszt was taught to play the piano by his father, an amateur musician, and began to give concerts at the age of nine. He pursued further studies in Vienna with C. Czerny (piano) and A. Salieri (composition) and, beginning in 1823, in Paris with F. Paer and A. Reicha (composition). Liszt’s only completed opera, Don Sanche, or The Castle of Love, was presented in 1825 in Paris. There Liszt wrote his first works for the piano, including 12 études, Allegro di bravura, and Rondo di bravura, and began his successful career as a concert pianist.

Liszt’s enthusiasm for Enlightenment philosophy and romantic poetry, and more importantly, his acquaintance with Berlioz, Paganini, and Chopin, influenced the formation of Liszt’s aesthetic principles, which are reflected in both his musical compositions and the articles he wrote with M. d’Agoult (whose pen name was Daniel Stern). In his writings, which are democratic in spirit, Liszt raised questions about such subjects as the position of the artist in bourgeois society, the social importance of art, and program music. He welcomed the July Revolution of 1830 and wrote the Revolutionary Symphony (unfinished) under the influence of his impressions. The uprising by Lyon weavers in 1834 prompted the piano piece “Lyon.”

Between 1838 and 1847, Liszt triumphantly toured all of Europe, winning recognition for his powerful artistic temperament, brilliant virtuosity, and talent for poetry and dramatization. He greatly reformed piano playing, and his innovative compositions expanded the uses of the piano and developed new techniques for it. He gave the piano an orchestral sound and broadened its artistic influence by turning it from a salon and chamber instrument into an instrument for large audiences, in keeping with his ideas about the democratization of art.

Liszt’s reformist aspirations are especially evident in his opera fantasies and other virtuoso paraphrases and adaptations for the piano. He wrote piano adaptations of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique,Beethoven’s symphonies, and the overture to Rossini’s William Tell (1838); he based his Etudes on Paganini’s Caprices (1838); and he created piano versions of many of Schubert’s songs (1838–46). Liszt also composed fantasies on themes from operas by Auber, Bellini, Donizetti, Meyerbeer, Mozart, Weber, and Verdi.

During tours of Russia (in 1842, 1843, and 1847), Liszt met with M. I. Glinka, Mikh. Iu. Viel’gorskii, and V. F. Odoevskii. He was enraptured by Russian music and made transcriptions of A. A. Aliab’ev’s “Nightingale” and Glinka’s “March of Chernomor.”

In the late 1830’s, Liszt composed a number of original piano works that brought him fame, including Album d’un voyageur (three books, 1835–36), 12 grandes études (2nd 1838; later revised as Transcendental Etudes, 1851), Three Sonnets of Petrarch (1st ed., 1839), and Totentanz (with orchestra, 1838–59).

Liszt composed equally great symphonic works, particularly during his first, or Weimar, period (1848–61), when he turned from a career as a concert virtuoso and accepted the post of court Kapellmeister in Weimar. The major works of program music for orchestra of that period were A Faust Symphony (1854–57); A Symphony to Dante’s “Divina Commedia” (1855–56); 12 symphonic poems (a 13th, From Cradle to Grave, was written later, in 1881–82), including Tasso, Lament and Triumph (after Goethe, 1849–54); Preludes (after Autran and Lamartine, 1848–54); Mazeppa (after Hugo, 1851); Ideals (after Schiller, 1857); and Two Episodes From Lenau’s “Faust” (“Nocturnal Visitation” and “Mephisto Waltz,” c. 1860). He also wrote a series of choral works in Weimar.

Liszt evolved a new musical genre, the one-movement program symphonic poem. He conveyed the “eternal images” (Faust, Prometheus, Orpheus, and Hamlet, for example) of world art in music. Liszt strove to bring music closer to the progressive ideas of his time, and he was attracted by the strong, freedom-loving personality who fights for humanistic ideals. While often following a poetic narrative, the symphonic poems in general create moods with concretely imagistic, effective, and therefore apprehensible music.

Liszt’s major piano compositions are conceptually close to the symphonic program works—for example, the Sonata in C minor (1853); the cycle Années de pèlerinage (1st year, 1836–54; 2nd year, 1838–60; 3rd year, 1867–77), based on travel impressions of Switzerland and Italy and on art images; and Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (1845–52). From the 1840’s through the 1860’s, Liszt composed two concertos (c. 1849–56 and 1839–61), Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes (1852) for piano and orchestra, and other works on Hungarian themes that testify to Liszt’s indissoluble creative ties with his homeland.

Liszt used Hungarian folk music material in a variety of genres, including the Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano (15 composed between 1846 and 1851; the last four, 1882–85), “Funeral March” for piano (1849), the symphonic poems Hungaria (1854) and Lament for Heroes (1854), Hungarian Historical Pictures, and the piano pieces “Rákóczy March,” “In Memory of Petófy,” and “The Funeral of Mosonyi.”

In Weimar, where prominent musicians gathered around Liszt (including C. Bülow and J. Raff), forming the Weimar school, Liszt realized his democratic ideals both as a conductor, propagating the works of his contemporaries (including Wagner’s operas), and as a musical journalist (in articles on the works of Berlioz, Schumann, and Weber and a book on Chopin). He developed a democratic plan for reforming opera, which met opposition from conservative aristocratic circles. In 1861 intrigues caused Liszt to leave Weimar. He divided his time between Rome and Budapest, with occasional visits to Weimar.

Disenchanted by life around him and feeling ever more pessimistic, Liszt took minor orders in 1865. Between 1860 and 1880 he produced a number of sacred organ and choral works and many piano pieces, including the second and third Mephisto Waltzes, the famous Three Forgotten Waltzes, a transcription of the “Death of Isolde” scene from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and a polonaise transcribed from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. He also composed approximately 70 choruses, romances, and songs, some of which are masterpieces of the lyric art song.

Liszt continued to cultivate the development of progressive art, particularly in Hungary. He was involved in the founding of the National Academy of Music in Budapest in 1875 (it bears his name); he was its first president. Liszt encouraged Hungarian performers and composers, as well as musicians of other national musical cultures. He was visited and consulted in Weimar by the pianists A. I. Siloti, V. V. Timanova, E. d’Albert, and A. Reisenauer and the composers Borodin, Smetana, Grieg, Franck, Saint-Saëns, Albéniz, and Glazunov. Liszt had particularly close ties with Russian musicians, whose work he valued highly.

Somewhat contradictory, but generally progressive, Liszt’s multifaceted lifework had an important impact on the development of world musical culture and contributed to the formation of many national schools of composers, most importantly, the Hungarian one.


Trifonov, P. A. F. List. St. Petersburg, 1887.
Siloti, A. I. Moi vospominaniia o F. Liste. St. Petersburg, 1911.
Kiselev, V. A. Fronts List i ego otnoshenie k russkomu iskusstvu. Moscow, 1929.
Mil’shtein, la. I. F. List, [vols.] 1–2, 2nd. ed. Moscow, 1971. (Bibliography.)
Szabolcsi, B. Poslednie gody Lista. Budapest, 1959. (Translated from Hungarian.)
Ramann, L. Franz Liszt als Künstler und Mensch, vols. 1–2 (pts. 1–2). Leipzig, 1880–94.
Raabe, P. Franz Liszt, vols. 1–2. Stuttgart-Berlin, 1931.
Searle, H. The Music of Liszt. London, 1954. Third edition: New York, 1966.
Rehberg, P. Franz Liszt: Die Geschichte seines Lebens, Schaffens und Wirkens. Zürich, 1961.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.