Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the greatest piano virtuoso of his time. He also had a great influence in shaping the western musical canon.
With his assistance, new composers such as Berlioz and Wagner became famous. He also promoted past virtuosos, such as Beethoven, Bach, Handel and Schubert.
In his compositions, he developed a totally unique piano technique, made unheard of experiments in harmony, and invented the symphonic poem. Liszt was born in Hungary but went to Vienna when he was a child. There he studied with Czerny and Salieri and met Beethoven and Schubert.
He settled in Paris while he was still a teenager. He soon became a prominent figure in society, mainly due to his talent at the piano, but also due to his various romantic escapades, which were the subject of a great deal of gossip. At this time, Liszt became familiar with several musical contemporaries like Alkan, Berlioz, Chopin, and others. During these early years, one of the most critical events was his attendance at the concerts of Niccol’s Paganini, the diabolical violinist.
Near the end of 1832, Liszt met Countess Marie d’Agoult, and they became lovers; however, she was already married so the couple escaped scandal and eloped in Switzerland. The relationship continued for 12 years and produced three children. Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, eventually married Richard Wagner.
Between 1839 and 1847, Liszt enjoyed a virtuoso career second to none in the history of performance. He was the first to commit an entire program to memory and play it; the first to play all the keyboard pieces that were in existence at the time, from Bach to Chopin; the first to always place the piano at right angles to the stage, enabling the open lid to reflect the sound throughout the concert hall; and the first to tour Europe in its entirety. But he stopped doing concerts when he was 35, at which time his new lover, Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, urged him to spend his time composing. Liszt settled in Weimar where he wrote some of his most important masterpieces, such as the Faust Symphony, the Symphonic Poems, and the two piano concerti.
During what was known as the War of the Romantics, he supported his son-in-law, Wagner, and the futuristic school of Weimar against the more conservative Leipzig school, represented by the likes of Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann.
Liszt settled on a somewhat permanent basis in Rome in approximately 1860. There he took minor orders and became Abb’ Liszt. Here he mainly composed music with a religious theme. In the years immediately preceding his death, he no longer utilized the virtuoso style, favoring instead a bleak and introspective approach with atonal qualities.