Franz Liszt



Liszt was a Hungarian composer and pianist who became a kind of rock star of his day. When he was only 11 he met and played to Beethoven, who – Liszt said – was kind to him and gave him encouragement. Beethoven was often quite grumpy and not at all interested in child prodigies, so Liszt must have been good!

After his father died in 1827, Liszt moved to Paris – and there, among a hothouse of pianists determined to achieve perfection, his flair really took off. In 1832 he heard the great violinist Niccolò Paganini perform, and he decided to be as good at the piano as Paganini was at the violin. He practised hard, and soon became the most starry pianist the world had ever seen. He was also handsome, and ladies swooned over him at concerts.

When he was older, and rich, he stopped giving so many concerts and became a clergyman – called ‘Abbé Liszt’. But even then, he was always popular and could never resist showing off a little. For this reason, many people at the time thought him superficial (lacking depth or true understanding): great pianist, they thought, but not a great composer. However, Liszt wrote a huge amount of impressive piano music, much of it fiendishly difficult to play. He wrote some religious works, invented a new kind of descriptive orchestral piece that we call the ‘symphonic poem’, and composed some wonderful songs. He was forward-thinking, and some of his works were so modern-sounding they could have been written 50 years later.

Liszt was a generous man who helped dozens of composers. He helped Richard Wagner (who married his daughter) but got little thanks. He was a brilliant critic, a fine conductor, and a superb teacher. He gave much of his money to charity. To introduce great music to people who couldn’t get to concert halls, he wrote piano ‘transcriptions’ of opera and orchestral pieces – reducing the many parts of the orchestra to the keyboard of the piano.

Liszt was one of the great romantics – and, unlike many romantics, he also had good health and enormous energy!

Franz Liszt, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Listen to a little Liszt...

Trois Études de concert, S144/R5: No. 3 in D flat major, ‘Un sospiro’

Although it may not have been Liszt himself who produced the title ‘Un sospiro’ (Italian for ‘A sigh’), the music does seem a bit like a long, relaxed sigh. It is actually a piano ‘study’ – for the pianist to practise crossing over hands.

Performers: William Wolfram, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.552131-32

Les Préludes

This is the first and perhaps the most famous of Liszt’s ‘symphonic poems’. It comprises five sections: question, love, storm, calm, and battle and victory. It takes its name from a poem by the French poet Lamartine. It is scored for a large orchestra.

Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550487

Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke, S514/R181, ‘Mephisto Waltz No. 1’

This work was written originally for orchestra and then transcribed for piano. It tells a story. Here Faust dances with a lady to a tune played by the devil.

Performers: Giuseppe Andaloro, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557814

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Liszt came from which country?

a. Germany
b. France
c. Hungary

 Which of the following piano works did Liszt write?

a. Hammerklavier Sonata
b. Goldberg Variations
c. Transcendental Studies

 Who was Liszt’s friend and rival in Paris?

a. Mozart
b. Wagner
c. Chopin

 Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, married which great composer?

a. Brahms
b. Wagner
c. Schumann

 When he got older, Liszt became what?

a. A Member of Parliament
b. A clergyman
c. A cricketer

Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Liszt was admired by wealthy women who adored his concerts.
  2. Liszt and Chopin, both brilliant pianists living in Paris, were friends – but also rivals!
  3. Liszt was a fabulous sight-reader – he could play anything you put in front of him. Grieg gave him his new Piano Concerto to look at – a work most pianists spend ages practising – and Liszt rattled it off immediately!
  4. As Liszt got older, he became more adventurous in the music he wrote – some of his music sounded more like it was written in the 20th century.
  5. Liszt was a brilliant piano teacher: many of the great pianists of the next generation studied with him.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Piano Music

12 Transcendental Études (Studies), S139/R2b

Liszt’s wonderful, difficult, poetic set of études (studies) is, believe it or not, a simplified version of an earlier and even more difficult set. They give a pianist technical practice while still being satisfying music. Nos. 4, 5, 8, 10 and 12 are particularly tricky to play! They’re very descriptive – just listen to the light, darting will o’ the wisp in No. 5.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553119

Piano Sonata in B minor

Liszt dedicated his B minor Sonata to Robert Schumann in 1854. Apparently Brahms fell asleep while listening to it but Wagner thought it wonderful. Maybe Brahms was just tired! As a ‘sonata’ it is unusual because instead of having separate movements it is just one long, non-stop piece. Listen to how it travels from the mysterious, minimal opening notes to be more explosive at 1.34, using a combination of the theme introduced in bare octaves at 0.47 and a hammering theme first heard at 0.58. He does more and more with these themes as it goes on. Liszt’s clever, exciting Sonata has been hailed for years as a masterpiece.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553237

Années de pèlerinage: 2nd Year, Italy, S161/R10b

Liszt wrote three sets of piano pieces called Années de pèlerinage (‘Years of Pilgrimage’) and they are seen today as the fullest expression of Liszt’s style. Here you can listen to all the pieces of the second set, inspired by Liszt’s travelling round Italy.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550549

Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S173/R14 (excerpts)

Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses combine religious devotion with passionate romanticism. They were written in 1847 while he was living with his mistress, Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, at her estate in Poland. This is a selection from the full set of pieces.

Performers: Philip Thomson, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553073

19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, S244/R106: No. 2 in C sharp minor

Liszt wrote his 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies over a long period of time, between 1846 and 1885. No. 2 is one of the most famous of them, made even more famous by a Tom and Jerry cartoon. They all combine a slow introduction with a fast conclusion, like a Hungarian dance.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554480

Schubert – 12 lieder, S558/R243: No. 2. Auf dem Wasser zu singen

Liszt did a great job advertising the great composers he so much admired by writing piano versions of their works. In an age before recordings, people often got to know music through piano versions. Many of Liszt’s transcriptions are masterpieces of their kind. This is one of Liszt’s many Schubert transcriptions.

Performers: Oxana Yablonskaya, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553062

Orchestral Music

A Faust Symphony (Three Character Pictures, after Goethe), S108/R425

Liszt’s greatest orchestral work, A Faust Symphony, is based on a play of the same name by the German poet Goethe. It consists of three movements depicting the three main characters: 1. Faust; 2. Gretchen; 3. Mephistopheles, followed by a final, mystical chorus. Liszt dedicated the work to Berlioz.

Performers: András Molnár, tenor; Hungarian State Choir; Orchestra of the Ferenc Liszt Academy; András Ligeti

Taken from Naxos 8.553304

Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne (‘What is Heard on the Mountain’), S95/R412

Liszt’s symphonic poems were inspired by various paintings or books and are one-movement compositions that use a single tune or idea that keeps coming back. This one is based on a poem by Victor Hugo. It contrasts the perfection of nature with the miserable state of man.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.557846

Battle of the Huns, S105/R422

Another symphonic poem, this time inspired by a painting of the struggle between the Christian emperor, Theodoric, and the pagan Attila the Hun before the gates of Rome. The music becomes more and more intense and ends triumphantly.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.557846

Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S125/R456

Liszt wrote two piano concertos. In this second one, although the solo pianist shines, it is closely partnered with the orchestra, leading the music as its musical themes evolve. Just listen to the piano’s strong chords chiming with the strident brass instruments in the Allegro deciso – the third section here. The movements flow into each other so there is no big gap between them, as you often get in concertos. Again, Liszt was such a good composer he could justify breaking the rules when he wanted to!

Performers: Eldar Nebolsin, piano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko

Taken from Naxos 8.570517

Late Works

Via Crucis, S53/R534

Towards the end of his life, Liszt suffered sometimes from depression. He mourned the loss of friends as well as his own children, who had died. His music, previously so full of notes, took on a spare and tragic quality. Via Crucis is an example. You can hear, in this version for piano, chorus and soloists, how Liszt’s music changed at the end of his life.

Performers: Dorothee Labusch, mezzo-soprano; Furio Zanasi, baritone; Ulrich Rausch, bass; Diego Fasolis, piano; Choir of Radio Svizzera, Lugano; Diego Fasolis

Taken from Naxos 8.553786

La lugubre gondola, S200/R81 (1st version)

This late work Liszt wrote in 1882 when staying with Wagner in Venice. Liszt wrote it knowing that Wagner was dying, and it is a work of mourning. Its spare, cold harmonies influenced later composers. In his final years Liszt became a kind of musical prophet, pointing a way towards a new music which was to bear fruit in the twentieth century.

Performers: Arnaldo Cohen, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553852

Nuages gris (‘Grey Clouds’), S199/R78

This is one of Liszt’s strangest late works. It sounds a bit like Debussy’s music… but only a bit. Only Liszt could have written it. The music is ghostly and strange. Can this be the same man who wrote the Transcendental Studies?

Performers: Arnaldo Cohen, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553852