THE LISZT SOCIETY

Based in the UK but with a worldwide membership, we are dedicated to the appreciation and study of the life and works of Liszt, and the performance, publication and recording of his music. Founded in 1950 by the late Humphrey Searle and reconstituted in 1970, we are the longest-standing society devoted to Franz Liszt and his output.

Franz Liszt (22 X 1811 - 31 VII 1886)

Hungarian composer, conductor, pianist and teacher – was born in Raiding (now in Austria), the son of Adam Liszt, a minor official on the Esterházy estate, and his wife Anna, née Lager.  His talent manifested itself very early, and his brief formal education culminated in studies in Vienna, principally with Czerny and Reicha.  In 1822 he met Beethoven, whose bestowed blessing he counted the most important formative experience of his musical life.  At the age of fourteen, he went with his father to Paris, and adopted French to such an extent that it remained his mother tongue for the rest of his life.  [He later acquired a degree of English and Italian, revived his German, and attempted some Hungarian, but like many distinguished Hungarians of the day, never spoke his country’s language with any fluency.]  His remaining education, acquired on the hoof, as it were, saw him mixing in the most important social and artistic circles in Paris, reading and practising voraciously, having his only opera – Don Sanche – given in 1826, the year he first visited England, and publishing a number of early piano works, principally the Étude en quarante-huit exercices [of which he wrote only 12, and which would become the thematic source for the later Études d’exécution transcendante].  He was a strikingly handsome young man, and in much demand by ladies of all ages, leading to many a legend of sexual conquest, and a fame of altogether greater proportion than the world of art music has seen before or since.  But these years also saw the beginnings of Liszt’s lifelong devotion to Christianity and his interest in some of the more progressive religious philosophies of the day, especially those of Lamartine and Lammenais, whom he knew personally.  He met and befriended almost every person of artistic consequence in early 1830s Paris, including Paganini, Berlioz, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Alkan, Hiller, Auber, Bellini, Meyerbeer, Delacroix, Ingres, Hugo, Heine, Balzac, Georges Sand and Dumas père.  By 1835, when he eloped to Switzerland and thence to Italy with the Countess Marie d’Agoult, his reputation as a performer was unparalleled, but his work as a composer was relatively unknown.  Yet he had already composed several important original works: the Apparitions, the single piece entitled Harmonies poétiques et religieuses and the enormous piece for piano and orchestra De profundis among them.

Liszt’s Album d’un voyageur and a series of operatic fantasies were composed whilst he lived en famille – the Countess bore him three children: Blandine in 1835, Cosima in 1837, and Daniel in 1839.  He broke away from time to time to give concerts, eventually playing solo performances, coining the term ‘recital’ for them.  Liszt travelled very widely, played an extraordinary mixture of music to captivate his audiences before daring to play the most serious repertoire, and embarked upon the largest body in musical history of transcriptions and fantasies on other composers’ works, generally in the spirit of proselytising discipleship. He also worked on original instrumental and vocal compositions, and a large collection of piano pieces based on Hungarian gypsy melodies.  In between, he sketched several piano concertos and raised almost all of the money required to erect a statue to Beethoven in Bonn, for the unveiling of which he composed an excellent cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra.  But Liszt knew that the constant travelling over these many years was impeding his work as a composer – it was also a serious component reason for the permanent breakdown of his relationship with Marie d’Agoult, which had finally taken place in 1844.  Meanwhile, he had been asked to consider becoming Kapellmeister in Weimar – a position he eventually took up in 1848, having renounced his career as pianist, and now under the influence of that other most important woman in his life, the Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, whom he had met in early 1847.

Although Liszt had written a number of works with piano or voices and orchestra, his output for orchestra alone really began in earnest in Weimar, where he had an orchestra at his constant disposal, staffed by some really fine musicians.  He took many risks, and over a period of twelve years conducted much new or controversial repertoire, especially in the opera theatre.  Famous premières include LohengrinAlfonso und Estrella and Der Barbier von Baghdad, and famous revivals include Der fliegende HolländerTannhäuserFidelioLa favorite, Ernani and Benvenuto Cellini.  During the 1840s he had begun to plan a series of orchestral pieces inspired by works of art in other genres, and in Weimar he regularly produced a series of twelve Symphonic Poems [Ce qu’on entend sur la montagneTassoLes préludesOrpheusPrometheusMazeppaFestklängeHeroïdefunèbreHungariaHamletHunnenschlacht and Die Ideale] – a form of his own invention, howsoever related to the concert overture.  Over these years he revised much of his earlier piano music, reissuing the works under the titles by which they have endured: the Années de pèlerinage I & II, the Rapsodies hongroises, the Grandes Études de Paganini, the Études d’exécution transcendante and the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses [now a series of ten pieces].  He also reworked many of his earlier songs and, by the end of his tenure in Weimar, published sixty of them.  This period also saw the composition of the monumental Sonata in B minor, and the two masterful symphonies, one inspired by Goethe’s Faust, the other by Dante’s Divina Commedia.  In all of these works, Liszt strove for new structures that would extend the working life of the sonata-form that dominated most large-scale instrumental music of the day.  He also had visions of a new music for the Church and, despite his detractors, wrote an excellent orchestral Mass: Missa solennis [for the consecration of the Basilica at Esztergom (Gran)] and two Psalms with orchestra, alongside quite a number of more modest motets, and he began the composition of his considerable corpus of organ music with the mighty fantasy and fugue Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.  He also began his teaching life in earnest, and his pupils would include such first-rate musicians as Tausig, von Bülow and Reubke.  Liszt became a mentor and provider to many younger musicians who found their way to Weimar and, as ever, since their friendship had begun, continued to subsidise Wagner.  Liszt’s domestic life in Weimar was quite difficult: Princess Carolyne remained married to her husband in Russia, who was a great friend of Tsar Nicholas I.  The tsar’s sister, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, was a close friend at court of the Grand Duke of Weimar, who was Liszt’s employer.  Liszt was obliged to put up at an hotel whilst the Princess took the rooms provided for Liszt at the Altenburg in order to avoid scandal, but scandal there was, nonetheless.  Political intrigue finally provoked resignation, and Liszt set forth to Rome, where he lodged for a time as a guest of Pope Pius IX.

At the end of the Weimar period, Liszt had started work on his two great oratorios: St. Elizabeth and Christus, and these, along with important pieces such as the Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus Faust, the Légendes, the ‘Weinen, Klagen’ Variations [after the death of his daughter Blandine at 26] and the Trois Odes funèbres [the first of these after the death of his son at 19] were his principal accomplishments as a composer over the next years.  He also wrote more church music, including the delicate Missa choralis [with organ] and the intriguingly nationalistic Missa coronationalis [with orchestra], more songs, organ works, shorter piano pieces and transcriptions, and prepared the definitive edition of his piano solo versions of all nine Beethoven Symphonies.  Attempts to marry Carolyne came to nothing, even after the death of her husband removed all obstacles, real and imagined.  He took minor orders in the Church, wore Franciscan robes, was properly called the Abbé Liszt, and came to divide his life into three, travelling almost annually for the rest of his life to Rome, Weimar and Budapest, appearing occasionally as a conductor, much less often as a pianist, but almost always as a teacher and benefactor, and probably acted throughout this endless round as some kind of emissary for the Vatican.  The works of his late years are of very special interest: having been an avant-garde pioneer of the new Romantic vision – shared with Wagner and Bruckner, among others – he now became an extraordinary visionary of the end of the musical world he had helped so much to create, and wrote works which prefigured quite a lot of the music of the first half of the twentieth century.  Many of his late works were known only to the few, and some were denied publication, so daring were they deemed – amongst which, his unique musical treatment of the Stations of the Cross: Via Crucis.  One late symphonic poem – From the Cradle to the Grave – and the Second Mephisto Waltz complete his orchestral œuvre, and there is quite a body of late choral, vocal and chamber music, much of which remains virtually unknown, including another, unfinished, oratorio: St. Stanislaus.  The late piano pieces, on the other hand, have enjoyed considerable notoriety since they were effectively rediscovered in the 1950s: the third book of the Années, the ‘Christmas Tree’ Suite, the Historical Hungarian PortraitsNuages grisSchlaflos, the Valses oubliées, the three Csárdás, the pieces associated with the death of Wagner – La lugubre gondolaR. W. – Venezia and Am Grabe Richard Wagners – and the late Mephisto WaltzesMephisto Polka and Bagatelle without tonality are all hailed for their prescience of the direction that Western classical music would take after Liszt’s death.  Liszt died in Bayreuth in 1886, largely due to the disgraceful way he was treated there by his daughter Cosima, from whom he had been virtually estranged for the last twenty years of his life, and whom he had gone to help with the festival inaugurated by his son-in-law Wagner.  Liszt’s artistic influence on his contemporaries and successors is incalculably great: Wagner, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Smetana, Franck, Grieg, Fauré, Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Reger, Skryabin, Schoenberg, Bartók, and even Brahms, Verdi and John Adams are all touched by his example.

Liszt’s prodigious musical output is widely recorded: the best recording of the Faust Symphony remains Beecham’s; Masur’s Dante Symphony is excellent, as are his Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus Faust and Mephisto Waltz no. 2; the Symphonic Poems are widely recorded, and Haitink, Masur, Noseda, Golovanov, Solti and Joó are all worth investigating, as are Conlon, Rickenbacher and Albrecht in other orchestral pieces.  Fistoulari or Scherchen are wonderful in the orchestral Hungarian Rhapsodies. There is less choice with the choral works, but Rilling’s Christus stands out.  The best single recording of some of the songs is by Janet Baker and Geoffrey Parsons.  Chamber music and organ music are not as well represented as they might be, and even piano duets and two-piano music are rarely encountered, but piano solo CDs are legion: many marvellous historical and recent recordings, with contributions from Andsnes, Arrau, Bolet, Brendel, Busoni, van Cliburn, Cortot, Curzon, Fiorentino, Grainger, Jandó, Kapell, Lhévinne, Michelangeli, Moiseïwitsch, Ogdon, Petri, Rakhmaninov, Richter, Wild, Zimerman and a host of others, and there are many recordings of some of the 16 pieces for piano and orchestra, unmissably the Concertos from von Sauer with Weingartner [both Liszt pupils].  [The present writer has had the honour to record all the solo piano music.]  The best general books about Liszt in English are ‘Portrait of Liszt’ by Adrian Williams, and the ‘Master Musicians’ volume on Liszt by Derek Watson; after that, Legány’s 2-volume ‘Liszt and his Country’ and Alan Walker’s 3-volume biography, along with the ‘Liszt Letters’ of  Adrian Williams.

 © Leslie Howard 2007