Last updated: June 24, 2019
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Franz Liszt and his recital tradition


Franz Liszt is a famous Hungarian composer and pianist of 19th century. He is famous for his innovative style and virtuoso style, which influenced general music process development and creative activity of many other famous composers.

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Liszt’s impact in development of musical process

Liszt is famous for being the first who used “piano recital” term. This term was first applied in London on the 9th of June, 1849, and this was the publisher of Liszt, Frederick Beale, who offered it. This was the first time is world music history when piano was regarded as an instrument able to perform a solo recital. Besides, most critics consider Liszt to be the first who performed his solo recitals fully from memory, and the first who turned the open lid of the piano to the audience. Combination of all these innovations indeed makes him an outstanding person, and he appeared to play for thousands of people. Similar to popular rock or pop stars today, Liszt used his fame and recognition to achieve his personal aims.

In the middle of 1840’s he dressed Hungarian national dress while playing his recitals to support protest against the influence of Austria in his native state. In the beginning of 1840’s Liszt’s fame exploded and his recitals gained a significant popularity in Europe. This is not surprising that he also became a celebrity among ladies, who often struggled to get the items, which he threw while playing recitals. Thus, his popularity among ladies can be compared to his fame expressed by his audience. The same year he was appointed Weimar’s  Kapellmeister extraordinaire. In 1844 he left Marie d’Agoult for taking up this appointment. In 1847 he took a tour in Russia, and there he got acquainted to Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was famous as a talented writer: “She was an author, and not an easy read at that!  Her writing style is excessively verbose; the writings themselves encompassing 16 volumes of over 1600 pages.”[1] It is supposed that some writings by Liszt created later were the subject of his activity together with Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, like earlier works were edited by Marie d’Agoult, and Princess is known to edit his work during later periods of his creative activity.

Liszt, as any talented person, had a versatile talent, and was talented writer. It is evident that the writing style of Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein influenced his style. Critics point to the biography of Chopin, written by Liszt, as an example of such influence, both with his chronology of gypsy music. In 1847 Liszt made a decision to abandon giving public recitals. The next year he accepts the offer of the Grand Duchess of Russia Maria Pavlovna to come to Weimar and settle there. From time to time he gave his recitals at the theatre and worked as the conductor of the court up to 1861.

During this Weimar period he made a great impact in to the New German School as the teacher and conductor, and his role in music progress during this period should not be underestimated. This period of his creative activity was remarkably productive. He created several etudes, the chorus to Prometheus (dramatic scenes of Herder), fifteen Hungarian Rhapsodies, the Graner Fest Messe, several organ music pieces, the symphonies of Faust and Dante, twelve symphonic poems, the Thirteenth Psalm (orchestra, chorus and tenor), two concerts for piano (Totentanz, the B minor piano sonata, Concerto Pathetique).

At present symphonic poem form by Liszt is the key element of the most popular and modern music. Before Liszt, all the forms of music had been organized and divided into few movements. Concertos or symphonies were separated into several movements, three or five average, and each of them had its specific themes and tempo. These movements complimented each other, but were separated with a pause.

This was courage and self-assurance, inherent to Liszt’s character, which inspired him to cancel these limits and turn the piece of music into a single united movement. This movement led the audience from the very beginning to the end without interruptions. Many of such poems were grounded on the themes transformation:

“Liszt would launch the piece with a small kernel, or musical phrase, which journeyed through various transformations, each evoking a different stage of development in regards to the specific subject being treated, thus culminating into an appropriate finale… be it soft and ethereal, as in Orpheus, triumphant, as in Tasso, or the fateful moan of the dying Hamlet. This contribution to music history is by itself enough to secure Liszt a golden thrown in the Pantheon of Composers, yet, this is only one of many that this great master bequethed to the world.”[2]

Another important aspect and an innovative element of the music composed and played by Liszt was its deep psychologism and emotionality, which far exceeded what existed before. Thus, Liszt is an innovator not in music sphere only, but also in the sphere of human sensitivity, due to his huge contribution into non-verbal, emotional form of human communication. According to biographers, he became the first person who tried to use his music in the hospitals, as a kind of therapy, visiting sick patients. There is one specific feature, inherent to his creations, which add life and passion into his music – they are not metronomic.

“The dark timbres of the Dante Sonata, Hamlet, Dante Symphony or the passionate swells of Harmonies du soir are all sonic premières in human history. Pushing beyond the mathematical Bach, the grace of Mozart or brotherhood of Beethoven, Liszt released the very heart, soul, and to some people’s chagrin, demons of mankind.

Wagner’s great “Ring”, especially Siegfried, could never have been born without knowing Liszt. Grieg’s famous Hall of the Mountain King shows a kinship to Liszt’s Inferno movt. from the Dante Symphony. Dvorak’s popular Largo from his New World Symphony also derives colorings found in the intro of Liszt’s Purgatory movt., again from Liszt’s Dante Symphony. The power and breadth of Liszt’s music clearly touched many, yet sadly… Liszt rarely, or never, received credit…until now.”[3]

As it has already been mentioned above, one of innovated features of his style was adding more life and giving up metronomic beat. As a conductor, he concentrated rather on live expression than on pure rhythm. As many modern critics suppose, strict adherence to metronomic beat and over use of it may deprive the performance of its humanistic features, and this observation is especially true for the writings of Romantic period. Moreover, a lot of modern exponents are criticized for exceeding roboticizing the music of Romantic style, which affects it humanistic content. The nature of contemporary surroundings and modern directions in general culture express the nature and values of industrial world, and that is why Liszt’s music has a special meaning for humanity. The critics emphasize that, in distinction from the works that demand metronomic rhythm, such as Bolero by Ravel or the 8th Symphony of Shostacovich, the works of Romantic style should be performed with emotions, rather than mind, and this recommendation fully corresponds to the advice, given by Liszt – a metronome should not be used.

Alteration of topics within the limits of one work, created and used by Liszt, was subsequently widened as a leitmotif by Wagner. This method added integrity to the symphonic poems, and it can be seen both in his symphonies and his concertos, like B minor sonata. Modern music education cannot be imagined without master class and solo piano recital, and these are both Liszt’s innovations, and his performing manner became a standard for today, when public recitals are played from memory.

Some critics find and discuss contradictions in the manner and style of Liszt as a composer “in its combination of romantic abstraction and otherworldliness with a cynical diabolism and elegant, worldly manners.”[4] His character and personality could not escape influencing his work as a composer and conductor. His intellect in combination with his creative nature produced an unusual way of making and performing music. He was not seeking for new sides of music only, but he inspired, taught and conducted the others in doing the same, risking personally and professionally. Some of his pieces of piano music are considered to be the most difficult works that ever appeared, like Transcendental Studies.

As far as the form of music plays is concerned, there is another remarkable feature of Liszt’s style, which deserves attention – he was not afraid of experimenting with large-scale structures (for instance, he extended traditional form of sonata, or, united forms that previously consisted of multiple movements). He added the piano a transcendental character, making the piano speak as an orchestra, and enrich its scope.

As it has already been mentioned, this was Liszt who invented and implemented the term symphonic poem. Another important feature of this form was its disobeyance to traditional rules, and referring to some picture or literary idea. All such pieces point out construction of music more vividly then painting or writing. For instance, Faust Symphonie, consisting of three parts with its live characters of Mephistopheles, Faust and Gretchen, is based upon transformation of the themes, rather then on expressing the idea through narrative, and it is another proof of great talent of Liszt. Unfortunately, he didn’t succeed in revolutionizing liturgy, he managed to create dramatic and emotional pieces with his psalm settings, such as Christus oratorio and Missa solemnis. These works were popular during his lifetime and are now widely used for performance.


Influence Of Liszt And Other Famous Composers

The influence of Beethoven upon music process is great, even if Beethoven’s general impact into tradition is omitted. In comparison to other masters, Bethoveen’s influence turned out to be the strongest. But even in comparison to Beethoven’s impact, Liszt’s influence is immense. His influence is evident in the works of numerous genius composers: Dvorak, Brahms, Bruckner, Wagner, Mahler, Bedrich Smetana, Edvard Grieg, César Franck and Saint-Saëns. Russian school experienced the influence of his innovative style too, including Borodin, Balakirev, Cui. Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov includes the elements of  Battle of the Huns by Liszt. The influence of Liszt’s Fantasy & Fugue on Bach (1856) is clearly evident in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). Even Tchaikovsky, who was fond of Mozart’s music and style, experienced the influence of Liszt in his Fatum, Hamlet, The 1812 Overture and the Piano Concerto No.1. Subsequently, Liszt’s influence was continued and developed by other composers, like Wagner, who influenced many famous opera composers, including Puccini, and thus tradition of Liszt continued indirectly.

Berlioz was the composer who promoted creative and colorful thinking, enlarged the scope and made it grand. He created music works, inspired by literature images and involving schematic implications. Actually, Berlioz is often regarded as the beginner of Romantic stream, which starts with Liszt and ends with Wagner, and even beyond this style, including Richard Strauss and Mahler. Liszt occupied the central part of the split between these two directions, and the romantic tradition with weaker influence, implemented in the works of Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssohn.

Paganini’s violin was the source of inspiration for Liszt’s showmanship and genius. Liszt mentioned that Paganini is an example for him in creating genius music for piano, as Paganini did it for violin. Following this intention, Liszt even transcribed numerous solo caprices for violin by Paganini – his famous etudes – into virtuosic pieces for piano. Many famous and talented pianists of that time, including Mendelssohn and Chopin, were insulted by showmanship, expressed in playing manner of Liszt, but at the same time they appreciated his great talent of pianist and his technique. As Clara Schumann expressed it, “Liszt played at sight what we toil over and at the end get nowhere with.”[5]

Liszt is often mentioned with Paganini as the symbol of great talent, charismatic genius and virtuosity, which fully captures large audiences they played for. Both these figures can be compared to modern popular rock stars, with their captivating charisma and attention-getting capacity. Liszt’s concerts were made special by numerous charming women, who tried to express their affection with the composer and his talent. In his studio, Liszt often played Beethoven, but for public concerts he mostly chose his own works, and this was partly his self-admiration, which encouraged him for inventing solo recital as a special way of performance.

The impact made by Chopin into Liszt’s creative activity expressed through Liszt’s specific poetic and intimate atmosphere, created by his works. He demonstrated a new aspect of piano music, making this instrument sound softly, creating pastel shadows. Barcarolle by Chopin, followed by Le Jeux d’eau a la Villa de Este by Liszt make up the way leading to impressionism of Ravel and Debussy.

Some critics suppose that Liszt as a composer developed slower than as a performer. Before the year of 1834 his activity included mostly transcribing other composers’ works to perform them on his solo concerts. During the period of 1835 – 1839 he wrote a lot of his well-known works, as Transcendental Etudes, or three collections of the Années de Pelerinages, which included a lot of important piano works, such as the Tre Sonetti di Petrarca or Vallee d’Obermann. The Hungarian Rhapsodies (namely, No.8, No.2, and No.12) followed these works with operatic paraphrases, such as the Waltz from Gounod’s “Faust, Wagner’s Overture to “Tannhäuser” and Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, and songs (‘Der Lindenbaum’, “Die shöne Müllerin”, Das Wandern).

While speaking about Liszt’s impact into world music tradition it is necessary to mention a remarkable detail – Beethoven completed the straight line development of historical tradition in music, while Liszt started the period when the music process separated into many directions and schools, and he appeared to influence all of these directions. There were no other music composer in the music historical process that is associated with such immense influence:

“He was like a prism – the single source of light that fractured into multiple rays of diverse and colorful influence; From the Late Romantics such as Rachmaninoff, Busoni and Mahler, to the Impressionists Debussy and Ravel, onto the Atonal Schoenberg.  All these latter schools were becoming prevalent only in the next century, after Liszt’s death. Bartók, Gershwin and even Sibelius, who only died in 1957, owed a great deal to Liszt. Thus Liszt’s vast prismatic rays of influence enlightened the multitude, spanning two centuries, helping to shape the colorful diversity of musical forms we know and cherish today.”[6]

Another composer, often compared to Liszt is Mozart. Indeed, they have much in common, both of them were recognized as talented pianists at their early age. But while the touring period of Mozart finished at his teen years, the fame and popularity of Liszt started to develop immensely. He was recognized for his physical attractiveness too: “His magnetic stage presence, flowing long hair, fiery eyes and phenomenal playing drew large audiences everywhere he went”. [7]Women made up a significant part of his audience and he was aware of his attractiveness and used it. There were numerous scandals about his romantic relations with women, including married ones.


Liszt’s Style

While speaking about Liszt’s playing, its theatrical and showy manner is always mentioned as an inherent element of composer’s style. As recognized by his numerous coevals, his piano mastery had no rivals. For instance, Schumann portrayed his Paganini Studies and Douze Grandes Etudes as “studies in storm and dread designed to be performed by, at most, ten or twelve players in the world”.[8]

It was stated that Liszt devoted more then ten hours a day to working on his performance, playing trills, arpeggios, scales and played them again and again to make his manner faultless. Later he applied these techniques in his works, which sometimes made his works technically difficult, like Transcendental Etude No.5 “Feux follets”. He aimed at perfectness and put challenges for himself, setting new levels to reach them.

Physical structure of Liszt’s hands is sometimes treated as a factor significant for his abilities in reaching high level in playing techniques. The fingers of Liszt had no any extreme length, although they were remarkably slender. At the same time, there are almost no small skin connectors between his fingers, which probably allowed him cover wider notes span in comparison to average pianists.

While speaking about Liszt’s innovative style it is necessary to mention that in spite of being spectacular, the emotional content of his music deserved no less attention. According to the memoirs of his spectators, he played so deeply and emotionally that often moved the audience to tears, and this quality developed through his lifetime: “reports of his playing in old age include observations that it was surprisingly and distinctly subtle and poetic, with great purity of tone and effortlessness of execution; in contrast to the more tumultuous so-called “Liszt school” of playing, which by then had already started to become traditional in Europe.”[9]

Incredible combination of emotional content of Liszt’s works and his virtuoso technique make him unique and attract attention of music admirers all over the world since the 19th century. There are no recordings of his playings at preset, but his pieces are still often performed all over the world, and are still popular in many countries.

Gooley, Dana. The Virtuoso Liszt. Cambridge, UK:Cambridge Universtiy Press, 2004.

Sachs, Harvey. Virtuoso. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1982.

Sadie, Stanley. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd. New York: Grove’s Dictionaries Inc., 2001.

Schonberg, Harold. The Lives of the Great Composers. 3rd. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997.

DiSilvio, Rich. The Franz Liszt Site. 2006. 22 Oct 2007. .

Franz Liszt. Biographies. 15 Sep 2004. Maurice 21 Oct 2007 .

Holland, Bernard. Critics Notebook; For Liszt, A Balancing Of Heart And Hands. The New York Times 22 Jan 2001 1. 21 Oct 2007

Hughes, Rupert. The Great love Affairs of Great Musicians: Volume 2. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. The Project Gutenberg, 2004. 21 Oct. 2007.

Coby Lubliner. How Hungarian was Liszt?



[1] Rupert Hughes,. The Great love Affairs of Great Musicians: Volume 2. (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing), 2004. The Project Gutenberg, 2004. 21 Oct. 2007.
[2] Bernard Holland,. Critics Notebook; For Liszt, A Balancing Of Heart And Hands. (The New York Times 22 Jan 2001)
[3] Dana Gooley. The Virtuoso Liszt. (Cambridge, UK:Cambridge Universtiy Press, 2004).
[4] Harvey Sachs,. Virtuoso. (New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1982).
[5] Stanley Sadie,. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd. (New York: Grove’s Dictionaries Inc., 2001).
[6] Harold Schonberg,. The Lives of the Great Composers. 3rd. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997).
[7] Rich DiSilvio. The Franz Liszt Site. 2006. 22 Oct 2007 .
[8] Franz Liszt. Biographies. 15 Sep 2004. Maurice 21 Oct 2007 .
[9] Coby Lubliner. How Hungarian was Liszt?