Move over, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Justin Beiber: presenting Franz Liszt! The term ‘Beatlemania’ was coined in the 1960s. But, a century before Beatles, in the 1860s, Liszt set the pattern for ‘Lisztomania’ according to the OED, and was termed the world’s first ‘music superstar’. At the tender age of six, he was recognized as a child prodigy; composing elementary works at eight; and by the time he reached nine, he was appearing in concerts.
Yes, Franz Liszt was a Hungarian pianist and composer of phenomenal influence and originality. Romantic and idealist by nature, at the age of 22, Liszt composed several impressions of the Swiss countryside in Album d’un voyageur, which would later appear as Années de Pèlerinage (“Years of Pilgrimage”). Even before he was 25, Liszt debuted his piano compositions, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses and a set of three Apparitions. Liszt’s new works and public performances won over audiences in Europe. His unique talent was his uncanny ability to improvise an original composition from a melody suggested by an audience member.
The musician in him also had a humanitarian heart ticking away. His eminent position was showcased even further by the fact that he donated many of his concert proceeds to charities and humanitarian causes. For instance, when the Great Fire of Hamburg (1842), devastated much of the city, he gave concerts to generate aid for its thousands of homeless. In his late 30s/40s, Liszt began to focus on the creation of new musical forms. His most notable accomplishment during this period was the creation of the ‘symphonic poem’, a genre of an orchestral musical piece that illustrates or evokes a poem, a story, a painting, or other non-musical source. It can be said that the symphonic poem is in some ways linked to opera in an aesthetic sense; it is not sung, but it does unite music and drama. Liszt’s new works were radical and innovative, inspiring a generation of students—and these works found their way into the concert halls of Europe, winning him staunch followers and violent adversaries.
Liebestraum No. 3 – The piece consists of three parts, each divided by a fast cadenza requiring a very high degree of technical ability. The same melody is used throughout the piece, each time varied.
This was also the period of his celebrated production: the first 12 symphonic poems, A Faust Symphony, A Symphony to Dante’s Divina Commedia, the Piano Sonata in B Minor, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat Major, and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major. Liszt also composed the Totentanz for piano and orchestra, revised versions of the Transcendental and Paganini Études and many others. As a pianist, Liszt pioneered complete solo recitals and was instrumental in popularizing the performance of music by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz and Wagner by transcribing their works for piano and playing them in his concerts. Besides his 700-odd compositions, Liszt wrote books on Frédéric Chopin, Hungarian gypsy music, Wagner’s Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, et al.
Wagner, another icon, reportedly once said of Liszt: “Do you know a musician who is more musical than Liszt?” And on another occasion, he quipped “I feel thoroughly contemptible as a musician, whereas you (Liszt), as I have now convinced myself, are the greatest musician of all times”.
La Campanella (the little bell in Italian) – The melody of this piece comes from the final movement of Niccolò Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor. The sound of the little bell is introduced by bare octaves in the opening, followed by a long pause.
As music aficionados commemorate his 210th birth anniversary in 2021, this quote of Franz Liszt which epitomized his life is worthy of recall, “For the virtuoso, musical works are in fact nothing but tragic and moving materializations of his emotions; he is called upon to make them speak, weep, sing and sigh, to recreate them in accordance with his own consciousness. In this way, he, like the composer, is a creator, for he must have within himself those passions that he wishes to bring so intensely to life.”