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Franz Liszt Commentary & Biography
Romantic Leader & Mystical Pioneer

Franz Liszt has emerged as one of the most awe-inspiring figures in all of music history. Regarded by most as the greatest pianist of all time, Liszt's genius extended far beyond the piano to expand musical composition and performance well beyond its 19th century limitations. His unique compositions bewildered, inspired, and inflamed the imaginations of his own era, yet quite miraculously, he also laid the seeds for a series of schools that would flourish in the near and distant future. Namely, the Late Romantic, Impressionist, and Atonal schools. For these remarkable contributions, Liszt is unique, and his immense influence is unquestionably monumental.

A brief overview indicates...

1. Liszt's piano compositions stand as pinnacles of the literature. His vast array of innovations in keyboard technique and overall development remain unrivalled.

2. He invented the symphonic poem - a new and elastic single-movement form, which many subsequent composers, like Richard Strauss, Dvorak, Saint-Saëns and Sibelius, embraced. Liszt's single movement work is at the core of most contemporary and popular music forms today. Previously, all musical forms were organized and structured into several movements. Symphonies, concertos etc. were all divided into generally three to five different movements, each with varying tempos and themes, which, in total, complimented each other. However, all were interrupted by a pause. Liszt was bold enough to abolish this restraint, whereby devising a single, sweeping movement that carried the listener from beginning to end—seamlessly without the "dead" dreadful pauses.

Many of these innovative tone poems were based upon Liszt's novel transformation of themes. For example: 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 by itself is enough to secure Liszt a golden throne in the Pantheon of Composers, however, this is only one small facet of many that this glittering master bequeathed to the world.

Liszt's Symphonic Poems: Berg Symphony No.1, Tasso No.2, Les Préludes No.3, Orpheus No.4, Prometheus No.5, Mazeppa No.6 , Festklänge No.7, Héroïde funèbre No.8, Hungaria No.9, Hamlet No.10 , Battle of the Huns No.11, Die Ideale No.12, From the Cradle to the Grave No.13 

3. Liszt's music evoked deep psychological and emotional impact, far exceeding what previously existed. Thus he opened new dimensions not only in the world of music, but also in human awareness to the immense impact this emotional and mysterious form of communication could have on human beings. Liszt is documented as being the first person to ever attempt using music as therapy while visiting sick and demoralized patients in hospitals. The majority of Liszt's compositions breathe and flow with a human pulse of passion, rather than a metronomic, or robotic, beat that is too often a slave to cold, mathematical-like notation.

The dark timbres of the Dante Sonata, Hamlet, Dante Symphony or the passionate swells of Harmonies du soir are all sonic premieres in human history. Pushing beyond the mathematics of Bach, the grace of Mozart or the 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 a moment in 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.

4. Liszt was one of the first modern conductors; breathing life into a score in lieu of merely beating time, thus focusing more on fluid expression rather than a cold metronomic beat. While a metronome does have its place in certain circumstances, over-use and strict adherence drains a performance of its humanistic beauties, especially works from the Romantic era. Unfortunately, there are still many performers today that roboticize Romantic music. Just because we live in a progressively industrial and computerized world doesn't mean we should abandon our humanity. This is not to say that all works must abandon the metronomic beat, as it certainly is mandatory with certain works, such as Ravel's Bolero or Shostakovich's third movement from his 8th Symphony for example. But when performing romantic works that breathe with passion and intense mood swings it's imperative to feel the beat with one's heart and not one's mind. So, perhaps many instructors today should heed Liszt's advice - don't use a metronome!
5.Liszt developed the transformation of themes, later imitated by Wagner as a leitmotif. As mentioned earlier, this formed the galvanizing structure that kept the symphonic poems together, yet he also utilized this in his concertos, the mighty B minor sonata, and his profoundly moving and effective symphonies.
6. Liszt was the first and true inventor of impressionism and atonal music, well before Debussy and Schoenberg.
7. Liszt was the first to fully orchestrate on the piano, utilizing all its undiscovered resources, earning him the moniker King of the piano. The lush blankets of sound that Liszt summoned from the piano were strikingly novel, and they profoundly expanded the possibilities for all others that followed. Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Saint-Saëns and others were young, impressionable peers of the master, and their Lisztian concertos likewise enabled Rachmaninov, Adinsell, Gershwin and others to follow, right up to the present day, such as Keith Emerson with his classical piano concerto—all being children of Liszt.
8. With praiseworthy benevolence, Liszt taught freely to well-over 400 students, procuring a vital school of disciples; Von Bulow, Rosenthal, Siloti, Friedheim, d'Albert and others who all carried his blazing torch forward. Likewise, he was the first, and perhaps greatest musical philanthropist by raising funds for national disasters and charities, or erecting the Beethoven monument, which was largely due to his efforts.
9. He created strikingly original orchestrations utilizing unconventional instruments, such as the triangle (Piano Concerto #1), harp (Dante Symphony), and bass drum (Héroïde Funèbre).
10. Liszt invented the piano recital and master class, both indispensable to modern audiences and students respectively. He had perfect pitch, and was the first performer to play entirely from memory, thus forging today's commonplace standard.
11. Selflessly, Liszt promoted the works of fellow composers; Wagner, Grieg, Smetana, Berlioz, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Faure, Borodin and others who all likewise gained valuable artistic insights into their own creativity by studying this grand master.
12. And perhaps most importantly, Franz Liszt altered the course of music history more than any 19th century composer, as the future would follow Liszt's direction, not Brahms or the traditionalists who followed Beethoven's classical structure, which he in turn adopted from Mozart and Haydn.
Read more about Influence and the Creative Process.

To comprehend the rare and powerful genius of Franz Liszt it is crucial to not only examine the complex higher-being that he was, but also reveal the ignorance of his detractors (with the aid of hindsight and wisdom), for they have sadly amassed a dark cloud of skepticism that has obscured reality. And quite unfortunately, that blinding bias can still be witnessed today.

For those deeply interested, I suggest reading some of the books in my bibliography, yet to briefly touch upon this issue, it is evident that many rivals and turncoat friends did a great injustice to this man. None of them—Hanslick, Clara Schumann or Joachim, to name a few—were as magnanimous or gifted as he was and perhaps they resented it. Like the high praise Liszt once received from Clara until he became a superstar, when she completely reversed her opinion - adding how she loathed how the frenzied women fell at his feet.

That Liszt's works were not seriously considered was in part due to his catering to the public with show pieces. These dazzling crowd-pleasers also helped to make Liszt popular and world famous, however he was breaking new ground on several fronts. First: by devising the piano recital, which was made possible by his unrivalled ability to orchestrate on the piano. Liszt's rich, lush blanket of sound was strikingly new and compelling. Second: by playing demanding virtuoso pieces that only he could perform (which were in vogue at the time), thus becoming the first musical superstar. Third: (a neglected point), he is rarely given credit for exposing the works of the old masters to audiences that otherwise could never have heard these works, since radios or stereos didn't exist. He did this both in original form, and by operatic transcriptions and paraphrases, the latter being significantly enhanced with his own original scoring, and Fourth: by playing to broader mixed audiences, not just for kings, queens and the aristocracy. Hence, Liszt brought music to the general public and established modern musical practices. That some crowds craved the pure excitement generated by the more shallow or bombastic pieces, however, deeply offended the intellects.

As such, some critics condemned him from the very beginning—a dark cloud that lingered over him for a lifetime. Yet, it's interesting how some of these intellects couldn't comprehend the complexity of his serious pieces, or they dismissed his works on the grounds that no single person could be both a star performer and a great composer. Liszt couldn't win with these mental midgets. In general, they loved his performances and technique, but despised his compositions. It's amazing how the pen of one single-minded critic can wield devastating control over public opinion.

Even today many people will forfeit seeing a movie based upon a critic's review. Many times this can destroy box office sales and plummet a film into obscurity. Yet with time and a lack of bias, it may secure a revival via the video rental market. Many excellent films have risen from the ashes this way, and so, too, has Liszt risen like a phoenix. This phenomenon can be succinctly witnessed in a personal letter that Liszt wrote in 1875, "For people now-a-days hear and judge only by reading the newspapers. I mean to take advantage of this in so far that the leading and favorite papers of Vienna, Pest, Leipzig, Berlin, Paris, London, etc.--which abhor my humble compositions and have declared them worthless and objectionable--shall be relieved of all further outward trouble concerning them. What is the good of performances to people who only care to read newspapers?"

Amid all this unjust bias we must never ignore the countless accolades by Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, Robert Schumann, Edvard Grieg, Chopin and many others of high esteem that simultaneously revealed the awe generated by his superlative performances, and more importantly...their admiration for his bewildering and ingenious compositions.

"I am writing without knowing what my pen is scribbling, because at this moment Liszt is playing my études and putting honest thoughts out of my head. I should like to rob him of the way he plays my études." -Frédéric Chopin.

"Now you must bear in mind, in the first place, that he had never seen nor heard the sonata, and in the second place that it was a sonata with a violin part, now above, now below, independent of the piano part. And what does Liszt do? He plays the whole thing, root and branch, violin and piano, nay, more, for he played fuller, more broadly. The violin got its due right in the middle of the piano part. He was literally over the whole piano at once, without missing a note, and how did he play! With grandeur, beauty, genius, unique comprehension. I think I laughed—laughed like an idiot." -Edvard Grieg

Furthermore, in reading David Dubal's "Reflections from the Keyboard", he indicated how the majority of great pianists, from Liszt's era to the present, were all enamored and influenced by Liszt's fertile mind and visionary achievements. Their reflections of this great man were very revealing and moving. In fact, a brief summation of Liszt in the book states, "he possessed the most pianistic mind in history." Liszt explored, expanded and revealed the full potential of the instrument more than any other composer in history. And that impressive list of admiration by prominent pianists does not even touch upon Liszt's phenomenal orchestral achievements.

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This commentary hopes to clear the air, since the reader is probably familiar with the lies, misconceptions or the attacks on his work and personal life. Yet we won't lose sight that he did make mistakes. The trail to unexplored horizons is always littered with failures. Liszt has many works that attempt novelty and don't succeed in total, but usually even these failures contain small seeds of pure gold. Some seeds would remain trapped in failures, while others would be transplanted into more successful works months, years or even decades later. This godlike figure was in fact human- yet his saintly critics never gave him that consideration, as they just yearned to crucify what the public adored. Expecting any human, who is pushing the boundaries as far as he did, to produce only flawless works is simply unrealistic. What is key to remember is this...we mortals all have flaws, yet none of us can create like Liszt. And that speaks volumes.

Some critics relished Liszt's amorous affairs, which fueled scathing attacks and vivid imaginations. But it must be noted, it was primarily the women who hounded Liszt, who was a handsome young star who grew up to be an iconic figure, and as such, was constantly approached by women with flaming hormones, who had a desire to capture and possess or just to copulate with fame. Liszt did get entangled with women, however tabloids in the 19th century weren't much different than those today, as human nature evolves much slower than technological advances, and many affairs were pure fabrication—blowing reality into an unnatural viagra-like distortion of preposterous proportions.

Yet, even though Liszt certainly had a weakness for woman, he was predominantly cited as being kind, generous and always a gentleman. And although his relationship with Marie d'Agoult was unorthodox, he did stand firm to gain custody and support his children. He even refused Wagner a loan on the grounds of saving for his children's education. Fortunately for Liszt's mother, who raised the children, they obtained some emotional stability amid their parent's turmoil. Liszt knew how integral his mother was in this capacity, and in a letter he spoke quite eloquently of his love for her, "I thank my mother with reverence and tender love for her continual proofs of goodness and love. In my youth people called me a good son; it was certainly no special merit on my part, for how would it have been possible not to be a good son with so faithfully self-sacrificing a mother?--Should I die before her, her blessing will follow me into the grave." Yes, Liszt could have been a much better father, but the world would have been stripped of many monumental masterpieces that have thrilled and enhanced millions of peoples lives. Moreover, music history would have been doomed to take a far less adventurous path, and it's hard to fathom just what kind of music would have materialized today without a revolutionary reformer like Liszt.

Adding to Liszt's woes, Marie d'Agoult and George Sand (partners to Liszt and Chopin respectively), plagued the public with catty gossip—disguised in the form of pathetic literature. Each woman dipping her pen in poison to concoct a nasty novel about their former lover. Both scathing novels painted lame pictures of Liszt and Chopin, with the failed hopes of making fiction nonfiction.

Yet, it's keen to note that, Sand was informed of a back-stabbing letter that Marie wrote about her and Liszt, while they were all still friends, and retaliated by painting a grim picture of Marie in her novel Horace. Sand also informed Balzac of Marie's cold nature, prompting Balzac to cast a cold portrait of Marie in his book Beatrix, which many felt was a fairly accurate portrayal. Those who rallied behind the notion of the angelic Marie (coldly abandoned by the demonic Liszt) were only duped by this feline fabricator of fiction. Evidently, many writers repeated this gossip, as even the 1960 film "Song Without End" was laced with these false and unfortunate distortions.

Amid these character assassinations Liszt and Chopin remained gentleman, never lowering themselves to the malicious hen-pecking of their counterparts. That in itself reveals a good deal about each of the real life characters involved. Additionally, the letters of Liszt and Marie that have now come to surface clearly reveal their characters in non-fictional words. In light of the new documented evidence of Marie's mental instability, even previous to meeting Liszt, it's understandable why Liszt never retaliated. We, too, must grant her sympathy, but the scars still remain.

To further attest to Liszt's good nature, it goes without debate that, Liszt is regarded as the most generous of all the great composers, concerning both his pupils and peers. The numerous lives that have benefited by Liszt's generosity, and the abundant praise written about him by those in close personal contact, all attest to his being too good to a fault. Even when he was not on speaking terms with Wagner, or shunned by the Schumann's later in life, Liszt never abandoned his regard or promotion of their work. Astonishingly, he even refrained from promoting his own works to secure a foothold for his colleagues. Again, most rare.

As for the critics' attack on his avant-garde music, their inability to grasp something far greater than their own self-inflated intellect has caused their own demise. Their fate fell to the course of time...only to reveal Liszt's colossal influence and their own Lilliputian limitations. Liszt was never forgotten, as they would have hoped, as many great pianists like; Bulow, Friedheim, Horowitz, Earl Wild, Cziffra, Arrau, Jorge Bolet, Van Cliburn, Kiss, Howard, Lisitsa and countless others have kept Liszt's music alive over the past two centuries. Additionally, many Hollywood films featured his work, such as "Captain Blood" with Errol Flynn (Prometheus, Mazeppa) "Flash Gordon" (Les Préludes) and we cannot forget how even the Marx Brothers loved toying with his Hungarian Rhapsody #2, as did Bugs Bunny or Tom & Jerry, as well as appearing in "Roger Rabbit" and many other flicks.


Hungarian Rhapsody #2 (advance to 3:44 to hear the famous rollicking melody)

Likewise, not many composers have films made about them, but Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt did, even though the movies about Liszt still distort and taint his character. Yes, Liszt was flesh and blood and made mistakes, but his miraculous musical achievements (which dramatically altered music history) and his selfless goodwill to his fellow man reach the pinnacle of human endeavor. Thus earning him the title "Godlike" from many then and perhaps even more now. In hindsight, Liszt's influence can only be termed "colossal."

Many then and now have also been intrigued by the master's magical hands. Plaster casts had actually been made while Liszt was still alive, allowing viewers today a chance to marvel at these mystical devices of wonder. The myth that all great pianists have long slender fingers most likely originated after viewing Liszt's hands—although today we know many great pianists do have short and thick fingers. Upon viewing the casts, we clearly see that Liszt had slender fingers, yet not exceedingly long. However, what these casts do compellingly revealed was that, the web-like connective tissue between the fingers was almost nil, allowing for a much wider spread than a normal hand of similar proportions. This physical trait allowed Liszt greater flexibility and a wider reach, but we must always remember, the real source of magic came from Liszt's heart, soul and mind.

At some venues Liszt performed with two pianos on stage. This was done so that, when one piano was whacked out of tune he could continue on the other. It's not that Liszt smashed the keys like a madman, it's just that pianos at that time were still in a transitional state—basically, they were lightweight harpsichords being transformed into sturdy pianos with more keys. Many virtuosos at that time were beginning to demand a more powerful instrument, and Liszt lead that wave of evolution, as his orchestrated sounds on the keyboard were far in advance of any other composer of his time. Many manufacturers leapt to the master's insightful wishes and even developed instruments exclusively for him. This musical legend was indeed akin to the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus. Liszt had even written a symphonic poem (and a transcribed version for piano) about this poet/musician par excellence--someone he could certainly identify with. In fact, could Liszt have been Orpheus in a previous life? Okay, a fanciful thought, but the similarities are present.

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It's odd that, despite Liszt's popularity some sadly neglect the full breadth of his worldly visions and contributions. Liszt wasn't all tinsel or thunder and lightening. It is interesting to note that Leonard Bernstein praised Gustav Mahler for his worldly variety, yet Liszt, in comparison, exceeds even Mahler. Whereas Mahler tried to incorporate the world into his symphonies from a personal and inward perspective Liszt's perspective was cultivated by a life of traveling and being a multicultural sponge. Thus he was able to achieve what others could only imagine. Simply put, Liszt had more to offer.

Just by perusing Liszt's output one can see his diversity. His oeuvre included multinational pieces (Spanish Rhapsody, Abschied etc.), deeply religious works (the Oratorios, Psalms, Masses etc.), silly romps (Grand galop chromatique), tinsel (Hexameron), doleful laments (La lugubre gondola), dreamy pieces (Piano Concerto #2 - intro), triumph over adversity (Tasso, Prometheus), portraits (Hamlet, Orpheus, Ladislaus Teleki), impressions (Les Jeux d'Eaux a'la Villa d'Este, Les cloches de Geneve), bombastic tour de forces (Mazeppa), folk songs & waltzes (Hungarian Rhapsodies, Mephisto Waltz) spine-tingling virtuosity (Totentanz,etc.) and of course tender love melodies (Liebestraume, Romance oubliee, etc.).

Liszt's music vividly takes us on a journey through the various realms and mysteries of life. Both, outwardly from his worldly interest in people, cities and nature, and inwardly into the depths of his profound beliefs in art, literature and religion.

Numerous reviews highly praised his achievements, as he was the first superstar adored by the masses, and probably no other composer in history received as much media attention in their lifetime. Yet, that sinister sector of brutal critics or the vicious gossip columns did soil his reputation. The result was a culmination of improprieties that "temporarily" blurred the vision of history. It's unfortunate that Liszt had to endure such humiliation, as he would in later life insist to his students not to perform his works in public, since the selfless Liszt didn't wish to hinder their careers. Yet, it's comforting to know truth does eventually prevail. For music history has dramatically been altered by the ingenious inventions of this superlative master far more than any such rivals, and quite possibly more than any other composer in history. And, yes, that includes the sacred Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, as well.

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It's truly gratifying to see how Liszt's sublime influence cascades over the centuries like a beautiful glissando.

What made Liszt so fascinating was his relentless quest to experiment with sound, and to release the very heart, soul and existence of human kind via musical notation. A pioneer at every stage of his life, Liszt had no rivals, only jealous detractors or enlightened followers.

WEB SEARCHERS SEEK LISZT MORE THAN WAGNER & TCHAIKOVSKY

I have posted artwork I created of each of these 3 composers on an art site and at one given moment, Liszt had received a staggering 1206 hits, Tchaikovsky 326, and Wagner a mere 236. Not scientific in the strictest sense, but revealing nonetheless.


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  • As a young man, Liszt's music could be radical, like Mazeppa; enigmatic, like Chasse-neige; or enchanting, like Harmonies du soir. And, while he did obviously learn from Paganini (virtuosity), Chopin (lyricism) and Berlioz (orchestration), close scrutiny reveals his predisposition towards these elements, as some of his early compositions dating before their acquaintance attest. Such as Ricordanza, which many had labeled Chopinesque, was actually written before he ever met Chopin!

    It was Liszt who devised the Piano Recital, and as such, he faced the piano sideways to enhance the audience's visual and acoustic experience. This standard practice today was unheard of before Liszt. Previously, soloists were expected to share the stage with singers and an orchestra. But Liszt's new style of orchestrating on the piano was sufficient enough to conjure up the demons and angels with his Sturm und Drang visions, all without assistance. That, coupled with new advances in piano technology lead to unprecedented performances.

    Sometimes the handsome youth would wear gloves and honorary medals, dazzling the audience with visual as well as aural splendor. As such, the frenzied spectacles that occurred at these electrifying events was the true embryo of modern day hysteria at Rock concerts. How novel that modern Rock stars with long hair and ornamental garb play to adoring fans. Little do they know, the true pioneer in stage performance existed well over a hundred years before they were even born.

  • In mid-age, in the year 1848, the world's greatest pianist retired from the concert platform and settled in Weimar as Court Kapellmeister. It was here in this quaint German village that Liszt devised the symphonic poem, which subsequent composers would openly embrace. This gave vent to his revolutionary forms of musical expression, which rocked and cracked the fragile and orderly walls of classical restraint. This is the era of; The Faust and Dante Symphonies and the first 12 of 13 Symphonic poems: Berg Symphony No.1, Tasso No.2, Les Préludes No.3, Orpheus No.4, Prometheus No.5, Mazeppa No.6 , Festklänge No.7, Héroïde funèbre No.8, Hungaria No.9, Hamlet No.10 , Battle of the Huns No.11, Die Ideale No.12, and the 13th symphonic poem From the Cradle to the Grave being written later in 1881. 

    It was these innovative works that served as Wagner's home study course for writing the "music of the future." An undertaking which Wagner never wished to acknowledge in public. Hence, Richard stole the crown from the king. The rest is history, how the resourceful Wagner eventually built his huge, and awe-inspiring, empire that eclipsed the sun.

    Likewise, a rich stream of piano works, such as the Sonata in B minor, the 6 Consolations, Dante sonata etc., all flowed from Liszt's pen, culminating into some of the most powerful pieces ever written for piano and certainly pinnacles of the mid-Romantic era. It is key to note that, Liszt's musical vision differed from Berlioz, Wagner or the later Strauss in that he chose to express the inner more-profound essence of his subject matter. Rather than merely painting a visual picture of events in sound, which he felt was better left to a painter, he would reveal the dreamy, contemplative and emotional aspects, which music's mysterious language was better equipped to express. In doing so, Liszt's works offer a wider variety of instrumental textures and timbers, while elevating his subject from the particular to the universal. Flowing seamlessly between full scoring and chamber-like sections it was crucial for Liszt that poetic/artistic content dictate form, not vice-versa.

  • And, as an old master composing in semi-seclusion he wrote what is now considered perhaps his most prophetic and mind boggling works ever. It was with pieces like; En Reve-nocturne, Nuages gris, Les Jeux d'Eaux à la Villa d'Este, Bagatelle Sans Tonalite' and Unstern!-Sinistre, that Liszt laid the blueprints for the works of Debussy and Schoenberg who made claim to these new forms a century later. Where in the past it was Liszt's colleagues who benefited from his genius now it was to future generations that The Merlin of Music bequeathed his magic.

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It is also curious that Franz Liszt had many parallels to Leonardo DaVinci. The old Italian master was of the highest order in the arena of diverse invention and so too was Liszt. Da Vinci experimented in science and the arts developing new techniques and visions never seen before by man, while Liszt too created soundscapes so unique and bewildering to his contemporaries that even the great Hans Von Bulow could not fathom how to conduct a work like Hamlet. These bizarre configurations seemed unmusical and alien to 19th Century ears, and rightfully so, they were prophetically modern.

Granted both men did experience the pitfalls associated with experimentation, as can be witnessed by the deterioration of DaVinci's Last Supper or the stylistic fluctuations in Liszt's Christus Oratorio.  Yet, both pieces are masterworks of the highest order, as they both broke ground in countless ways and move us with their profound vision. As for their seemingly precarious methodology it's key to remember, only by abandoning the norms and plodding into the deep, dark abyss of the unknown can one engender and reveal the nebulous wonders that lay hidden to lesser beings.

Franz Liszt has always been assured a lofty place in the Pantheon of Composers, yet on that celestial horizon of stars only a select few burn with fervid intensity... Liszt is one of them.

An amazing "must-see" performance by Valentina Lisitsa of Liszt's Totentanz.

 

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Born on October 22, 1811 in Raiding (then Doborján) Hungary, Franz Liszt was soon recognized to be a child prodigy at the age of six. His father Adam, who played the cello in the local orchestra, taught Franz piano. Employed as a secretary by Prince Nicholas Esterházy Adam asked for extended leave to further his son's musical education.

Adding further to Adam's plea was a letter of request in 1822 by Antonio Salieri, Mozart's old rival, who was astonished upon hearing the young Liszt play at a private house. This prompted Salieri's offer to freely train the child in composition. The Prince finally gave the Liszt's leave to stay in Vienna. Liszt at this time also studied piano under Carl Czerny - Beethoven's esteemed pupil. This lasted only eighteen months.

Tours and many performances generated amazement and praise for the young Liszt by audiences, musicians and Kings. They were especially impressed by his uncanny ability to improvise an original composition from a melody suggested by the audience. Playing on par with established professionals at age 12 Liszt was fast becoming a sensation.

Eventually traveling to Paris the young Liszt sought admittance to the Paris Conservatory, but was denied by Luigi Cherubini on the grounds that he was a foreigner, even though Cherubini himself was Italian. Adam then resorted to Ferdinando Paer to teach Franz composition in 1824. It was during this time that Liszt wrote his first and only opera Don Sanche, later performed in 1825.

More tours and acclaim followed, as Moscheles wrote, "In its power and mastery of every difficulty Liszt's playing surpasses anything previously heard." In 1826 Liszt's father Adam died leaving the 15 year old boy to care for his mother. Depression and disillusion took hold as he earned a living by teaching piano lessons in Paris. Liszt began to lose interest in music and questioned his profession.

Becoming an avid reader Liszt immersed himself in literature and religion, which was to have a profound influence on his life and work. With the Revolution of 1830, as if awakened by cannon fire, Liszt engaged his art and life once again. This is the period when Liszt's friend Delacroix paints Liberty leading the people and he hears Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

By 1832 Liszt is further inspired by hearing Paganini and meeting Chopin. In 1833 he meets Comtesse Marie d'Agoult as they eventually elope in 1835 and journey to Switzerland. Here Liszt composes several impressions of the Swiss country in Album d'un Voyageur which would later surface as the Années de Pèlerinage - Première Année: Suisse. Upon hearing of Thalberg's success in Paris Liszt returns for his famous piano duel, to ensure his title as King of the piano.

Liszt then devises the piano recital and begins his world famous tours, thus conquering Europe by storm. In Portugal Liszt is described as, "God of the piano," and along his journey he performs charity concerts for various causes. By 1844 Lisztomania is in full bloom, while Liszt's stormy relationship finally ends with Marie d'Agoult, after fathering 3 children and repeated attempts to suppress her manic depressive condition. In 1847 Liszt meets Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein in Kiev, and to the world's dismay he retires from the concert stage.

By 1848 Liszt settles in Weimar, living in the Altenberg as Court Kapellmeister. Later Carolyne joins him. The fact that Liszt could have made more money performing reveals Liszt's burning desire to concentrate on a higher mission - the creation of new musical forms, via a fertile and liberated mind. This he achieves in his symphonic poems and unique piano scores. Taking on pupils without fee Liszt cultivates a new breed of pianists nicknamed the Altenberg Eagles. For the next decade a whirlwind of radically innovative works flowed from Liszt's pen and into the concert halls, procuring staunch followers and violent adversaries.

In 1858 Liszt resigns his post as Kapellmeister based upon attacks from conservatives against his and his pupils works. By 1860 Joachim and Brahms publish their Manifesto against Liszt and the modern composers in an unsuccessful effort to thwart new forms. But the old classic traditions would eventually fade to the progress forged by Liszt and the Romantics as the century unfolded.

In 1860 Liszt and Carolyne attempt to wed in Rome but on the eve of their marriage the plans are thwarted due to her unsubmitted divorce papers. A good deal of controversy surrounds this Papal rejection. They remain separate but soul mates for life. In 1865 Liszt took minor Holy Orders in the Catholic Church. Liszt later sets up residence in three cities, Rome, Weimar and Budapest. Establishing the Conservatory of Music in Budapest he is elected its first president. Amidst a bewildered group of conservatives who dismissed most of his output as radical and unmusical Liszt scores success with several pieces, his St. Elizabeth Oratorio among others.

Liszt's works in later years are marked with a new reflective nature with greater simplicity of form, yet more extreme in harmony. Criticism of these misunderstood pieces would prompt Liszt to instruct his students not to perform his works in public, as not to hinder their budding careers. While some obeyed others remained resolute to the cause of their great master.

Upon Liszt's visit to Bayreuth to attend a Wagner fest, hosted by his daughter Cosima - the widow of Wagner, he fell gravely ill with pneumonia. Surrounded by his adoring pupils Friedheim, Siloti, Stavenhagen and others, who were eventually refused admittance to his room by Cosima, the grand master died at 11:30 PM on July 31, 1886. At the organ playing solemnly at his funeral was Anton Bruckner. Through the succeeding years Liszt's genius as a composer would gradually surface shedding light on many previously unheard masterworks. That Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Sibelius and countless others would reap the benefits of studying his innovative work would be evident in time and indelibly mark Liszt's profound impact on music history.

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Liszt & Modern Music

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Liszt and Modern Music

Were the seeds of Heavy Metal planted by Franz Liszt?
That question may sound a bit far-fetched, but once one closely listens to some of Liszt's pioneering compositions-- filled with brutal moans, groans, and diabolical angst --they suddenly find out why it was said that "Liszt hurled his Lance into the Future."

Liszt was the ultimate experimenter of his era, much like Leonardo Da Vinci during his. Both great men analyzed, formulated and recorded brilliant and visionary ideas that far exceeded the limited scope of their own generation. Thus, they both fell prey to suspect and even ridicule by some of their contemporaries, being called dreamers, demented or worse. Only the more astute could realize that the being before them was of a celestial, higher order - the ultimate genius of their day, misunderstood by the masses.

Liszt brought to music unprecedented emotional and psychological impact that  previously never existed, paving the way for *Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Puccini and many others that followed. Though Beethoven previously touched upon a heavier style with the Coriolan Overture, or Mozart with Don Giovanni, or even Boccherini's La casa del Diavolo, they never delved as deep into the brutal darkside of mankind, nor into the darkest and most demonic realms of evil as did Liszt. Liszt wasn't deterred from inventing menacing harmonies of diabolical and dissonant proportions to portray this evil phenomenon. Meanwhile, all others shied away from such endeavors; fearful of offending the religious traditions ingrained in society for thousands of years, which not only mocked progressive people toying with the subject but even persecuted or burned them at the stake for such evil endeavors.

That a Heavy Metal band like Black Sabbath was barraged by religious groups for being evil is testament to how toying around with evil music is still seriously frowned upon. Moreover, like Black Sabbath, whose lyrics happened to have been all pro-Christian, Franz Liszt was a diehard Catholic. In fact, he was even more religious in that he took minor orders to become an abbé. Moreover, one look at how he conducted his life, giving free lessons, free concerts as fundraisers, helping aspiring artists at the expense of his own career, and writing celestial oratorios and masses, we instantly, and quite assuredly, know that Franz Liszt was an angel, not Mephistopheles.

Henceforth, Liszt was certainly not a devil worshipper, as some foolishly suspected, as he simply revealed all facets of the human experience. His era was one of great instability, revolutions, war and death. To turn a deaf ear, and close one's eyes, to this aspect of life is, after all, pure ignorance. That a novelist can write about the evil side of mankind, like Shakespeare did in "Hamlet", Goethe did in "Faust" or Dante did in his "Divine Comedy", Liszt felt the same freedom as a composer.

Detesting war and violence, Liszt broke the man-made shackles that prevented composers from bringing this part of reality into the limelight. We must remember, the ugliness that mankind perpetuates in life was not introduced or executed by Liszt, he merely recreated in sound our failings... much to the shock and utter bewilderment of his contemporaries. The raw and brutal power that Liszt unleashed in his new works understandably left many in his day horrified. Yet, we must always remember, Liszt did not only show us the darkside, as his numerous religious pieces and romantic pieces attest. However, too many people, then and now, have unjustly overlooked the full breadth of Liszt's works due to these radical avant-garde pieces. Quite unfortunately, his oratorios and masses continue to be neglected masterpieces, due primarily to ignorance.

Liszt's amazingly modern Faust and Dante symphonies, along with pieces like Prometheus, Héroïde Funèbre, Czardas Macabre and others each showcased ferocious harmonies that swelled into cataclysmic waves of sound that barraged and intimidated the frail senses of Liszt's 19th century audience. One only needs to listen to these pieces along side works of his contemporaries, while purging one's mind of all 20th century music, to feel the power of Liszt's scoring. Then one can similarly begin to understand the disdainful reaction by his pristine audience that were born and raised on the centuries old tradition of music being stately, pretty, glorious or even consistently rhythmic.

Rhythmic fluctuations punctuated many of Liszt's works, and this too caused uneasiness, for the steady metronomic beat was practically set in stone by the earliest of musicians. Then Liszt came along and launched his Faust Symphony and Hamlet symphonic poem in a series of very slow rising and diminishing moans that taxed those with traditional ears or attention deficit, while intriguing the astute who could actually feel the music echo the inner cries of the piece's main characters, while simultaneously peeking their curiosity as to what will happen next. And what happened next was the wild ride into the modern world of music. A world that would be deeply influenced by these radical harmonies and eventually win over the stately and traditional modes of composition that dominated mankind since the beginning of time. Thus, Liszt sharply immersed his era into a new symphonic world of heavy music that would eventually evolve and be called Heavy Metal.

But Liszt's pieces aren't all heavy metal and thunder, for even amorous music previously never reached such climaxes of heartfelt ecstasy as in Liszt. He released the very soul and repressed passions of mankind. In essence he opened new doors, so we all could relate, evaluate, and appreciate the various realms of life we all share and experience. Even the sides we generally wish to conceal or ignore. Hence, the ones that cannot relate to such music are either cold, inhuman cadavers or they are afraid to embrace the totality of life - warts, hidden pleasures and all.

As for Liszt's portrayals of death and destruction, it's not that we should promote or succumb to evil, but we must address its existence, as even the Bible has no problem doing. As with anything in life, the more we confront and study a subject or phenomenon the better we understand it, and the better we'll know how to address it, rather than ignoring it or shying away in fear. Narrow-mindedness breeds prejudice and stagnation, as the Middle Ages clearly attest. Fortunately for the Renaissance mankind and civilization began to be reborn, and eventually flourished, all because of a thirst for knowledge and a lack of fear of the unknown.

Liszt Liszt composed Hamlet in the 1850's well over a hundred years before Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix or even Iron Butterfly. Yet, unlike modern Metal bands Liszt was not pigeonholed into writing only heavy, radical music. His vast output was perhaps the most varied ever written by a single composer. Which is why he is such an enigma. Humans tend to categorize in order to make their learning easier, but Liszt is not easy. From romance to virtuosity, heaven to hell, simplicity to profound philosophy Liszt's music embraced every facet of life, for Liszt was multifaceted.

HAMLET: Play Hamlet audio clip. The midi orchestration that you'll hear playing was sequenced by Peter Parkanyi, yet I took the liberty to change the instrumentation utilizing some modern synthesizer instruments to make it sound more current. It must be remembered that I did not alter or add any notes. They are all as the great master wrote them, only some of the instruments are different - with a few adjustments in Peter's dynamics. It is an exercise to show just how far Liszt hurled his lance into the future. The 2 minute clip playing here appears in the work's early to mid section when Hamlet finally let's loose his revenge, the entire work generally runs about 14 minutes long.

Liszt's Dante Symphony, Héroïde Funèbre, Totentanz, Prometheus and many others also contain advanced soundscapes that make Liszt look like a modern time traveler stuck in an ancient civilization. I hope you enjoy your journey here into Liszt's universe, as this is only one facet of a very complex and beautifully unique diamond, one never to be buried or lost!

Liszt's Hamlet: Liszt's symphonic poem ingeniously portrays the various psychological mood swings that plague Hamlet throughout Shakespeare's intense play. At the start we can sense Hamlet's vexing thoughts and doubts. We hear the music oscillate, aptly echoing his indecision, but then the tormented Hamlet slowly rises, only to sink back into confusion. Slowly he begins plotting his revenge. The music begins to swell, building and building, until suddenly he snaps into a violent frenzy; we feel his mind crack as he bursts into a psychotic rage. It's a grinding movement, pumped with pure adrenaline. Then abruptly his rage halts... a soft delicate melody interrupts portraying Ophelia. Yet since the meek and delicate Ophelia is incapable of rising or maintaining on Hamlet's level her melody is brief and fleeting. Hamlet returns with his various strident, brooding and contemplative moods. The end draws near as he eventually releases a dark moan and fatal quiver. With the last and final heart beat, Hamlet expires. So ends a truly original, very radical masterpiece of 1858 by Franz Liszt.

- Rich DiSilvio

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Wagner and Liszt

* To address a common reaction, "What about Wagner!?!" - contrary to the fabricated, or misinformed, theories of some historical detractors in the past, Liszt gave more than he received. It is now common knowledge that Wagner, in his own private words, admitted that his new style in music was due to Liszt, yet adamantly demanded that it be kept secret. Wagner scrutinized Liszt's ingenious innovations fully realizing the master's genius, despite the public's growing condemnation of Liszt's musical absurdities. Understandably so, since Liszt was the most radical and advanced composer of his era. But, Wagner astutely recognized their artistic value, and seized the opportunity to appropriate these harmonic inventions from Liszt's luminous laboratory.

Here is a small sample of two of Wagner's private letters to Liszt. The first is from July 20, 1856, concerning his symphonic poems:

"With your symphonic poems I am now quite familiar. They are the only music I have anything to do with at present, as I cannot think of doing any work of my own while undergoing medical treatment. Every day I read one or the other of your scores, just as I would read a poem, easily and without hindrance. Then I feel every time as if I had dived into a crystalline depth, there to be all alone by myself, having left all the world behind, to live for an hour my own proper life. Refreshed and invigorated, I then come to the surface again, full of longing for your personal presence. Yes, my friend, you have the power! You have the power!"

And later on December 6, 1856, Wagner wrote:

"I feel thoroughly contemptible as a musician, whereas you, as I have now convinced myself, are the greatest musician of all times."

Those are powerful words, especially from a man who never, or very rarely, offered praise to anyone. But it is quite true to Wagner form that he demanded that these confessions remain private and out of the public arena. Wagner succeeded in concealing this for over half a century, swaying the views of the public, critics and historians, which more often than not made Liszt out to be a small pilot fish clinging on the back of the huge Wagnerian tiger shark. I bring this all to light not to demote Wagner, but to lift Liszt to his rightful place, and thus set the record straight by raising truth to the surface.

So it was that the 19th century public openly embraced and hailed Wagner for his historic Tristan chord, which we now know was lifted from his friend and father in-law, Franz Liszt. The stolen chord in question was from the song "Ich mochte hingehn" composed by Liszt earlier in 1845, a full decade before Wagner unleashed Tristan. So, although the world saw Richard Wagner as a towering figure, we must remember... he stood upon the shoulders of Franz Liszt. Wagner's output previous to knowing and studying Liszt was mainstream German Opera with moments of budding talent. But Lohengrin utilizes chords from Liszt's Faust Symphony, while The Ring and Parsifal are strategically built upon Lisztian harmonies. So, the colossal Wagner edifice that we know and cherish today, I being one of them, was in fact not only founded upon a Lisztian foundation, but was partially constructed with Lisztian steel, block and mortar, without which the towering Wagnerian shrine could never have been built. Hence my point, if Liszt never existed neither would the Ring or many of Wagner's works that made him world famous. Therefore, this is the reason why Liszt must stand above his genius son-in-law Richard in the arena of invention. This does not refer to the end result, which both equally crafted to the highest levels of Art, nor does it imply that Wagner had no inventions of his own, as his remarkable ability at orchestration attests, but simply that at the root level the most crucial and profoundly advanced harmonies that blossomed in Wagner's lush gardens did indeed spawn from Liszt's fertile seeds. Return

Recommended Recordings

A Faust Symphony   (James Conlon- conductor/ Erato or Sinopoli - conductor/ DG)
A pinnacle for Liszt and the Romantic Era this work is truly magnificent. Here Goethe's timeless classic receives its greatest expression in symphonic form. A must have. The symphony is constructed of three movements each portraying a character. The first is Faust, second Gretchen and third Mephistopheles, which leads seamlessly into a beautifully scored choral ending celebrating Faust's victory over evil. Refusing to end on a negative note Liszt utilized Goethe's Chorus Mysticus from his "Second Faust," hence obtaining salvation through the graces of the eternal female. True, some other performances have some brief moments of greater expression but as a whole Conlon's performance works exceptionally well. Sinopoli's more recent recording is loaded with vitality as well. For a first symphony Liszt produced a timeless classic of total perfection. Beware, there are those who would sell their soul for this work. The Conlon performance has been reissued by Warner Classics

Dante Symphony  
(James Conlon- cond./ Erato or try Varujian Kojian-cond./ Citadel)
To translate Dante's complex work into symphonic form was a tremendous task, yet I could think of no other composer in history capable enough to rival Liszt's comprehension and execution of this subject. The result was amazingly successful albeit those who feel substituting the Paradisio with a magnificat leaves the symphony unbalanced. Under Wagner's advice, that no human could write music depicting Paradise, Liszt composed a magnificat that's so spiritually moving and convincing as a glimpse of what Paradise is - no human could ask for more.

This work is harmonically innovative and emotionally enthralling. Needless to say, Liszt's depiction of Hell is devilishly brutal, and ends cataclysmically. Its central andante amoroso section beautifully depicts the ill fated romance of Francesca and Paolo and is scored with delicate woodwinds, strings and harp. A very beautiful yet mournful melody that romantically swells then subsides, as Hell's swirling winds, sounded on the harp, carries the lovers off... trapped within their eternal cyclone of misery. A slow and wicked, hobgoblin melody ushers the return of the main brutal theme. Here the Kojian version handles the transition beautifully, as the main theme returns with ferocious venom. While Conlon's cataclysmic climax, where the cymbals reach an ear splitting crescendo, is unrivaled in the sense of ominous terror and evil.

The Purgatorio section begins with Dante's ascent and glimpse of redemption, tenderly portrayed by the sparkling tranquility of healing waters. In Dante's own words, "the sapphire of the Orient." As it proceeds it aptly portrays the striving for atonement, which leads to the glorious Magnificat. When performed live, with the chorus out of sight as Liszt suggests, this movement implodes one's whole being with heaven's celestial magnificence, leaving the listener emotionally and spiritually saturated. It's a symphonic spectacular of demonic and angelic beauty. It was a favorite of Rachmaninoff, and I can certainly see why. A pivotal work of art of the Nineteenth Century. Both CDs are superb offerings with very different yet interesting tempos and interpretations.

For those interested in reading a thrilling novel about Liszt's great symphonic masterpiece, check out "Liszt's Dante Symphony".

Symphonic Poems Volumes 1 &2 (each vol. is 2 CDs) (Kurt Masur conductor/ EMI & Musical Heritage Society)
These 4 CDs comprise all 13 of Liszt's Symphonic Poems along with several other orchestral works, each a gem in their own right. Although Die Ideal is perhaps too long and episodic and Festklänge a bit repetitive Liszt always offers something fresh and interesting. Although there are better recordings of certain individual pieces, Orpheus and Prometheus for example, this collection as a whole is the best at present. Masur effectively captures the brutality and futility of war in Héroïde Funèbre, while his near perfect rendition of Hamlet's varied moods from internal brooding to outward rage effectively captures Liszt's psychological portrait. Too bad this neglected masterpiece doesn't appear in concert halls. Other gems abound in this splendid collection albeit some rough handling by Masur on certain pieces.

Les Préludes, Prometheus, Mephisto Waltz & Tasso  (Sir Georg Solti-conductor/ London)
Prometheus and the Mephisto Waltz receive outstanding interpretations in this powerful recording. Prometheus being the best available. The other two pieces although less impressive under Solti's baton still make this a good buy.

Les Préludes, Legends, etc.  (James Conlon-conductor/ Erato)
Two episodes of Lenau's Faust the Nocturnal Procession  and the Mephisto Waltz  (the latter recorded here with a rarely heard and superior alternative ending by Liszt) are two well recorded renditions by Conlon. The Nocturnal Procession is a beautiful piece that is sadly neglected in the concert hall. The other pieces rounding out this CD are also impressive interpretations.

Piano Concertos 1&2, Hungarian Fantasy  (James Conlon- conductor,Francois-Rene Duchable- piano/ Erato)
The popular Concerto #1 and its awesome sibling are given a fantastic performance here as both soloist and orchestra play so tightly woven that jagged edges seldom appear. The second concerto opens with a most beautiful and dreamy rendition, which dramatically builds to their unrivalled Allegro agitato assai section. As it should be. Bravo James & Francois;-Rene'!

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Totentanz, Piano Concertos 1&2  (Seiji Ozawa- conductor, Krystian Zimerman- piano/ Deutsche Grammophon)
The Totentanz or "Death Dance" is played with feverish gusto by both soloist and orchestra. It's a spine-tingling performance with intense interpretations by Zimerman. Ozawa plays with clarity especially in the chamber-like sections, but unfortunately lacked power in some places, such as the opening where the piano dominates. The two concertos are only standard perfomances.

Etudes D'Execution Transcendante  (Vladimir Ovchinikov- piano/ EMI)
Liszt's "Transcendental Studies" are so perfectly worked together as a whole, contrary to Chopin's, that one seems to travel through a broad spectrum of worldly events which inevitably transports the listener into the transcending realm of Liszt's vivid imagination. A brilliant, unsurpassed, opus by Liszt with outstanding performances by Ovchinikov. His Mazeppa, Feux Follets, Vision, Ricordanza, 10th in F minor and Chasse-neige are fantastic, with his Harmonies du soir being perhaps the best interpretation of this piece ever recorded. Ovchinikov infuses this piece with unrivalled passion that makes the piece soar with emotion. Also check out Jorge Bolet's version on the Ensayo label, as Bolet's Wilde Jagd and Paysage are magnificent.

Liszt: Piano Music  (Christina Kiss)
As Christina's debut CD this beautiful program offers 13 great tracks. Featuring the popular Marche de Rákóczi and lesser played pieces, like the beautiful Soirées Italiennes, the rousing Zigauner -Polka and fantastic Schwanengesang und Marsch aus Erkel's Hunyadi László this disc finally commits to disc the star talents of Miss Kiss. Her already historic mission of being the first pianist to play all of Liszt's piano works in public, which is more than half complete, is now offering her Carnegie Hall fans, and the world, an opportunity to cherish her unique performances on disc. As a finale Kiss performs a radiantly beautiful rendition of Die Loreli, which is Liszt playing at its best.

Fantasy, Variations,etc. Vol.3  (Leslie Howard- piano/ Hyperion)
The "Fantasy and Fugue BACH/ Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen,Zagen/ Trios Odes Funebres " are all powerfully moving works each performed with insight and full-blooded passion by Leslie, who has been attacked by some as a weak interpreter of Liszt. Granted, Leslie's huge Liszt project features many weak performances, but one must remember... it is impossible to play all 1000 plus works of Liszt each to perfection, unless one IS Franz Liszt. His project is of immense importance, as he has revealed ALL of Liszt to the world. Hopefully these recordings will inspire other pianists to focus on specific works, so they may polish and reveal the inherent beauties in these lesser known or sadly neglected gems. Yet, this disc shows Leslie in top form with works that obviously inspired him. An outstanding disc.

The Late Pieces Vol.11  (Leslie Howard- piano/ Hyperion)
These rare and compelling pieces are from Liszt's twilight years of prophetic genius. With 30 intriguing works rounding out this stellar collection this CD is invaluable. When they say, "Liszt hurled his lance into the future," it's many of these works they refer to. Many truly great performances by Leslie mixed with only a few weak moments. Leslie has a tendency to play exceptionally fast at times, thus destroying the two beautiful Gondola pieces, but his Unstern!-Sinistre, Recueillement, Toccata, Carrousel de Madame P-N, several of the Klavierstück pieces, RW-Venezia, Mosonyis Grabgeleit, Trauervorspiel und Trauermarsch (just to name a few on this disc) are fantastic pieces extremely well played. Other pianists must listen to these pieces. A great disc.

Liebestraume & other song transcriptions Vol.19  (Leslie Howard- piano/ Hyperion)
This volume offers the famous Liebestraume (Bolet & others are better) but more importantly it contains 15 other masterworks, each very nicely rendered. Hopefully other pianists will learn and include some of these pieces in their programs. A great selection and a fine recording.

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Piano Music Vol.3 
(Philip Thomson- piano/ Naxos)
The complete piano works of Liszt by various performers is Naxos' strategy. Here, the first six pieces of Harmonies Poetic and Religious are coupled with 3 other works. The emotionally charged "Blessing of God in Solitude" and the profoundly powerful "Pensee des Morts" are two masterpieces, played extremely well. Thomson clearly shows his passion for these two pieces that raise him to the highest ranks of being a true Lisztian. These pieces offer two polar views of life- 1) the emotional splendors evoked by the beauties of the world and life which God has bestowed upon us and 2) the torturous thoughts of death that carry us into nebulous realms of the afterlife - that afflict, and sometimes console us all.

Piano Music Vol.4  (Philip Thomson- piano/ Naxos)
Here, the last four pieces of Harmonies Poetic and Religious along with the Six Consolations and other works round out a satisfying disc, that is priced to fit anyone's budget. The Consolations are only standard performances, but the famous Funérailles starts the disc very strongly, while the Miserere, d'aprés Palestrina and the Cantique d'amour will certainly attract attention to these lesser-known gems, both played with great beauty and passion. Works that need to be heard more often.

Orchestral Songs  (Andras Korodi- conductor, various singers/ Hungaroton)
A collection of 7 songs well sung and nicely orchestrated make this CD a listening pleasure, especially the beautiful Die Loreley.

Saint Elisabeth Oratorio  (Arpad Joo- conductor, Eva Marton- soprano/ Hungaroton)
This oratorio was quite revolutionary in that Liszt's construction resembles a large scale vocal symphony galvanized by recurring themes. Performed with much success in Liszt's lifetime this recording brings to life this immense work - imbued with great music, singing and choruses.

Christus Oratorio  (Antal Dorati- conductor, Sandor Solyom-Nagy- baritone/ Hungaroton)
As mentioned in my commentary this epic work broke the "rules" of oratorio which some might find unsettling, yet like DaVinci's Last Supper this deeply spiritual and epic work probes deep into the soul and emerges as a sublime masterpiece. Rather than formulating a questionable text Liszt drew upon the Bible and liturgy to produce an undisputed, spiritual document glorifying Christ. Although there is no plot Liszt's strategic arrangements form an emotional curve that subconsciously evokes the message of purification through suffering.

It begins with Christmas. The March of the three Magi is miraculous, especially if one puts themselves in the shoes of one of the three kings. The music gently marches the Magi (and listener) up to when they first spot baby Jesus, then suddenly the earthly march gives way to a spiritually sublime melody that gracefully caresses and lifts the soul- beautifully evoking the divine majesty of Christ. It then leads to The Miracle where Christ calms the storm. This is a magnificent passage filled with much drama that subsides into a profoundly religious calm. We eventually reach Tristis est anima mea, which is one of the most doleful passages ever written; perhaps Puccini knew of this piece before perfecting his own, as Christ somberly speaks to the Holy Father before his crucifixion. Happily the oratorio ends with Christ's ressurection and a glorious Alleluja!  For those deeply religious this oratorio is a must, while those harboring doubt might very well be converted.

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Bibliography

Listed below are the major sources of literature I've read, digested and expounded upon over a period of 16 years to create the Franz Liszt Site. Many additional books and biographies on various composers have added clarity and perspective to this project. Naturally, listening to hundreds of recordings and live performances has added immeasurably to my understanding, appreciation and ultimate respect and admiration for Liszt's unique art... not to mention the profound impact it has intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. - Rich DiSilvio

Liszt - The Virtuoso Years Vol.1 - Alan Walker
Liszt - The Weimar Years Vol.2 - Alan Walker
Liszt - The Final Years Vol.3 - Alan Walker
Liszt - Derek Watson
Franz Liszt - Ernst Burger
An Artist's Journey - Franz Liszt
Lives of the Great Composers - Harold Schonberg
Dictionary of Composers - Charles Osborne
Liszt - The Man and His Music - Symposium edited by Alan Walker
My Memories of Liszt - Alexander Siloti
Life and Liszt - Arthur Friedheim
Liszt - Sacheverell Sitwell
Guide to Orchestral Music - Etahn Mordden
Reflections from the Keyboard - David Dubal
The Art of the Piano - David Dubal
The Great Pianists - Harold Schonberg
The Glorious Ones - Harold Schonberg

Ode to Franz Liszt

Oh, divine mystical Father, ye touched this man's soul
Yet forsaking his carcass, predators took their toll
While enduring lashes, the venomous serpents tongue
His magnanimous spirit enhanced both old and young

A prophetic voice, borne on the golden wings of time
Transcends the beat of the human drum...ever sublime

Ancient strategic dots that plot a masterful score
Slumber for a century till given life once more
Clay digits cascade over ivories, black and white
Summoning reveries that croon and howl in the night

More profound than the Pole or diverse than all his peers
His rich tapestry of sound soaks in blood, sweat and tears

Once Prometheus bound, his exhumed spirit now soars
Enlightening future generations, both mine and yours
Enraptured by a Lisztian whirlwind of vivid sound
Heaven joyously splits open...a hero is crowned.

© Rich DiSilvio

 

 

Please Note: The reference to Liszt being "more profound than the Pole", aka Chopin, was not to diminish Chopin's sterling stature, but to rectify the centuries of harsh attacks made by critics who denigrated Liszt as being inferior to his Polish friend, while others went so far as to label him a hack, a charlatan etc. As most modern musical professors and professional pianists will testify, Liszt's genius has been severely trivialized and maligned by prejudice or outright ignorance. Hence, my poetic retort to clear the air of these dank falsehoods and laud Liszt as the most advanced composer of his age and possibly of all time.

 

DV Books

The Franz Liszt Site is a resource provided by DV Books.
All text and Liszt portrait/memorial © Rich DiSilvio    Acknowledgments