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Franz Liszt and “Les Preludes”

Franz (Hungarian: Ferencz) Ritter von Liszt (October 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886) was a 19th-century Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, conductor, teacher and Franciscan tertiary. The earliest known ancestor of Liszt, his great-grandfather Sebastian List, was one of the thousands of German migrant serfs locally migrating within the Austrian Empire’s territories around the area now constituting Lower Austria and Hungary in the first half of the 18th century. Franz was born to Anna Liszt (née Maria Anna Lager) and Adam Liszt on October 22, 1811, in the village of Doborján (German: Raiding) in Sopron County, in the Kingdom of Hungary. Liszt’s father played the piano, violin, cello, and guitar. He was employed as a steward in the service of Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy and knew Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven personally. At age six, Franz began listening attentively to his father’s piano playing and showed an interest in both sacred and Romani music. Adam began teaching him the piano at age seven, and Franz began composing in an elementary manner when he was eight. He appeared in concerts at Sopron and Pressburg (Hungarian: Pozsony; present-day Bratislava, Slovakia) in October and November 1820 at age 9. After the concerts, a group of wealthy sponsors offered to finance Franz’s musical education abroad.

In Vienna, Liszt received piano lessons from Carl Czerny and studied composition with Antonio Salieri, who was then music director of the Viennese court. Liszt’s public debut in Vienna on December 1, 1822, at a concert at the “Landständischer Saal,” was a great success. He was greeted in Austrian and Hungarian aristocratic circles and also met Beethoven and Schubert. In spring 1823, when the one-year leave of absence came to an end, Adam Liszt asked Prince Esterházy in vain for two more years. Adam Liszt therefore took his leave of the Prince’s services. At the end of April 1823, the family returned to Hungary for the last time.

At the end of May 1823, the family went to Vienna again. Towards the end of 1823 or early 1824, Liszt’s first composition to be published, his Variation on a Waltz by Diabelli (now S. 147), appeared as Variation 24 in Part II of the anthology Vaterländischer Künstlerverein, commissioned by Anton Diabelli. Liszt’s inclusion in the Diabelli project—he was described in it as “an 11 year old boy, born in Hungary”—was almost certainly at the instigation of Czerny, his teacher and also a participant. Liszt was the only child composer in the anthology. At the age of 12, Liszt traveled with his father to Paris to seek admittance to the Paris Conservatory. The admissions council denied him a place in the school on the grounds that he was a foreigner. His father, ever determined, turned to Ferdinando Paer and Anton Reicha to teach his son advanced composition. It was during this time that Liszt wrote his first and only opera, the one-act Don Sanche, along with some bravura piano pieces. A visit to London in 1824 was a triumph, crowned by a private concert before George IV. The next two years brought constant travel through much of Europe, financial rewards, and the premieres of a stream of juvenile works.

After his father’s death in 1827, Liszt, just sixteen,remained in Paris; for the next five years he was to live with his mother in a small apartment. He gave up touring. To earn money, Liszt gave lessons in piano playing and composition, often from early morning until late at night. His students were scattered across the city and he often had to cover long distances. Because of this, he kept uncertain hours. The following year he fell in love with one of his pupils, Caroline de Saint-Cricq, the daughter of Charles X’s minister of commerce. However, her father insisted that the affair be broken off. Liszt fell very ill, and he underwent a long period of religious doubts and pessimism. During this period, Liszt read widely to overcome his lack of a general education, and he soon came into contact with many of the leading authors and artists of his day, including Victor Hugo, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Heinrich Heine. He composed practically nothing in these years. Nevertheless, the July Revolution of 1830 inspired him to sketch a Revolutionary Symphony based on the events of the “three glorious days,” and he took a greater interest in events surrounding him. He met Hector Berlioz on December 4, 1830. Berlioz’s music made a strong impression on Liszt, especially later when he was writing for orchestra. He also inherited from Berlioz the diabolic quality of many of his works.

After attending an April 20, 1832, charity concert, for the victims of a Parisian cholera epidemic, by Niccolò Paganini, Liszt became determined to become as great a virtuoso on the piano as Paganini was on the violin. In 1833 he made transcriptions of several works by Berlioz, including the Symphonie fantastique. He was also forming a friendship with a third composer who influenced him, Frédéric Chopin; under his influence Liszt’s poetic and romantic side began to develop. In 1833, at the age of 22, Liszt began his relationship with the Countess Marie d’Agoult. In 1834, Liszt debuted his piano compositions “Harmonies poétiques et religieuses” and a set of three “Apparitions.” In 1835 the countess left her husband and family to join Liszt in Geneva; their daughter Blandine was born there on December 18. Liszt taught at the newly founded Geneva Conservatory, wrote a manual of piano technique, and contributed essays for the Paris Revue et gazette musicale. For the next four years, Liszt and the countess lived together, mainly in Switzerland and Italy, where their daughter, Cosima, was born in Como, with occasional visits to Paris. On May 9, 1839, Liszt’s and the countess’s only son, Daniel, was born.

For the next eight years Liszt continued to tour Europe, spending holidays with the countess and their children on the island of Nonnenwerth on the Rhine in summers 1841 and 1843. In spring 1844 the couple finally separated. This was Liszt’s most brilliant period as a concert pianist. After 1842, “Lisztomania” swept across Europe. . In his travels he also met many musicians and composers, from Clara and Robert Schumann in Leipzig to Mikhail Glinka in Moscow and Richard Wagner (then penniless and virtually unknown) in Weimar. The reception Liszt enjoyed as a result can be described only as hysterical. Women fought over his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves, which they ripped to shreds as souvenirs. Adding to his reputation was the fact that Liszt gave away much of his proceeds to charity and humanitarian causes. In fact, Liszt had made so much money by his mid-forties that virtually all his performing fees after 1857 went to charity. In February 1847, Liszt played in Kiev. There he met the Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was to become one of the most significant people in the rest of his life. She persuaded him to concentrate on composition, which meant giving up his career as a travelling virtuoso. After a tour of the Balkans, Turkey and Russia that summer, Liszt gave his final concert for pay at Elisavetgrad in September.

The following year, Liszt took up a long-standing invitation of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia to settle at Weimar, where he had been appointed Kapellmeister Extraordinaire in 1842, remaining there until 1861. During this period he acted as conductor at court concerts and on special occasions at the theatre. He gave lessons to a number of pianists, including the great virtuoso Hans von Bülow, who married Liszt’s daughter Cosima in 1857; years later, she would marry Richard Wagner. He also wrote articles championing Berlioz and Wagner. Finally, Liszt had ample time to compose and during the next twelve years revised or produced those orchestral and choral pieces upon which his reputation as a composer mainly rested. His efforts on behalf of Wagner, who was then an exile in Switzerland, culminated in the first performance of Lohengrin in 1850. Liszt began to concentrate on a higher mission, the creation of new musical forms. His most famous achievement during this time was the creation of what would become known as the symphonic poem, a type of orchestral musical piece that illustrates or evokes a poem, a story, a painting, or other nonmusical source. For the next 10 years, Liszt’s radical and innovative works found their way into the concert halls of Europe, winning him staunch followers and violent adversaries. Princess Carolyne lived with Liszt during his years in Weimar. She wished to marry Liszt, but eventually she declined.

On June 23, 1857, Liszt joined the Third Order of St. Francis. The 1860s were a period of great sadness in Liszt’s private life. On December 13, 1859, he lost his 20-year-old son Daniel, and on September 11, 1862, his 26-year-old daughter Blandine also died. In letters to friends, Liszt afterwards announced that he would retreat to a solitary living. He found it at the monastery Madonna del Rosario, just outside Rome, where on June 20, 1863, he took up quarters in a small, Spartan apartment. On some occasions, Liszt took part in Rome’s musical life. On March 26, 1863, at a concert at the Palazzo Altieri, he directed a programme of sacred music. On April 25, 1865, he received the tonsure at the hands of Cardinal Hohenlohe. On July 31, 1865, he received the four minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte. After this ordination he was often called Abbé Liszt. On January 4, 1866, Liszt directed the “Stabat mater” of his “Christus-Oratorio”, and on February 26, 1866, his “Dante Symphony”.

In 1866, Liszt composed the Hungarian coronation ceremony for Franz Joseph and Elisabeth of Bavaria (Latin: Missa coronationalis). The Mass was first performed on June 8, 1867 at the coronation ceremony in the Matthias Church by Buda Castle in a six-section form. Liszt was invited back to Weimar in 1869 to give master classes in piano playing. Two years later he was asked to do the same in Budapest at the Hungarian Music Academy. From then until the end of his life he made regular journeys between Rome, Weimar and Budapest, continuing what he called his “vie trifurquée” or threefold existence. By the end of the decade Liszt had written a series of devotional works, including The Legend of Saint Elizabeth, and had permanently adopted the wearing of a cassock. On August 14, 1879, he was made an honorary canon of Albano. Liszt fell down the stairs of a hotel in Weimar on July 2, 1881. Though friends and colleagues had noted swelling in his feet and legs when he had arrived in Weimar the previous month (an indication of possible congestive heart failure), he had been in good health up to that point and was still fit and active. He was left immobilized for eight weeks after the accident and never fully recovered from it. A number of ailments manifested—dropsy, asthma, insomnia, a cataract of the left eye and heart disease.

Liszt continued, however, to work on new compositions, and in later years, he established the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music in Budapest. Liszt’s works in his later years were simpler in form, yet more extreme in harmony. His heart problems eventually contributed to Liszt’s death. He became increasingly plagued by feelings of desolation, despair and preoccupation with death—feelings which he expressed in his works from this period. He died in Bayreuth, Germany, on July 31, 1886, at the age of 74, officially as a result of pneumonia, which he may have contracted during the Bayreuth Festival hosted by his daughter Cosima. He was buried on August 3, 1886, in the municipal cemetery of Bayreuth in accordance with his wishes. Composer Camille Saint-Saëns, an old friend, whom Liszt had once called “the greatest organist in the world”, dedicated his Symphony No. 3 “Organ Symphony” to Liszt; it had premiered in London only a few weeks before his death.

Liszt was a prolific composer. By his death, he had written more than 700 compositions. He is best known for his piano music, but he wrote extensively for many media. Because of his background as a technical piano virtuoso, Liszt’s piano works are often marked by their difficulty. Liszt is very well known as a programmatic composer, or an individual who bases his compositional ideas in extra-musical things such as a poetry or painting. Liszt is credited with the creation of the symphonic poem, which is a programmatic orchestral work that generally consists of a single movement. The best known of the symphonic poems are Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne, based on Victor Hugo; Les Préludes, based on Lamartine; works based on Byron’s Tasso and Mazeppa; and Prometheus, along with the so-called Faust Symphony in Three Character Sketches after Goethe and the Symphony to Dante’s Divina Commedia. Other orchestral works include two episodes from Lenau’s Faust, the second the First Mephisto Waltz (to which a second was added 20 years later, in 1881). Liszt wrote two piano concertos, and, among other works for piano and orchestra, Totentanz (‘Dance of Death’) and Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Melodies. Six of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, written for piano, were effectively arranged for orchestra by Franz Doppler and revised by Liszt.Liszt’s compositional style delved deeply into issues of unity both within and across movements. For this reason, in his most famous and virtuosic works, he is an archetypal Romantic composer. Liszt pioneered the technique of thematic transformation, a method of development which was related to both the existing variation technique and to the new use of the Leitmotif by Richard Wagner.

My collection contains the following works by Franz Liszt:

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Piano Concerto) No. 1 in EbM, S. 124 (1855).
Concerto for Piano (Piano Concerto) No. 2 in AM, S. 125 (1861).
Fantasy on Beethoven’s The Ruins of Athens for Piano and Orchestra (1846).
From the Cradle to the Grave, Symphonic Poem No. 13 (1882).
Grand Fantaisie symphonique on Berlioz’s Lelio for Piano and Orchestra (1834).
Hungarian Battle March.
Hungarian Fantasy [for piano and orchestra], S. 123.
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1 in fm (orig. 14).
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in dm.
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 3 in dm (orig. 6).
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 4 in dm (orig. 12).
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5 in em.
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in DM (orig. 9), Carnival of Pest.
Le Triomphe Funebre du Tasse: Epilogue to Tasso, No. 3 of Trois Odes Funebres (1866).
Les Preludes, Symphonic Poem No. 3 (1854).
Malediction for Piano and Orchestra (1827).
Mazeppa, Symphonic Poem No. 6.
Mephisto Waltz after Lenau’s Faust.
Orpheus, Symphonic Poem No. 4.
Rakoczy March.
Tasso: Lamento e trionfo, Symphonic Poem No. 2 (1849).
Todentanz, Paraphrase on the Dies Irae [for piano and orchestra], S. 126 (1859.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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