My Top Ten List: Why I love Liszt

Franz Liszt Improvising at the Piano (1840)
Franz Liszt Improvising at the Piano (1840)†

Hector Berlioz hailed Liszt as “the pianist of the future” in a glowing review in the Gazette Musicale. Liszt was a champion of difficult new and old works that mystified the public, like Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata. This piece was dubbed “the riddle of the Sphinx” by Berlioz and was considered an incoherent, unplayable creation of an old, deaf composer. Berlioz wrote of Liszt’s performance: “A new Oedipus, Liszt, has solved it, solved it in such a way that had the composer himself returned from the grave, a paroxysm of joy and pride would have swept over him. Not a note was left out, not one added… no inflection was effaced, no change of tempo permitted. Liszt, in thus making comprehensible a work not yet comprehended has proved that he is the pianist of the future”.

For Liszt, Experimentation Was a Form of Greatness” headlined Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times on August 23, 2011. In a glowing article he wrote that Liszt might have been his choice for top spot in the Top 10 Composers project.

Here is my Top Ten List why I love Liszt.

1. Liszt was one of the first to perform solo piano recitals.

2. He was one of the first pianists to tour extensively.

3. He was one of the first pianists to play entire programs from memory.

4. He was one of the first pianists to play the entire keyboard repertory from Bach to Chopin and introduce new and old works.

5. He was the first to put the keyboard at right angles on the stage and open the lid to deflect the sound to the audience.

6. Due to his success the status of musicians changed from a “servant” working as a court musician to an artist with high standing.

7. He was a generous benefactor and gave to charity and humanitarian causes.

8. Liszt was one of the greatest piano teachers of his time, teaching approximately 400 students in 40 years at no charge. He also organized festivals and concerts as well as writing program notes, essays and criticism.

9. Liszt pushed the boundaries of technique, texture and sound on the piano. He worked with Erard, the piano manufacturer, to perfect double-escapement, which allowed the rapid note repetition necessary in his virtuoso piano works. He called the pedal the soul of the piano and used it for mingling foreign harmonies in new combinations. His blurring and clouding of harmonies became a genuine musical effect which predated Debussy and Ravel.

10. As a composer, Liszt was the inventor of the orchestral tone poem and an inspired songwriter. He also wrote and produced choral works and operas in addition to his monumental opus of piano repertoire. As a conductor, he introduced many new works, including Wagner’s Lohengrin. His late works are “a gateway to modern music,” according to Alan Walker, who wrote the definitive biography of Franz Liszt.

11. There is definitely more, but I’ll stop here.

12. To be continued…

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†More about the painting:

The painting Liszt am Flügel (Liszt at the Piano), completed in 1840, was commissioned by the piano maker Conrad Graf (1782-1851).

Franz Liszt is shown playing the piano for six of his friends, all of which are notable Romantic artists. In the room from left to right are two groups of three artists each: from the literary realm are the novelists George Sand (dressed as a man, reclining in an armchair and smoking a cigar), Alexandre Dumas, Sr. (sitting beside Sand) and Victor Hugo (leaning on the back of Sand’s chair); from the musical realm are the violinist Nicoló Paganini, the opera composer Gioachino Rossini, and, of course, the composer/pianist Franz Liszt. The seventh person, sitting at Liszt’s feet, is his mistress Comtesse Marie d’Agoult; she was the mother of Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, who later would became Richard Wagner’s wife… (more…)

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