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5✭ Fridays - Franz Liszt

Posted 2007-02-16 Tags: music romantic era 5✭

These unplanned 5✭ Fridays are really entertaining for me - it's fun trying to pull an unplanned and slightly unhinged article out of places that are best left unexplored. This week in music, we're going to go for the Hail Mary pass and talk about Franz Liszt.

Franz Liszt (October 22, 1811 - July 31, 1886), was the Elvis of his day, which is to say he was a bit of a sex symbol. He gave autographs; he performed in front of thousands at a time; he slept around. He started out as a pianist (and is probably most renowned for his work as such) and was, quite possibly, the best pianist there has ever been. Many of his compositions reflect this - one must be a very skilled technical player to even attempt to play most Liszt pieces, and to play them well, one must be intensely passionate.

Huge hands help, too.

My introduction to Liszt was The Mephisto Waltzes, specifically numbers 1 and 2. The story of the waltzes (that is - the accompanying program that the music is said to describe) is Faustian - Faust and Mephisto come to a country wedding, and, eventually, make sport with maidens. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, but it is one of the most interesting points of the piece - there is actually a musical representation of sexual climax in the piece. This was a bit surprising at the time it was composed (somewhere close to 1860, if memory serves), but is conceptually typical of a Romantic-era composition; very strong emotion acted out in music.

Liszt also wrote The Transcendental Études, which are playable only by people of transcendent skill - hence the name - and the Hungarian Rhapsodies. There are 2 revisions of the Études, with the easiest / last being the most popular to play. Robert Schumann, another great pianist and composer, said that the Études could be played by less than a dozen pianists at that time, and that was the time of great pianists. The Rhapsodies incorporated music that was common with the Romani people of Hungary, Liszt's home country.

Skip to the end - in later life, Liszt abandoned his wild ways and settled down as a serious Catholic. He almost married a princess, then took vows as an Abbé, and saw his daughter convert to protestantism, which he found intensely distressing. He wrote more chorales and passions that were quite beautiful, but far less virtuosic than his earlier works. His later works are quite beautiful, but lack the passion that his earlier pieces have; some of them, I could conceivably play myself which ironically means my interest in them is much decreased.

If you are interested in listening to some virtuoso piano music, I'd recommend spinning up some Schumann first, then listening to some Chopin. You should build up to Liszt, because otherwise the rest will leave you wanting.