Liszt: An Appreciation

Franz Liszt: the sensational piano wizard whose breathtaking virtuosity made even grown men weep.

Was Liszt the greatest piano virtuoso of all time?

If dazzling keyboard facility is the main criteria, then almost certainly yes. Such prodigious feats as learning Beethoven’s taxing C minor Piano Concerto from memory at a day’s notice, and playing the “Emperor” Concerto with only four fingers of his left hand working were almost child's play to him. Even the normally reserved Matthew Arnold reported after a Liszt concert that “as soon as I returned home, I pulled off my coat, flung myself on the sofa, and wept the bitterest, sweetest tears”.

What was a typical Liszt concert like?

Liszt gave well over 1,000 concerts. A pair of white gloves was ceremoniously removed before each performance, and a second piano was invariably situated so that amazed onlookers could admire his prowess from every conceivable angle.

So was it all just flashy showmanship?

Not a bit of it. “My piano was the repository of all that stirred my nature in the impassioned days of my youth,” he reflected in later life. “I confided to it all my desires, my dreams, my sorrows. Its strings vibrated to my emotions, and its keys obeyed my every caprice.”

But was he really any good as a composer?

Although he produced more than his fair share of virtuoso note-spinners, Liszt was at the forefront of the “New Music” movement alongside Wagner. His Piano Sonata interweaves themes and structure with a flair and ingenuity given to very few.

What was his most famous love affair?

Probably with Countess Marie d’Agoult (alias popular novelist, Daniel Stern), who went on to have three children by him, including Cosima who was destined to became both Hans von Bülow’s and later Wagner’s long-suffering wife.

Didn’t he become a reformed man in later life?

Amazingly, it’s true. In 1861 Liszt moved to Rome and four years later Pope Pius IX conferred on him the title of “Abbé”. Such was his latter-day devotion to the church that he was given an honorary canonry, although he was never ordained as a priest.