Liszt, FRANZ, admittedly the greatest pianist in the annals of music, and a composer whose status in musical literature still forms a debatable question, b. at Raiding, Hungary, October 22, 1811; d. at Bayreuth, Germany, July 31, 1886. His musical precocity was early recognized by his parents, and his first teacher was his father, Adam Liszt, a musical amateur of rare culture. His first public appearance at Oedenburg at the age of nine was of so startling a character, that several Hungarian magnates who were present at once assumed the financial responsibilities of his further musical education. Taken to Vienna by his father, who devoted himself exclusively to the development of his talented child, he studied the piano for six years with Czerny, and theory and composition with Salieriand Randhartinger. His first public appearance in Vienna (January 1, 1823) proved a noteworthy event in the annals of music. From Beethoven, who was present, down to the merest dilettante, everyone forthwith acknowledged his great genius. His entry to the Paris Conservatory, where his father wished him to continue his studies, and which at the time was under Cherubini, proved unsuccessful on account of his not being a native of France. His studies, however, under Reicha and Paer, were of a character that made the youthful prodigy one of the conspicuous figures of the French capital. His one act opera, “Don Sanche”, as well as his piano compositions, achieved a flattering success. His brilliant concert tours in Switzerland and England enhanced an already established reputation. His father’s death (1827) made Liszt and his mother dependent on his own personal exertions, but the temporary hardship disappeared when he began his literary and teaching career. His charming personality, conversational brilliancy, and transcendent musical ability opened the world of fashion, wealth, and intellect to him. His Catholic sturdiness was temporarily shaken by the “Nouveau Christianisme” of Saint-Simon, to which, however, he never formally or even tacitly subscribed, and by the socialistic aberrations of Chevalier and Poreire. The unhealthy atmosphere of his associations with Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine, George Sand, and their coterie, could not fail to weaken his religious moorings. Fortunately the contravening influence of Lamennais averted what might have ended in spiritual shipwreck. His intimacy with Meyerbeer and his friendship with Chopin, whose biographer he subsequently became, kept alive and fostered his interest in his art.
The result of this environment led to the unfortunate alliance (1834-44) with the Countess d’Agoult (Daniel Stern). The fruit of it was three children—a son who died early, Blandina, who became the wife of Emile Ollivier, Minister of Justice to Napoleon III, and Cosima, first the wife of Hans von Billow, then of Richard Wagner, and now the owner of Villa Wahnfried, Bayreuth. The rupture of this liaison signalized the beginning of his dazzling career as a virtuoso, scaling higher altitudes as years progressed, until his reputation, like that of Paganini on the violin, was that of a pianist without peer or rival. His concert tours throughout Europe evoked an unparalleled enthusiasm. Kings and national assemblies bestowed titles of nobility and decorations on him; universities honored him with academic degrees; cities vied with one another in granting him their freedom; audiences were thrilled as if by an hypnotic influence; public demonstrations, torchlight processions, poetic greetings met him in all directions and made him the object of a hero-worship, that has seldom, if ever, fallen to the lot of any other artist. In all these intoxicating triumphs, he never lost his mental equipoise. His remunerative concerts allowed him means to make generous provision for his mother and children. His purse was open, his services at the disposal of every appeal of philanthropy. No aspiring talent ever invoked his encouragement, no deserving charity ever appealed to his aid, in vain. The princely contribution to the sufferers of the Danube inundation at Pesth (1837), and the completion of the Beethoven monument at Bonn (1845), are but two striking examples. Having reached the pinnacle of success and fame as a pianist, he now concluded to abandon the career of a virtuoso, to devote his time and energy to creative work and the public fostering of higher musical ideals.
His twelve years at Weimar (1849-61), where he assumed the proffered position of court conductor, were years of devoted, unselfish, and intensive activity. His indefatigable supervision of the court concerts and operatic performances brought them to a perfection that made the small provincial town of Weimar synonymous with the highest achievements in tonal art. His gratuitous guidance and encouragement of talented and ambitious piano pupils raised the standard of pianoforte playing to a height never before attained, and created a specific school of most brilliant virtuosos. During this period he also gave the world a series of notable piano compositions, and even more notable choral and orchestral works, that have made their rounds through the musical world. As he was the originator of the “piano recital”, so now he became the creator of a new orchestral form, the “symphonic poem”, which, as a type of program music, has found a universal adoption. While directing the destinies of the Weimar musical world, he not only became a daring pioneer in placing on its concert platform and operatic stage the neglected masterpieces of classical art, but tried the more venturesome experiment of introducing the most meritorious works of contemporary composers. Wagner forms a conspicuous example of his courageous propaganda. His championship of the great dramatic composer in conversation and writing and by the production of his operas, not to allude to financial support (and all this in the face of vehement protest and demonstrative antipathy), did more to advance that master’s theories and compositions and to give him a status in the world of art than all other agencies.
It was an act of the same progressive intrepidity, meeting with public manifestations of protest at the performance of an opera of one of his pupils (“The Barber of Bagdad” by Peter Cornelius), that caused him to resign his position as court conductor. After his resignation (1861) he lived in turn at Rome, Budapest, and Weimar. Religion which, in spite of his earlier associations, was only temporarily overshadowed, had for several years been again playing an active part in his life. As early as 1856 or 1858 he became a Franciscan tertiary. The failure of the Princess Caroline von Sayn-Wittgenstein, a most estimable lady whose influence over him was most potent for good, to secure a dispensation to marry him, only brought his religious designs to a more definite point. He received minor orders from Cardinal Hohenlohe in his private chapel at the Vatican on April 25, 1865. This he did, “convinced that this act would strengthen me in the right road”, and therefore he “accomplished it without effort, in all simplicity and uprightness of intention”, and as agreeing “with the antecedents of my youth, as well as with the development that my work of musical composition has taken during the last four years” (La Mara, “Letters of Franz Liszt”, New York, 1894, II, 100). His career of twenty-one years as an abbe was most exemplary and edifying. Punctilious as he was in the performance of his ecclesiastical duties, his interest in art continued unabated. His piano pupils followed him on his casual wanderings; contemporaneous art was not neglected, but above all the old ecclesiastical masters and the new movement for the restoration of liturgical music, represented by the Cacilienverein, found a devoted, enthusiastic, and generous supporter in him. His own larger ecclesiastical compositions, though no doubt unwittingly deviating from strict liturgical requirements, are nevertheless imbued with deep, religious sentiment. It was while attending the marriage of his granddaughter, and coincidentally the “Parsifal” performances at Bayreuth, that, after receiving the rites of the Church, he succumbed to an acute attack of pneumonia at the home of a friend, near Wagner’s Villa Wahnfried. His wish, expressed in a letter (La Mara, I, 439) breathing the most loyal devotion to the Church and humble gratitude to God, to be buried without pomp or display, where he died, was carried out by interring him in the Bayreuth cemetery.
H. G. GLOSSA