April 27, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was an extraordinary composer and artist by any metric. An article from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians states:
“It is generally accepted the Liszt was the greatest pianist of his time, possibly of all time: certainly from the point of view of keyboard technique his achievements have hardly ever been rivaled, let alone surpassed.”
Let that sink in for a minute: the greatest pianist of his time and maybe the greatest pianist that has ever lived. Keep in mind that musicologists are not ones for hyperbole, and that Liszt is being compared to everyone from Chopin to Clara Schumann to Brahms to Schnabel to Barenboim to all of the Rubensteins. Now perhaps it's unfair to compare Liszt to someone like Mozart because their musical styles are so different, but the fact remains that there was something special about Liszt.
A contemporary of Liszt, Charles Hallé (who would go on to found the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, UK), wrote an account of one of Liszt's performances in which he said the following:
“Such marvels of executive skill and power I could never have imagined. He was a giant, and Rubenstein spoke the truth when, at a time when his own triumphs were greatest, he said that in comparison with Liszt all other pianists were children.”
Over the course of his career, Liszt was a well-respected piano virtuoso, composer, and conductor. Although his performing style is overwhelmingly dominant in accounts of the man, he was much more than that. We see many innovations in his compositions, as he advanced the ideas of the so-called “New German School.” Among his innovations were the symphonic poem—a one movement programmatic work for orchestra—and the concept of thematic transformation.
Liszt began his musical career when he was just a child. In addition playing public concerts and touring—at one performance, Beethoven supposedly kissed the young man on the forehead—Liszt also tried his hand at composition. At the age of eleven, he was the youngest composer asked to contribute to the anthology of variations on a theme by Diabelli (the same theme for which Beethoven composed thirty-three dizzying variations). In fact, this was his first published work. When his father died in 1827, Liszt gave up touring to teach. Things might have ended there; Liszt might have ended up being a piano and composition teacher for the rest of his life, but there was more in store for him. Liszt and his mother were living in Paris in the 1830s, an artistic crossroads. In 1832, Liszt had occasion to see a performance by noted Italian violin virtuoso, Niccolò Paganini. It was after this event that Liszt decided to become a virtuoso on piano. Paris was the perfect place for this as some of the most forward-thinking pedagogues and performers lived and worked in the city. Liszt showed uncommon talent for the new techniques, and soon he was rising head and shoulders above his contemporaries.
To show off his growing talents, Liszt began to transcribe orchestral works for piano and perform them. With these, he accomplished two things: he furthered his own reputation as a performer and he championed the work of other composers. He transcribed some of Beethoven’s symphonies, although Beethoven’s reputation needed no help from Liszt, but he also undertook a transcription of Hector Berlioz’s five-movement epic, Symphonie Fantastique. Liszt’s efforts benefitted Berlioz as much as they did Liszt himself. The score to Symphonie Fantastique had not been published at the time, and Berlioz was not yet recognized in France for his genius. Symphonie Fantastique went on to become a great favorite in the repertoire, as it remains today. If you’ve ever heard this incredible piece, you might wonder how Liszt was able to distill the essence of Berlioz’s massive orchestral piece into a two-hand piano piece. It can’t have been easy, but the work is a feat of both masterful transcription and virtuosic performance.
In 1839, Liszt began what would be an eight-year tour of Europe. In this time, the fan response to his playing—and even his presence in a particular city—began to border on frenzy. The term “Lisztomania” is credited to poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote about the phenomenon in Paris in April of 1844 (170 years ago, almost to the day). The first recorded incident of “Liszt fever” took place near the end of 1841, in Berlin. Before he’d even played a note, a group of students serenaded the composer with his song “Rheinweinlied,” and later reacted with considerable commotion when Liszt gave a recital on December 27th.
In this day and age, such overly ardent passion for celebrity is commonplace. But in the 1840s, this kind of behavior was unusual, to say the least. Among some of the alleged actions of a Liszt-addled crowd: rushing the performer before and after performances, vying for the odd discarded handkerchief or glove, attempting to obtain locks of his hair, wearing his portrait on jewelry, and making bracelets out of the piano strings he often broke in performance.
Because the suffix “-mania” has been used so often since—“Beatlemania” is a perfect example—we take it to mean, in this context, evidence of somewhat extreme, but ultimately harmless, celebrity worship. But in the nineteenth century, the term “mania” referred to a medical diagnosis. This distinction has been strongly made by musicologist Dana Gooley in the book The Virtuoso Liszt. Instead of being a quaint pastime of enthusiastic youth, Lisztomania was a described as a pathological condition, one that was actually contagious. Gooley describes the purely physical reaction due to the overstimulation of Liszt’s playing (this effect was seen primarily in the youthful German audience):
“[Liszt’s] high-intensity, often frantic bravura manner provoked involuntary physical reactions—shaking, shuddering, weeping. Applause for Liszt, indeed, appears less a gesture of appreciation, wonder, or joy, than a sheer corporal reflex—an outlet for great physical excitement.”
Liszt himself was likely surprised by the ardent reactions of his audience. Perhaps he was even frightened by them. On the one hand, his extraordinary playing and his personal charisma must have given the youth of Berlin and other cities an outlet for their energy and passion. On the other hand, Liszt’s charitable work (he was a great philanthropist and humanitarian) and his personal warmth were held up as a way to defend such vehement fervor for the artist.
In the late 1840s, Liszt gave up life “on the road” and settled down to concentrate his energies on composition. At the age of thirty-five, his concert career was over, and this was quite sad for the public, but it meant that Liszt could channel his energies into creative pursuits. It also meant that he left the stage a legend.
He settled in Weimar to conduct, teach, and write. He continued to champion the works of other composers, like Wagner. In his later years, he returned to thoughts of a religious life—an idea that his parents discouraged when Liszt was young—and received some holy orders. He lived in Rome, simply and alone, leaving his extravagant youth behind him. At this point, Lisztomania must have seemed like a distantly remembered fever dream. He continued to travel and teach, with some interruptions for illness, until his death at the age of 74. Although there is now no one living who heard Liszt play, he was, by all accounts, one of the best that ever lived. There are a few pianists working today who might challenge Liszt at the top of the heap, but it's doubtful any of them will electrify the public into their own version of Lisztomania. That will likely never happen again.