Franz Liszt: the Revolutionary Composer-Performer

  July 15, 2021   Read time 2 min
Franz Liszt: the Revolutionary Composer-Performer
Liszt deliberately placed the piano in profile to the audience so they could see his face. He'd whip his head around while he played, his long hair flying, beads of sweat shooting into the crowd. He was the first performer to stride out from the wings of the concert hall to take his seat at the piano.

In 1869 Liszt was invited to return to Weimar by the grand duke to give master classes in piano playing, and two years later he was asked to do the same in Budapest. From then until the end of his life he divided his time between Rome, Weimar, and Budapest. His music began to lose some of its brilliant quality and became starker, more introverted, and more experimental in style. His later works anticipate the styles of Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, and even Arnold Schoenberg.

In 1886 Liszt left Rome for the last time. He attended concerts of his works in Budapest, Liège, and Paris and then went to London, where several concerts of his works were given. He then went on to Antwerp, Paris, and Weimar, and he played for the last time at a concert in Luxembourg on July 19. Two days later he arrived in Bayreuth for the annual Bayreuth festival. His health had not been good for some months, and he went to bed with a high fever, though he still managed to attend two performances. His final illness developed into pneumonia, and he died on July 31.

In the mid-19th century, Liszt was tearing up the polite salons and concert halls of Europe with his virtuoso performances. Women would literally attack him: tear bits of his clothing, fight over broken piano strings and locks of his shoulder-length hair. Europe had never seen anything like it. It was a phenomenon the great German poet Heinrich Heine dubbed "Lisztomania."

"We hear about women throwing their clothes onto the stage and taking his cigar butts and placing them in their cleavages," says Stephen Hough, a world-renowned concert pianist.

Like many contemporary classical pianists, Hough is obsessed with Liszt — not only because he was really good, but also because he revolutionized the art of performance.

"Liszt was a very dynamic personality," Hough says. "He was someone who seduced people — not just in a sexual way, but in a dramatic way. He was someone who, like a great speaker, was able to capture an audience."

Before Franz Liszt, no one thought a solo pianist could hold anyone's attention, let alone captivate an audience. Liszt set out across Europe in 1839 to prove the conventional wisdom wrong. As part of that mission, he made a radical decision to never bring his scores onstage.

"Before Liszt, it was considered almost in bad taste to play from memory," Hough explains. "Chopin once chided a student: It looked almost arrogant, as if you were pretending that the piece you were playing was by you. Liszt saw that playing the piano, especially for a whole evening in front of an audience, it was a theatrical event that needed not just musical things happening but physical things on the stage."