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Timeline: Franz Liszt

U.S. Public Domain
A portrait of a young Franz Liszt, Europe's first "rock star".

When I say the words “rock star," what comes to your mind? Perhaps you picture guitars, stadiums and teeming mobs of adoring fans flocking to their favorite band or musician. In many ways, composer and pianist Franz Liszt was Europe’s first “rock star." 

His fans, mostly women, would rush the stage at his performances desperate to grab a bit of his clothes or a lock of his long hair. One writer actually called the phenomenon, “Lisztomania."

However, there was much more than “stardom” to Franz Liszt. He was one of the most “forward-looking” composers of the 19th century, a teacher, a conductor, a transcriptionist and possibly the greatest piano virtuoso of all time.

Liszt’s father was an official in service to Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy. That name should sound familiar; it’s the same court that Franz Joseph Haydn served in for 30 years. Liszt’s father actually played the cello in the court orchestra. 

Franz became enraptured by music and his father encouraged this fascination, giving his son piano lessons. The family moved to Vienna when Franz was 10 in order for him to study with Czerny and Salieri. By the next year, he was performing in public. 

At one such performance, in 1823, Beethoven reportedly came to the 12-year-old pianist and kissed him on the forehead. Liszt saw this as his musical christening.

Franz Liszt began to tour Europe extensively until his father fell suddenly ill and died of typhoid fever. Franz settled with his mother in Paris where he desired to join the priesthood. He wrote very little during these years. 

But in 1831, Liszt heard violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini for the first time. He became obsessed with realizing the same virtuosity on the piano. His meetings with Hector Berlioz and Chopin awoke a sense of artistry and romantic expression deep in his soul. Liszt returned to the stage, this time not as a child prodigy, but as a mature master and composer.

Credit US-PD
An 1843 photograph of Franz Liszt taken at the height of his career.

Liszt pushed the boundaries of harmony further than almost any other composer in the 19th century, inspiring techniques that weren’t completely realized until the 20th.

Liszt also championed the music of other composers. He opened all of Western Europe to the music of Alexander Borodin, influencing the next generation of Russian composers. In his later years, Liszt carried a walking stick, which was carved with the likeness of St. Francis of Assisi, Gretchen and Mephistopheles, a fitting portrait of his faith, his romantic spirit and his sometimes diabolical character.

Credit US-PD
Franz Liszt's signature found at the end of his works.

For more information on Franz Liszt, check out this story from NPR "How Franz Liszt Became the World's First Rock Star".

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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