Monday, September 10, 2007

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Sierra Club


Music embodies feeling without forcing it to contend and combine with thought, as it is forced in most arts and especially in the art of words.


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Considered to be one of the world's greatest pianists, Franz Liszt's career spanned virtually the whole of the Romantic period. He taught and aided two generations of younger musicians and laid the foundation for much of the 20th century's composition. He was the son of a talented amateur musician who was a steward in the service of the Esterhazy family. Liszt was a child prodigy at the piano and, by the time he was eleven, he had performed in many parts of Europe. In 1821 he left Hungary and moved to Vienna where he studied piano with Czerny and composition with Salieri. Two years later he went with his family to Paris where he was recognised as a brilliant performer and quickly became a favourite of the wealthy French families. In 1830 he met Chopin, Berlioz and the violinist Paganini, whose virtuosity inspired Liszt to explore the expressive possibilities of the piano. As a young man in Paris, Liszt was as famed for his affairs of the heart as for his piano technique. In 1835 he eloped with his mistress, the Countess Marie d'Agoult, to Switzerland and they spent the next few years in the Alps and in Italy. Soon Liszt began a vagabond life that took him to every capital in Europe where he achieved tremendous success as a pianist. In 1844 he separated from his mistress, by now the mother of his three children, and four years later he settled in Weimar, with Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, and was appointed Court Kapellmeister. In Weimar he abandoned his performing career and turned his attention to composition. Public denouncements on his relationship with the princess forced Liszt to move to Rome in 1861. Here he found expression for his long-held spiritual leanings and he composed many religious works. In 1865 he joined the Franciscans and was given the title of Abbe. From then on he divided his time between Rome, Weimar, where he had many pupils, and Budapest, where he was regarded as a national hero. Liszt's symphonic poems were denigrated by supporters of pure music, who took exception to his attempts to translate into musical terms the greatest works of literature.

The best known of the symphonic poems are Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne, based on Victor Hugo, Les Preludes, based on Lamartine, works based on Byron's Tasso and Mazeppa, and Prometheus, with the so-called Faust Symphony in Three Character-Sketches after Goethe and the Symphony on Dante's Divina Commedia. Other orchestral works include two episodes from Lenau's Faust, the second the First Mephisto Waltz, to which a second was added twenty years later, in 1881. Liszt wrote two piano concertos, and, among other works for piano and orchestra, a Totentanz or Dance of Death and a Fantasy on Hungarian Folk-Melodies. Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, written for piano, have been effectively arranged for orchestra. Liszt wrote a great deal of music for the piano, some of which was later revised, and consequently exists in a number of versions. In addition to original piano music, he also made many transcriptions of the work of other composers and wrote works based on national themes. The violinist Paganini was the immediate inspiration for the Etudes d'execution transcendante d'apres Paganini, dedicated to Clara Wieck Schumann, wife of the composer Robert Schumann, and based on five of the 24 Caprices for solo violin by Paganini and on the latter's La campanella. The Transcendental Studies, revised in 1851, Etudes d'execution transcendante, form a set of twelve pieces, including Wilde Jagd (a Wild Hunt), Harmonies du soir (Evening Harmony), and Chasse-Neige. The three collections, later given the title Annees de pelerinage (Years of Pilgrimage), wander from Switzerland, in the first book, to Italy in the other two, a series of evocative poetic pictures, inspired by the landscape, poems and works of art. The earlier volumes stem from the years of wandering with Marie d'Agoult, and the last from the final period of Liszt's life, based in Rome. The Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, written between 1845 and 1852, represent, in the ten pieces included, something of the composer's lasting religious feelings, evident also in the Legendes of 1863, the first representing St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and the second St. Francis de Paul walking on the water. The remarkable Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, based on a theme from a Bach cantata, mourns the death of his elder daughter Blandine. His Fantasia and Fugue on the letters of the name of Bach - B flat - A - C - H (which is B natural in English notation) was originally written for organ. Liszt wrote one sonata, novel in its form. The Hungarian Rhapsodies, eventually appearing as a set of nineteen pieces, are based on a form of art music familiar in Hungary and fostered by gypsy musicians, although these works are not, as Liszt thought, a re-creation of true Hungarian folk- music. The Rhapsodie espagnole makes use of the well known La folia theme, used by Corelli and many other Baroque composers, and the jota aragonesa. Transcriptions of his own orchestral and choral compositions include a version of the second of his three Mephisto Waltzes. Of the many other transcriptions for piano those of the Beethoven Symphonies are among the most remarkable. There are a number of operatic transcriptions and fantasies, including Reminiscences de Don Juan, based on Mozart's Don Giovanni, one of a number of bravura piano works using themes from opera, that include a dozen or so based on the work of his friend and son-in-law Wagner. [Adapted from Karadar]

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