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Franz Liszt: from virtuoso keyboard lion to ascetic innovator

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was revered in his own time as a true devil's advocate, whose virtuoso piano playing set many a woman's heart racing. But above all, he was an innovator, whose ambition was to 'hurl a spear into the infinite space of the future'. The Concertzender highlights life and work of Franz Liszt for two hours on Wednesday 2 December. At 8pm, Mathieu Heinrichs zooms in on his relationship with Clara and Robert Schumann, and from 21.00-22.00 I spend in Panorama the Lion attention to Liszt's late creation period.

Although Franz Liszt was born in Hungary, he spoke German. His father was steward at the court of the noble Esterházy family, where Joseph Haydn had been chapel master for 30 years. Their castle was in western Hungary, in an area where German was mainly spoken, as was the case at Franz's primary school. After World War I, the area was assigned to Austria as 'Burgenland'. But although Liszt would never learn to speak Hungarian, he was an ardent patriot, opposing Austrian rule and drawing inspiration from Hungarian folk music. Sometimes he even appeared on stage in Hungarian costume.

Like a rocket

His father Adam was a deserving amateur pianist, who had attended Haydn's concerts and also got to know him personally. Once, when he played a piano concerto by Ferdinand Ries, little Franz sang the melodies flawlessly, upon which Adam decided to give him piano lessons. The boy took off like a rocket and from the age of nine performed for audiences, standing out not only for his amazing mastery of music by composers such as Bach and Mozart, but also for his talent for improvisation. For instance, the Pressburger Zeitung in 1920: 'His playing exceeds admiration and justifies the very highest expectations.'

After this, things moved quickly. The Liszt family moved to Vienna, where Franz was taught by Carl Czerny. The latter forced him to play all pieces by heart, allowing him to perform the most difficult scores à vue throughout his life. He soon became an admired keyboard lion, rivalling in popularity the spectacle violinist Niccolò Paganini. Not only because of his genius playing, but also because he innovated performance practice: he placed his grand piano sideways on the stage, so that the sound was projected directly into the hall and the audience had a view of his watery fingers. Liszt also developed the 'symphonic poem', a one-movement orchestral work that tells a story, as for instance Die Hunnenschlacht and Orpheus.

Germinating madness

But Liszt's main achievement lies in his late compositions, which came about after he had been ordained in the lower priestly order. He became increasingly ascetic, saying goodbye to virtuoso display and developing a language that in its increasing dissonance points ahead to Arnold Schönberg's atonality. Liszt himself valued these pieces, but his contemporaries dismissed them as inferior products of a decaying mind. His son-in-law Richard Wagner even spoke of 'germinating madness'.

Toos Liszt

Compositions like Nuages gris and Bagatelle sans tonalité remained unpublished, until 1950 in England, when the Liszt Society was established. Via crucis, his impressive cycle on the crucifixion of Christ did not even appear in print until 1980. In our country, Reinbert de Leeuw and Toos Onderdenwijngaard were among the promoters of Liszt in the 1970s. In Panorama the Lion I zoom in on this, with rarely heard recordings by Onderdenwijngaard and De Leeuw.

In the biography Reinbert de Leeuw, man or melody I take an in-depth look at the emerging appreciation of Franz Liszt in our country.

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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