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Franz Liszt: The Father of Progressive Music

Portrait of Franz Liszt by Ary Scheffer, 1837 – (Public Domain)

Atmosphere or technicality? The privilege of being drawn into a temporary, alternate state of imaginative being, or the inevitable captivity induced by elegant instrumentality, is a dilemma that baffles us as a modern day audience of music in spite of our existent ability to solve it due to the extravagant diversity of music that is created. The issue springs from its origins in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, where a vast number of prodigies dwelled, shaping new definitions of brilliance and sophistication on plenty of levels. One of those who created the world’s most influential masterpieces of music is the eminent Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt.

Life of Franz Liszt: A Worldly Prodigy

Franz Liszt was born in 1811 to Anna and Adam Liszt in the village of Raiding. Known later as one of Europe’s most virtuosic pianists, Liszt started exhibiting his ingenuity by the age of six. His father, who served the Esterhazy noble family of Hungary, was himself acquainted to a considerable extent with music; he played the piano and maintained skills on other instruments as well. When Liszt demonstrated an early interest in music, his father did not neglect the summons and started teaching him the piano, of which he elevated rapidly to the state of absolute mastery.

His career debut consisted of a number of performances that he conducted as a boy in a nearby town under the name of Sopron, then a few subsequent concerts in Austria, after which he was granted an annual stipend by wealthy sponsors who belonged to the elite of the Austrian society; the stipend was to bestow the young Franz with an opportunity to establish a career as a musician. In Vienna, he started strengthening his musical education by receiving lessons from Carl Czerny, who himself had received lessons from Ludwig Van Beethoven, years earlier. Simultaneously, he was taught about music theory and the basics of composition by Antonio Salieri. Consequently, Franz’s family moved to Vienna, where he was fortunate enough to, at such a young age, meet the already reputable Beethoven.

After his father’s death, Liszt was already disaffected by his state as a touring musician, who was paid by aristocrats to sway them by his piano skills in their courts; he regarded such a state as demeaning and decided to give it away. In Paris, where he stayed with his mother, he worked as a piano teacher for the youngsters of the rich families in order to gain money. Among his students was the daughter of one of the king’s ministers, whom Liszt loved deeply and harbored an intention to marry.  This naturally went against the current of her father, which caused the affair to dissolve, to Franz’s disenchantment.

In the time between 1830 and 1832, the still young musician encountered a series of musical events that helped shape his musical consensus and his compositional approach. Liszt was overwhelmed by the qualities of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, and its influence on him would represent itself later in many works. Liszt also celebrated and admired the brilliance of Niccolo Paganini’s virtuosity, which directly inspired him to attempt an elevation to a higher level of instrumental mastery. Another musician who drew Liszt’s attention was the Polish Frederic Chopin, whose influence upon Liszt directly tackled his poetic side. The interference of the three artists in Liszt’s life contributed massively to his artistic expression, virtuosity and stage presence.

After a romantic affair with the Countess Marie d’Agoult, the birth of three children and a relatively brief accommodation in Switzerland, Liszt once again took up the life of a touring virtuoso, only this time, due to a newly founded artistic maturity; the 1840s witnessed a monumental success for the Hungarian prodigy. It is in those years where he was comfortably able to build for himself a prosperous reputation as an undisputed pianist across Europe, for he performed arguably more than any of his contemporary peers, convening homage and veneration from different European societies. This reputation was aided by his unprecedented stage performances, which according to the musicologist Alan Walker, were essentially different from those of other musicians. Based on few reliable accounts from the period, it is argued that Franz Liszt enjoyed a mesmeric personality and was able to establish a different sort of rapport with the audience; the live performances of Liszt were said to bring the audience to a hysterical level of excitation.

Listz’s Legacy: A Taste for the Progressive

Alongside his extensive piano work and great symphonies such as Faust and Dante, and the immortal Hungarian Rhapsodies, Franz Liszt’s greatest contribution to the inventory of the world’s artistic creation remains represented by his thirteen symphonic poems. Liszt, who clearly developed a poetic side and incorporated it into his works, was regarded as a programmatic composer. Generally, program music refers to the attempt of rendering to a composition an extra-musical narrative or quality. This narrative that is shrouded in the composition’s themes could be inferred from an extraterrestrial source such as a literary work.

Symphonic or tone poems are usually consisted of a single continuous movement, they lie primarily under the umbrella of programmatic music; thus, a symphonic poem is inclined towards illustrating or evoking the content of a non-musical source. The aim of the wildly artistic combination is to provoke the audience to establish certain imaginations or ideas instead of having them focused on the technical form and quality of the composition; a relatively new approach that was embraced by several composers including Liszt, who desired to associate the conventional complexities of musical compositions, such as the interplay of contrasting themes of a symphony’s initial movement with programmatic qualities. The Hungarian virtuoso managed to achieve a rather balanced combination by the means of constructing a platform that in its nature is more flexible than the sonata form. The argument regarding the interrelation of form and function in Liszt’s symphonic poems remains as valid to debate upon, to the extent that four schools of critical thought exist with regards to such an issue as illustrated in The Symphonic Poems of Franz Liszt by Keith T. Jones and Michael Saffle.

Liszt attempted to encode a musical environment that was convenient for his instrumental vision, so he utilized two compositional techniques that would help his venture. Used by Beethoven earlier, the first tool for Liszt was the cyclic form, a compositional technique in which multiple movements of a single symphony are unified by a theme or a melody. For Liszt’s symphonic poems, which were radically different from the traditional symphonies, this precise technique meant a transformation for the cyclic pattern to exhibit itself in a compressed single movement rather than several ones. The other device was thematic transformation, which was not in particular an invention of Liszt, for it had been used before by Beethoven, Mozart, Joseph Haydn and Berlioz. Thematic transformation is a term that bears distinctive resemblance with the concept of progressiveness in music in our modern times, for it is primarily the sort of variation in which a thematic or a melodic piece is transformed, that is by several means such as transposition and augmentation, into another shape that holds no relation to its precedent. In spite of the fact that Liszt was not the creator of such techniques, his approach to using them differed from his contemporaries as well as his artistic ancestors; thematic transformation and cyclic form were incorporated by several musicians into their works. However, it is Franz Liszt who took the initiative of relying heavily on both techniques to sketch his imaginative symphonic poems. They developed from being mere tools to a valid ground for an artistic work to be constructed upon; as a direct result, one could almost be certain that Liszt’s unique contribution to the compositional process constitute the roots of the progressive dimension of modern music.

The symphonic poems of Liszt spring from multiple literary and artistic sources. Tasso, lamento e trionfo, is Liszt’s No.2 work among his 13 symphonic poems; it attempts to give a musical narrative to the story of the 16th century Italian poet Torquato Tasso, of which two different literary works were written, each depicting a particular aspect in the poet’s life. The two accounts, a play written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and a poem written by Lord Byron; simultaneously constituted the inspiration responsible for Liszt’s work of art. Another symphonic poem like Prometheus is based on the Greek myth of Prometheus’ theft of fire and his struggle with Zeus; other literary sources including Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Schiller’s Die Ideale project a sort of diversity that is reflected by Liszt’s absolute progressiveness. The symphonic poems of Liszt inspired several musicians who would later pick up the tradition of this newly founded artistic dimension such as Johann Strauss, Antonin Dvorak and Tchaikovsky.

The legacy of Liszt extends outside the premises of musical creation, for he was also known to be a dedicated philanthropist. Liszt hardly made any money for himself for the revenues of his recitals went mainly to charitable organizations, and to aid the construction of several establishments in Germany as well as Hungary. In addition, Liszt was in part a man of letters; he wrote essays that tackle many topics such as the condition of the artist and its development. For all of this, the Hungarian benefactor remains one of the clearly visible marks in the artistic and social history of Europe.


The Symphonic Poems of Franz Liszt 

Franz Liszt and His World