He played with a devilish brio at the piano. With his ”Etudes of Transcendental Execution”, he transformed the whole art of piano playing. The fierce onrush of trills, skips, and runs, the sudden blows and stormy flourishes, shattered the last vestiges of classical symmetry in keyboard music. In Franz Liszt’s hand the piano became a surrogate symphony orchestra.Like Paganini, the music was so difficult, it was thought Liszt had entered into a pact with the devil and denounced his soul in exchange for amazing virtuosity. That led to the discussion of immoral people and good art and fueled the romantic notion of individual genius, mutated and vacuum packed into the vacuous modern caricature of celebrity, or notoriety, which in Liszt’s case deflects from what is truly great about him.
Whether playing the rake or the monk or the lover of the pianoforte, Liszt was especially fond of cadenzas. Had he never composed a single note, Franz Liszt would still have been one of the most fascinating figures of the romantic age. It is almost a story of split personality, a remarkable duality confined within one individual. He has been incorrectly slandered as a kind of beautiful buffoon who happened, as if by coincidence, to be both irresistible lover and incomparable pianist.
Liszt was an elegant long haired ”arriviste” from Hungary who swept assorted countesses off their feet and between the sheets while at the same time managing to compose vast quantities of music. It was one of the most productive and at the same time dissolute lives of the century; a modulation from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. There is technical wizardry of acrobatic proportions, executed in a frenzic state, yet at other times the choreography of the fingers submits to a dance of ideas and audacity of sounds. There is a melancholic grandeur that stamps his ”Sonetti del Petrarca” as the work of a great composer, perhaps one of the greatest of his time.
A long and crowded career that began with a kiss from Beethoven, passed through sponsorship of Chopin, championed Richard Wagner, discovered Mussorgsky and prepared the way for Debussey. His life, from 1811-1886 was a perpetual series of experiments in matters pertaining to the flesh as well as the spirit; a bizarre triangle between music, women and the state of his soul. It was a personal version of the century’s great quest for the absolute romantic experience.
In later years he took minor orders in the Catholic church and wore a cassock, as though to disavow the follies of his youth, but even then the scandalous rumours that were spread about his private life had trouble surmounting the facts. Women adored him, and he was entirely dependent on them. To some people he was a model of generosity and to others a monster of vanity. In his own estimation he was half gypsy and half Franciscan. He claimed ancestral Hungarian nobility, but never learned to speak Hungarian. He fathered several children out of wedlock and never had a permanent home. He was a kind of tireless vagabond a musical refugee shuttling from one DP camp to another. However, the rootlessness, also prevented his music from becoming Germanic and conventional. He also abolished the the frontiers of musical Europe and eliminated the established division of labor between left hand bass and right hand treble on the piano, so that his two hands could range the full length of the keyboard, ready to strike singly or in pairs.
None of this is surprising considering Liszt was born on the borderline between nations and epochs. Born on the border of the feudal domains of the Esterhazy princes of Hungary and only 100 kilometers from Vienna. Both parents descended from peasant families, with his father, an estate manager of the Esterhazy’s, being a combination frustrated amateur pianist and anxious and ambitious to give his son advantages he had not known.
Like Leopold Mozart demonstrated, ambitious fathers can make efficient drillmasters, and like Mozart, Liszt was packaged and promoted as a child prodigy, a groomed show dog, in Paris. ” You cannot imagine how it spoils one to have been a child prodigy”, Liszt said in his later years. It was an emotionally deprived childhood. His upbringing fit the classic pattern outlined in Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child ( 1979) in which the child has learned to equate love and acceptance with fulfilling the parents expectations of achievement. It also explains Liszt’s dependence on women and the need for an audience: ”The parents have found in their child’s “false self” the confirmation they were looking for, a substitute for their own missing structures; the child, who has been unable to build up his own structures, is first consciously and then unconsciously … dependent on his parents. He cannot rely on his own emotions, has not come to experience them through trial and error, has no sense of his own real needs, and is alienated from himself to the highest degree. Under these circumstances he cannot separate from his parents, and even as an adult he is still dependent on affirmation from his partner, from groups, or especially from his own children. ( Miller )