Ten Things You (Probably) Don’t Know About Franz Liszt

A List of Lisztian Trivia after an Interview with Leslie Howard

Readers of Vantage may no doubt be familiar with Franz Liszt, the dashingly handsome Hungarian piano virtuoso and composer, yet few can claim to be as knowledgeable on the musician as renowned Liszt scholar and interpreter, Leslie Howard. During an insightful interview with Leslie, he shared with us many interesting observations about the great Romantic composer, and we have compiled the best of them into the list below.

1 Liszt wrote a lot of chamber music.

Whilst Liszt is mostly known for his piano music, he also wrote a large amount of chamber music. Leslie estimates that Liszt’s chamber music, for one combination or another, totaled between fifty and sixty pieces. The Liszt Society, of which Leslie had been president since 1987, has in fact been publishing volumes of rare music by the composer, including undiscovered chamber gems such as the various works for piano and violin, as well as the three works for trombone and piano/organ.

For those familiar with Liszt’s piano works, a cursory glance through Liszt’s chamber catalogue might reveal some familiar titles – indeed, some of the pieces are a reworking of their piano counterparts. However, Liszt would never write the same piece twice.

A case in point would be the Romance Oubliée. It was originally a romance Liszt wrote when he was young, but he had forgotten about it until a publisher recovered it from his manuscripts in 1881 (hence the title Forgotten Romance). Liszt took the chance to rework the piece, and published it in four versions simultaneously: for piano solo, for violin and piano, for viola and piano, and for cello and piano.

A lesser composer might just assign the melody to different instruments and left it at that, but Liszt was not satisfied with a simple transcription. Instead, he experimented with different sonorities and harmonies, altering the strings and piano parts as he saw fit. What came out of this was a wistful, introspective piece, even evoking the mystical sound qualities of Scriabin to some.

2 Liszt also wrote a lot of sacred music.

Did you know that Liszt wrote more than fifty Latin motets? While most people wouldn’t know any of those works at all, there are still some churches where his sacred choral works, such as the Missa Choralis or Via Crucis, are actively performed.

The young Liszt was quite a radical, and he thought the church was terribly old and stuffy. He held some fairly progressive ideas at his time, and together with his friend, Abbé Felicité de Lamennais, they joined a religious sect called the Saint-Simonists. However, Liszt was influenced by the idea that an organized form of religion is not satisfactory, and he slowly drifted away from the church.

Liszt’s religious beliefs returned with a fervor in 1847, and he produced most of his major religious works in Weimar, including the mass for the consecration of Basilica at Gran, the setting of Psalm 13, numerous settings of Ave Maria, and the Cantico del Sol (the Hymn to the Sun), where Liszt set to music the words of St François d’Assise.

Interestingly, Liszt also started work on the third oratorio in Weimar, whose libretto was about St Stanislaus’ love of Poland. Unfortunately, Liszt’s heart was not in the story because he wanted to make a present for Princess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. This naturally made him unhappy with the libretto, and he had only completed seventy minutes’ worth of music by the time of his death.

Liszt nearly married Princess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1861, but his plans were thwarted by the Russian Tsar. Two years later, Liszt declared that he was to enter a life of seclusion, and he retreated to a monastery outside Rome, receiving minor orders of the Catholic church and becoming a Franciscan monk. Liszt never did finish the orders to become a full-fledged priest, though he was made canon of Albano in 1879.

3 Liszt was listed in the Guinness World Records.

Or rather, Leslie Howard’s ambitious recording of all of Liszt’s solo piano works was.

The Liszt Project started in 1986 when, as a commemoration of the centenary of Liszt’s death, Leslie performed Liszt’s entire original solo piano works (excluding arrangements and transcriptions) in a series of ten mammoth recitals. This massive undertaking attracted the attention of Ted Perry, Hyperion Records’ founder and managing director, who invited Leslie to record a comprehensive series of Liszt’s solo piano oeuvre, this time with no time constraints.

It took Leslie and Hyperion Records fourteen years to complete the recordings, with the final album amounting to a mammoth size of 1377 tracks in ninety-five full-length CDs (equivalent to nearly five days’ continuous playing time). When Hyperion Records declared the album finished in 1999, it earned Leslie Howard, amongst other awards, an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest recording project ever undertaken by a solo recording artist (pop or classical), six Grands Prix du Disque, the Medal of St. Stephen, the Pro Cultura Hungarica award, and even a mounted bronze cast of Liszt’s hand presented by the Hungarian President.

Since then, a further five CDs had been issued, bringing the total amount of discs in the set to a staggering hundred.

4 Liszt liked descriptive titles for his works.

Whilst other composers might publish works with names like ‘String Quartet in D’, Liszt almost always put a characteristic title on his works, so that the performer and the audience can connect the music to the underlying meaning more easily. A piece in Harmonies poétiques even included a poem on top of it.

One does not have to look further than the Dante Sonata to see the effect of titles in action. Compared to the Dante Symphony, which had textual markings all over the place and poetic lines over the themes, the Sonata only carried the title Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata (After a Reading of Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata). Despite the sparse reference, however, it is still perfectly clear when the music descends into the murky circles of hell, and you can well hear the calls of the doomed spirits without any other textual help.

5 Liszt never called his sonata in B minor a Sonata in B Minor.

Speaking of titles, Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, the one purportedly about the story of Faust, was never named as such by Liszt. Instead, Leslie believed that the piece was a very broad picture of the human condition and experience, not related to the Faust legend, and definitely not only based around the key of B minor. That’s why Liszt called it Sonate, or Grand Sonate, with a dedication to Robert Schumann.

To Leslie, this sonata represented the pinnacle of Liszt’s musical achievement on the piano, and Liszt probably deliberately omitted writing a descriptive title due to that. “Liszt wanted people to know he is taking the sonata seriously.”

6 Liszt had an intriguing relationship with Clara Schumann.

According to Leslie, before Clara acquired the status of a wise old woman and insisted that Liszt was unspeakable because he played from memory, she had fallen in love in Liszt. “When the young Clara (who was already engaged to Schumann) met Liszt for the first time, she fell head over heels for him.” Liszt, who was quite popular at the time, did not reciprocate her love, but he did dedicate the Paganini etudes to her, and later even transcribed three of her songs.

Unfortunately, Clara’s fascination of Liszt must have worn off over time, because when she was publishing Schumann’s Fantasy in C in 1839, Clara tried to remove Robert’s dedication to Liszt, and insisted that ‘he wrote it for me’ only.

7 Liszt was one of the most well-documented Romantic composers.

Liszt was, in many ways, an intensely private man, and he would spend every morning from six until midday at his desk writing music. At the same time, however, he was also a gregarious man, and he liked to have lunch with other people, write letters after lunch, play cards, go for walks and participate in many social activities. Thanks to his fame and rich correspondences, scholars nowadays can identify what Liszt had been working on throughout most of his life. In fact, Leslie had even put together a calendar with a page for each day of Liszt’s life. “We know what letter he wrote, what piece he was working on, what he was referring to, and even what he had for dinner and with whom!”

Incidentally, this is the main reason why Leslie had not considered writing a biography of Liszt – there are simply too many topics to research on and to talk about, and no publisher would be willing to publish such a large amount of paper on one single subject. After all, the musical world’s previous endeavor, H. C. Robbins Landon’s five-volume book on Haydn, was based on much sparser material, yet it had already cost the publisher a hefty fortune!

8 Liszt never practiced for most of his life.

Liszt started his musical life as a child prodigy at the age of nine, but his performance career ended quickly at the age of thirty-five. Liszt no doubt did run his hand over a few pieces, but for most of his life afterwards, Liszt never practiced on the piano – he simply didn’t have the need to.

In a sense, it is both amazing and sad that Liszt never played in public all the fantastic works that we know him by as a composer. “During his later years, Liszt played a few concertos, always for charity concerts, and he conducted a few of his pieces, such as the Totentanz. Liszt also participated in several domestic music evenings, where he played one or two solos, and in a case in Paris, even accompanied one of his cello pieces. However, he would never play another full-scale piano recital, having invented the genre.”

9 Liszt was a stickler to the score.

Despite his improvisation and frivolous use of ornamentation in his early days as a performer, the elderly Liszt, as a teacher, advocated following the score to the letter. In fact, Liszt was so strict that if anyone deviated from the score in his lessons, he would sit down and transcribe what they had played. “That’s why we’ve got all these odd little variant passages in his manuscripts!”

Liszt’s approach to the score carried over to his published compositions, which were often meticulously covered with tempo and dynamic markings. Leslie made it a point in his masterclasses to follow Liszt’s doctrine. “Take La Campanella for example. Throughout the whole piece, there is no forte marking until the very last page. The piece was never supposed to be bold and brassy – instead, it should just be like a short story, simple and sweet.”

10 Liszt foresaw atonality.

Liszt was considered by many as a towering giant in the era of Romanticism. Imagine our surprise, therefore, when we learnt that even Liszt turned from the tonal practice during his later years.

Behold Via Crucis, an extraordinary set of fourteen musical portraits depicting the Stations of the Cross. As Leslie explained, the work was considered so avant-garde that when Liszt sent it to his publisher in Budapest, they rejected it, saying that they would not be able to sell this kind of music.

The publisher had urged Liszt to reconsider and to write something in a more accessible style, and we are fortunate that Liszt did not heed the advice. Indeed, when the piece was published posthumously in 1929, it attracted critical praise from the contemporary music scene, including Béla Bartók who commented on how the work stretched the harmonic limits of tonality.

To the modern-day listener, the dissonances in Via Crucis may have seemed no more than is necessary to describe the events of the crucifixion. For a composer who represented the heights of Romanticism, however, it is extraordinary that Liszt turned his back on the richest forms of tonal harmony, and instead wrote music with such spiky dissonances and chords that one wouldn’t hear again until Messiaen.

Liszt’s continued experimentation of music’s boundaries is especially precious when compared to his contemporaries. “There were people like Sibelius, who was a very prolific composer and then one fine day after he had written Tapiola and the Seventh Symphony, he didn’t write anymore. The same can be said of Rossini, who did continue to write short piano pieces, but would not write any operas after William Tell. It is remarkable that Liszt, even in his old age, still continued to revolutionize his music and produce something as avant-garde as the Via Crucis.”