Great Masters: Liszt-His Life and Music

Course No. 758
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course Overview

Musically, Franz Liszt (1811–1886) is one of the most written about but least understood composers of the 19th century. As for his life—Felix Mendelssohn observed that Liszt's character was "a continual alternation between scandal and apotheosis." "Scandal and apotheosis"? What could that possibly mean? Join music professor Robert Greenberg for these lectures, and go on a fascinating journey in search of the truth about both. "Franz Liszt, Both Sides Now," you might call it.

Lisztomania! or A Portrait of the Artist as Hero

More than anyone before him—more than Beethoven, Byron, even the preternatural Paganini—it was Liszt who created one of the most enduring archetypes of the Romantic era: that of the artist "who walks with God and brings down fire from heaven in order to kindle the hearts of humankind."

After experiencing Professor Greenberg's lectures, you will know—really know—what "Lisztomania" is all about. That word is not just the title of a quirky 1975 Ken Russell movie, but a term invented by Liszt's contemporaries.

You'll learn why it made sense to so many at the time, and why it drove others, Brahms and his friend Clara Schumann among them, up the proverbial wall.

Liszt was without a doubt the greatest pianist of his time. He may well be the greatest of all time. Traveling arduously all over Europe on mail coaches, playing whatever instrument was available in whatever hall he could find, he stunned even the most jaded critics and listeners everywhere he went with his sheer virtuosity and almost unbelievable musical gifts.

Two Sides of a Virtuoso

Liszt was an innovative composer both for his own instrument and on an orchestral scale, a visionary about the future of art, a big-hearted developer of young talent who frequently taught for no pay, and a sincere lover of gypsy freedom as well as Franciscan faith and charity.

Liszt also had many sides to his personal life. He was a lover of adulation and women, sleeping with everyone from countesses and princesses to wild-eyed young groupies; a well-meaning but absent and rather indifferent father to three out-of-wedlock children; and a Hungarian patriot who spent most of his time in Paris, Germany, and Rome.

Additionally, Liszt was a self-conscious artiste, damaging his own reputation by insisting on publishing just about every piece of music that came from his pen and a proud meritocrat from peasant stock who nonetheless had a weakness for what struck some observers as pseudo-aristocratic posturing.

The Gypsy Franciscan

On stage—he was the first pianist ever to play a solo concert—he was a shameless showoff. But he had the talent to display, and this attention-loving side of Liszt was inseparable from his apotheosis as a veritable deity of the keyboard who could sight-read even the most difficult and illegible score with the pages turned upside down—all the while playing the piece flawlessly and commenting on it as he played!

As Professor Greenberg observes, Liszt would hardly have reached "legend" status if his chosen instrument had been the oboe.

As Liszt himself said of his zest for living, "In life one must decide whether to conjugate the verb to have or the verb to be."

For all his reputation (much of it very well earned) as a lady-killer, a high-society bon vivant, and something of a 19th-century rock star, Liszt was also a man of warm, heartfelt Catholic piety and moving personal generosity.

He held many benefit concerts—among his causes were construction of a monument to Beethoven and flood relief in Hungary—and the stories of his acts of kindness are legion.

Liszt: A Brief Biography

Liszt was born into a musical family in 1811. His father, Adam, recognized his musical gifts when Franz was about 5 and gave him piano lessons. The family moved to Vienna when Franz was 11 to continue his musical education. In a subsequent tour of Europe, nobles, stunned by the prodigy's abilities, offered letters of introduction to the next stop on the tour.

Finally, the Liszt family landed in Paris, where Franz performed almost nonstop. The aristocrats of the city loved Franz, and he absorbed their language, culture, and sophistication. During these years, Liszt wrote his Etudes en douze exercices, which he would rewrite as the Grand Etudes in 1838 and as the Transcendental Etudes in 1851.

After his father died in 1827, and he had a breakdown over the ending of a love affair, he stopped practicing the piano and did not write any music. For three years he was depressed, ill, and apathetic. Finally, the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris blasted Liszt out of his lethargy and reignited his creative energies.

After the revolution, Liszt became a popular figure at Parisian salons and met Nicolo Paganini and Hector Berlioz, two men who would help shape his vision of himself as a composer and pianist.

In 1847, Liszt met Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who would become his soulmate and mistress. Liszt took up conducting and composing for the orchestra in Weimar, ultimately turning out his "symphonic poems," and Faust and Dante symphonies.

After considering the priesthood following the deaths of two of his children, Liszt's final years were filled with music, traveling, honors, and a few disappointments. He divided his living arrangements among Rome; Weimar, where he taught extensively; and Budapest, where he was honored as a national hero. He died of a heart attack on July 31, 1886.

"A Talented Humbug"?

Some critics, then and now, have felt that Liszt, while incomparable at the keyboard, was derivative and seriously uneven as a composer. The conductor Hermann Levi even called him "a talented humbug."

Professor Greenberg weighs this charge, explains its grounds (as we have seen, Liszt, unlike Brahms, did tend to publish indiscriminately), and then shows you—concretely and with specific examples from Liszt's works—the grounds for his own belief about the merits of this claim.

What is the truth about Liszt as a composer? Does he belong in the first flight with Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart? How should his avant-garde risk-taking—his invention of the "symphonic poem," for instance—affect his reputation?

And how should Liszt's truly extraordinary performance innovations affect our answer?

Works you'll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:

Etude in 12 Exercises, no. 10 in F Minor (1826)
Grande Fantasie de Bravoure sur La Clochette, variations (1832)
Transcendental Etude no. 10 in F Minor (1851)
Totentanz (1849, revised 1853–1859)
Sonata in B Minor for Piano (1853)
Piano Concerto no. 2 in A Major (1849, revised 1861)
Faust Symphony (1854)
Mephisto Waltz no. 1 (1860)
Christus (1866)
Hungarian Rhapsody no. 19 in D Minor (1885)
Transcendental Etude no. 8, Wilde Jagd (Wild Chase) (1838/1851)
Variation on a Theme by Diabelli (1822)
Arrangement of "Scaffold March" from Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1833)
Divertissement on the cavatina, "I tuoi frequenti palpiti" from Puccini's La Niobe (1833)
From Six Grand Etudes after Paganini: no. 5, "The Chase," and no. 3, "La Campanella" (1838/1851)
Funerailles (1849)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in E-flat Major (1849, revised 1856)
Franciscan Legend no. 1 from St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds from Franciscan Legend (1863)

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8 lectures
 |  Average 46 minutes each
  • 1
    Le Concert, C'est Moi—The Concert is Me
    Franz Liszt was an outrageous showman and a performer of musical "firsts." He was a legend before he turned 30, the embodiment of the Romantic era's vision of the artist as god. To understand Liszt, we must first learn a little history of the piano, the instrument he uniquely exploited. x
  • 2
    A Born Pianist
    Liszt was surrounded by music from infancy and began to reveal his musical gifts at about age five. He stunned his teachers and, at his first performance at age 11, astonished reviewers and his audience. When Liszt was 15, his father died, sending Franz into depression and apathy for three years. He was finally blasted out of his lethargy by the July Revolution of 1830. x
  • 3
    Revelation
    Writers, musicians, artists, and intellectuals flocked to Paris after the July Revolution of 1830. Liszt was a stellar attraction in the Paris salons. In 1833, Liszt met and fell in love with the beautiful, married, and neurotic Countess Marie d'Agoult; they had three children together. A devastating flood in Hungary prompted Liszt to go to Vienna and give a series of benefit concerts. The experience reminded him of what his life had been like before Marie and released him from the trap that he felt his domestic life had become. x
  • 4
    Transcendence
    Liszt had been immersed in practicing and composing. His approach to composition created a technique of interchangeable fingerings, interlocking hands, and crossed hands that revolutionized piano playing in the 19th century. He had attained a level of virtuosity at the piano that would soon take Europe by storm when he went on tour. His concerts became major events, and he proved himself to be the consummate showman. x
  • 5
    Weimar
    Marie believed that Liszt had abandoned her, and she spent the rest of her life trying to blacken his reputation. Liszt retired as a touring concert pianist in 1847, after he met Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. He took over the orchestra in Weimar and aimed to recreate the city as the hub of European culture. Liszt and Carolyne lived in a spacious house in Weimar and hosted a circle of friends in the arts. Among this "Music of the Future" group was Richard Wagner, whom Liszt assisted personally and professionally. x
  • 6
    The Music at Weimar
    Although Liszt was conducting and learning to compose for the orchestra, his heart still belonged to the piano. During this time, he composed one of the greatest keyboard works of the 19th century, the B Minor Sonata for Piano. Liszt's orchestral masterwork of these years is the Faust Symphony, which has modern themes to depict the story of Faust's struggle for his soul. With its completion in 1857, Liszt became the patriarch of the new music. x
  • 7
    Rome
    By the 1850s, Liszt became the focal point of a debate concerning program music versus absolute music and expression versus structure. Twenty years before, Liszt and his fellow young Romantic musicians had a common goal: to create a new music based on individual expression. As they grew older, many became conservative, but Liszt never lost his revolutionary spirit. But brokenhearted by the death of his daughter, he turned to the Catholic Church to find solace. x
  • 8
    A Life Well Lived
    Liszt's last 12 years were filled with music, traveling, honors, and a few disappointments. He was hailed as a genius in Hungary and divided his living arrangements among Rome, Weimar, and Budapest. He spent much time teaching and helped to found the Hungarian Royal Academy of Music. His health and energy began to fail him in 1881 and he died in Bayreuth, Bavaria, on July 31, 1886. x

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles,...
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Great Masters: Liszt-His Life and Music is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 48.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I can not explain how much I love this way of learning.This has so increased my appreciation of the music of these 10 composers & it has introduced me to pieces I would not have thought to listen to or purchase.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Found the course very enjoyable and informative. Could have had a bit more musical selections.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from As one whose vocation is in the sciences (medicine) I find the fine arts courses a delightful "rounding out" of my education, albeit a lot delayed.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr Greenberg's Great Masters series really made these composers come alive.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding. Fascinating. Anything by Greenberg is very worthwhile.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from At least a professor who does not endlessly repeat himself. Dr. Greenberg answered many questions. His enthusiasm was inspiring.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from current college courses are megabucks - your courses cost "pennies" for the most lucid concise & entertaining lectures in the country!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Time spent in front of the TV does not have to be wasted.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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Date published: 2008-10-17
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